Urging vague and unconstrained government power is not how responsible citizens of a free society ought to act. It’s a bad habit and it’s dangerous and irresponsible to promote it.
This is not an abstract or hypothetical point. We live in a country in which arbitrary power is routinely abused, usually to the detriment of the least powerful and the most abused among us. We live in a country in which we have been panicked into giving the government more and more power to protect us from harm, and that power is most often not used for the things we were told, but to solidify and expand previously existing government power. We live in a country where the government uses the power we’ve already given it as a rationale for giving it more: “how can we not ban x when we’ve already banned y?” We live in a country where vague laws are used arbitrarily and capriciously.
Ken White, “In Support Of A Total Ban on Civilians Owning Firearms”, Popehat, 2016-06-16.
June 27, 2016
June 26, 2016
In his latest column at the National Post, Colby Cosh wonders why Canadian pundits have been so strongly pro-EU when their other mode is to reject anything resembling an EU-style relationship with our own largest trading partner:
I might have voted Remain myself if my great-grandparents’ generation hadn’t lit out for the great plains, but isn’t there something obviously unusual about our view of the transatlantic frenzy? Canada is a political entity defined by its perpetual rejection of a continental political union. No one here, at all, ever expresses any doubt about the wisdom of that rejection. It costs us all hard cash, every day, to not be the 51st state. Yet we keep the Americans at bay, preserving the freedom to make arrangements on trade and defence on a basis (or pretence?) of mutual, separate sovereignty. We do this even though we share a common tongue with Americans, and they are much more similar to us culturally and ideologically than an Englishman is to an Estonian.
Look at the list of imprecations being hurled at Leave voters Friday, many of them by Canadians. They’re “small-minded,” “isolationist,” “short-sighted,” “fact-blind,” “racist” countryside boobs without vision or understanding. Couldn’t all these epithets be turned on us like a gun-barrel? Who speaks for, even contemplates, the discarded project of American Union — which was once a lively concern, actively advocated by some of the first people to call themselves Canadian in the modern sense?
If the sheer craziness of Canada’s Remain sympathies weren’t obvious enough, the intellectual leaders of the Leave camp are constantly upholding Canada as a model for immigration policy, with its self-interested, skill-privileging, but globally indiscriminate points system. They also cite us as an obvious potential partner for the kind of bilateral trade deal Britain will now be free to pursue on its own. Basically, the Leave campaigners didn’t put it this way or incorporate it into a slogan, but they want the U.K.’s relationship with Europe — a polyglot kaleidoscope of radically dissimilar nation states, some of them failing — to be the same friendly, wary relationship Canada has with the United States.
What in Hades could possibly be wrong with that, as a basic proposition?
Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and every one knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter. A democratic state may profess to venerate the name, and even pass laws making it officially sacred, but it simply cannot tolerate the thing. In order to keep any coherence in the governmental process, to prevent the wildest anarchy in thought and act, the government must put limits upon the free play of opinion. In part, it can reach that end by mere propaganda, by the bald force of its authority — that is, by making certain doctrines officially infamous. But in part it must resort to force, i.e., to law. One of the main purposes of laws in a democratic society is to put burdens upon intelligence and reduce it to impotence. Ostensibly, their aim is to penalize anti-social acts; actually their aim is to penalize heretical opinions. At least ninety-five Americans out of every 100 believe that this process is honest and even laudable; it is practically impossible to convince them that there is anything evil in it. In other words, they cannot grasp the concept of liberty. Always they condition it with the doctrine that the state, i.e., the majority, has a sort of right of eminent domain in acts, and even in ideas — that it is perfectly free, whenever it is so disposed, to forbid a man to say what he honestly believes. Whenever his notions show signs of becoming “dangerous,” ie, of being heard and attended to, it exercises that prerogative. And the overwhelming majority of citizens believe in supporting it in the outrage. Including especially the Liberals, who pretend — and often quite honestly believe — that they are hot for liberty. They never really are. Deep down in their hearts they know, as good democrats, that liberty would be fatal to democracy — that a government based upon shifting and irrational opinion must keep it within bounds or run a constant risk of disaster. They themselves, as a practical matter, advocate only certain narrow kinds of liberty — liberty, that is, for the persons they happen to favor. The rights of other persons do not seem to interest them. If a law were passed tomorrow taking away the property of a large group of presumably well-to-do persons — say, bondholders of the railroads — without compensation and without even colorable reason, they would not oppose it; they would be in favor of it. The liberty to have and hold property is not one they recognize. They believe only in the liberty to envy, hate and loot the man who has it.
H.L. Mencken, “Liberty and Democracy”, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1925-04-13.
June 25, 2016
June 23, 2016
The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.
H.L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, 1923-02-12.
June 22, 2016
Matt Welch has a few warnings for Americans of all political stripes who threaten to come to Canada if the wrong politico gets elected president this year:
* Revenge-minded border cops. Casually crossing our northern border with a family of four, as I attempted recently, is no longer a routine matter. Investigators I know who have worked with Canada’s Border Services Agency say that customs officials are ramping up their screening of Americans in advance of a possible November onslaught. And just maybe, after 15 years of U.S. border enforcers giving Canadians a harder time, followed by 12 months of a xenophobic presidential campaign, we might be getting some payback.
* You better like Canadian musicians. Americans can be forgiven for losing track of who among their beloved North American entertainers might say “oot and aboot” after a few Mooseheads. But sitting at one of Toronto’s roughly 1,000 sports bars is a grueling reminder that Canada’s Broadcasting Act, which requires that at least one-third of the content at commercial radio stations emanate from musicians with maple leafs in their passports, is a make-royalties program for the Rushes of the world. If you think American classic rock stations are repetitive, get used to side 1 of “Moving Pictures.”
* You can run from America, but you cannot hide. Think living in Montreal or Vancouver frees you up from the long arm of the Internal Revenue Service? Think again! There are two countries on this whole planet that require federal income tax filing from its nonresident citizens. Eritrea, not particularly known for its good governance, is one of them. Uncle Sam’s the other.
It gets considerably worse from there. Because of a putrid 2010 law called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA for short, because Washington legislators are nothing if not subtle), U.S. citizens and their spouses who hold more than $10,000 total in non-American financial institutions must file annual disclosures listing the maximum exchange-rate value of each and every such account during the previous year. If you don’t comply, you face steep fines and even jail time.
Ostensibly aimed at fat cats, this law instead has punished the majority nonrich among America’s estimated 8.7 million expatriates. Not only does FATCA impose costly paperwork on individuals, it also requires overseas financial institutions to act as Washington’s international collections muscle, mandating that they seize and transfer to the IRS 30% of deadbeat Americans’ assets. To the surprise of no one who understands basic incentives, foreign banks have been dropping American clients like sacks of flaming garbage.
Scott Alexander on the horribly anti-semitic dog whistle that cost Ted Cruz the Republican presidential nomination (or something):
Back during the primary, Ted Cruz said he was against “New York values”.
A chump might figure that, being a Texan whose base is in the South and Midwest, he was making the usual condemnation of coastal elites and arugula-eating liberals that every other Republican has made before him, maybe with a special nod to the fact that his two most relevant opponents, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, were both from New York.
But sophisticated people immediately detected this as an “anti-Semitic dog whistle”, eg Cruz’s secret way of saying he hated Jews. Because, you see, there are many Jews in New York. By the clever strategem of using words that had nothing to do with Jews or hatred, he was able to effectively communicate his Jew-hatred to other anti-Semites without anyone else picking up on it.
Except of course the entire media, which seized upon it as a single mass. New York values is coded anti-Semitism. New York values is a classic anti-Semitic slur. New York values is an anti-Semitic comment. New York values is an anti-Semitic code word. New York values gets called out as anti-Semitism. My favorite is this article whose headline claims that Ted Cruz “confirmed” that he meant his New York values comment to refer to Jews; the “confirmation” turned out to be that he referred to Donald Trump as having “chutzpah”. It takes a lot of word-I-am-apparently-not-allowed-to-say to frame that as a “confirmation”.
Meanwhile, back in Realityville (population: 6), Ted Cruz was attending synagogue services at his campaign tour, talking about his deep love and respect for Judaism, and getting described as “a hero” in many parts of the Orthodox Jewish community” for his stance that “if you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.”
But he once said “New York values”, so clearly all of this was just really really deep cover for his anti-Semitism.
June 20, 2016
This is the season of college Commencement speeches — an art form that has seldom been memorable, but has increasingly become toxic in recent times.
Two themes seem to dominate Commencement speeches. One is shameless self-advertising by people in government, or in related organizations supported by the taxpayers or donors, saying how nobler it is to be in “public service” than working in business or other “selfish” activities.
In other words, the message is that it is morally superior to be in organizations consuming output produced by others than to be in organizations which produce that output. Moreover, being morally one-up is where it’s at.
The second theme of many Commencement speakers, besides flattering themselves that they are in morally superior careers, is to flatter the graduates that they are now equipped to go out into the world as “leaders” who can prescribe how other people should live.
In other words, young people, who in most cases have never had either the sobering responsibility and experience of being self-supporting adults, are to tell other people — who have had that responsibility and that experience for years — how they should live their lives.
In so far as the graduates go into “public service” in government, whether as bureaucrats or as aides to politicians or judges, they are to help order other people around.
It might never occur to many Commencement speakers, or to their audiences, that what the speakers are suggesting is that inexperienced young graduates are to prescribe, or help to dictate, to vast numbers of other people who have the real world experience that the graduates themselves lack.
To the extent that such graduates remain in government — “public service” — they can progress from aides to becoming career politicians, bureaucrats and judges, never acquiring the experience of being on the receiving end of their prescriptions or dictates. That can mean a lifetime of people with ignorance presuming to prescribe to people with personal knowledge.
Thomas Sowell, “Commencement Season”, Townhall.com, 2016-05-24.
June 19, 2016
Only a few Canadians are consciously passionate about monarchism. We know that our royals are Canadian mostly as a matter of constitutional metaphysics. The serious monarchists are equalled or outnumbered by those who would like us to move further toward an American form of government with a directly elected presidency, having already adopted a written constitution and an American-style judiciary.
When we embraced free trade with the United States, accusations of treason were thrown around haphazardly. The patriotism of any Canadian who merely wanted to sell and buy American things was given the stink-eye by liberal “nationalists” who had just supported a Jeffersonian bill of rights and a Marshallite Supreme Court. Now there are those who want to make a Congress out of Parliament and an official “first lady” of the prime minister’s wife: no one calls them bad Canadians.
Well, they are a little bit bad, in the sense of being negligent, because they are acting on a contradiction they do not see. What it would be hard to explain to a Roman or an Elizabethan is that our attachment to the monarchy is mostly unconscious. Its expression among most of us takes the form of mild contempt for the United States; we feel American government is ridiculous, a half-competent burlesque of Westminster-style democracy. Presidents amass more and more of the powers of an absolute monarch, more of the mythological features of a Sun King; they make increasingly ambitious religious promises to heal the sick, obtain fair weather, cultivate prosperity in the face of chance and accident.
Colby Cosh, “Why Canadians are better republicans”, National Post, 2016-05-30.
June 18, 2016
I admit, I’ve occasionally referred to the Pop-Tart incident as a prime example of bone-headed application of so-called “zero tolerance” rules, but given the full story, I’ll have to stop doing that:
Remember the Pop-Tart gun kid? He was 7 years old when he was suspended for chewing his breakfast (not actually a Pop-Tart, as it turned out) into the shape of a weapon and pretending to fire it at his classmates. Now he’s 11, and Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth just upheld his suspension.
In the end, the case hinged on whether the pastry incident was, in fact, the last straw in a long line of disciplinary problems. The Maryland school says yes; the parents say at the time of the suspension they were told that the two day suspension was a direct result of the deployment of food weaponry and that no other incidents were mentioned.
The records strongly suggest that this kid was trouble, but also that he was troubled. He was new to the school and joined the class late. In addition to the incidents of aggression, records contain multiple reports of the boy banging his own head on his desk and walls.
So why did the breakfast gun make the teachers go nuclear? On the day of the incident, before anyone at the school realized this would be a national story, the administration went straight to DEFCON 1, sending a letter home with every child in the school [PDF] which read, in part, “If your children express that they are troubled by today’s incident, please talk with them and help them share their feelings. Our school counselor is available to meet with any students who have the need to do so next week. In general, please remind them of the importance of making good choices.”
But the documentation makes equally clear that pointing chewed up breakfast food at his classmates wasn’t the most worrisome thing the kid got up to. The records say that over the span of a few months he left the school grounds during the instructional day, threw a chair, and punched a child in the nose.
If the school had suspended the child over that violent incident, I doubt anyone outside the local area would ever have heard of the situation. The media’s focus on the gun-shaped pastry part of the story ended up giving many people (including me) a very distorted picture of what was really the issue.
Few policies have origins as ugly as that of the minimum wage. “Progressive” intellectuals in the early 20th century supported the minimum wage because they believed it to be an effective policy detergent to help cleanse the gene pool of ‘undesirables.’ By pricing low-skilled, ‘undesirable’ workers out of jobs, ‘undesirables’ are less likely to successfully pro-create and to immigrate. The fact that the minimum wage, by pricing ‘undesirables’ out of work, thereby artificially raises the incomes of white workers was considered to be an added benefit of this social-engineering device.
Business owners and labor unions in higher-wage regions of the United States supported the minimum wage because it would dampen the competition they were under from businesses and workers in lower-wage regions of the United States.
The ethics of these early supporters of the minimum wage were despicable. But say this much for these racist, protectionist creeps: they understood economics better than do many people today (including some economists) who believe either that the law of demand is uniquely inoperative in the market for low-skilled workers or that the American market for low-skilled workers is monopsonized.* Each belief is as inexplicable as it is unsupportable.
* And monopsonization of the labor market is only a necessary condition for a minimum wage to not destroy employment opportunities for some workers; it is not a sufficient condition.
Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…”, Café Hayek, 2016-06-01.
June 15, 2016
If there is one mental vice, indeed, which sets off the American people from all other folks who walk the earth … it is that of assuming that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that ninety-nine percent of them are wrong.
H.L. Mencken, “The American: His New Puritanism”, The Smart Set, 1914-02.
June 13, 2016
In the New York Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley reports that Americans are apparently moving less frequently than they used to, and at least part of the reason is the hellish experience of moving:
Americans are stuck. Research from the Census Bureau suggests that Americans have stepped in some wet cement and have yet to extract themselves.
In 1948, more than 20 percent of Americans moved to a new home. But that percentage has been steadily declining since the ’80s, to the point where now only 11 percent of Americans say they have moved in the last year.
Experts have offered all sorts of reasons for this immobility. But for some of us, anyway, there’s the unavoidable fact that moving is a pain in the behind. It’s expensive and time-consuming — and it seems to be getting worse. When I tell friends that our family is moving this week, they look at me as if I’ve just told them a family pet has died.
When my parents sold a house three decades ago, they were told to “straighten up.” But now our homes are expected to be immaculate displays. There are people who make their living “staging homes,” as if we should put on some kind of theatrical performance in order to get top dollar.
Real estate agents will give you piles of material to explain what to do to a house to make it “show ready.” (That “show” is apparently “House Hunters.”) “Make your house look like a Pottery Barn catalogue,” one agent explained. “Only three to four books are allowed on any shelf.”
Apparently people in Pottery Barn catalogues don’t read. Also, their children don’t have Legos.
We moved house earlier this year and we’re still digging out from underneath the rubble. It didn’t help that we found the perfect house to buy long before we expected to, and so hadn’t begun any kind of prep work in our existing house in advance of the move. We were trading a larger home in a 15-year-old suburb for a house in a small town that was nearly 200 years old. That translates to not only smaller living space (about 1000 square feet less) but also little to no storage space (closets were extremely rare in the 1830s). We’d been 13 years in the house and our stuff had “settled” around us … we could have used six months to de-clutter, pare down our less-frequently-used possessions, and make regular trips to the dump. Oh, and my sudden health issue and two-week stay in ICU almost exactly in the middle of the packing phase really didn’t help at all.
We moved out in phases, clearing out most of our stuff from the interior of the house, but leaving the garage and basement stuffed with anything we couldn’t get packed in time for the movers to take. We had much of the interior of the house repainted (actually, we had both the houses repainted), plus new carpeting upstairs and lots of “handyman” fixes to try to erase as much of the bumps and dings of having actually lived in the place for more than a decade. Then the real estate agent brought in the staging crew and decorated the place. After that was done, we barely recognized it, but while the furnishings and decorations were visually attractive, it was clearly not the kind of usage any normal family would have for the space.
Fortunately, our house did sell fairly quickly for just a bit less than our original asking price, but remember all the crap we stashed away in the garage and the basement? We only just finished clearing that out the same day we had to hand the keys over to our lawyers prior to the sale closing. Where did it all go? Most of it ended up in what I eventually plan to be my woodworking shop in the garage. Lots of the rest ended up going to the dump. I lost track of the total number of dump runs we made … and I know there’s probably more that will need to go that route as we begin to unpack the remaining boxes.
After all that, I really understand the attraction of minimalism but I know I could never live that way: between my thousands of books and my woodworking tools and materials there’s no way to be truly “minimal”. For example, while the garage is currently filled to the brim with “stuff”, my table saw and other woodworking power tools are in a storage locker because there’s no room for them in the shop (yet).
Of course, on a warm spring afternoon, just looking out over the backyard reminds me that the move was worth it:
In 2012, the Institute for Justice — a public-interest law firm advocating libertarian causes — looked at the number of occupations that require licensing. Specifically, the institute looked at occupations typically filled by lower- and middle-income workers. These are not your airline pilots, your certified public accountants and your neurosurgeons; they’re the nations interior decorators, auctioneers and florists. (Yes, you read that right: In at least one state, these occupations cannot be practiced without a license.)
Why, you might ask, is the state requiring a license to decorate an interior? Are customers at risk of death from collapsing piles of pillow shams? Must we fear that they will be blinded by the decorator’s decision to pair fuchsia chiffon drapes with a chartreuse brocade sofa? Do we worry that without the threat of losing their license to keep them on the straight and narrow, these fly-by-night operators might be tempted into purchasing furniture from unlicensed auctioneers, and sourcing their floral arrangements from black-market florists?
Well, no. Mostly, these regulations benefit folks who are already plying the trade. They get helpful state legislators to protect them from competition by instituting tough licensing requirements. Their income goes up; the consumer’s wallet suffers. And people who want to follow their dreams into the industry get shut out if they lack the time to study for the licensing exams, the capital to pay the licensing exam fees (which can run in to the hundreds of dollars), or the social capital to know how to work the system.
Megan McArdle, “You’re Gonna Need a License for That”, Bloomberg View, 2016-05-17.
June 11, 2016
Lots of Americans are suddenly discovering that over the years, they’ve granted a heck of a lot of power to the executive branch that constitutionally were not supposed to be granted to the president. That probably seemed okay when the president was someone they supported, but every four to eight years there’s a gasp of realization that the powers that you thought would only be used “for good” might now fall into the hands of the Anti-Christ/Hitler/Stalin/[insert-favourite-boogeyman]. At Status 451, Simon Penner explains why, when you strike at the King you dare not miss:
As a Canadian, seeing the 2016 election from the outside, people’s reactions to Trump confuse me. Especially as someone who appreciates well-designed systems, I can’t believe people’s gross ignorance of their own nation. People are so afraid of the terrible things Trump will do that protests like this happen. And yet, the vast majority of things people are afraid of are things he can’t do. Was I the only person who paid attention in civics class?
The US was founded as a nation as a response to an uprising against an autocrat. Its founders were horrified at the potential for another such autocrat to arise, and they designed their government accordingly. There was to be a strict separation of powers, with mutually opposed groups keeping each other in check. Most importantly, the office of the executive was intentionally crippled. The president was supposed to have very little power. The founders thought that mitigating potential bad leaders was more important than empowering potential good leaders.
So if Trump can’t do these bad things, what’s the problem? Well, the theory that the country was based on is solid. But you know what they say: In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. Perfect, beautiful ideas never survive implementation. In this case, there are no backwards arcs in the state machine.
On paper, Trump can’t do anything too bad. In practice, he can, because previous presidents have set the precedent. People like to make fun of small-c conservatives who want government out of their lives. Libertarians are a favourite scapegoat online, for similar reasons. Every time a president said “we need the power to do X”, a libertarian said “no, we can’t let you do that; your powers are restricted for a reason.” In the case of, say, Obamacare, we looked at the libertarians and said “why do you hate poor people? Why do you want them to die? Can you be so heartless? Can’t you make an exception this one time?” You should have listened to them, in detail. Once a proof of concept is committed to master, it is the new feature. “One” time never is.
Over time, various factions have engaged in special pleading. “We need this superweapon, just this one time. Can’t you see the challenge we’re facing? Are you really going to demand principles when people are suffering?” The same argument turned Rome into a dictatorship, millennia ago. When you shoot your superweapon at the king, you’d best not miss. He can pick it up from your fallen comrades.