Worst Congress Ever? You Must Be Kidding

The Establishment media really love laws and government. NPR, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Pew Research, NBC, Politico – they’re all lamenting the “least productive Congress” ever. Or more precisely noting that the just-concluded 113th Congress was the second least productive Congress ever, second only to the 2011-12 112th Congress. But what’s the definition of a “productive Congress”? One that passes laws, of course, lots of laws. Congress passed only 286 laws in the past two years, exceeded in slackerdom only by the 283 passed in the previous two years of divided government.

Now journalists may well believe that passing laws is a good thing, and passing more laws is a better thing. But they would do well to mark that as an opinion. Many of us think that passing more laws – that is more mandates, bans, regulations, taxes, subsidies, boondoggles, transfer programs, and proclamations – is a bad thing. In fact, given that the American people pondered the “least productive Congress ever” twice, and twice kept the government divided between the two parties, it just might be that most Americans are fine with a Congress that passes fewer laws. 

Is a judge “less productive” if he imprisons fewer people? Is a policeman less productive if he arrests fewer people? Government involves force, and I would argue that less force in human relationships is a good thing. Indeed I would argue that a society that uses less force is a more civilized society. So maybe we should call the 112th and 113th Congresses the most civilized Congresses since World War II (the period of time actually covered by the claim “least productive ever”).

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post ups the ante from “least productive” to “by just about every measure, the worst Congress ever.” Seriously? Since I am confident that Mr. Milbank is not historically ignorant, I assume he’s just being rhetorically provocative. But just in case any of his readers might actually believe that claim, let me suggest a few other nominees for “worst Congress ever”:

The 31st Congress, which passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850

The 5th Congress, which passed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798

The 21st Congress, which passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830

The 77th Congress, which passed Public Law 503, codifying President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorizing the internment of Japanese, German, and Italian Americans, in 1942

The 65th Congress, which passed the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition), the Espionage Act, and the Selective Service Act, and entered World War I, all in 1917

Worst Congress ever? The 113th isn’t even in the running. 

Posted on December 21, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Do Businesses Have Rights?

The Washington Post reports:

As far as sales manager Brian Ward knows, Rep. Andy Harris has never shopped at Capitol Hill Bikes. But if the Maryland Republican congressman wanted to, he’d find a black and white picture of himself taped on the door with a message in bold type: NOT WELCOME.

To many in the District, Harris is a public enemy — the force behind language added to the massive federal government spending bill intended to block D.C. from legalizing marijuana despite local voters overwhelmingly approving it on the November ballot.

The move so infuriated District residents that someone has started a “Blacklist Andy Harris” tumblr asking local businesses not to serve Harris:

“My fellow Washingtonians, Rep. Andy Harris doesn’t give a d— about District residents or our rights, so let’s blacklist him! We can generate and distribute signs/stickers/posters with his face, words like “Persona non Grata” (or something similar), and ask local businesses to display them.”

I support these District of Columbia businesses’ right to refuse service to Representative Harris. Now I know there are people who would say to these small businesses, “Open a business to serve the public? You have an obligation to serve everyone.” But I say that Capitol Hill Bikes should be free to refuse service to Andy Harris, and Republicans and anti-drug activists should be free to refuse to patronize Capitol Hill Bikes. Every contract is an agreement voluntarily entered into on both sides, and no one should be forced to enter into contracts. Thus I support the right of D.C. businesses to refuse to serve those would-be customers who offend their conscience, just as I support the right (though not the rightness) of bakers, photographers, and innkeepers not to participate in gay weddings.

Posted on December 16, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Jeb Bush and Lyndon Johnson

Former Florida governor – but Texas native – Jeb Bush told the Wall Street Journal CEO Council:

Republicans need to show they’re not just against things, that they’re for a bunch of things. 

Which reminds me of a quotation from Lyndon B. Johnson that George Will often cites:

We’re in favor of a lot of things and we’re against mighty few.

Let’s hope Bush’s “bunch” is different from Johnson’s “lot.” We can’t afford another such escalation in the size, scope, and power of government.

Posted on December 10, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Welcome to the American Republic, William Windsor

The royals are coming, the royals are coming! In this case, the grandson of the Queen of England, along with his wife, who took a fairytale leap from commoner to duchess by marrying him. (Just imagine, Kate Middleton a duchess while Margaret Thatcher was only made a countess.) And once again Americans who have forgotten the American Revolution are telling us to bow and curtsy before them, and address them as “Your Royal Highness,” and stand when William enters the room.

So one more time: Americans don’t bow or curtsy to foreign monarchs. (If you don’t believe me, ask Miss Manners, repeatedly.)

This is a republic. We do not recognize distinctions among individuals based on class or birth. We are not subjects of the queen of the England, the emperor of Japan, the king of Swaziland, or the king of Saudi Arabia. Therefore we don’t bow or curtsy to foreign heads of state.

Prince William’s claim to such deference is that he is a 24th-generation descendant of William the Conqueror, who invaded England and subjugated its inhabitants. In Common Sense, one of the founding documents of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine commented on that claim:

Could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first [king] nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions….

England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones; yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.—It certainly hath no divinity in it.

Citizens of the American republic don’t bow to monarchs, or their grandsons.

 

Posted on December 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Eric Garner Could Spark American Spring

The violent death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia set off the Arab Spring. Could the killing of Eric Garner lead to a springtime of police reform — and regulatory reform — in the United States?

Bouazizi was a street vendor, selling fruits and vegetables from a cart. He aspired to buy a pickup truck to expand his business. But, as property rights reformer Hernando de Soto wrote in the Wall Street Journal, ”to get a loan to buy the truck, he needed collateral — and since the assets he held weren’t legally recorded or had murky titles, he didn’t qualify.”

Meanwhile, de Soto notes, “government inspectors made Bouazizi’s life miserable, shaking him down for bribes when he couldn’t produce licenses that were (by design) virtually unobtainable. He tired of the abuse. The day he killed himself, inspectors had come to seize his merchandise and his electronic scale for weighing goods. A tussle began. One municipal inspector, a woman, slapped Bouazizi across the face. That humiliation, along with the confiscation of just $225 worth of his wares, is said to have led the young man to take his own life.”

The more laws we pass, the more chances there are for people to run afoul of the police.”

Bouazizi was a poor man trying to engage in commerce to make a better life. His brother Salem told de Soto the meaning of Bouazizi’s death: “He believed the poor had the right to buy and sell.”

It was a story that resonated across the Arab world — a government that stifled freedom and enterprise, unaccountable bureaucracy, arbitrary enforcement, official contempt for citizens, a man who just couldn’t take it any more.

Eric Garner’s story is surprisingly similar. He had been arrested more than 30 times, for such crimes as marijuana possession and driving without a license, and most often for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street.

Why sell untaxed cigarettes? Because New York has the country’s highest cigarette taxes, $4.35 a pack for New York State and another $1.50 for the city. A pack of cigarettes can cost $14 in New York City, two and a half times as much as in Virginia . So a lively black market has sprung up. Buy cigarettes at retail in Virginia or North Carolina, sell them at a big markup in New York, and you can still undercut the price of legal, taxed cigarettes.

Patrick Fleenor reported in a 2003 study for the Cato Institute that New York’s cigarette taxes had created a thriving black market, with rising levels of street crime, turf wars and increasing organized crime. He found that from 1990 to 2002, as the city and state repeatedly raised taxes, New York’s sales of taxed cigarettes relative to the national average plummeted. But reported smoking rates fell only slightly, in line with national trends. Obviously a lot of New York smokers were getting their fix from the black market.

A 2013 study by the Mackinac Center found, not surprisingly, that New York had the highest rate of cigarette smuggling, totaling 61% of the state’s cigarette sales.

Eric Garner was a small part of that black market. He sold individual cigarettes — “loosies” — on the street to people without much money. It’s easier for police to apprehend street sellers than interstate organized crime. Thus his long record of arrests. And the more laws we pass, the more chances there are for people to run afoul of the police. Especially when we outlaw peaceful activities, such as smoking marijuana, selling untaxed cigarettes or feeding the homeless.

Eric Garner’s last words could have been said by Mohamed Bouazizi. We’ve all heard that his very last words were “I can’t breathe,” which he told the police eight times. But before his encounter with the police reached that final, fatal point, cellphones captured his frustration:

“Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today. … Because every time you see me, you want to harass me. You want to stop me (garbled) Selling cigarettes. I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.”

Mohamed Bouazizi’s death after he was disrespected and impeded by government officials set off a wave of protests, first in his native Tunisia, then across the Arab world. Governments toppled, Time magazine proclaimed ”The Protester” the Person of the Year for 2011, and people talked hopefully of an Arab Spring. Reform has been more successful in Tunisia than anywhere else.

Eric Garner’s death has also set off protests, not just in New York but in Boston, Chicago, Washington, and other places. Many protesters held signs reading “I can’t breathe” and “This stops now.” They should add “I’m minding my business. Just leave me alone.”

Let’s hope this coming spring brings a wave of police reform in the United States, and also a reconsideration of the high taxes, prohibitions, and nanny-state regulations that are making so many Americans technically criminals and exacerbating police-citizen tensions.

 

Posted on December 5, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Not These Guys Again! The Case for Term Limits

At NBCNews.com, I make the case for term limits in a video sidebar to Meet the Press.

For those who prefer print, I summarize my argument here (not all of which survived NBC’s editing):

Only 15 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance. Yet we’re about to have another election where more than 90 percent of incumbents are reelected. In fact, the most common reelection rate for House members over the past 30 years is 98 percent.

98 percent reelection—that’s what you expect to see in Russia, not in a democracy.

Americans don’t want a permanent ruling class of career politicians. But that’s what the power of incumbency and all the perks that incumbents give themselves are giving us.

We want a citizen legislature and a citizen Congress—a government of, by, and for the people.

To get that, we need term limits. We should limit members to three terms in the House and two terms in the Senate. Let more people serve. Let more people make the laws.

And let’s get some people who don’t want to make Congress a lifelong career.

Some say that term limits would deprive us of the skills of experienced lawmakers. Really? It’s the experienced legislators who gave us a $17 trillion national debt, and the endless war in Iraq, and a Veterans Affairs system that got no oversight, and massive government spying with no congressional oversight, and the Wall Street bailout.

Politicians go to Washington and they forget what it’s like to live under the laws they pass. As we’ve seen in some recent elections, they may not even keep a home in the district they represent.

The American Founders believed in rotation in office. They wanted lawmakers to live under the laws they passed—and wanted to draw the Congress from people who have been living under them.

For more on term limits, see the Cato Handbook for Congress, Ed Crane’s 1995 congressional testimony, or this very thoughtful article by Mark Petracca, “The Poison of Professional Politics.”

Posted on November 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses whether members of Congress should have term limits on NBC Digital’s Make the Case

Posted on November 7, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Election 2014: The State of Libertarian Ideas and Prospects for the Next Congress – A Special Online Event

The 2014 midterm elections are being held at a time when libertarian ideas are ascending. But will more influence and media attention translate into electoral victories? Will the makeup of the next Congress be conducive or detrimental to the advancement of free markets and individual liberty? Join us for an election recap and discussion of the state of libertarian ideas in various races and prospects for the next Congress.

Posted on November 5, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Cato Connects: Election 2014

Cato’s David Boaz (@david_boaz) and John Samples (@SamplesatCato) discuss the 2014 elections and prospects for a more libertarian public policy in the coming years.

Video produced by Caleb O. Brown, Austin Bragg, Kevin Sennett and Tess Terrible.

Posted on November 5, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

David Boaz discusses the next several years in the wake of the election on FBN’s The Independents

Posted on November 5, 2014  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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