State to Young People: You Belong to Me

Under the benign headline “Turning Apathy Into Good Deeds,” former secretary of defense Melvin Laird endorses a strikingly authoritarian proposal: “a system of compulsory universal civil service for young people.” Laird recognizes that the military doesn’t need all the recruits a draft would produce and that today’s high-tech military needs longer-term training and commitment. But the drawn-out war in Iraq threatens to discourage future enlistments. So “universal service” might pressure just enough young people to join the army, while also producing a bumper crop of slave labor for schools, Head Start, Peace Corps, hospitals, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department.

Laird thinks such a program would “foster a culture of responsibility for our democracy.” Not among free and responsible people, it wouldn’t. It may be no accident that Laird repeatedly mentions democracy, but the words freedom and liberty–the fundamental values of America, which our constitutional republic was created to protect–do not appear in his piece.

Laird does not address how you square compulsory service with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Laird’s proposed “service” is clearly involuntary.

For generations and centuries, old people have complained that today’s young people just don’t appreciate the sacrifices of their elders. They talk too loud and they don’t care about the community. They need, in the words of William James, “to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.”

And meanwhile, they can do a lot of useful things that we older taxpayers would like to have done but don’t want to pay for. After all, in a market economy, if you want more people working in hospitals or day-care centers, you can pay them to do so. And if you don’t think $2.9 trillion is enough to pay for all the useful services of the federal government, you can propose a tax increase. But how much easier it might seem just to commandeer four million free or cheap laborers.

Of course, they’re not really so cheap. You do have to pay them something. And you’ll need massive new layers of bureaucracy to manage four million people (the approximate number of Americans who turn 18 each year).

And then there are the opportunity costs. Workers will be allocated to government make-work jobs instead of the jobs where the market demand is strongest. The economy will be less efficient and less productive. As Doug Bandow writes, “paying young people to sweep floors entails the cost of forgoing whatever else we could do with that money and the cost of forgoing whatever else those young people could do with their time. An additional dollar spent on medical research might be a better investment than one used to add an extra hospital helper; an additional young person who finished school and entered the field of biogenetics might increase social welfare more than one more kid shelving books in a library.”

What kind of message does compulsory service send to young people It tells them that they are national resources, state property, that they do not own themselves. That’s not the message the Founders thought they were sending in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s not an attitude appropriate for citizens of a free society. It’s a collectivist, authoritarian concept. It says, with much less charm than the old song, “You belong to me.”

Melvin Laird should be ashamed. So should John Edwards.

Posted on May 28, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Defense & National Security,General,Libertarian Philosophy

Barney Frank, the Occasional Libertarian

Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, gave a resoundingly libertarian interview to NPR’s “All Things Considered” Friday evening. Frank has introduced a bill to repeal last year’s ban on online gambling. As he did in this 2003 Cato Policy Forum, he made his argument in libertarian terms. From the Nexis transcript:

ROBERT SIEGEL: First of all, what is your motive here Is it libertarian Is it to achieve more revenues for the government by taxing activity What is it

Rep. FRANK: It’s libertarian. I am appalled at the notion that the government tells adults that they cannot do certain things with their own money on their own time in ways that do not harm anybody else because other people disapproved of them. …

But my motive is overwhelmingly that I just don’t want to see the government telling people what to do….

SIEGEL: How much money would taxing Internet gambling bring in to the federal government

Rep. FRANK: Well, in the bill I am - not a lot - I really want to make it very clear, that’s not my major focal point here. Potentially this could be a useful source of revenue just like any other business. But I do want to stress, my main motivation here is that I do think I should mind my own business and I want to deal with the environment, and I want to deal with economic problems, and I want to deal with poverty and all these other things. But I spend a lot of energy trying to protect people from other people. I have none left for protecting people from themselves.

In between those segments, Frank said that we allow lots of things over the Internet–like wine sales–that are appropriate for adults but not for children. And he said that conservatives want to ban things they think are immoral, and liberals want to ban things they think are “just tacky.”

It’s good to hear an elected official use the word libertarian, and use it correctly, and apply it to issues. Would that more of his colleagues would do so. I’m reminded that seven years ago I did a libertarian rating of Congress. Frank did better than most Democrats, and indeed better than most Republicans (including 7 of the 11 members of the Republican Liberty Caucus Advisory Board). But he voted to restrict steel imports, restrict gun sales and gun shows, and implement the restrictive “Know Your Customer” bank regulations, and he opposed a tax cut. So his commitment to not telling what people to do with their own lives and their own money seems limited.

This year, as Financial Services chairman, he’s demonstrating his interventionist tendencies as well as his sometime libertarian instincts. He wants to push all workers into government health care, to regulate corporate decisions about executive compensation, to put more obstacles in the way of free trade across national borders, to keep Wal-Mart from creating an internal bank clearinghouse to hold down its costs. Not to mention expanding anti-discrimination rules to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Frank told another journalist:

“In a number of areas, I am a libertarian,” Frank said. “I think that John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a great statement, and I was just rereading it.

“I believe that people should be allowed to read and gamble and ride motorcycles and do a lot of things that other people might not want to let them do.”

Would that the Republicans who once took Congress on the promise of “the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money” also reread (or read) “On Liberty” and take its message to heart. And would that Barney Frank come to realize that adults should also be free to spend the money they earn as they choose and to decide what contracts, with foreign businesses or local job applicants, they will enter into.

Posted on April 30, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Government & Politics,Libertarian Philosophy

He Must Be Scots-Irish

A longtime friend and executive assistant to Sen. James Webb (D-VA) was charged yesterday with trying to carry a loaded pistol and two fully loaded magazines of ammunition into a Senate office building, the Washington Post reports.

Webb’s most recent book is Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. The Scots-Irish “are a culture founded on guns, which considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, while literary and academic America considers such views not only archaic but also threatening,” Webb wrote. “Nobody is going to get their guns.”

Watch out, Capitol Police.

Posted on March 27, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,General,Government & Politics

Is Hillary 2008 like IBM 1984?

The Washington Post has a big story on a “viral attack ad” about Hillary Clinton that’s been viewed more than a million times on YouTube. Jose Antonio Vargas and Howard Kurtz report:

It’s a “mash-up” of Ridley Scott’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial that portrayed IBM as an Orwellian Big Brother and introduced Apple’s Macintosh as the bright new vanguard of computing. But now it’s Big Sister, Clinton, vs. the upstart, Sen. Barack Obama.

The ad shows the oppressed masses staring in unison at a huge screen featuring Hillary Clinton as phrases from her deadly “conversations” lull the viewer into a stupor. As she drones on, a young blond woman in athletic gear twirls with a sledgehammer, then hurls it into Clinton’s giant image.

The ad concludes with the tagline “On January 14, the Democratic primary will begin. And you’ll see why 2008 won’t be like 1984.”

The most interesting point in the Post story is that Vargas and Kurtz were unable to find out who created and posted the ad. It ends with a plug for Barack Obama, but the Obama campaign denies any knowledge of it. On YouTube, the creator claims to be 59 years old and gives the user name ParkRidge47. He or she didn’t answer emails from the Post. But Vargas and Kurtz note that Hillary Rodham was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, in 1947, which makes her 59 years old.

Did she post the video herself It hardly seems likely. But then — just last night, on FX’s “Dirt,” an actress gained great notoriety, then sympathy, then career advancement after a graphic sex tape featuring her was posted on the internet. And after much investigation, it was discovered that she posted it herself.

Still, it surely wasn’t Clinton or her supporters. It was created by someone who prefers Obama. And it’s a great example of anonymous pamphleteering for the internet age. As Jonathan Wallace pointed out in a Cato study, that’s a tradition that goes back to Cato’s Letters and the Federalist Papers. But our modern election laws have tried to stamp out anonymity. All expressions of political support are supposed to be disclosed, reported, and regulated. But why do we need to know who created this great ad If you take offense at it, create a better one in response.

Posted on March 21, 2007  Posted to Cato Publications,Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,General,Government & Politics

Reefer Madness Again

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett writes in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about the latest court decision on medical marijuana. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that the application of the Controlled Substances Act to personal medical use of marijuana did not exceed the federal government’s constitutional authority, Angel Raich went back to court to argue that the ban violated her fundamental right to preserve her life. Alas, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that claim, too.

But as Barnett notes, the court did seem unhappy with the decision it was forced to reach:

For now, federal law is blind to the wisdom of a future day when the right to use medical marijuana to alleviate excruciating pain may be deemed fundamental. Although that day has not yet dawned, considering that during the last 10 years 11 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana, that day may be upon us sooner than expected. Until that day arrives, federal law does not recognize a fundamental right to use medical marijuana prescribed by a licensed physician to alleviate excruciating pain and human suffering.

Pity a panel of judges forced to tell that to a suffering plaintiff.

Posted on March 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Constitutional Studies,General

Property Rights at the Supreme Court, Again

It’s being overshadowed by the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case, but there’s an important property rights case before the Supreme Court today. Timothy Sandefur, author of Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America, writes about the case in Legal Times today.

The case involves a dispute that arose when Harvey Frank Robbins bought some land in Wyoming. The Bureau of Land Management claimed to have an easement on the land, but that wasn’t recorded on the deed. The government demanded that Robbins agree to the easement, and he resisted. Government agents promised him “a hardball education,” and they delivered — harassment, citations for minor offenses, belligerent visits, and criminal charges for interfering with government agents, charges of which he was acquitted after 30 minutes of jury deliberation. Sandefur takes the story from there:

After enduring years of such treatment, Robbins sued, arguing, among other things, that the BLM agents had violated his Fifth Amendment right to exclude others from his property. The trial court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, but the government asked the Supreme Court to reverse in Wilkie v. Robbins. “No court,” said Solicitor General Paul Clement in his brief, has “ever recognized a constitutional right against retaliation . . . in the context of property rights.”

This astonishing argument is potentially far more dangerous to the rights of property owners than the notorious Kelo v. New London decision two years ago, which held that government can use eminent domain to transfer property from one private owner to another whenever politicians think doing so would be in the public interest.

If the Court rules against Robbins, home and business owners would find it much harder to resist when the government demands their property.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe argued the case for Robbins, with the Justice Department defending the BLM. Watch for news stories later today.

Posted on March 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Constitutional Studies,General

Cock-fighting and Freedom

It’s not often that you can point to a stirring article about American liberty by a Weekly Standard editor. But Chris Caldwell’s piece in the Financial Times on cock-fighting is a fine read. Yes, cock-fighting. Presidential candidate Bill Richardson doesn’t want the legality of cock-fighting in New Mexico to burden his candidacy as he travels the length and breadth of this great land. So rather than defend New Mexico as the last bastion of American freedom, he chose to sign a law banning it to help his campaign.

Caldwell notes sadly that even the defenders of the practice hardly mentioned liberty. Instead, they mentioned the economic benefits of tourism and the alleged anti-Hispanic bias of the drive to ban a sport popular with Hispanics. The better argument, he thought, would have been liberty: some people want to attend cock-fights, and Americans have been doing so for centuries, so why should “reformers” be able to take a small pleasure away from others Caldwell deplores the decline of the general presumption of liberty:

It used to be, under the US system, that one could do anything that was not expressly forbidden. Now one is forbidden to do anything one cannot make an explicit case for. The burden of proof has shifted.

It’s especially sad that Bill Richardson, who is not so bad on fiscal issues and is a supporter of medical marijuana, felt that he had to take people’s freedom away for his own political gain.

Posted on March 19, 2007  Posted to Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Civil Rights,General,Libertarian Philosophy

Republicans Remember Some of Their Principles

Great headline in the Washington Post today –

Dozens in GOP Turn Against Bush’s Prized ‘No Child’ Act

The good news is that

More than 50 GOP members of the House and Senate — including the House’s second-ranking Republican — will introduce legislation today that could severely undercut President Bush’s signature domestic achievement, the No Child Left Behind Act, by allowing states to opt out of its testing mandates.

The bad news is that even

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said that advocates do not intend to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, they want to give states more flexibility to meet the president’s goals of education achievement, he said.

So even a small-government federalist like Jim DeMint isn’t willing to say that education is a family, community, or state responsibility, but not a federal responsibility. Still, weakening the mandates would be a real victory for decentralization and competition.

I particularly liked the comment from Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), author of the proposed House bill: (more…)

Posted on March 15, 2007  Posted to Cato Publications,Cato@Liberty,Civil Liberties,Education & Child Policy,General,Government & Politics

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