Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mark Udall, Meet Henry Hazlitt

A few days ago Grand Junction's Free Press published an article by by dad and me about Henry Hazlitt and Frederic Bastiat. We wrote, "forcibly transferring wealth from some people to others does not in itself 'stimulate the economy' or 'create jobs.'" Hazlitt reminds us to remember the unseen, the jobs destroyed by taking wealth away from those who would otherwise spend or invest it according to their own best judgment.

Senator Mark Udall needs to read Hazlitt's classic, Economics In One Lesson. If he did, perhaps he would refrain from making idiotic statements such as following, from his July 21 newsletter:

"Abound Solar, a Loveland-based manufacturer of thin-film solar panels, received a $400 million federal loan guarantee to aid in its expansion, which will help create hundreds of new jobs to help our local economies."

Udall points to the seen, the jobs created at the solar panel factory, but he forgets about the unseen, the jobs destroyed by sucking that wealth out of the private economy. When the federal government guarantees loans, it diverts those investment dollars away from some developments and toward others. (If the solar panel company were indeed the best investment, then it could attract those dollars without federal assistance.) What is unseen are all the businesses that will no longer be able to get loans, expand their operations, and hire people.

Furthermore, federally manipulated loans are bound to be less productive than free-market loans, because those who answer to politicians and bureaucrats are serving a political agenda, not solely a productive one. Thus, Udall's program actively destroys wealth by diverting resources away from more-productive uses to less-productive uses.

So the next time you hear some politician such as Udall claim that he is "creating jobs" by forcibly transferring resources, remember that what he really means is that he is destroying wealth.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Stop Lying, Jane Norton

Because (as Benjamin Franklin noted) "half a truth is often a great lie," Jane Norton is often a great liar. She has repeatedly smeared Ken Buck's character with half-truths. (Norton and Buck are the Republican candidates vying for U.S. Senate in Colorado.) Consider:

* In a June 24 release, Norton's campaign claims, "[T]hen-United States Attorney John Suthers, the current Attorney General who was recently hailed by conservatives for suing to stop Obamacare, reprimanded Buck earlier in the decade and even required Buck to take ethics courses for ethical and professional breeches during his stint at the United States Attorney’s office." But Norton's claim is a half-truth. The full truth, as Dave Kopel explains, is that Buck was challenging an unjust prosecution by anti-gun zealot Tom Strickland, who initiated the reprimand before Suthers took over the office. Buck erred in a detail of how he challenged the prosecution, but he was quite right to challenge it.

* Currently Jane Norton's web page claims that, because Ken Buck said people should vote for him because he does "not wear high heels," therefore "Ken Buck may think a woman's place is in the house." But Norton's claim about Buck's comment is a half-truth. The full truth is that Buck made that statement as part of a dumb joke at the Independence Institute's Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms party in response to Norton's gender-based attacks.

* Yesterday, Jane Norton's campaign sent out the following release:

Today, Ken Buck was caught on tape again. After spending the week explaining his high heels comments, today Ken Buck is explaining why he said he was "sick of Tea Partiers." Read the full story here.

Said Norton campaign spokesperson Cinamon Watson, “Ken Buck is two steps short of a fraud. He's a self-proclaimed tea partier who trashes tea partiers when he thinks no one is looking. He's an alleged fiscal conservative who increased his budget by 40 percent. He's a Tom Tancredo disciple who trashes Tancredo when he thinks the mic is off. Ken says he can appeal to swing voters and beat Michael Bennet, and then trashes the roughly 50 percent of voters who wear high heels. Bottom line: the voters of Colorado can't trust Ken Buck."

But Jane Norton and Cinamon Watson are simply lying about what Buck said about the Tea Parties.

In the Denver Post story the Norton campaign cites, the phrase "sick of Tea Partiers" does not appear. Here's what Buck did say on June 11 while somebody recorded him without his knowledge: "Will you tell those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?"

The simple truth is that the so-called "birthers" -- and I've also seen a few at Tea Parties -- ARE dumbasses, and Buck is quite right to point that out. (The obvious follow-up question is whether Norton defends the "birthers.") It should be noted that "birthers" are not representative of Tea Partiers. All big rallies, especially left-wing ones, attract some goofballs, nuts, and, yes, dumbasses.

It is particularly ironic that Norton's campaign accuses Buck of being "two steps short of fraud" in the very paragraph in which Norton's campaign lies about Buck.

I for one am sick of your lying, Norton. Knock it off. If you're going to continually lie in your primary campaign, how can voters trust you to honestly represent them as a U.S. Senator?

As a matter of political strategy, your lies are stupid. All you're doing is needlessly annoying Buck's supporters (as well as unaffiliated voters like me), making it harder for you to win the general election should you win the nomination. While it is true that Buck should learn when to keep his mouth shut, it is equally true that you should criticize him for what he's actually done and said, rather than for the half truths and great lies you're spinning about him.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Churchill, McInnis Team Up for Plagiarists Anonymous (Humor)

Today in Liberty Toastmaters, I played the role of humorist. I'm not much of a comedian, but thankfully the Colorado Republican Party has made the job a relatively easy one. Here are the results:

Notice that all of the details I discuss in the first part of the talk are true, though obviously Ward Churchill has not actually teamed up with Scott McInnis or offered to help him.

Especially due to the nature of the talk, I figure I should exhaustively list my references.

The Ward Churchill story is several years old, so I don't recall all of the media I've read about that. It's a well-known and easily researched story. The Denver Post broke the story about the water articles for which McInnis was paid that were partly plagiarized, and again many other news outlets have reported it. People's Press Collective has the video of Ken Buck's attempt at a humorous reply to Jane Norton. A follow-up video by Norton's campaign replies to Buck. While I concocted the imaginary group "Plagiariasts Anonymous" independently, I since discovered that the title is not original with me; a Google search yields 32 existing results for it. I borrowed my joke about Tom Tancredo's cowboy boots from my previous post, which also discusses Tancredo's conditional pledge to run for governor. I borrowed the Monahontas joke again from myself; I used it first in a 2005 talk. Everybody knows who painted Mona Lisa; my wife added feathers for this year's joke purchased from iStockPhotos.com (see below).

Also, neither Toastmasters nor Liberty Toastmasters has sanctioned or endorsed the contents of the talk nor those of any of my other works.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Hazlitt and Bastiat Answer Today's Economic Fantasies

The following article originally was published July 23 by Grand Junction's Free Press.

Hazlitt and Bastiat answer today's economic fantasies

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

According to today's great economic fantasy, the way to make everybody better off is to forcibly take money away from some people and give it to others. Such legalized theft is what many of today's celebrated economists call a "stimulus package." We call it Fraudonomics.

Unfortunately, such economic "stimulus" sophism often breaks down the walls of common sense and shows up in the writings of self-serving activists and pretentious newspapermen.

Take a few recent examples. The Denver Post's editorial board recently claimed that corporate welfare for solar panel producers "will provide immediate jobs." In a separate opinion, the Post argued that declining to pay people more not to work "could hurt the U.S. economy." (Those with a lick of common sense will notice that paying people not to work tends to induce more people not to work.) An activist group opposing tax-cut measures on this year's ballot claims those measures "could cost jobs" by cutting government spending.

Now, it is possible to offer other arguments for corporate and personal welfare and against tax cuts, and we will be happy to rebut those arguments elsewhere. Here the point is simply this: forcibly transferring wealth from some people to others does not in itself "stimulate the economy" or "create jobs."

The 20th Century's greatest common-sense economist, Henry Hazlitt, addresses this point beautifully in Economics In One Lesson. This is a book that you owe it to yourself and your children to read and promote. Give copies to your elected officials. We've often longed to see an essay contest for high school and college students about that book. Hazlitt counsels us to remember the unseen as well as the seen.

Let us say that some misguided politician robs a thousand dollars from Peter and gives the money to Paul to "stimulate" Paul's budget. If you only look at Paul, this seems like a pretty good deal. Paul might spend that money on a new pair of sneakers, a concert ticket, new tires, and a restaurant meal. All of the businesses where Paul shops see a corresponding increase in revenues, and in turn they buy more from their suppliers.

But look at the unseen. Look at Peter. Peter no longer has his thousand dollars. He can no longer use that money to put food on his table, support his family, and invest in his business. All of the businesses where Peter would have shopped lose out, as do their suppliers.

It is easy to see the "jobs created" by Paul's spending. It takes a little common sense to remember the jobs lost by forcibly taking wealth away from Peter.

Moreover, forcibly transferring Peter's wealth to Paul actively destroys wealth. The bureaucrats charged with the transfer take a sizable cut to fund their bloated budgets. Paul's incentive to work hard takes a hit, as does his ability to plan for his economic future. This remains true when applied to the economy as a whole: so-called "stimulus" programs destroy wealth and hurt the economy.

While there is not yet an essay contest for Hazlitt's book, Students for Liberty has launched such a project for one of Hazlitt's key inspirations, the 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat, author of classic works such as The Law and Economic Sophisms.

High school and college students may register for the essay contest, with a $1,000 top prize, by December 1; see http://tinyurl.com/bastiatproject. Just by registering, students receive a free book with selections by Bastiat.

Bastiat's 1845 essay on candlemakers remains the greatest, most hilariously satirical annihilation of economic protectionism of all time. Bastiat argues that, if we're serious about protecting certain businesses at the expense of competitors and consumers, we ought to block out the sun to help the candlemakers. Much of Bastiat's analysis also applies to so-called "stimulus" spending; read it for yourself at http://bastiat.org/en/petition.html.

Another of Bastiat's classics is his 1850 essay on the seen and the unseen, the work toward which Hazlitt says he owes his greatest debt. You can find it at http://tinyurl.com/bastiatseen. In this essay, Bastiat explains the "broken window fallacy." Does not breaking a window "keep industry going?" "What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?"

Bastiat answers: "Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen. It is not seen that, since our citizen has spent six francs for one thing, he will not be able to spend them for another. It is not seen that if he had not had a windowpane to replace, he would have replaced, for example, his worn-out shoes or added another book to his library."

Americans should return to the common-sense wisdom of truly great economists such as Hazlitt and Bastiat. Our economic future depends on it.

Tancredo's Gambit

I disagree with Tom Tancredo over many things, particularly abortion and immigration. Moreover, his scorched-earth style often makes me cringe. But this is not about Tom Tancredo. This is about the future of the Republican Party.

Tancredo, the former Congressman and (before that) president of the Independence Institute, said he will enter the race for governor if the winner of the Republican primary -- Scott McInnis or Dan Maes -- does not drop out.

Here is Tancredo's pledge:

Regardless of the outcome of the Primary election on August 10, on August 11 the winner must agree to remove himself from consideration if polling on that date shows that he is losing the race for Governor. If either or both choose to ignore this request, and do not make a public commitment to this end no later than noon on Monday, July 26, I will announce on that day that I will seek the nomination of the American Constitution Party for Governor of Colorado.

Tancredo told the Denver Post that he has discussed the move with the third party's leaders, and the Post suggests that the law would allow it.

I agree with Tancredo that neither McInnis, who has been hit with a major plagiarism scandal, nor Maes, who has zero relevant experience, has a chance of beating Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper this fall. Moreover, speaking for myself, I believe that, even if McInnis or Maes managed to get elected, he would be an embarrassment to the state and people of Colorado.

Unfortunately, my read is that both McInnis and Maes are running primarily because they want to see themselves as governor, not because they want to live in a state with a great governor. Thus, I don't think they will drop out. (I just received a release from Maes saying he will not drop out of the race.)

Tancredo's ultimatum creates a strategic difficulty for McInnis and Maes: neither wants to be the first to pledge to drop out.

Ideally, Tancredo would agree to enter the race only if the primary winner did not drop out (and was losing in the polls). But I suspect that Tancredo has to sign on with the Constitution Party prior to that. If not, if Tancredo can wait to enter the race until after the primary vote, then he should immediately modify his ultimatum accordingly.

Here's the problem: Tancredo's ultimatum makes it practically impossible for McInnis or Maes to be the first to drop out. If one of them pledges to drop out, the other will pounce: "He's weak! He knows he can't win! So vote for me in the primary." And what if the polls show the GOP victor winning after the primary? A candidate who has already pledged to potentially drop out has signaled to his supporters that the campaign is not to be taken seriously.

Tancredo has forced McInnis and Maes into a staring contest, and each is mortified to blink first.

Thus, it seems likely that Tancredo will enter the race, joining the Republican winner of the primary.

Of course, at that point, the Republican candidate could still drop out on the condition that Tancredo also dropped out. That would open the door to somebody like Mark Hillman entering the race. Hillman could unify the party, attract independent voters, and maybe even beat Hickenlooper.

So, in the long run, despite Party Chair Dick Wadham's badmouthing of him, Tancredo might be offering the Republican Party its only serious chance of winning the governor's race this fall.

In light of the gender allegations in the U.S. Senate race, perhaps I should restrict my comments about Tancredo to the following: He has certainly got himself a gigantic pair of cowboy boots.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Harry Potter's Constructive Journalism

A 2008 paper from the American Communication Journal argues that the "extremely negative depiction of journalism" in the Harry Potter novels "could have an adverse effect on child readers."

Nonsense, I reply. The Potter series actually offers critical lessons about journalism, including how it can be subjected to government censorship.

I have published my new essay, "Harry Potter Series Maligned by Media Article," over at the web page devoted to my book, Values of Harry Potter.

I hope you'll read the entire article. Here I want to briefly excerpt the piece. The background is that Hermione Granger (Harry's friend and ally) wants Rita Skeeter to write up a truthful interview with Harry for publication in the Quibbler, a publication Skeeter mocks:

Hermione persists in her view that journalism can and properly does serve to tell the truth to the public. She tells Skeeter, "Well, this is your chance to raise the tone of it a bit, isn't it?"

Skeeter replies that nobody will take an article in the Quibbler seriously.

Hermione's reply is noteworthy:

Some people won't. But the Daily Prophet's version of the Azkaban breakout [in which Voldemort's followers escaped from prison] had some gaping holes in it. I think a lot of people will be wondering whether there isn't a better explanation of what happened, and if there's an alternative story available, even if it is published in... an unusual magazine -- I think they might be rather keen to read it."

... Hermione's views of journalism are precisely the opposite of what Sturgill's paper claims the series promotes. While Hermione rightly recognizes the dangers and shortcomings of government-controlled media, she also recognizes the crucial role journalism can play in relating the truth to the public. ...

Without Skeeter's assistance, Hermione could have found another writer to cover the story, or she could have written it up herself. In our world, citizen journalists often write letters, op-eds, and blog posts to advance a story. While [the cited] paper claims that Skeeter is the only "journalist of any consequence" named in the series, this is wrong: Hermione also functions as an important journalist -- a citizen journalist -- in this case.

Read the entire essay.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Denver Post Takes a Cheap Shot at Buck

I worried that, with the loss of the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver Post would get even worse. In the good ol' days, generally I loved the News and hated the Post. But then I had a chance to chat with Post editor Greg Moore, who generally impressed me, and the Post also hired Rocky favorites Vincent Carroll and Lynn Bartels. Add to that the solid work of David Harsanyi and Chuck Plunkett, plus generally good news reporting, and the Post has slowly won me over.

Yet obviously sometimes the Post makes mistakes (such as when it rushed to report a possible secondary plagiarism scandal that didn't pan out).

The paper's editorial board erred (in a small way) in taking a cheap shot at Ken Buck while endorsing Jane Norton in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

Now, it doesn't bother me that the Post endorsed Norton, and several of the paper's arguments are fairly strong ones. For example, the Post notes that Buck received "a letter of reprimand... for bad-mouthing a felony case to defense attorneys," an issue that will be used against him by Democrats regardless of the justice of the attack, and Buck "helped launch a questionable raid on a tax preparer's office that was the subject of a Supreme Court rebuke" (which bothers me rather more).

I am no party man; indeed, I'm not even a registered Republican voter, so I have no say in the primary vote. I will mention that, initially, I thought Norton was the stronger candidate despite her endorsement of the Referendum C tax hike, though recently she has quite irritated me by smearing Buck and (following Buck) endorsing the horrific "personhood" measure.

My problem with the Post's endorsement stems from the following language:

When we asked the two Republican candidates about spending, Norton zeroed in on the problem: federal entitlements.

She offered ideas about how to shore up Social Security and talked about means-testing Medicare. She wasn't afraid to say that even military spending should be on the table.

Buck went for the easy gotcha, offering up the standard Republican line about cutting the National Endowment of the Arts and other small programs that are unpopular on the right. Perhaps they should be cut, but they represent only a tiny slice of government spending. When we asked him to be more specific, he had trouble.

"There are issues like Medicare, I just don't know how to right this ship," he said. "I mean, let's be honest, we are beyond a simple solution to this. We have to call in the experts and figure this out. I can't sit here and say this is the answer in Medicare."

Judging from this analysis, Norton offered ideas for how to solve the entitlement crisis, while Buck said nothing about it. But that doesn't square with the Post's own published interviews with the candidates.

In fact Buck offered a good basic plan for reforming Social Security:

But I think in terms of Social Security . . . I have told my 19- and 22-year-old, you are not going to retire at age 62 with Social Security as life expectancy continues to increase. We have to put off the date of receiving benefits. Now, we shouldn't do that with someone who's 58 years old. But we should make sure the expectations for a 19- and 22-year-old are further down the road than 62 or 65. And we're probably looking at a date like age 70 or something along those lines.

My only complaint is that Buck wants to raise the pay-out age only somewhat; I want to keep slowly raising it until the program is completely phased out.

Meanwhile, what did Norton say about Social Security?

One would be [look] at the automatic cost of living increases, the COLAs, in Social Security. ... I think you'd have to look at increasing the age of retirement for the Medicare programs, Social Security, but not for those people who are close to retirement. So for young people coming into the system, I think that's one of the things we're going to have to do in the short term. In the long term, voluntary investment accounts if people want to do that. But again it's going to have to be phased in, but we truly have to start talking about it.

So Norton wants to raise the pay-out age, which is exactly the same thing Buck wants to do. Sure, Norton mentions "voluntary investment accounts," but no federal program is required to "allow" people to "voluntarily" invest their money, so on this point Norton's suggestion is entirely vacuous. Norton's answer is no more "specific" than is Buck's, contrary to the Post's editorial claim.

And what is Norton's plan for Medicare? "You would have to look at means-testing in the Medicare program." That's it. That might be more than what Buck offered, but it hardly takes a Hasan Family Foundation fellow to parrot the term "means-testing."

Now, if you want to complain about Buck's interview, I offer the following exchange for consideration. The Post asked Buck about insurance. Buck said some nice things about health savings accounts and tax-deductible insurance premiums for individuals. Yet he also had the following to say: "I think it makes sense to not ban people that have pre-existing conditions." The Post asked, "So how do you pay for that? Buck answered, "The same way you pay for a lot of things. We're going to spread the burden out across the rest of the people who are insured."

In other words, just as Obama wants to forcibly "spread the wealth around," so Buck wants to forcibly "spread the burden out." That is an anti-free market position. The real solution is to end the political controls that have destroyed long-term health insurance, thereby creating the problem of uninsurable pre-existing conditions.

Norton apparently wants "a high-risk pool for people who really need it, for people that aren’t insured and have a pre-existing condition;" it is unclear to me whether she wants to force insurance companies to "spread the burden out."

On practically all policy matters, there's really very little difference between Norton and Buck.

Friday, July 16, 2010

How McInnis Plans to "Fix" Plagiarism Scandal

If you want to know what Scott McInnis is thinking in the wake of the news that the water articles he submitted for $300,000 contain lengthy plagiarized sections, he is again talking to the Denver Post. Apparently his theory is that, if he pretends the scandal will go away, it will. His tone is remarkably chipper.

Seasoned (and might I say spicy) reporter Lynn Bartels has the interview.

To me, the most serious question is what McInnis plans to do about the plagiarism scandal.

My solution was the following: "What I think McInnis needs to do on a personal level is immediately promise to repay all the money to the Hasan Family Foundation. If he's serious about wanting to take responsibility, that action would prove it."

But apparently McInnis has different ideas about that. Here is part of what he told Bartels:

I made a mistake... I immediately owned up to it. It's my responsibility. I’ve got to fix it. I’ve told my side of the story... I'd love to talk to you on jobs... I should have checked his [an assistant's] work. I relied on his work. I didn't check his work. But the buck stops with me. It's my name on the door. It's like a Ford pickup. You've got Ford on the truck. I've got McInnis on the truck. We'll make it right... [How?] I've got to sit down and figure that out. Sit down and make it right... [How?] Well, we've got to get footnotes in there, right? I stood up Day 1. I've got to make it right. I take responsibility.

Yes, after he has been busted for submitting plagiarized work, he can "make it right" by adding in footnotes now.

But it turns out we already all now know whose work was plagiarized -- Gregory Hobbs, currently a Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court (as the Post has reported.) So somehow I don't think adding in footnotes now really addresses the issue.

I have to say I like McInnis's Ford analogy. I don't know what in the hell it means, but just the fact that he would compare himself to a Ford, under the current circumstances, is impressive in its audacity.

Unfortunately, he seems to me to be more like a Toyota with an extremely sticky gas pedal.

July 18 Update: As has been reported by People's Press Collective and other outlets, McInnis agreed to pay back the money in full. Good move (and one that may actually allow him to remain in the race for governor). Regardless, McInnis was a weak candidate before the plagiarism scandal broke, and now he is a much weaker one.

As Donald Johnson has pointed out, McInnis "is so inarticulate that it’s embarrassing."

But now McInnis has a much bigger problem. As John Straayer put it to the Denver Post, "You can just see the ad where the little girl comes home and says, 'I've got this big homework assignment, but I want to go out and play. Daddy, will you do it for me?' And then when her dad refuses, she says, 'Well, that's what the man who wants to be governor does.'"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Colorado Republicans Can Save Themselves

News that Scott McInnis submitted partially plagiarized work to the Hasan Family Foundation for a $300,000 two-year paycheck threatens to severely undermine Republican aspirations in Colorado. McInnis was to lead the Republicans to victory this November as the candidate for governor.

I have collected many of the pertinent news links on my Twitter feed. For our purposes, a comment by Colorado Pols may be most relevant: "The Republican Governor's Association, which has been raising a ton of coin, will now likely take Colorado off of its target list, which means millions of dollars will not be spent turning out Republican voters in the general election," hurting all the down-ticket Republican candidates.

(July 15 Update: As Donald Johnson reports, the Association remains committed to "defeating John Hickenlooper." However, the broader point remains that a weakened candidate would attract less funds across the board, both from in the state and from national groups. Funding aside, a weak, embarrassing candidate for such a high-profile race may discourage GOP voter turnout, which would hurt other Republican candidates.)

McInnis is a goner. Even if he survives the primaries, I see no way for him to beat Democrat John Hickenlooper. (I am registered unaffiliated, and I was leaning toward voting for Hickenlooper over McInnis even before the news about plagiarism broke.)

So what can Colorado Republicans do about this party-wide problem? Party Chair Dick Wadham's response of shooting at one of the messengers (Terrance Carroll) will only further bury the party. Republicans need to get serious, for once.

What I think McInnis needs to do on a personal level is immediately promise to repay all the money to the Hasan Family Foundation. If he's serious about wanting to take responsibility, that action would prove it.

Then McInnis should drop out of the race, save his party continued embarrassment, and resolve his personal problems.

I still think Dan Maes, the other Republican candidate, has practically no chance of beating Hickenlooper. However, Maes had the guts and the vision to stay in the race, and he has performed better than practically anybody predicted at the outset. However, after the primaries, if Maes is not beating Hickenlooper in reliable polls, Maes should do himself and his party a favor and drop out. As Don Johnson points out, that would give a vacancy committee a chance to select a serious candidate.

I think this approach would be far, far preferable to McInnis trying to beat Maes in the primaries and then dropping out (which I don't think would work anyway).

No matter what Republicans do, they may not be able to win the governor's race. I think voters might be so irritated that they'll abandon even a strong replacement candidate. (Merely being the replacement would place a candidate at a disadvantage; this is an argument for Maes riding it through to the end.) But, if the Republicans cannot have a candidate for governor lifting up the ticket, perhaps they can at least find one who doesn't drag it down.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Where Do Rights Come From?

We in America routinely invoke our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But where do our rights come from? Here I overview the main false theories of rights before briefly summarizing the theory of natural rights as articulated most forcefully by Ayn Rand. (See Rand's essay, "Man's Rights.")

Friday, July 9, 2010

While Norton Smears Buck, We Call Him a Hero

The following article originally was published July 9 by Grand Junction's Free Press.

While Norton smears Buck, we call him a hero*

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

You expected a boring primary season? We did, but then several candidates surprised us, and issues such as gun rights unexpectedly entered the debate.

Earlier we figured Jane Norton would skate through the primaries [as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate]. We thought other challengers would drown out Ken Buck, but those others left the field and Buck overtook Norton in most primary polls.

Why did Buck advance? He comes across as thoughtful, down to earth, and experienced, while Jane Norton often comes across as a lightweight managed by her advisors. Buck also took full advantage of Norton's endorsement of the Referendum C tax hike when she served under former Governor Bill Owens. Buck built a reputation as a man of the people and the Tea Parties, while many saw Norton as a McCain Establishment Republican.

Norton responded to Buck's success by smearing him in a nasty, below-the-belt attack ad. Buck's "crime" while working at the U.S. Attorney's office was standing up for the little guy and bucking prosecutorial abuse in a politically-motivated gun case. In our book, that makes Buck a hero, not a villain, and we are profoundly disappointed with Norton's malicious tactics.

To be sure, Buck made a minor technical error by discussing a case with a defense attorney, and he was reprimanded. However, the context of that case matters profoundly.

In a June 25 appearance on Colorado Public Television, Dave Kopel addressed the issue -- see http://tinyurl.com/kopel625 [or the transcript]. Kopel, among the most intelligent and respected intellectuals in Colorado, serves as lead researcher at the Independence Institute. He has earned a world-wide reputation as a top Second Amendment scholar noted for his work on the recent Supreme Court cases decided in favor of gun rights. He also knows a defendant in the case in question (as does your younger author), so he knows the case intimately.

Kopel suggests that Democrat Tom Strickland, in between his two failed runs for U.S. Senate, came into the U.S. Attorney's office looking to turn gun cases into political clout.

The problem, Kopel notes, is that he took "a case that not one single career attorney in the United States Attorney's office in Colorado was willing to prosecute." Strickland's prosecution of the case represented "an outrageous abuse of power," Kopel said.

Kopel said that "for somebody who cares about Second Amendment issues, you've got on one hand, a guy [Buck] who said something out of the office he shouldn't have, in defense of a gun dealer who was being inappropriately prosecuted, and on the other side, you've got somebody [Norton] who's basically saying how swell the prosecution was, and criticizing the guy who properly stood up for the innocent victim of persecution."

To Ken Buck, we say: Thank you for taking a righteous and courageous stand, and we realize you've learned from the mistake you made at the time. To Jane Norton, we say simply: Shame on you.

It remains an open question whether Norton's vicious attack will hurt Buck or backfire. Republican primary voters who research the issues and care about gun rights will flock to Buck. Those swayed only by deceptive radio attack ads may lean away from Buck.

Another big issue in that race is foreign policy. Norton came out with a hard-hitting video in which she closes, "Let's win the war on terror." In a related policy paper, Norton argues America should "finish the job in Iraq," give the Taliban no "place to hide" in Afghanistan, and "prevent a nuclear Iran." Buck has echoed similar themes, and we're glad to see the candidates' tougher-on-terror approach.

On the Democratic side, Bill Clinton entered the picture by endorsing Democratic Senate hopeful Andrew Romanoff. Hillary Clinton, of course, works for President Obama, who endorsed incumbent Senator Michael Bennet. As the Denver Post noted, in 2008 Romanoff endorsed Hillary for president, while Bennet endorsed Obama.

However, it looks like Romanoff is sunk, ironically in part because the Obama administration tried to help Bennet by offering to buy off Romanoff with a job. We'll see if the Clinton endorsement can help turn the tide.

In the governor's race, Republican Dan Maes has fought a much stronger and more effective campaign than we anticipated. Rasmussen polling even welcomed him to the race with a June 15 release showing Maes tied with Democrat John Hickenlooper, 41-41 percent. But Scott McInnis performed better against Hick with 46 percent, and McInnis has dominated Maes in the primary polls.

Even though Maes has worked hard and turned heads, the fact remains that he has zero political experience. Despite what voters might say, experience matters to most voters, who figure that at least somebody who has served in lower office has survived major scandals. Moreover, Maes seemed to flip-flop on immigration and the misguided "personhood" measure, and he could never match McInnis in fundraising.

If you've enjoyed the primary, we expect the general election will get even more interesting.

* In his July 4 column, Vincent Carroll argues that Strickland decided "to make his mark with a high-profile firearms prosecution -- and never mind if the evidence was second- rate and that career prosecutors had already declined to proceed with the case." Buck's behavior, grants Carroll, was unintentional, and it did not sabotage the case. However, Carroll, argues, "Buck is no hero, either." On that point, we disagree. While he was wrong to break the rules, he did act heroically in challenging the politicized and unwarranted prosecution.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Three Arguments for Blocking Cordoba House

Cordoba House, the proposed Islamic center within the damage zone of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, richly deserves moral condemnation. Whether it should be forcibly blocked is another matter. Here my goal is to explain and engage the three most important arguments for blocking the construction of Cordoba House. I conclude that, while two arguments don't succeed, a third might.

1. "The organizers of Cordoba House promote bad ideas."

Advocates of blocking Cordoba House frequently cite the horrible views espoused by the center's lead organizer, Feisal Abdul Rauf (an Imam and United States citizen). As I have reviewed, Rauf has failed to condemn Hamas (though he has condemned terrorism in the abstract), partly blamed America for the 9/11 attacks, and openly advocated Islamic Sharia law in the U.S.

The problem with blocking Cordoba House because of the views advocated by its organizers (as I have reviewed in a first and second article) is that thousands of other American Muslims, leftist intellectuals and activists, and libertarians have expressed identical or substantively similar views. Thus, the same case should apply to all those other thousands of American citizens, who, logically, also should be forcibly stripped of their property or use of it to promote their ideas. Yet, to date, I have heard not a single advocate of shutting down the Islamic center claim that they want to also target all those other American citizens.

Here I am addressing the promotion of ideas, not criminal acts. I have seen no evidence that the organizers of Cordoba House (the property's legally recognized owners) have engaged in any criminal or terrorist activity. Anyone who commits violent acts, shelters or finances terrorists, or directly promotes terrorist acts has committed a crime, and, as Steve Simpson notes, existing criminal code already addresses such matters. In cases of such crimes, appropriate action extends far beyond merely blocking the criminal's use of property. Anyone guilty of such crimes should be prosecuted and imprisoned upon conviction, and at least all property related to their crimes should be confiscated. In such cases the central issue is the crime, not the use of property, which would be restricted only as a consequence of the criminal sanctions.

Amy Peikoff has pointed out that it is possible to argue that promoting Islam is itself a criminal act:

[T]here probably are good legal arguments that could be made to stop this, arguments that need not presuppose that our government has formally declared war. This approach is tricky, of course, because you can't say that someone doesn't have a right to property, simply because his views, which he plans to promote via use of his property, at root negate the principle of private property. Plenty of ideologies do that. So this gets back to the problem of recognizing the unique nature of Islam in this regard. To make the proper sort of legal argument I have in mind – something along the lines of a well-defined trade embargo, or perhaps a charge of conspiracy to commit a crime, or, as James Valliant has suggested, solicitation to murder – one has to recognize that the distinguishing characteristic of Islam as a religion is its doctrine of Jihad, which is, in effect, an incitement to violence, even though many individual Muslims aren't violent and never will be. If you don't believe this about Islam as such, then you will naturally reject this approach.

However, if this argument succeeds, then the logical conclusion is that all Muslims in the United States who advocate Islam should be branded criminals. Yet nobody who advocates the forced blocking of Cordoba House argues that all Muslims who advocate Islam should be targeted with criminal proceedings.

Indeed, the very implication reduces the position to absurdity.

The reason the position implies absurd applications is that the mere advocacy of an idea does not inherently or automatically lead to violent actions. Consider some comparisons.

Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff argue that Kant is inherently evil (because willfully dishonest), and that his views logically imply the total abnegation of individual rights. And yet nobody argues that advocates of Kantianism are criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

In her talk, "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World," "Ayn Rand explains why mysticism is altruism's precondition, and why dictatorship is its product." She argues that faith as such logically implies the outright "destruction of the modern world." And yet nobody argues that all Christians are criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

Communism explicitly demands the sacrifice of the individual to the collective. And yet nobody argues that all Marxist university professors should be branded criminals because of the ideas they advocate.

Even if someone openly advocates an idea that logically entails violent actions, that person need not become violent (as Peikoff notes). Ideas motivate people to action, but not in any deterministic sort of way. Often people decline to enact (or they simply fail to comprehend) the logical consequences of their ideas.

What violates rights is force, an action. An idea cannot violate rights. While a bad idea can motivate one to criminal action, the mere advocacy of an idea is not itself criminal.

This applies even to ideas held by America's enemies. I agree with Leonard Peikoff when he states:

Treason... is giving aid and comfort to the enemy in wartime. And the enemy has to be defined in objective, physical terms, as a reality of physical attack, or the objective threat of physical attack. I better clarify what I mean by "aid and comfort." If you give material assistance, or weapons, that is aid and comfort. If you urge the [American] soldiers to desert, that is aid and comfort. If you propagandize, urging specific actions, riots and strikes, etcetera, at home, like the Beatniks did during Vietnam, that is aid and comfort. ... If you send food packages to the insurgents or the Iranis in the Iraq war, all that is aid and comfort. ... [Y]ou have to draw a line between physical, concrete aid and comfort, and a broad moral stand on an issue of national concern which you have every right to take. ... You are certainly entitled on intellectual grounds to denounce a war, and even to say the enemy is morally superior to us. You're entitled to say this. But what you're not entitled to do is then go out and specifically help that enemy win the war. That is the big difference. It's a crime to advocate a crime, to help perpetrate, to be an accomplice. It is not a crime to advocate a legal change in the policy that is leading to it. You get the difference between sending food to the insurgents and condemning the war in Iraq.

(As an aside, Peikoff also argues that "it has to be a declared war" for a charge of treason to stick. He says, "All wars which are not declared have no status." Absent a declaration of war, he states, "no rules of war or treason can apply... unless it's an emergency" preceding a formal declaration of war. However, my understanding is that charges of treason may be brought in spy cases even when the United States is not at war, so I think that in certain cases treason can apply outside a formal declaration of war.)

If the advocacy of certain ideologies is deemed inherently criminal, consider what such a legal precedent would mean for the rest of us, say, if fundamentalist Christians gained even more influence over government. Paul Hsieh has offered some good examples. Here's another: in his new book To Save America, Newt Gingrich argues that secularism is inherently socialistic and that it poses an "existential threat" to America (p. 6). If we're going to turn people into criminals for the ideas they advocate, secularists may be among the first in the gulags, however misguided the attack on them.

Absent concrete evidence linking Cordoba House's organizers to crime or terrorism, then, they cannot be prosecuted as criminals, and their center cannot properly be blocked on those grounds.

2. "Cordoba House would embolden America's enemies."

Advocates of forcibly blocking Cordoba House, however, can offer some other reason for doing so, besides the views advocated by its organizers. For example, they can argue that building an Islamic center within the damage zone of the 9/11 attacks inherently emboldens America's enemies, apart from the particular ideas the organizers advocate. I think that is the approach Leonard Peikoff is taking in his recent podcast on the matter.

By my understanding, Peikoff would advocate blocking Cordoba House, regardless of the particular views expressed by its organizers. Even if Rauf enthusiastically condemned Hamas, declared America's complete and utter innocence regarding the 9/11 attacks, and openly opposed Sharia law, I think Peikoff still would advocate blocking Cordoba House. By this view, the case for blocking Cordoba House does not depend on the particular views of those organizers (beyond their general endorsement of Islam); it depends solely on the location of the proposed center.

Advocates of blocking Cordoba House have made some extraordinary claims about its construction. Leonard Peikoff suggests that our "metaphysical survival is at stake." Amy Peikoff suggests that to allow Cordoba House would be to "let ourselves be wiped out as collateral damage."

At initial glance, such claims seem like wild hyperbole. If Cordoba House is built (as it most likely will be, all of our debate notwithstanding), Western civilization will not immediately come crashing down around our heads. The buildings of New York City will not suddenly crumble into dust. American women will not all start wearing burqas the next day. Cordoba House might encourage America's enemies to rejoice, gloat, and redouble their commitment, but it will not put food in their bellies, improve the lethality of their weapons, or strengthen their muscles.

Moreover, blocking the construction of Cordoba House (extremely unlikely in today's political context) would not somehow magically make Iran's nuclear facilities disappear, grant Obama the spine to stand up to America's enemies, or remove the deadly restrictions placed on America's soldiers. For most militant Islamists and Americans, life will continue as before whether or not Cordoba House reaches completion. (Indeed, most Americans never even will have heard of Cordoba House upon its construction.)

What, then, are those claims getting at?

The central argument, I believe, is this. The location of Cordoba House is indeed supremely relevant. Its location was selected expressly because the building was damaged by the 9/11 attacks. Regardless of the views and intentions of the center's organizers (actual or stated), an Islamic center, within the damage zone of the 9/11 attacks, cannot help but embolden America's Islamist enemies and signal America's moral capitulation. The message to America's enemies is essentially this: "You are strong, and America is weak. If you attack us, you can profit from your attacks. If you destroy our buildings, you can build a shrine to your ideology there as a sign of your conquest." Such a center can only spur on our Islamist enemies to further violence. Such a principle of capitulation indeed threatens our long-term survival, according to this argument.

Notice that the argument about location depends solely on the impact of the Islamic center on the motivation of America's enemies, not on any material benefit it might bestow to those enemies. The relevant impact takes place entirely within the heads of the Islamists.

Thus, the building of Cordoba House represents a symbolic victory for America's enemies, and blocking it would constitute a symbolic victory for America's self-defense.

The question, then, is whether a symbolic display may ever properly be proscribed legally. My initial reaction is to say no; the First Amendment properly protects symbolic expression, and only actions (including active provocation of violence) properly may be criminalized.

Consider protests involving the burning of the American flag. Many conservatives want to pass a Constitutional amendment banning the disrespectful burning of the American flag. (Burning a worn flag to respectfully dispose of it constitutes proper etiquette.) I learned about flag etiquette from my grandfather, who fought in the Pacific Rim during World War II. Whenever I see an American flag, I think about how my grandfather had to walk a field picking up body pieces of his friends after the Japanese bombed his camp. I will not tolerate the disrespectful burning of an American flag in my presence; if I can maintain sufficient composure to do so, I will leave the scene. Conservatives argue, and I agree, that disrespectfully burning an America flag symbolizes a hateful attack on the essence of America. Nevertheless, I do not advocate legally prohibiting the disrespectful burning of an American flag, and I know of no Objectivist who advocates banning it.

The fact that I experience revulsion toward the burning of an American flag does not justify outlawing the activity; likewise, revulsion towards Cordoba House does not justify forcibly blocking it.

Does the situation change in time of war? During all-out war, our very society, along with the legal system that protects our rights, stands at risk of utter destruction. May certain symbolic expressions therefore be prohibited in times of war?

Peikoff and others offer the example of Pearl Harbor: should the United States government have allowed a Shinto shrine near the site of the attack during WWII? (At first, I presumed that such a scenario was impossible because Pearl Harbor is a military base. However, looking at the map of the harbor, it is clear that it is surrounded by neighborhoods, golf courses, and farms. I have never been there in person.)

While others seem to think it is perfectly obvious that such a shrine should be prohibited in times of war, even if the shrine's organizers are known to have no ties to violence or the enemy, it is not obvious to me. I don't see what difference such a shrine would make either way. Think of it this way: should the United States government expend energy, during time of war, to forcibly stop construction of some ridiculous shrine? When the United States government is developing atomic bombs and blowing the holy hell out of Japan, is a shrine really what either side is going to be worried about? I submit that if the Japanese are gloating about the shrine (in this hypothetical situation), if they spend even a minute thinking about the shrine, then the United States has failed to effectively prosecute the war. If the shrine is a big deal to the enemy, then that signifies America is already losing the war.

There may be other very good reasons for blocking the Shinto shrine -- see the third argument below -- but its symbolism does not strike me as a forceful one.

Imagine you witnessed a street fight, and Fighter A spits on the shoe of Fighter B (who cannot escape the fight). What would you think if Fighter B agonized over the spittle and tried to carefully clean his shoe before proceeding with the fight? I submit that Fighter B should ignore his shoe and concentrate on smashing in the face of the aggressor.

Likewise, I submit that it is precisely this obsessive agonizing over Cordoba House that reflects a posture of defeat and surrender. Why would people spend one minute of their time trying to get rid of some damned prayer center, when they could spend that minute urging the United States government to take decisive action against America's true enemies? What exactly are our priorities, here? (I do think the debate over Cordoba House is useful insofar as it helps reveal the nature of America's enemies.)

I should address a couple of arguments from the other side. Amy Peikoff argues that symbols can indeed be important, and she points out that the U.S. ought not have handed over the Panama Canal to Panama. However, I fail to see how the U.S. handing over a U.S.-built structure to a foreign nation is comparable to the federal government not taking action regarding Cordoba House. In his podcast, Leonard Peikoff suggests that building Cordoba House is comparable to somebody who violently attacks your house, then later buys your house for a shrine. But there is an obvious difference: the builders of Cordoba house, however bad their ideas or evil their intentions, are not the same individuals who planned the 9/11 attacks.

We may criticize Cordoba House for its symbolic significance, but I fail to see how blocking a symbol accomplishes any serious goal or in any way compensates for failing to execute a real war.

3. "Cordoba House is uniquely positioned to promote violent Islam."

Even though Cordoba House's organizers have explicitly denounced terrorism, at least in the abstract, and even if they actively discourage terrorism, still Cordoba House might prove to be an especially strong lure to would-be terrorists, precisely because of its location. Even if Cordoba House's official policy opposes terrorism, the center's managers cannot hope to monitor the private meetings that take place within its walls. It might, then, become a place where potential terrorists meet and hatch their plans.

This seems to be the point Edward Cline is arguing in his recent, thoughtful article.

Those who find such threats implausible need only look to recent headlines; a couple of examples should suffice.

On May 4, the Washington Post reported:

A man was arrested late Monday night in connection with the failed Times Square bombing, administration officials said. The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Pakistan, allegedly purchased the sport utility vehicle that authorities found packed with explosives in New York on Saturday night. ...

An FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had taken over the investigation Monday amid growing indications of a possible international connection, U.S. officials and law enforcement sources said.

A June 18 follow-up article reports: "The suspect in the attempted bombing of Times Square received $12,000 from the Pakistani Taliban to carry out the plot, according to a federal indictment released Thursday that formally charges Faisal Shahzad with receiving training and support from the militant group."

On June 29, Bloomberg reported:

A Guyanese man, on the eve of his trial, pleaded guilty to his role in a plot to blow up New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Abdel Nur, 60, entered a guilty plea to a single count of providing support to terrorists before U.S. District Judge Dora Irizzary in Brooklyn, New York. The judge said the trial of Nur's two co-defendants is scheduled to begin tomorrow. The three hatched the plot in January 2006 and circulated their plan to an international network of Muslim extremists, prosecutors said.

Rauf himself has granted that special effort is required to "make sure mosques are not recruiting grounds for radicals." But what if Rauf's efforts prove inadequate at Cordoba House, which due to its location will prove a particularly strong draw for such "radicals?"

Moreover, some have speculated that Cordoba House will receive international money, probably in some cases tied to nefarious governments. The fact that tainted funds may be available again represents a failure of U.S. foreign policy. If the funds are tainted in a serious enough way, that might justify legal proceedings against Cordoba House based on existing laws. The point here is that if tainted funds indeed go to Cordoba House, that might accompany especially nasty influences.

To me, this third argument is by far the strongest rationale offered for blocking Cordoba House. The United States government could essentially state, "Look, we have good evidence that at least some people who would attend Cordoba House have evil intentions, and, given we are in the middle of prosecuting a war, we don't have the resources right now to investigate all the related issues. Therefore, until we have decisively won the war, your religious center is on hold, on the grounds of wartime emergency."

Of course, given the United States government has not, in fact, declared war on America's enemies, and indeed refuses even to recognize the ideological motivation of America's enemies, and even actively appeases many of America's enemies, I do not imagine that the current administration would actually invoke such an argument.

Moreover, I think the United States government could both prosecute a successful war and investigate possible terrorist plots at Cordoba House. Indeed, if it is true that Cordoba House would prove especially appealing to would-be terrorists, then it might even be advantageous for the U.S. government to watch them collect all at one spot.

If would-be terrorists aren't meeting at Cordoba House, they're not simply going to disappear. They're probably going to meet somewhere else. The premise of this third argument -- that Cordoba House would attract terrorist plotters -- actually seems to justify letting the center be built, so long as the United States government actively tracks suspected terrorists there.

On the other hand, perhaps Cordoba House would embolden more Muslims to plot violent attacks than otherwise would do so, even if they did not actually visit Cordoba House. However, this seems tentative and speculative to me, like the second argument reviewed above, and therefore a weak basis for legal action. In any case, Cordoba House might embolden more terrorists only in the context of a weak overall U.S. foreign policy. If the U.S. government decisively demonstrated the failure of militant Islam, no symbolic structure could overcome that.

However, as noted, I regard this third argument as a forceful one.

* * *

I have described what I see as the three major arguments for blocking Cordoba House. As I've indicated, I'm not persuaded that any of the arguments succeeds, though the third argument could gain force depending on the circumstances. If any critic believes that I have missed an important argument, or failed to see the strength of an argument, I hope that critic will explain the error.

Whether or not Cordoba House is built, I think it is important that those concerned about the Islamist threat refrain from blowing the significance of Cordoba House out of proportion. We must remain focussed on making the case to the American public and to its government that we need to get serious about defending the nation from militant Islam.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Business Group Challenges 'Amazon Tax'

Earlier this year, the Democrat-led Colorado legislature foolishly passed the "Amazon Tax" in an attempt to collect sales taxes on goods purchased from out of state. The measure caused Amazon and other businesses to end their affiliates programs in Colorado and threatened Coloradans' privacy rights. See RepealTheAmazonTax.com for more information and argument.

Today I received the following media release announcing a legal challenge to the tax bill:

Rep. Stephens Applauds Challenge to Internet Tax
Complaint Based on Consumer Privacy Concerns, Loss of Colorado Jobs

State Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, today applauded the legal challenge filed against Colorado's new Internet sales tax policy, recently authorized by House Bill 1193.

"We have said from the beginning that this proposal jeopardizes consumer privacy and gives the government a frightening amount of access to information about personal purchases and services," said Stephens. "The bottom line is, it's none of the government's business what someone wants to buy online."

Stephens helped lead the fight against HB 1193, a Democrat-sponsored budget balancing proposal that mandates sales tax collection for online purchases.

It was announced yesterday that the Direct Marketing Association filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Colorado challenging the new law as unconstitutional. The DMA cited privacy violations because the new law requires companies to turn over confidential purchasing history information to the Colorado Department of Revenue. The DMA also claims the law unfairly discriminates against interstate commerce.

"I wholeheartedly agree with the concerns raised by the legal challenge,” Stephens said. "These are problems even the sponsors of the bill recognized. Unfortunately, the tax proposal was still rushed through the legislature, causing concern for consumers and leading to the immediate loss of Colorado jobs."

Immediately following passage of the bill, it was announced that Amazon would no longer be working with its 4,200 affiliates in Colorado.

Prior to filing the lawsuit, the DMA, along with several other entities, registered their concerns about HB1193 with the legislature, with the governor, and with the Department of Revenue during its rulemaking process.