Thursday, June 30, 2005

Grokking the LP: Big L, little L, what the L?

What's the difference between "Libertarian", with a big L, and "libertarian", with a little L?

The word, "Libertarian", with a capital L, refers to a member of the Libertarian Party, and to the platform and policies of the Libertarian Party. The word, "libertarian", with a little L, refers to a philosophy concerned with maximizing individual freedom.

The Libertarian Party is just one part of a wider libertarian movement. Because of its name, the Libertarian Party may appear to be at the center of the libertarian world, but its not clear that it actually is. Just a small sampling of libertarian organizations that have no direct affiliation with the LP:

  • Institute for Justice -- The public interest law firm that recently argued against eminent domain abuse in the Supreme Court

  • Movimiento Libertario -- A libertarian political party that has done pretty well in Costa Rica

  • -- Well known for its hard-hitting criticism of the Iraq War

  • Cato Institute -- An influential think tank, sometimes accused of being conservative because conservatives have occasionally listened to them

  • The Free State Project -- A group of folks who are moving en masse to New Hampshire in the hopes of creating a relatively free place to live.

In a looser sense, liberals, anarchists, and even socialists can also be labeled "libertarian". All of these political philosophies have common roots and an intertwining history. Before the rise of socialism in the early 20th century, Americans used the word "liberal" to mean the same thing we generally mean by "libertarian" today. In other countries, the word, "liberal", still retains this original meaning. I'll write more about the common history of liberalism and libertarianism one of these days.

For this libertarian, the jury is out on whether the Libertarian Party is helping or hindering the greater libertarian movement. For years now, the LP has shown promise of becoming an effective and serious party, but regularly bogs down in in-fighting and other perennial problems.

I have a lot more to say on that subject in future posts. I still hold out hope that I can do my part to help the LP grow up. If the Libertarian Party never gets its act together, it's OK -- the bigger libertarian movement is doing just fine.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Time To Bring Back Mutual Aid Societies?

While debating what we should do about today's social problems, like providing affordable health care, it's interesting to look into the ways the same problems were addressed in the past. History yields both horror stories illustrating what should be avoided and intriguing ideas worth taking another look at.

In the early 20th century, America had hundreds of mutual aid societies which provided members with health care, among other privileges. These voluntary organizations were set up to serve various affinity groups: trades, fraternal clubs, immigrant societies, freed slaves. Somehow, by the late 20th century, most of the societies had been disappeared (although, there are still some around today). With their decline came the rise of modern insurance mega-corporations and employer-provided health care.

Here are a couple of articles that delve into the history of mutual aid societies:

First up, we have Eric Laursen (no relation, but the last name helped get his article picked for this post) giving an anarcho-socialist view on the history of mutual aid. As your reading the article, notice how it underscores yesterday's topic about the communication disconnect between leftists and libertarians when using words like "free market" and "capitalism":

"The Legacy of the Lodges: Mutual Aid and Consumer Society"

"The orders provided a powerful demonstration that mutual aid could serve as an alternative method for organizing a complex modern society. And at least in embryo, they had the potential to supplant the government-run social-services system that evolved during the New Deal ..."

Next, we have a rather dry, but thorough analysis from a libertarian think tank, the Institute for Humane Studies, at George Mason University. (Well, they claim to be libertarian. I hadn't heard of them before.) You may want to skip the "The Economics of Asymmetric Information" section that goes into more than you would ever want to know about the game theory that underlies the insurance business:

"Another factor that may have contributed to the decline of fraternal insurance was the imposition of wage controls by the federal government during the second world war. To get around these wage controls, employers offered benefits which were not considered taxable income (and hence not violations of the wage controls). These benefits came in the form of, among other things, health insurance."

Could mutual aid be part of the solution to making health care more affordable? It still seems like a workable (and wonderfully non-coercive) model to me, even in the much more complicated world of modern medicine.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Grokking the LP: Corporate America Ain't The Free Market

A couple of years ago, I helped out a Junior State of America event for high schoolers interested in politics. At one of the day's programs, the JSA kids could ask questions of a panel of representatives from several political parties. One of the panelists, an extreme leftist from either the Socialist or Peace and Freedom Party (I forget which), launched into a diatribe about Libertarians being shills for exploitative corporate interests.

The Libertarian panelist sat through the socialist's speech with a bemused look on his face. Like every Libertarian I know, he actually agreed with pretty much every criticism the socialist leveled at big corporations.

Libertarians get this a lot. Because we are enthusiastic supporters of free markets, we are assumed to approve of every abusive act that takes place under the label of "capitalism". In fact, Libertarians have a lot of qualms about corporate America.

A corporation, per se, is a benign thing. Incorporation is just another way of structuring a business. But when people who hold government power start handing out breaks to their buddies in the corporate world, we've left the world of free markets.

And the idea that the legal rights of an individual should be conferred on a corporation strikes Libertarians as perverse. (By the way, the whole corporate personhood idea was hatched from a court case that originated here in Santa Clara County:

Perhaps the biggest communication barrier between leftists and libertarians is that when leftists talk about capitalism they're referring to mixed state/corporate economy while Libertarians are talking about competition among companies that receive no special privileges from the government.

Read more about corporate welfare:

"Policy Spotlight: Corporate Welfare"

"Corporate welfare takes many forms, ranging from direct gifts for research and development, to overseas marketing, to tax-free public financing of sports stadiums."

"Corporate Welfare Information Center"

"The $150 billion for corporate subsidies and tax benefits eclipses the annual budget deficit of $130 billion. It's more than the $145 billion paid out annually for the core programs of the social welfare state: Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), student aid, housing, food and nutrition, and all direct public assistance (excluding Social Security and medical care)."

Monday, June 27, 2005

Meanwhile, in the Canadian Supreme Court...

While we're debating whether to Federalize health care in the United States, Canadians are debating whether to allow more privitization. A recent Supreme Court of Canada decision ruled that private health insurers must be allowed to do business in Quebec, repeating many of the criticisms you've heard before about long waiting lists for services, etc.

Filtering through several very pointed articles on the Chaoulli v Quebec decision, I found this fairly impartial analysis of the (100+ page) decision from the Ontario Medical Assocation:

I'll admit my prejudices are against establishing a huge Federal health care bureaucracy, but I'll also admit I'm just starting to educate myself on this issue.

I don't think advocates of single-payer healthcare can just brush off the awful stories about rationing of healthcare that goes on in countries that have established government-run medicine. And opponents of single-payer healthcare can't just brush off the problem that there are people with inadequate healthcare in this country.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Supreme Court Drops The Ball On Property Rights

The Supreme Court really got it wrong in this 5-4 decision upholding the powers of redevelopment agencies to take peoples' homes just to give them to private mall developers and big corporations:

"Supreme Court Rules Cities May Seize Homes"

If you aren't familiar with the problem of eminent domain abuse, this 60 Minutes story gives a good overview. Guaranteed, you will be pissed off when you find out that this is going on in America:

Eminent Domain: Being Abused?

If you'd like to read about the problem in more detail, the Institute for Justice, in preparation to argue before the Supreme Court, documented every known case of eminent domain abuse in the country:

"Public Power, Private Gain"
(PDF 3.7 MB)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Middle College

I'd like to see the growth of private and home schooling challenge the near monopoly of government in the education of children, but a baby step along the way would be to have separate parts of government competing with each other to provide better and more varied educational experiences. It wouldn't provide the cornucopia of variety that the free market would, but there would at least be more choice for parents and students.

This story from the Mountain View Voice tells how Foothill College is providing an alternate for high schoolers who weren't thriving in a "typical high school environment":

Mountain View Voice: "A new take on high school"

This type of educational variety could be developed further by allowing any California college or university, public or private, the right to open a charter high school. As part of the charter, the college sponsoring the school could be required to guarantee college acceptance for graduates who satisfactorily complete college preparation courses at the high schools they operate.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Grokking the LP: "Taxation Is Theft"

I see from my local Libertarian Party newsletter that one of our local activists showed up for our annual April 15th tax protest waving a picket sign, "IS STOLEN MONEY PUT TO GOOD USE?"

If you, the reader, have never spent your time studying books of libertarian theory, you're probably wondering what the picket sign slogan is talking about. Who stole money from whom?

Well, some Libertarian Party members believe that "taxation is theft". Since non-payment of your tax bill will result in your unpaid taxes being taken from you forceably, or, even worse, your doing time in jail, the government, or the democratic majority, is stealing the money from you.

If you were to attend a Libertarian Party meeting, you'd find that at least a few members in the room literally believe that "taxation is theft". To these more anarchist members, the government is the equivalent of a mafia family running a protection scheme in your neighborhood. And they feel it is their duty to oppose every proposed tax increase, no matter what the tax is for.

You'd also meet more moderate Libertarians, like myself, that see partial truth in the "taxation is theft" idea, but think the taxation issue is more complex. The two viewpoints don't conflict as often as you might think, because even the most moderate of Libertarians thinks almost all tax increases proposed these days are an unneeded addition to taxes that are already way too high.

When the two points of view do come into conflict, the "taxation is theft" believers often carry the day. Part of the dynamic there seems to be that Libertarians with hardcore views tend to show up for party meeting more than more moderate Libertarians. I hear that there is a similar dynamic in other third parties. I also suspect that moderate Libertarians have left the party over the years because it has gone too long without electoral success.

I'll say more about the "taxation is theft" idea below, but first I want to point out that the picket sign illustrates one of the biggest barriers to the Libertarian Party's success: a failure to communicate to the average person in his or her own concepts and language. To be successful, Libertarians need to meet non-Libertarians half way. Hell, much more than half way.

The awkwardness of the slogan points out lack of marketing savvy, which is often a problem for Libertarians as well. To be fair, a more typical Libertarian tax protest slogan is "Honk If You Hate Taxes!", which always gets an enthusiastic response from last-minute income tax filers.

(My apologies to local activists if it seems I'm picking on the guy who waved the "stolen money" picket sign. That' not my intention.)

So, is taxation theft? As I said, I think the taxation issue is more complex.

Most of us have bought into the legitimacy of the government by using lots of government services, traveling with United States passports, and voting. It's a pretty shaky analogy to compare the government to a gang of thieves.

It is true that taxpayers are ultimately coerced into hand over their money, often for purposes that they are opposed to. For example, a lot of us in the Bay Area oppose the Iraq War, but we're being forced to foot a big part of the bill. And have little to no influence on the decisions being made in Washington, D.C. It's arguable that this situation constitutes "taxation without representation".

A lot depends on scale. While big Federal spending programs almost always pan out to be wasteful or even downright injurious to general well-being, at the local level, taxes tend to take on more of the characteristics of merely formalizing community efforts. For example, the people of Palo Alto are deeply concerned with the quality of their schools and can almost always be counted on to approve local school taxes. Can the citizens of Palo Alto credibly be said to be oppressing each other any more than, say, a bunch of condominium owners who impose fees on themselves?

One Property Owner, One Property Tax Vote?

Have you heard of Aaron Katz? He owns various real estate properties in Santa Clara County, but wasn't able to vote on tax increases related to many of those properties because the elections weren't in his home town of Saratoga. Meanwhile, people who did live in the areas holding the elections could vote on the tax increases, regardless of whether they owned any property.

Katz has filed several lawsuits claiming that only property owners should have been allowed to vote on property and parcel tax increases, and that those property owners should have been allowed to vote regardless of their place of residence.

A few years ago, I was a party to a couple of email exchanges with Katz where he outlined his legal claims. If I understood them correctly, he appealed to some basic protection clauses in the California Constitution. At the time I thought Katz had some good points about how property tax voting should work (ideally), but that his claims were at odds with city charter law and a long history of how elections are normally conducted in this country. But, I'm far from an expert on this topic.

Last Friday, a judge dismissed several of Katz' lawsuits. Unfortunately, for both Katz and for local government officials, the judge based his dismissal on paperwork technicalities, leaving the basic question unresolved:

San Jose Mercury News: "Judge dismisses tax lawsuit: SANTA CLARA COUNTY SCHOOLS, COLLEGES AND HOSPITAL WEIGH IMPACT"
(requires sign-in)

Thursday, June 16, 2005

House Stands Up For Freedom To Read

A sign that the spirit of liberty isn't yet dead in Congress: the House of Representatives, including 38 Republicans defying the President, voted to revoke a section of the USA PATRIOT ACT that authorized warrant-free searches of citizens' library and bookstore records.

Carl Hulse, New York TImes:"Citing privacy issue, House bars access to library files"
(sign in required)

The "Freedom To Read" effort was led by the House's sole independent, Rep. Bernie Sanders. And co-sponsored by former Libertarian presidential candidate, Ron Paul. And backed by thousands of pissed-off librarians.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Is Janice Rogers Brown a libertarian?

[I haven't had a chance to look into this topic as deeply as I set out to, but I figure I better post while the topic is still topical.]

The other day, I read this article in the San Francisco Chronicle, referring to Federal judicial nominee, Janice Rogers Brown, as "an outspoken libertarian". Had the presidential administration that brought us the PATRIOT ACT turned a new leaf? Become champions of individual liberty? Excuse me for being skeptical.

Setting aside the question of whether she is professionally qualified, let's examine a few of the things people are saying about her -- does the "libertarian" label fit?

  • PBS: "In Brown's only opinion dealing with abortion, she argued that the court majority's decision ruling unconstitutional a parental consent law for minors seeking abortions would 'dismiss societal values' and would allow courts to 'become final arbiters of traditional morality.' Maybe libertarian. Definitely conservative. Most libertarians, even those personally opposed to abortion, want the government to stay out of abortion decisions. Not just on the abortion issue, but in general, libertarians think the government should be a neutral referee, refraining from promotion of "societal values" and "traditional morality". But the twist here is that Brown is arguing for restraining the government from interfering in parental rights. Is she a libertarian? Depends on whether she is consistently concerned for protecting parental rights or only cares about parental rights when it suits her conservative views.

  • PBS: "In another family values case, she dissented from a ruling upholding the validity of second-parent adoptions in the case of a same-sex couple." Not particulary libertarian. Probably conservative. Brown's dissent in this case is a technical argument that the state bureaucracy had interpreted an adoption law more leniently than the legislature intended. The language of her argument doesn't touch on any libertarian values. However, there is a strong conservative, anti-homosexual subtext to her argument. Libertarians are solidly for equal rights for gay and lesbian people. Even so, I wouldn't be so quick to consider this a definitive test case for the rights of a lesbian to adopt her partner's children; the birth parent had broken up with her partner and no longer wanted the child adopted.

  • Senator Kennedy's website: "A 1999 dissent drafted by Brown suggested that the First Amendment allows employees to use racial epithets in the workplace;" Libertarian. Brown's concern was for the protection of the right of free speech.

  • Senator Kennedy's website: "Brown told a meeting of the Federalist Society that 'where government moves in, community retreats [and] civil society disintegrates'" Libertarian In fact, the tendency of big government to disintegrate civil society is one of this major themes of this blog. It's a shame that Kennedy doesn't realize she has a point.

So, is she more libertarian or conservative? To tell that, we'd need to see how she rules in a case where somebody wants to exert his or her individual rights to do something a conservative wouldn't approve of. Does the reader know of one?

Medical Marijuana and the Amazing Elastic Commerce Clause

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal government has the right, under the commerce clause, to regulate marijuana usage, even when nothing was bought, sold, nor transported across state lines. This page has a fairly succinct outline of the legal reasoning:

Drug WarRant: Raich v. Ashcroft - A Guide To The Supreme Court Case

The Feds presented an argument that medical marijuana patients using pot they have grown themselves is quasi-commercial activity because those patients would have bought the pot instead of growing it if it had been perfectly legal to do so. How do they know that? Because the patients had bought other legally-available drugs while looking for effective treatment for their disorders. And admit to having bought marijuana before.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Santa Clara County Vector Control District

This month, Santa Clara County property owners are being asked to approve an increased per-parcel assessment to fund the Vector Control District. The District is a small organization that engages in activities like mosquito and rodent control, and West Nile Virus prevention.

The Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury evaluated the Vector Control District a few years ago and came back with a lot of complimentary things to say about how they are doing their job:

(requires Adobe Reader. Google's HTML version of the Grand Jury report is here.)

Advocates of extremely minimal government often say that the only two legitimate functions of government are to provide a common military defense and a system of courts. I would add epidemic control to that list.

It's always heartening to hear about a government agency that's doing a good job, and we libertarians should readily give credit.