What isn’t a public good?

Sebastian Mallaby offered a suggestion on Monday:

But there’s one antidote to loneliness that is at least intriguing. In an experiment in Austin, Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found that commuting — generally alone, and generally by car — is rated the least enjoyable daily activity, but commuting by car pool is reasonably pleasant. Measures that promote car pooling could make Americans less isolated and healthier.

I take mass transit to work. Not because I like people; I don’t. Most days I talk to no one on the train. Not even my brother. My perfect commute would be me, in my car, alone. I only trade that away for the cost and sanity savings. Government promoting what it thinks should be my personal happiness is not a public good. Any public policy promoting car pooling to make me “less isolated and healthier” is a failure upon implementation. Liberals and conservatives need to accept this.

Joe Buck could be a Congressman

Sen. Charles Grassley is quite the innovator:

Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, wants the Internal Revenue Service to chase after pimps and sex traffickers with the same fervor it stalked gangster Al Capone for tax evasion.

Grassley, R-Iowa, would hit pimps with fines and lengthy prison sentences for failing to file employment forms and withhold taxes for the women and girls under their command.

The proposal would make certain tax crimes a felony when the money comes from a criminal activity. A one-year prison sentence and $25,000 fine would become a 10-year sentence and $50,000 fine for each employment form that a pimp or sex trafficker fails to file.

Implement a little extra residency in the federal pen, and prostitution ceases. Or pimps start reporting their income and we nab them for being dumb enough to implicate themselves running a prostitution ring. This has the smell of success. Just like drug prohibition with stiffer penalties eliminated drugs, this’ll be quick and effective.

Why is Sen. Grassley so stupid? If he really wants to protect our poor, vulnerable women, he could seek to decriminalize prostitution and, dare I suggest, regulate it? Might that do more to help women working as prostitutes, excuse me, being exploited by evil men, than threatening criminals with extra-super punishment?

I know, I know… think of the children. Why do libertarians hate children so much?

Final word on the flag amendment

The flag amendment is toast. Good riddance, although it’s safe to assume it’ll be back. I’m going to guess 2008. I don’t know why, it just feels like it’s on some strange cycle. Anyway, I thought I’d heard every possible stupid remark going into yesterday’s vote, courtesy of Senators Hatch and Specter. Alas, no:

“All rights enshrined in the Constitution have certain limits,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.). “There is no such thing as unlimited rights. Although we treasure and value our right of free speech . . . we protect our national monuments,” including the flag.

“Congress shall make no law” is pretty ambiguous about limits, I admit. It’s just strange that protecting our national monuments isn’t in the Constitution. And if the flag is a national monument, does it need public restrooms to meet any federal regulations.

In other burning news, James Taranto chimed in to make his partisan point, even though he pretended to be on the side of common sense. What I don’t understand, and he presents a perfect example, is why so many people hate the New York Times as if its publishers are Hell’s army unleashed on us all? I concede that its reporting is often smug, self-important, ideological crap. My response is to avoid it. I rarely link to its stories because I find better, less-biased reporting elsewhere. Free speech with free markets is a sufficient combination for me to mentally handle any real or imagined offense to public sensibility by the New York Times. Why this isn’t enough for those on the right, other than needing a bogeyman to whip up the masses, is a mystery to me. Seriously, get over it.

That said, I’m amused that Mr. Taranto works a defense in yesterday’s Best of the Web Today aimed merely at attacking the New York Times for its editorial against the amendment. I imagine the effort necessary to navigate to his point was tremendous. Actually, probably not. Practice makes perfect, right? I digress. Mr. Taranto quotes the New York Times, writing about the flag amendment:

With the Fourth of July fast approaching, Senate Republicans are holding a barbecue. Unfortunately, instead of grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, they are trying to torch a hole in the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee by passing an amendment to the Constitution that would allow federal and state authorities to punish flag-burning.

Some things should be out of bounds even in a competitive election year. Messing with the Constitution is one of them.

Seems reasonable, but it’s the New York Times. They’re just a bunch of dumb liberals who don’t realize that the rest of America is patriotic enough to love the flag. So what is Mr. Taranto’s snappy retort?

But the ability to amend the Constitution is part of the Constitution. “Messing with the Constitution” also ended slavery, gave blacks and women the vote, and repealed Prohibition. (OK, that last one is a wash.)

In fact, if the First Congress had refrained from “messing with the Constitution” by proposing the Bill of Rights, there would be no First Amendment. Forget flag-burning; if the Times were true to its principles, it would be against free speech altogether!

Haha! He’s poking fun at the literal interpretation of “messing with the Constitution.” Funny, and damn if doesn’t catch them in their logic failure. Conservatives 1,239,938,839, New York Times 0.

Except, everyone understands that the editors at the New York Times did not mean the actual process of amending the Constitution. Congress followed the procedure exactly. Big deal. The anti-flag desecration amendment violated Constitutional principles, which Mr. Taranto clearly knows, unless he’s blinded by his disdain. I doubt it.

Best of the Web Today is hack journalism at its finest.

The Eighth Amendment isn’t on the ballot

This is why I do not like Justice Antonin Scalia as a Supreme Court Justice:

Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation. But with regard to the punishment of death in the current American system, that possibility has been reduced to an insignificant minimum. This explains why those ideologically driven to ferret out and proclaim a mistaken modern execution have not a single verifiable case to point to, whereas it is easy as pie to identify plainly guilty murderers who have been set free. The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment—in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes—outweighs the risk of error. It is no proper part of the business of this Court, or of its Justices, to second-guess that judgment, much less to impugn it before the world, and less still to frustrate it by imposing judicially invented obstacles to its execution.

(concurring opinion in Kansas v. Marsh, 04-1170)

Reprehensible logic. The possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly is indeed a truism. However, when the punishment is death, “reduced to an insignificant minimum” is not acceptable. Executing an innocent man is murder, regardless of how happy the American people are with the derived good. Gleeful retribution is not a derived good. The possibility of a mistake is exactly the reason the government should not have the power to execute a prisoner. Do we still believe in a society where individual rights are protected from the whims of the majority?

Just as disturbing is Justice Scalia’s abdication of judicial responsibility. It’s an accepted position by the Court that capital punishment is Constitutional. But, and this is important, it makes no difference that the people love sending convicted felons to the executioner. The Court’s role is to interpret the Constitution. Interpreting “cruel and unusual” warrants a look, regardless of the outcome, beyond blind deference to mob rule. (Or taking collective joy in thumbing our judicial noses at for’ners.) If it doesn’t, there is no reason to bother with a Constitution.

Reckless disregard of our history

Like many people, I saw the scare tactics masquerading as news this weekend surrounding the New York Times. Fox News ran a story with “Is the New York Times risking American lives,” or some such nonsense. I don’t know enough to go in-depth, but I’m always inclined to side with the First Amendment as a default position. That’s why I found this essay particularly interesting. Instapundit found this section particularly useful, in a bit of “gotcha” mentality to the New York Times, I think. I disagree.

Why does the Times print stories that put America more at risk of attack? They say that these surveillance programs are subject to abuse, but give no reason to believe that this concern is anything but theoretical.

I don’t believe these stories put America more at risk, for the simple reason that I believe anyone who would attack America is (unfortunately) smart enough to assume all of the top secret programs the New York Times writes about. I think that’s a reasonable assumption for anyone interested in winning against the threat we face, rather than winning against the threat we face, as long as the right team does the ass-kicking. I have no time for partisanship in this war. So, I don’t think the New York Times is putting America at more risk of attack. On the contrary, I suspect it will lead to increased preparedness when intelligent people understand that our enemies must be taken seriously. The anti-bigotry of soft expectations, as the case may be.

As such, I find the second sentence in that excerpt more informative. Every bit of the Constitution protects against theoretical future abuses. That civilization had thousands of years to grasp how dangerous government can be when given power, our Constitution is designed to safeguard us from such future excesses. The founders knew that waiting to protect the people from abuses until after the abuse will only encourage abuse. Hence, the Constitution. And the First Amendment.

More thoughts at A Stitch in Haste.

Put down that chainsaw and listen to me

I’ve been away from the Internets over the last 24 hours, so I don’t know whether or not anyone (libertarians especially) is talking about the motorcycle accident involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It seems he may not be licensed. He definitely wasn’t wearing a helmet, which is what I focused on in the news reports.

I can’t fathom why he chose not to wear a helmet when he rode, but Pennsylvania law does not require motorcyclists to wear helmets. I’m fine with not requiring helmets, as a matter of law. It’s not the government’s role to prevent individuals from doing what most of us would consider stupid. Such is the price for liberty. However, like car insurance requirements for automobiles, it seems reasonable to impose expectations upon those who choose to ride. Requiring insurance coverage, both liability and disability, is reasonable.

The likelihood of being seriously hurt on a motorcycle is higher than other modes of transportation. Riding without a helmet is more dangerous than riding with a helmet. I’m intentionally ignoring incentives to ride more aggressively when “protected” by a helmet. It’s not possible to account for that in this space, nor is it necessary. All things equal, the first statement is true. Any change to a remaining variable is the rider’s choice. Riding with a helmet is wise. Yet, I don’t support universal helmet requirements.

When I owned a motorcycle, I always wore full protective gear. Without exception, I wore a full-face helmet, jacket, gloves, long pants, and boots. Only the helmet is required in Virginia, and only the half-shell at that. I also took a motorcycle safety class and earned a valid Class M license in Virginia. The only way to ride safer than I did was to not ride.

I don’t think I’m better than Mr. Roethlisberger because my choices seem safer than his. I evaluated what I had to lose (income, physical ability, life) and compensated as well as I could. I suspect he did the same, although we weighed the risk differently with respect to negative outcomes. He also has significantly more financial strength to meet the risk he assumed. That matters.

Right or wrong, and I bet you’ll see Mr. Roethlisberger wearing a helmet when he resumes riding sometime after his career, those decisions are better made by the individual engaging in the “dangerous” activity than by legislators. Most motorcyclists already have parents who object. If the natural set aren’t sufficient to stop them from riding stupidly, no artificial set in the state house can ever compensate. What’s next, a law requiring the Steelers to include a helmet clause in their contract with Mr. Roethlisberger, since that would be for the “public good” of their fans? Where does it stop?

Freedom must include the freedom to be dumb.

“You made us do it” is bad government

The editors at Opinion Journal hate liberty. I can think of no other explanation to support this statement in today’s editorial on the now-failed marriage amendment:

We remain opposed to federal interference in this issue, believing that issues of family life and law are best settled in state legislatures.

As opposed to the individual’s home? Why? Given the manner in which state legislatures are dealing with this issue, do I trust them to err on the side of individual rights? Of course not. Anyone who doubts that need only look at the mess that Virginia is trying to pass this November.

States have also devised a range of policies for civil partnerships or other legal rights for gay couples. These innovations reflect the reality that most Americans oppose extending the term “marriage” to gays but are open to other legal arrangements.

The marriage debate demonstrates nothing more than naked majoritarianism. The Constitution does not work that way. Denying rights at the state level because the solution is federalist is still a denial of rights. Why should a gay couple care if their oppressor is the United States Congress or the Virginia General Assembly? Either offer the same marriage benefits to every individual or extract marriage from civil government. No individual should have the right to determine, through government, which rights another individual is allowed to possess. He possesses them from birth. The government can only secure or infringe.

This thinking deserves a permanent majority?

I’ve yet to read any of John Stuart Mill’s works, although I intend to tackle them in the future. As such, I can’t cite examples to refute anything in this hack piece from Friday’s Opinion Journal. No matter. The absurdity of Roger Scruton’s argument is sufficient to attack itself. After a perfectly reasonable opening, which provides biographical details of John Stuart Mill’s life, Mr. Scruton continues with this background on counter-arguments against utilitarianism:

According to Mill’s argument, that way of thinking has everything upside down. The law does not exist to uphold majority morality against the individual, but to protect the individual against tyranny–including the “tyranny of the majority.” Of course, if the exercise of individual freedom threatens harm to others, it is legitimate to curtail it–for in such circumstances one person’s gain in freedom is another person’s loss of it. But when there is no proof of harm to another, the law must protect the individual’s right to act and speak as he chooses.

Pretty much. I don’t see how anyone in America could disagree with such a view of individual freedom. The Constitution virtually guarantees as much, accept that it’s been interpreted into near-worthlessness by partisan ideologues more intent on imposing their vision of proper than preserving liberty. I don’t care for that approach, although America is still the best deal going.

This principle has a profound significance: It is saying that the purpose of law is not to uphold the will of the majority, or to impose the will of the sovereign, but to protect the will of the individual. It is the legal expression of the “sovereignty of the individual.” The problem lies in the concept of harm. How can I prove that one person’s action does not harm another? How can I prove, for example, that other people are not harmed by my public criticism of their religious beliefs–beliefs on which they depend for their peace of mind and emotional stability? How can I prove that consensual sex between two adults leaves the rest of us unaffected, when so much of life’s meaning seems to rest on the assumption of shared sexual norms? These questions are as significant for us as they were for Mill; the difference is that radical Islam has now replaced Scottish puritanism as the enemy of liberal values.

Seriously? Is it that hard to understand that the will of the majority or the sovereign can have awful consequences? Or that “harm” isn’t a difficult concept to understand, as pertaining to government’s role? Use the word physical, as should be readily apparent to even the most uninitiated seven-year-old, and the measure of when an individual is about to be (or has been) harmed is clear. Government intervention is not only expected, it becomes vital to a functioning society. That does not include such subjective actions as sexual norms. If one individual can’t stomach the sexual actions of another’s relationship, there is a problem. However, it belongs to the offended, not the offender.

The notion that sexual freedom is somehow analogous to radical Islam is beyond the realm or reason, and deserves to be ridiculed, if not ignored.

Taking “On Liberty” and [“The Principles of Political Economy”] together we find, in fact, a premonition of much that conservatives object to in the modern liberal worldview. The “harm” doctrine of “On Liberty” has been used again and again to subvert those aspects of law which are founded not in policy but in our inherited sense of the sacred and the prohibited. Hence this doctrine has made it impossible for the law to protect the core institutions of society, namely marriage and the family, from the sexual predators. Meanwhile, the statist morality of “Principles” has flowed into the moral vacuum, so that the very same law that refuses to intervene to protect children from pornography will insist that every aspect of our lives be governed by regulations that put the state in charge.

It should be painfully obvious by now that Mr. Scruton is uninterested in liberty, unless your liberty involves making the same choices he’d make. The law should protect marriage and the family from the sexual predators. That is the argument of a man uninterested in reason or intellectual discourse. That is the plea of a man consumed by fear of the unknown.

… to free oneself from moral norms is to surrender to the state. For only the state can manage the ensuing disaster.

Any guesses on who should decide the moral norms?

More thoughts from Andrew Sullivan

Banning the two “F” words

This morning, like every morning, I woke up to Howard Stern. Usually it’s a good way to ease into the day. A few laughs, a little banter, and pop culture references. It’s worth $12.95 per month. Usually.

This morning, I awoke to Stern discussing an article in yesterday’s New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. It’s titled “Killer Girl Scouts”. Lovely, huh? I couldn’t read the article because I don’t waste my money on Times Select, but the one sentence synopsis, “Beware of cute little girls bearing trans fats”, is enough to know I disagree.

Stern offered a summary, with commentary, on the article, and that’s what got me fired up today. From what he said, it’s the same argument that we’re getting fatter, the evil corporations don’t care, our government-financed health care is going bankrupt, and something needs to be done now. The article (apparently) includes an example from Denmark in which the government requires that trans fat be no greater than 2% of a food item. McDonald’s chicken nuggets in Denmark have .33 grams of trans fat, while the same chicken nuggets have 10+ grams of trans fat in America. Outrageous.

So maybe they are trying to kill us, right? The solution, according to Stern? You know what’s coming, don’t you? That’s right. Pass a law. Force companies to limit the trans fat in the food products they sell to us, the unwitting dolts who can’t make conscious, responsible decisions for ourselves. We shouldn’t stop financing health care with public funds to prevent the system from going bankrupt, that would be too obvious. We should outlaw bad food, instead. For a brief moment, I wanted to cancel my subscription.

Again, since it’s not clear, the free market can take care of this “problem”. If a person is responsible for his own health care costs, isn’t he more likely to take care of himself, by his own actions? And if not, why should we care? He’ll pay the higher costs. He can make that rational decision of which is more important, dollars or Thin Mints.

Stern’s next topic made this morning’s discussion especially frustrating. He launched into his commentary about the Senate voting to increase fines for “indecency” on public airwaves. His current stance is motivated by business interests, and I think, a little hope at exposing Congressional hypocrisy. He applauded the Senate’s action, even though he acknowledged that it’s an affront to the Constitution. The increased fines will only help satellite radio, of course.

I see the humor in that, but can’t stand the double standard for freedom that Stern’s dual positions represent. He accepts that the Constitution protects free speech from the whims of Congress, noting that the free market can handle what the public wants and needs. Satellite radio is sufficient proof, although that’s not an excuse to allow Congress to continue its election-year crusade to protect us all. Which is what it comes down to, isn’t it? Protecting us from ourselves.

We’re too sensitive to hear swearing on the radio, so Congress should protect us. We’re too irresponsible to eat our vegetables, so Congress should protect us. Both are symptoms of the same disease. Politicians take their direction from the few who are vocal enough to make their preferences known, regardless of the damage to liberty. Paternalism arrives marketed as leadership. And most of us decide where we stand on each individual issue by determining which we prefer. In Stern’s case, he hates healthy food and loves freedom of speech, regardless of the underlying principles.

Me, I think we should all be vegans, but I love liberty more.

Should I include a “Heh”?

Arnold Kling writes in TCS Daily:

The alternative ideology that I would propose might be called transnational libertarianism. The ideal libertarian world would have no economic borders. There would be no problem of illegal immigration, because all forms of immigration would be legal.

If transnational libertarianism were to become sufficiently popular to emerge as the ideology that determines the world’s institutions, then governments would be local rather than national. Their main role would be to prevent outbreaks of violence among individuals or groups. In the nightclub of life, government would be the bouncer, not the owner or the manager or the dance instructor or the disk jockey.

I don’t imagine it happening in my lifetime, but I can hope. Read the whole thing.