Why Government Fails When It Succeeds

It’s good to be back to blogging. For a warm-up bear with me through a family saga: it may be funny, for you. And there may be a point.

A late uncle of mine (let’s call him “Bruno”) died in 2013. I know little of him except that my mother, then 13 years of age, dragged him (then age 3 or 4) through the Hamburg firestorms in 1943. I met him once—at my grandmother’s funeral, where they had really good food. From various conversations that I did not follow at the time (the 1960s) and cannot now recollect, I understand that my mother and aunt bailed Bruno out of trouble at various times over the decades. His life was fully European—aimless, on public support, and fruitless (so far as we know). It’s a very sad story.

Having been informed of Bruno’s death, we all (with an exception noted below) promptly renounced the inheritance by means of a notarized declaration. The guy can’t own anything except debts, probably including colossal debts to the German government for late-life care: who wants that? But that clever maneuver has come a cropper.

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Another Government Failure

One of the central issues for small government people, such as classical liberals, libertarians, and many conservatives, is government failure.  While the standard arguments for big government purport to identify market failures that justify government intervention, small government people emphasize government failure.  For small government people, the government regularly engages in activities that constitute government failure.  The government program does bad things, causing harmful results or producing beneficial results, but at excessive costs.

Ordinary Democratic voters and many Republican voters see government agencies as basically doing a good job.  When they see the FDA, many people simply picture an agency that protects us from unsafe and ineffective drugs.  Many other people, while more skeptical, still see the FDA as basically doing good, even if at times it makes mistakes or pursues inappropriate policies.  It is the rare person who sees the FDA as fundamentally misconceived, as requiring a radical restructuring where it has far less coercive power and is much more of a certifier than a regulator.  

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Does This Government Deserve Continuity?

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A Justice Department attorney casually remarked to Judicial Watch’s president Tom Fitton that the “Lois Lerner e-mails” that provide crucial evidence of the U.S. government’s effort to suppress conservative political activity probably survived efforts to destroy them because “the federal government backs up all computer records to ensure the continuity of government in event of a catastrophe.”

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The New Old Nobility

Aristocrats in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries held tradesmen in contempt.  Although aristocrats recognized that businessmen (and they were almost entirely men) provided a few useful services, they also saw merchants as money grubbers who lacked both an appreciation for the higher things in life and insight into the rural lower class that lived near aristocratic estates. As a result there was general agreement among the high born that the business class should not enjoy an equal share in setting the political and social norms of the nation.

Aristocrats tried to enforce the distinction between themselves and those in trade in various ways. The Court around the monarch was their preserve.  The families of peers married largely among themselves. They jealously guarded the prerogatives of the House of Lords. And they believed all such exclusions were in the interest of the nobility of the nation, not just the nobles themselves.

When academics and the press write in favor of regulating campaign contributions and outside expenditures, they remind me of nothing so much that attitude of the nobility of Old England.

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A Cheer or a Bronx Cheer for the Fed?

Federal-Reserve-BuildingIn the financial crisis of 2007 through 2009, the Federal Reserve expanded its balance sheet to finance the bust, just as intended by its legislative fathers of a century ago. They did not, of course, intend for their creation to have stoked the housing bubble in the first place. This dramatic action to make up for its own mistakes was not a first—recall the Fed’s celebrated anti-inflation strategy of the early 1980s, a reaction to its 1970s blunders that had created the Great Inflation of that previous time.

The latest crisis has been over for five years, but the Fed’s balance sheet is more bloated than ever. Its much-discussed “taper” only slowed down the rate of bloating.

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The Drafters and the Ratifiers

It is sometimes said that the ratifiers of the Constitution should count more in determining its original meaning than the drafters.  I am not so sure. To begin with, this distinguishing between the drafters and the ratifiers appears to turn on an original intent (versus an original public meaning) understanding of originalism.  Under an original public meaning apprach, it is the meaning that a reasonable and knowledgeable person would give to the Constitution.  And that meaning is no more likely to be that of the ratifiers than the drafters. But some people favor the original intent approach.  Yet, even under this approach,…

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The Very Definition of Tyranny

federalIt is a close contest which recent assertion of executive authority crowns the rest, but the Administration’s potential skirting of the Senate’s treaty power in negotiating an international agreement on climate change ranks high in the running. The Constitution’s explicit partnering of the Presidency and the Senate in binding the nation in global agreements, combined with the two-thirds majority needed in the upper chamber of Congress to affirm them, points to the unique dangers of cutting one institution out of the process. President Obama is not the first to do this.

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The Conflict between Obama’s Immigration and Economic Policies

President Obama would like to legalize the vast majority of immigrants who came into this nation illegally. Indeed, his commitment is so strong that he appears to be considering suspending deportation and giving work authorization to a large number of them this fall. But the President’s immigration policy is in tension with his economic policy.  Labor market restrictions and other burdens on companies – imposed and proposed – make it less likely that these immigrants, most of whom are relatively unskilled, will be able to find steady work.  As a result, they are less likely to be assimilated into American society—a harmful result not only for immigrants but also for the rest of us.

For instance, raising the minimum wage makes it harder for the least skilled workers to find jobs, particularly in age when it is increasingly possible to substitute technology for unskilled labor. The President’s advocacy of a much higher national minimum wage is especially harmful.  Many of the immigrants live in low cost jurisdictions, like Texas, where the distorting effects of a high minimum wage are the likely to be greatest.  The disproportionate effect on low-cost-of-living states is no accident. The President was elected largely by states with higher costs of living, where the additional costs often stem from onerous regulations.  These states want a national minimum wage to stem competition from lower cost jurisdictions.

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Hobby Lobby without God

Ronald Dworkin’s posthumously published Religion without God could instead have been called Law without Religion.

The book is founded in a great hope: that religious believers can be persuaded that they have more in common with atheists than they may think, and vice versa. Dworkin believes that “the zealots have great political power in America now” and that “militant atheism” is “politically inert” (though it is, he adds, “a great commercial success”!).

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Heroes of the Right of Self-Defense

My last post ended by asking: where is the outrage at the disparagement of the struggle and sacrifice that the first generation of Black citizens made to vindicate their right to arms? The question was rhetorical, meant to emphasize how casually former Justice John Paul Stevens and Michael Waldman turn a blind eye to one of the foundational episodes in the story of Black Americans.

The tack taken by Stevens and Waldman is all too familiar. It takes for granted that some people more than others are allowed to play rough on the field of race.

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