Mutable ACLU v. Immovable Cato

The ACLU has modified over the last decade two important positions on civil liberties. Historically its position had been that limiting contributions to political campaigns was unconstitutional. In 2010 it shifted to support “reasonable” limits on contributions to political campaigns.  Strikingly, the ACLU in 2013 then failed to file any brief at all in McCutcheon v. FEC, which challenged aggregate limits on contributions. These limits prevented citizens from expressing support for individual candidates, even when those individual contributions were of modest size.

Second, in 1993 ACLU President  Nadine Strossen enthusiastically supported the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Later the ACLU, as David Bernstein reported, continued to support legal exemptions for reasons of religious conscience, but opposed subsequent bills providing for across-the-board exemptions  because of fear that they would interfere with anti-discrimination laws.  The ACLU today supports the bill to override the Hobby Lobby even though the  decision did not involve an anti-discrimination law.

In contrast, CATO, the premier libertarian think-tank, has been relentlessly consistent in its views on domestic policy, opposing infringements on both civil rights and property rights alike. The consistency has continued despite some unfortunate recent squabbles about the structure of its leadership.

The difference between the mutability of ACLU and the constancy of Cato underscores important truths about both the nature of liberty and politics.

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Breaking the Chains of Ignorance and Despotism

Political rhetoric does more than simply convey partisan messages.  It can also provide insight into changing conceptions of the relationship between the citizen and government, the ruled and the rulers.

So, for example, in its 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress did not just lay out its case for seceding from the British Empire.  Rather, it claimed that God had endowed men with certain inalienable rights, famously including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  It also envisioned the citizenry as ultimately in a position of mastery over its government.  When government ceased to serve their purposes, Congress claimed, “It is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

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