Bernie’s Avengers

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Situated at the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic Johnie’s Coffee Shop was where Mr. Pink plotted a diamond heist in Reservoir Dogs and where Walter offered to obtain The Dude a toe in The Big Lebowski. But it has never witnessed malfeasance like the villainy that has unfolded there over the last few weeks. Johnie’s has been converted into a hub of unregulated advocacy for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

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The Right to Privacy Is a Threat to Liberty

The New York Times recently reported that in 2006 a German executive at Volkswagen gave a presentation on how the company’s cars could evade emissions tests.  Who was the German executive at the root of a scandal that will cost VW shareholders tens of billions? The New York Times stated that it could not identify him or her because of German privacy laws.

This example nicely illustrates how privacy laws undermine liberty. Their direct harm to liberty is clear. Because of fear of liability in Germany, the New York Times cannot exercise its free speech rights in the United States to name a key executive in a story about one of the most important business scandals of the decade.

The harm to society is clear as well. Executives in companies (and officials in government) are likely to behave better if they fear exposure. Indeed, privacy laws will reduce the number of investigate reporters trying to uncover malfeasance. Newspapers are naturally more interested in running stories where names are attached than stories about faceless executives or bureaucrats, because they are more likely to interest readers.

But the laws also impose more indirect, but pervasive costs to liberty. By reducing the power of private social norms to restrain bad behavior, they make a more intrusive state necessary. The less civil society governs itself by decentralized, informal means, such as by circulating information, the more there will be a need for the heavy handed enforcement mechanisms of a top-down bureaucracy.

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Trump and PC Leaders: Peas in a Pod

Donald Trump and the new campus political correctness movement have a lot in common. Both want to create safe spaces where people fear no challenge from the exercise of others’ liberties. In the case of the campus PC movement, their disdain for freedom is obvious. They want to stop others from saying things that may offend them or undermine their world view. But the modern university grows out the enlightenment, which of course gave much offense to aristocrats, priests, and various other purveyors of received wisdom. Illiberal political correctness is thus at war with the classical liberal ideas on which our universities are founded.

Donald Trump also wants to create safe spaces for people who do not want to be challenged by the liberty of others. This self-proclaimed master of the art of the deal is no friend of making markets more open.  He opposes free trade agreements that would let our citizens and those of other nations make more mutually beneficial deals. He also promises literally to build a fence around America. To be sure, there is a national security threat to the United States from radical Islamic terrorism. But Trump’s proposals to ban Muslim immigration is at once excessive and ineffective. Why couldn’t jihadis simply pretend to be Middle Eastern Christians? Trump’s proposal is better understood as an attempt to insulate America from religious ideas that many disdain. His illiberal program is at war with America’s freedom.

The safe spaces offered by Trump and the PC movement lure people inside for similar reasons.

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Shut up! They Said

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Leading up to Justice Kennedy’s fateful 5-4 decision, there was plenty of debate on both sides, and the proponents of same-sex marriage emphasized that they just wanted to be treated the same as heterosexual couples.  They even coined the deceptively simple slogan, “Marriage Equality.”  That was then.

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The Politically Correct Should Not Own Graduation

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Graduation season is well underway. With all the excitement and regalia of the annual event, it might be easy to overlook the commencement address, an American tradition as old as the graduation ceremony itself. These addresses—and, in particular, the speakers invited by high schools and colleges to deliver them—have at this point become a regular source of controversy, protest, and even, on occasion, borderline violence.

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Putin’s Russia: A Conversation with Karen Dawisha

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If there was any hope left that a Putin-led Russia might still transition to a democracy with a stable rule of law and truly independent civil society, Karen Dawisha’s Hayek Book Prize nominated Putin’s Kleptocracy would seem to have squashed it. Indeed, Dawisha argues that Putin basically rules through and with a criminal conspiracy whose goals are to “control privatization, restrict democracy, and return to Russia to Great Power (if not superpower) status.” She cites as powerful evidence the penalties imposed by the United States in April 2014 following the Russian invasion of Crimea. The American government didn’t primarily target…

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Free Speech is not a Vanity

In March the Supreme Court will hear a case in which a Texas group is appealing the state’s refusal to style vanity license plates that include an image of the Confederate flag.  The plaintiff’s argument rests on First Amendment rights:  because Texas allows other citizens to choose images for license plates, the state is violating the right to free speech by suppressing this group’s preference.   Another license plate case is being hammered out in the lower courts in North Carolina. There the ACLU is suing on behalf of a plaintiff who wants a pro-abortion vanity license plate, given that the state permits pro-life licenses.

One might think that these cases should be decided the same way, but Corey Brettschneider and Nelson Tebbe suggest otherwise in a characteristically thoughtful oped in The New York Times.  The authors argue that messages on license plates are a mixture of private and public speech.  Thus the Court should balance the private interest in free expression with the public interest in permitting the government to control its own messages.  They conclude that Texas can suppress the vanity plate bearing an image of  the Confederate flag but that North Carolina must permit the pro-choice sentiment because the Confederate flag is a symbol contrary to the constitutional values of equal protection of the law, while pro-abortion sentiments endorse a legally guaranteed constitutional right.

I respectfully disagree.  Although the government has no obligation to provide the opportunity for messages on vanity plates (and if I were a legislator, I would not vote to have them), it should not discriminate among messages based on their content once it opens up this space.  

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Flemming Rose on the Aftermath of the Mohammed Cartoon Crisis

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This next podcast is with the Danish journalist Flemming Rose, foreign news editor at Jyllands-Posten, on the controversy he ignited in 2005 when he published cartoons satirizing the prophet Mohammed. His new book, The Tyranny of Silence, offers his reflections on the conflagration that ensued, including a jihadist’s attempt to murder one of the cartoonists with an axe. Rose received the protection of Danish security services after threats were made on his life. Not bowing to intimidation, Rose has spent the last decade highlighting the dangers of foregoing a commitment to freedom of speech. Our interview delves into these experiences…

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Talked to Death

Recently, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the appeal of a man convicted and sentenced to a one-year prison term for having aided the suicides of two depressed people through advice and encouragement he had offered them over the Internet.

The grounds on which the appellant successfully challenged his conviction were that the statute under which he had been prosecuted and convicted — and which proscribed ‘encouraging, advising or assisting another in committing suicide’ — violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

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Elane Photography is a Bad Vehicle For Religious Liberty Case (Post Updated)

Update 3/23/14: I mistakenly assumed that petitioners appealed the Free Speech and Free Exercise clause. I now see that they only appealed the compelled speech issue. Here is the only question presented:

Whether applying a state public-accommodations statute to require a photographer to create expressive images and picture-books conveying messages that conflict with her religious beliefs violates the First Amendment’s ban on compelled speech.

Of course the Justices can also grant the Free Exercise issue, even though it was not mentioned in the Cert petition. I’ll leave the remainder of the post as is.

 

Currently pending before the Supreme Court is the certiorari petition in Elane Photography v. Willock, which involves a case where a photographer refused to photograph a same-sex civil commitment ceremony.  While much of the attention to this case focuses on religious liberty, Eugene Volokh and Ilya Shapiro have a great Op-Ed arguing that forcing Elane to photograph a same-sex wedding, against her wishes, would not only implicate religious liberty, but free expression. They would be forcing her to speak–or more precisely create art in the form of photographs:

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