Huemer on Strengthening the Chains of the Constitution

Michael Huemer
If American government was to be bound by the “chains of the Constitution,” then surely those chains have loosened if not snapped. Michael Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has some ideas for how to tighten those chains. He discussed these ideas July 13 at an event hosted by Liberty On the Rocks, Flatirons.

Huemer observes that structural and procedural Constitutional provisions (regarding how government functions) tend to be taken more seriously than are substantive Constitutional provisions (regarding what government may and may not do). So his ideas focus on changing government structures and procedures in the hopes of indirectly altering the substance of what government does.

He offers three main proposals. First, new legislation should require a two-thirds vote by Congress. Second, “there should be a negative legislature that has the power only of repealing laws.” Third, besides the Supreme Court, there should be a new Constitutional Court, “where the cases are decided by a jury of citizens,” that can initiate Constitutional review and that can mete out punishments to elected officials who violate the Constitution.

Generally I regard these as excellent ideas.

Huemer did an especially good job of explaining why the default should be for government to take no action—the opposite of today’s presumption. Government action, he stressed, involves coercing people. In general, he argued, it’s better to not coerce someone, even if coercion might be justified in a given case, than it is to coerce someone unjustly.

Huemer likened modern government to a Medieval doctor. Society, like the human body, is enormously complex, and making a random change to it is more likely to do harm than good. Medieval doctors were more likely to harm their patients than to help them, Huemer noted, and, similarly, government actors are more likely to do harm than good. Thus, he concluded, it’s good to move the default closer to government taking no action via the institutional changes he suggests. (Huemer offered many additional arguments to buttress his case; for these I’ll point individuals to the video of his presentation.)

I think Huemer went off track only a few times. The most important example is his treatment of the separation of powers. True, as he noted, different government institutions very often support rather than oppose each other. But that does not change the fact that the separation of powers, instituted not only in the tripartite federal government but in federal-state divisions and in representational elections, very often stops or slows the imposition of bad government policies. For example, the Supreme Court threw out much of FDR’s New Deal, and more recently it threw out censorship of political speech via the Citizens United decision.

Huemer errs in this matter largely because he assumes government entities generally seek to expand their own power. True, they often do. But very often government actors are driven by ideological convictions, not (or not only) by a lust for personal power. Because people in different government entities  are motivated by ideological convictions (to a lesser or greater degree), the separation of powers works somewhat better than Huemer thinks.

Another problem with Heumer’s presentation is that his idea of a “negative legislature” needs a lot more development to be viable. It would be a straight-forward fix if it were the case that new laws always expand government powers on net, while repeals of laws always reduce them. But that’s not the case. New laws very often curtail government powers made possible by preexisting laws. For example, federal civil rights laws preempted state-level discrimination laws—and that was a pro-liberty development. In Colorado a few years back, new legislation curtailed the power of police to seize property through asset forfeiture. To make matters more complex, generally old statutory language is removed via the passage of a new bill. So it’s not clear whether a “negative legislature,” unless its scope were very clearly and appropriately defined, would on net act to expand or reduce government power.

Huemer also suggested that he supports anarchy over limited government; he did not get into that issue during his talk, so I won’t get into it here. I’ll have more to say against anarchy later.

In all, Huemer’s talk is well worth watching. It is an excellent example of how an academic can make rigorous arguments to a popular audience. Academics should interact with the thinking public, and vice versa—as such provides checks and balances within American intellectual discourse.


Why Not Send All Colorado Bills to a Floor Vote?

Colorado Capitol
Greg O’Beirne

Yesterday I waded into the middle of the conflict between Rocky Mountain Gun Owners RMGO and the Independence Institute regarding strategy over gun magazine restrictions. (This morning Mandy Connell discussed my article on KHOW, and Dudley Brown called in to explain his position.) Related, yesterday RMGO* also tried a bizarre procedural move to force a floor vote of the bill to repeal the magazine restrictions.

The leftist ColoradoPols has a write-up about this. According to a Democratic media release it quotes, “Rep. Everett moved to amend the journal to overturn the work of the committee and show that SB15-175 passed.” That is certainly an, uh, interesting tactic. Obviously if a Democrat tried that with Republican leadership, Republicans would explode in anger. (I’ve emailed Everett about this and will update this article if he replies.)*

But, RMGO* antics aside, the episode gave me an idea: Why not send all bills to a floor-wide vote? The legislature would still have committees, and the committees would still hear testimony. But, rather than vote a bill up or down, a committee would offer a recommendation on a bill and send it on to the entire body for a vote.

The idea behind the committee vote, presumably, is that a small group of legislators can specialize in a certain area and weed out the unworthy bills. But, in practice, legislative leadership routinely use committees to kill bills they don’t like. Certain committees are informally known as “kill committees”; they are where leadership sends bills so that their reliable colleagues in safe seats can vote them down. Yes, committees hear testimony, but in many or most cases this testimony is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the bill: Often legislators know how they will vote, and how each of the other committee members will vote, before the hearing even starts.

One purpose of “kill committees” is to shield other members of the leadership’s party from having to take uncomfortable positions on controversial topics. This is good for the party in power, but it is bad for constituents, and it is bad for the democratic process. (I’m not a democrat, but I do see value in citizen oversight of government.)

Of course, if every bill were brought to a floor vote, each legislator would have to vote on many more bills than is currently the case. I regard that as a benefit of the plan, not a bug. It might discourage legislators from introducing so damn many bills.

If this plan were implemented, it might also make sense to change how floor votes are conducted. Here is one possibility: Once a bill made it through committee, legislators could register their vote for a bill whenever they wanted. They could vote yes, no, or abstain. Once every legislator cast a vote, the bill would be declared passed or failed. If, by the end of the session, a legislator had not cast a vote, his vote would be “abstain” by default.

At this point, my proposal is preliminary. I’d want to learn some additional facts before committing to it, including these: Is this done in any other state government? [April 20 Update: Paul Jacob tells me that New Hampshire does this. Rob Natelson tells me North Dakota does, too.] Is there any consequence to the system I’m not foreseeing? Would this require a citizens’ initiative to implement? Offhand, though, putting every bill to a floor vote seems like a great idea.

April 20 Update: This plan is compatible with floor debate for each vote. Then voting would start at the end of the floor debate. Also, I’m not sure how the legislature works now on this issue, but it seems to me that a bill should pass only if a majority plus one vote to pass it, counting all the “abstain” votes. Another variant: Rather than send all bills to the floor, committees could rule, unless a third (plus one) of a body’s members called for a floor vote, in which case a bill would go to the floor even if the committee voted no.

* April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett emailed me and stated that, contrary to the claims of ColoradoPols, “RMGO wasn’t involved” in the floor action. (RMGO PAC endorsed Everett last year.) He further states “it was a legit way to get the mag ban to the floor.” April 18 Update: RMGO’s Dudley Brown, however, explicitly claims participation in the legislative move.

Perry Indictment “Irresponsible and Nakedly Political”

Image: Gage Skidmore
Image: Gage Skidmore
Scott Lemieux, writing for the Week, reaching a similar conclusion to the indictment of Texas governor Rick Perry that I and others have reached: “The basis for the indictment is exceptionally weak, and reflects a disturbing trend towards criminalizing garden-variety political actions. . . . The indictment . . . is irresponsible and nakedly political.” Lemieux observes the obvious fact that part of a governor’s legitimate powers is to veto legislation.


The “Unbelievably Ridiculous” Indictment of Rick Perry

Image: Gage Skidmore
Image: Gage Skidmore

Recently I wrote, “It seems to me that Perry has been indicted for acting on his authority as governor.” The alleged problem is that Perry vetoed legislation funding a bureaucracy—something fully within his legitimate powers as governor. I have seen nothing to alter my view that the indictment of Perry is absurd, unjust, and politically malicious.  Jonathan Chait has a similar view: “The theory behind the indictment is flexible enough that almost any kind of political conflict could be defined as a ‘misuse’ of power or ‘coercion’ of one’s opponents. To describe the indictment as ‘frivolous’ gives it far more credence than it deserves.” The headline calls the indictment “unbelievably ridiculous.” Hopefully Texas courts will toss this monstrosity promptly.

Perry Indicted for Being Governor

Image: Gage Skidmore
Image: Gage Skidmore

What’s going on in Texas? Fox News reports that Governor Rick Perry was indicted after he “threatened to veto $7.5 million over two years for the public integrity unit, which is run by Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s office. The governor wanted Lehmberg, a Democrat, to resign after she was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken driving in April 2013. When she refused, Perry vetoed the money.” So, in other words, Perry, the governor, whose job entails signing and vetoing legislation, vetoed legislation funding a “public integrity unit” run by a drunk driver. I have very little idea what this “public integrity unit” does, but might it be a reasonable guess that the best person to run it isn’t someone who admitted to drunk driving? It seems to me that Perry has been indicted for acting on his authority as governor. (I only wish we Coloradans could indict John Hickenlooper for not using his veto power nearly often enough.) This indictment seems totally bizarre to me. But this is only my initial reaction; perhaps I’m missing some nuance of the case and, on further evaluation of the evidence, I’ll reach a different conclusion—but I can’t imagine why I might. For reference, here’s the indictment and the (brief) response of Perry’s attorney. The New York Times also has a report.

Fast Buses Beat Rail

Image: Complete Colorado
Image: Complete Colorado
In a new op-ed for Complete Colorado, Randal O’Toole argues that governments that run transportation systems should build rapid-bus lines rather than rail lines. Rail is expensive, and rail lines serve only particular routes. He concludes, “Transit agencies that want to build-light rail are wasting their taxpayers’ money. Cities that haven’t yet built light-rail should plan rapid-buses instead. Cities that have light rail should expand their systems with rapid buses and plan to replace the rail lines when they wear out with more efficient buses.” Someday I hope to write an in-depth essay about the history and theory of government-run transportation systems and their free-market alternative.

One in Six U.S. Jobs Are in Government

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As Rani Molla reports for the Wall Street Journal, “Nearly 1 in 6 jobs in the U.S. are working for the government, more than any single private industry.” Put another way, every government employee is supported by only five people working in the private economy. In California, nearly 2.3 million people work for government—more than the entire populations of over a dozen states. In Colorado, the figure is 383,646. The number of government workers per 1,000 people ranges from 52 in Nevada to 114 in Wyoming.

What’s the trend? The National Bureau of Economic Research reports, “In 1900, one out of 24 workers was on a government payroll, in 1920, one out of 15, and in 1940, one out of 11. The [1949] ratio . . . is one out of 8 or 9.”

Over the last dozen decades or so, Americans fundamentally rethought their relationship with government. I suggest we should fundamentally revisit that relationship again.

August 7 Update: As Rani Molla points out in a follow-up for the Journal, “the percentage of government jobs out of all nonfarm jobs has actually dropped significantly from its peak in 1975 of 20%.”

The Obama Administration’s Contempt for Congress and the American People

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The NSA spies on the American public. The CIA spies on Congress—the American public’s elected officials. The IRS targets select groups for “special treatment” based on their political views. Some days, if feels like we don’t even live in America anymore. In his article about the CIA for USA Today, Glenn Reynolds writes: “Contempt for Congress, and for separation of powers and historical understandings about the roles of the executive and legislative branches, has been a hallmark of the Obama administration.” Is it still possible to turn this ship around?

U.S. Bureaucrats Watch TV and Porn at Taxpayer Expense

Image: Jeremy Keith
Image: Jeremy Keith

An employee of the Federal Communications Commission watched a day’s worth of porn every week “out of boredom,” reports Bonnie Kristian for the Week. Meanwhile, “paralegals at the U.S. Patent and Trademark office were paid salaries as high as $80,000 per year, with $3,500 annual bonuses, while spending their days watching TV and doing the dishes at home, with the full knowledge of their supervisors,” Kristian reports. See the reports by the Washington Times and the Washington Post for details. Meanwhile, Watchdog Wire dings Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet for requesting new field offices for the patent office, a move that apparently would allow even more bureaucrats can screw off at taxpayers’ expense. (Hat tip to Complete Colorado.) So long as the FCC exists, it’s probably better that their bureaucrats are wasting time rather than harassing Americans. Offhand I can think of no legitimate reason for the FCC to exist. But doesn’t the patent office have important work to do, protecting people’s intellectual property?

Udall Calls for Resignation of CIA Director Brennan

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Today Colorado Senator Mark Udall “demanded the resignation of CIA Director John Brennan in response to a new watchdog report that concluded that CIA officers improperly accessed computer files and records used by the Senate Intelligence Committee,” the Denver Post reports (hat tip to Complete Colorado). See also CNN’s report. This might be the only issue on which I’ve agreed with Udall lately, but it’s an important one. A federal agency spying on Congress? Outrageous. My main remaining question is why the agents in question are not now sitting in a prison cell, or at least awaiting their criminal trial.

The Debate Over Public Choice Misdefines “Self Interest” and “Public Interest”

Gordon TullockAre political actors (politicians, voters, and bureaucrats) motivated by “self interest” or “public interest?” That is the central question as it is posed in the academic debate over the Public Choice school of economics. However, it is the wrong question.

Public Choice economists and their critics agree that, at least sometimes, political actors pursue financial gain and power at the expense of others, and obviously that is true. To take a few examples, recall the Youtube video in which a woman recites her reasons for supporting Barack Obama: “I won’t have to work [to] put gas in my car, I won’t have to work [to] pay my mortgage.” Does anyone doubt that political actions over the last few years to expand food stamps, expand unemployment benefits, increase subsidies for students loans, bail out auto unions, subsidize solar and wind companies, and expand Medicare coverage were calculated to gain political support? The typical member of congress today sees it as his primary responsibility to bring home the pork to (select voters within) his district.

The problem lies in describing the issue as “self interest” versus “public interest.” Before addressing that issue, though, let us first look in more detail at the debate surrounding Public Choice.

In his book Government Failure, Gordon Tullock (one of the founders of Public Choice) describes what he sees as the problem with the traditional view of politics, as well as his alternative:

Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century, economists assumed that individuals are primarily concerned with their own interest and worked out the consequences of that assumption. In contrast, during this same period political science largely assumed that political actors are mainly concerned with the public interest. . . .

Economists changed this bifurcated view of human behavior by developing the theory of public choice, which amounts, in essence, to transplanting the general analytical framework of economics into political science. The statement that the voter in the voting booth is the same person as the customer in the supermarket does not seem radical, but it is nevertheless a very dramatic change from the political science literature. (pp. 4–5)

While Tullock grants that political actors do not necessarily act in a “self interested” way (as he uses the term), he thinks they ordinarily do:

Of course, empirical confirmation of any theoretical proposition is more important than analytical elegance. When considering the behavior of any individual politician, most people realize that the politician behaves in a self-interested way; similarly, when considering the factors that affect votes, most people assume that personal gain is certainly an aspect. (p. 6)

The critics of Public Choice, on the other hand, argue that political actors tend to act in the “public interest.” Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, describes the debate in the Winter-Spring 1995 issue (Vol. 9, Nos. 1–2) of his journal:

[A] distinction should be drawn between two terms that are often used imprecisely or synonymously: rational choice and public choice. One understanding of the difference holds that public choice theory applies economic analysis to political (i.e., “public”) decision making, while rational choice theory goes even farther, applying economics to other nonmarket realms, such as family life. This distinction, to adopt John Ferejohn’s [citation omitted] terminology, attributes to both public and rational choice theory a “thin” understanding of the economists’ rationality postulate: individuals are assumed to have only the inclination to satisfy their stable and ordered preferences, whether these are selfish or not. But outside the academy, public choice theory has a decidedly “thick” connotation, referring to the alleged propensity of political actors to pursue their material self-interest. . . .

Like most important ideas . . . public choice theory is liable to polemical oversimplification. The main danger is that the possibility that people are as self-interested in their political as their economic behavior may be treated as the assumption that self-interest is always and everywhere the real fountainhead of politics. . . .

[T]he effort of comparing public choice hypotheses against alternatives frequently falls to non-public choice scholars. One such effort is Leif Lewin’s Self-Interest and Public Interest in Western Democracies, published by Oxford University Press in 1991. Reviewing in detail the empirical literature on a variety of public choice claims—almost all of which was written by non-public choice researchers—Lewin found that in no case does public choice theory withstand scrutiny as a general hypothesis about the ubiquity of self-interest in politics. (pp. 1–3)

Friedman goes on to explain that, according to Lewin’s findings, voters tend to select politicians they deem “likeliest to benefit the economy of their society as a whole,” and bureaucrats too frequently act outside the boundaries of what the Public Choicers predict for them (pp. 3–4).

Notably, a recent issue of Critical Review (Vol. 23, No. 3 from 2011) explores Lewin’s work in more detail, featuring an essay by Lewin himself.

Lewin writes that, today, even many Public Choicers agree “that voters, politicians, and bureaucrats are much more public spirited than public-choice theorists originally maintained” (p. 361). However, Lewin acknowledges the problem of interest groups in politics. He writes, “[I]t is hardly unexpected that people pursue their self-interest when they enroll in interest groups. That is the whole rationale for membership.”

Public Choice economists and their critics, then, agree that sometimes political actors act in their “self interest” and sometimes in the “public interest.” They disagree over how prevalent one is over the other.

The huge problem with this debate is that neither of the sides presented offers a coherent definition of “self interest” or “public interest.”

As the scholars quoted above use the term, “self interest” applies to political practices of taking others’ wealth by force, forcibly blocking or harming competitors, gaining special political favors, and the like. The opposite of “self interest,” goes this line of thinking, is “public interest,” which means acting for the general well-being of society as a whole. Neither of those definitions withstands scrutiny.

Begin with “self interest.” One’s actual, long-term, selfish interests consist substantially in achieving and supporting a government that protects individual rights, not one that forcibly transfers wealth and doles out favors. It is only within a rights-respecting society that an individual is free to act consistently for his own purposes and in accordance with his own, unhindered judgment. If one holds that the “public interest” consists in establishing a rights-protecting government—the only sensible use of the term—then there is no clash between pursuing the “public interest” and pursuing one’s “self interest,” properly conceived.

With the sloppy treatment of “public interest” within the debate over Public Choice theory, however, the “public interest” can be conceived in any number of contradictory ways, ranging from the American Founders’ support for a rights-respecting government to the communists’ support for collectivism and mass slavery. What matters is the content of one’s ideology, and referring to some undefined “public interest” only obfuscates that issue.

History shows that what we have to fear are not primarily the petty politicians who act to advance their narrow interests of wealth and power by abusing their positions, as annoying and destructive as they are. What we should fear are those politicians who sincerely act in the “public interest” conceived apart from individual rights—and who stop at nothing to achieve it.

Image of Gordon Tulluck: Mercatus Center

What Skeptics and Conservatives Can Learn from Each Other

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published May 11 by Grand Junction Free Press.

What do skeptics from Denver and conservatives from the Heritage Foundation have in common? More than you might initially guess.

We suppose Ari is one of the few people to have attended both a Heritage event and a Skepticamp (a day filled with talks critical of mysticism and the paranormal). He may be the only one to have done so on back-to-back weekends.

During the last weekend of April, Heritage sponsored a two-day event in Colorado Springs for free-market activists. On May 5, Denver-area skeptics organized a Skepticamp in Parker. Ari attended both events, and the juxtaposition of ideas merits some discussion.

Of course the huge disagreement between the conservatives and the skeptics concerns the reasonableness of believing in a supernatural entity. Most of those who attended the Heritage event believe in the Christian God. Probably everyone at Skepticamp, on the other hand, believes that no god exists, and that neither the evidence nor any rational argument supports a belief in God’s existence.

That is a huge debate, and one’s beliefs on the matter impact one’s entire worldview. By the time people reach adulthood, they usually settle their beliefs on the matter; we doubt that anyone who attended either event will seriously consider changing positions.

While we cannot understate the importance of the debate over God’s existence, nevertheless beyond that issue many conservatives share much in common with many skeptics. And we think the similarities are just as interesting.

We hope the skeptics would have been impressed by much of what Heritage historian Matthew Spalding had to say. Spalding sees America’s founding as rooted in the Enlightenment, a movement that recognized the power of human reason to advance science and governments. Spalding described the core principles of America—equality under the law, a recognition of the facts of human nature, and government rooted in the consent of the governed—and argued that everyone, whether pagan or Christian, can discover these truths through reason.

True, skeptics would disagree with Spalding’s view that “reason and revelation agree” about such things. Nevertheless, Spalding resisted the views of some that American principles flow only from the Christian tradition. Spalding pointed out that the Constitution is not a sectarian document, and that Jefferson and other Founders drew on the ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, and other pre-Christian thinkers.

Spalding also spoke about the profound importance of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, ideals many skeptics also support. For example, Spalding praised George Washington’s “Letter to the Jews of Newport,” written early in the great man’s term as president.

Washington wrote, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”

We are proud to call ourselves liberals in this Washingtonian tradition. And both conservatives and skeptics who follow Washington in supporting freedom of conscience are to that degree liberals in the truest sense.

Many skeptics could learn a thing or two from Spalding about the profound importance of economic liberty. While skeptics claim to be critical thinkers, some unthinkingly embrace leftist political goals emanating from the disturbed mind of Karl Marx and the so-called “Progressive” movement that he inspired. To take but one example, some skeptics seemed to support censorship of political speech by individuals interacting voluntarily in groups (“corporations”).

Spalding spoke eloquently of the Founders’ respect for property rights, economic liberty, and the rule of law that protects equality under the law, not “equality” of resources that others produce. As Spalding argued, such liberties flow from natural facts about people and the use of reason to recognize those facts and their proper political implementation.

Unfortunately, sometimes skeptics and American Christians make a comparable error. Some skeptics see the cause of economic liberty as bound up with the religious right and reject both. Some Christians think that the problem with Communism was its atheism, rather than its reliance on a secularized version of religion that treats the collective as a mystical superentity. Capitalism—the system of individual rights (including economic liberty)—finds its defense in reason based on the evidence of the natural world.

But many skeptics do indeed endorse economic liberty. Last year Barry Fagin, a free-market writer for the Independence Institute, spoke at Skepticamp. This year, Robert Zubrin spoke about his new book, “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.” Strikingly, while some of the conservatives made disparaging remarks about Charles Darwin, the greatest biologist of human history, Zubrin explained how leftists misapplied Darwin’s ideas to promote programs involving eugenics and population control.

If every conservative would attend a Skepticamp, and every skeptic would attend a lecture by the likes of Spalding, the world would be a much more interesting place—and we think a much better one.

Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari blogs at in the Denver area.

Note: Heritage paid most of Ari’s expenses for the event in question (not that that made any difference to the contents of this article); see Ari Armtrong’s Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC.

Image of Matthew Spalding from the Heritage Institute

Paul Jacob Fights for Liberty

Last month Paul Jacob of Common Sense discussed ballot initiatives with Liberty On the Rocks. In the course of his talk he discussed why he went to prison over the draft, and he passionately pled with his fellow activists to continue to fight for liberty. I’ve edited two short videos featuring those remarks.

Paul Jacob on going to prison:

Paul Jacob on our “very critical point” in history.


Paul Jacob Advocates Ballot Initiatives

Paul Jacob Advocates Ballot Initiatives

Last month Paul Jacob of Common Sense spoke at Liberty On the Rocks in Denver. He argued that often the best way to advance the agenda of liberty is through ballot initiatives at the state and local level. He responded to my questions about financial constraints and the problem with anti-liberty groups using initiatives.

Past Time to Privatize the Post Office

Somebody at the United States Post Office returned six DVDs I had burned and tried to mail to family members (containing a video of an important family event), over a few cents each in alleged “postage due.”

Apparently, the Post Office believes it is rolling in so much money that it can afford treat its customers like crap.


My six mailers each consisted of a single DVD sealed in a standard DVD mailer. Because I had previously had a postal employee affix postage to exactly such a mailer, I was under the impression that the correct postage consists of a first class stamp plus a postcard stamp. I went to the Post Office specifically to determine the correct postage for such a mailer. Therefore, that is the postage I affixed (except that for three mailers I added an extra cent by combining an older postcard stamp with a two-cent stamp). The reason I used regular stamps was so that my wife could drop off the mailers in a pickup box, because I did not want to make a special trip to a Post Office center for the purpose. (Nor did I want to buy my own meter and deal with that hassle.)

I have mailed the exact same type of mailer, with the exact same postage, several times before without incident. One oddity is that the 81 cents requested per piece (a 44 cent stamp plus a 28 cent stamp plus nine cents alleged postage due) does not obviously match any figure on USPS’srate chart.

Apparently, either the postal employee with whom I previously dealt gave me the wrong information, the Post Office has changed its rate structure in some baffling and unpredictable way, or there is some subtle difference in the mailer of which I was unaware. (Perhaps the problem is that my mailer envelopes are six-inch squares.)

Obviously I have no problem paying the extra eight or nice cents per mailer, a trivial amount. The problem is that paying the requested fee would cost me several dollars worth of my time. It would nearly cost me that much in gas money simply to fire up my vehicle to make the trip.

The Post Office should be privatized. That is, it should be freed from federal controls and imposed costs (such as franking), cut off from all possible subsidies, and placed in free competition by ending its legal monopoly on first-class mail. I do not know whether postal rates would go up or down in such a scenario, but I do know that rates would better reflect market conditions, encourage greater efficiency on the part of the Post Office and its customers and competitors, and offer customers more value for their money.

For example, I seriously doubt that a competitive postal service would ask me to burn several dollars worth of my time and gas in order to pay a trivial amount of alleged postage due. What might a competitive postal service do instead? For starters, it would create rate structures easy to understand and follow, to minimize the need to visit a clerk in person. It would also take common-sense steps to make customers happy, the way that most other competitive businesses do. For example, a competitive postal service might send me a post card or email alert regarding my postage due, and offer me a quick and easy way to pay it, rather than waste my time and delay my mailers by several days.

Because postal rates are so baffling and unpredictable, because lines at the Post Office are often so long, because there is no Post Office convenient for me to visit, and because postal employees sometimes fail to ensure customer satisfaction, I am going to take every reasonable step to avoid doing business with the United States Post Office, until such time as that entity is transformed into a competitive enterprise. Here are some examples of how I’ll accomplish that:

* Rather than send discs through the mail, I will increasingly use online services such as You Send It, a company I paid $8.99 to transfer the family movie to all its intended recipients, from the comfort and convenience of my own home. (No, I am NOT going to pay the Post Office the extra alleged postage due.)

* My wife and I have been in the habit of mailing by USPS birthday cards every month, on the theory that there’s something special these days about real paper. Whether or not paper is special, I’m going to stop doing that. Instead, I’m going to create digital birthday greetings and send them online.

* I have mailed books via the USPS. I am going to look at other services now, and in the future I will plan to avoid interaction with the USPS altogether. (I also had a book returned to me once, which was more than a mere inconvenience.)

* For all larger packages, I will now look first to services like UPS and FedEx, whereas to date I have gone first to the USPS.

I happily grant that many employees of the USPS do their jobs superbly. However, the political structure of the USPS significantly insulates the company from competition and reduces its employees’ incentives to treat customers well. Those who should most strongly advocate the return of postal service to the free market are those postal employees who take the most pride in their work.



Prometheus June 11, 2010 at 6:45 AM
I entirely agree with you that the USPS needs to be privatized. There was one time when they returned a BDay card because square envelopes don’t go through their machine sorter properly. I don’t see how to avoid them completely yet.

Adam Thompson June 17, 2010 at 4:23 PM
I live in a fairly large town where the PO doesn’t deliver to homes…because they’re lazy, I guess? Every house has an associated PO Box (but the association is not done in an organized way). It causes a ton of really silly problems.

Fedex and UPS deliver to homes in this town.

Anonymous June 22, 2010 at 2:47 PM
USPS handles orders of magnitudes more packages than UPS and FedEx combined. FedEx’s preferred
business model is Business to Business (many more packages at fewer stops (and deliveries)). Same for UPS. Neither are particularly people friendly when it comes to delivering to your residence. Much less hassle to go with USPS and far less expensive.

Ari June 22, 2010 at 2:55 PM
Anonymous: USPS is far more expensive than many internet options. Factoring in convenience and speed, the other services are competitive for some services (and they are forbidden from competing in first class mail). I don’t get stuff delivered to my house, anyway, so that’s not a factor. The USPS has been far from “people friendly” in my experience.

Government Property

Yesterday, which sends out a useful list of Colorado news articles every day, linked to two stories that caught my eye. described the stories this way: CU students and faculty no fan of freedom – most favor ban on smoking, outside, and Mesa libraries take heat for atheist display.

Here’s some of the language from those articles, published by the Rocky Mountain News (originally by Boulder’s Daily Camera) and Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel, respectively:

According to the results of an unscientific survey conducted across CU’s campuses and administrative offices, a narrow majority – 51.5 percent – of respondents said they think the school should ban all tobacco use on the campuses. Smoking indoors already is prohibited.

The survey was in response to CU Regent Michael Carrigan’s proposal to ban smoking altogether. Results were released Thursday.


State of disbelief
Atheists say display shows different concept; library patron upset at having to wait to present rebuttal

The Daily Sentinel
Saturday, December 01, 2007

“We imagine a world without religion,” declares a display posted by Western Colorado Atheists on Saturday in the back stairwell of the Mesa County Public Library. …

The atheists’ display is simple, composed of mostly letter-sized sheets of paper answering questions about atheism, quoting dead presidents about the virtues of questioning faith and outlining what the group views as the pitfalls of religion: hate, corruption, scandal and violence. …

The atheists’ display was approved by the library earlier this year and assigned the entire month of December for posting. …

Anderson, who posted a display in the same space last February criticizing gay people, same-sex families and others as hell-bound if they don’t make right with God, said the library is getting itself into trouble by not allowing her to post her poster-sized Christian display the same day the atheists posted theirs.

My position on these issues, given the existence of tax-funded colleges and libraries, is that smoking ought not be banned outside and that all comers should have the same opportunity to display their message at the library.

However, my deeper position is that neither colleges nor libraries should be funded with taxes — that is, funded with money forcibly taken by those who may not wish to fund those institutions or their particular projects.

Whether smoking is banned on a property, either inside or outside, should be entirely up to the property owners. But who are the property owners at a state-funded college? Everyone and no one. Banning smoking violates the rights of people who want to smoke, while allowing smoking violates the rights of those who find the smoke irritating. is wrong to claim that the issue is about “freedom.” Don’t the writers of believe they have the right to ban smoking in their own back yards? The problem is that freedom has already been violated. Specifically, people’s freedom to control their own income is violated when they are forced to fund the college. The violation of rights has already occurred. An outdoor smoking ban would not constitute an additional violation of rights. If the owners of a private school wish to ban smoking outside on their property, that is their right.

Should a tax-funded library open up display areas to Islamists who praise the bombing of the World Trade Center? Should Satanists also get a turn? If a tax-funded institution forcibly takes money from Islamists and Satanists, then those groups (arguably) should be granted equal footing with Christians and atheists. Absurd? If so, then the absurdity is created by the nature of tax funding, which inherently violates people’s rights. In a library that obtained all it’s money from voluntary contributions, this problem would not arise. People would give their money on the understanding that some person or board makes the decisions as the legitimate property holder. If the library offends people, then they are free to withdraw their funding. Such a library might decide to allow no religious displays or only religious displays within certain boundaries. For example, a library might allow Christian, atheist, and peace-promoting Muslim displays, but ban America-hating Islamist and Satanic displays. The point is that the property owner, whether an individual, a corporation, or a non-profit entity, has the right to control the property. When “the public” funds an enterprise through political force, that means that “the public” owns it, which means that rights can never be clearly decided.

Term Limits Debated

From The Colorado Freedom Report; originally from Grand Junction Free Press:

The debate over term limits continues

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

With the recent election, Mesa County will continue to term limit its sheriff. But should term limits for sheriffs be removed in the future? Should term limits for state legislature be repealed, or term limits for Congress be instituted?

Your authors usually agree on political principles, but the matter of term limits pertains more to optional political organization and strategy. We don’t dispute the wisdom of George Washington’s self-imposed limit, nor of term limits for president. We want to risk neither monarchy nor dictatorship. Yet for lower offices, the rationale for term limits is less obvious. Linn will present his case for term limits, while Ari will offer some notes of skepticism. …

Linn: When “politician” becomes a professional class, politicians start to see themselves — and the public tends to see them — as elites. This is an affront to republicanism. When career politicians run things, voters tend to relinquish more power to the politicians and think of government as something by and for the politicians. Moreover, the longer politicians stay in office, the more they are tempted by power, prestige, and special-interest pandering.

Ari: I take seriously the argument about corruptibility. However, there’s nothing inevitable about corruption. It’s possible for a long-time politician to keep his or her moral bearings, as it is possible for a new politician to immediately sell out to special interests and abuse the power of the office. One problem with term limits is that they can serve to replace the first sort of politician with the second. …

Read the rest!

Government Financing is Not “Private”

Here is yet another example of how advocates of individual rights and free markets must fight both “liberals” and “conservatives.”

Diane Carman writes for the October 16 Denver Post:

For conservatives, the belief that private industry does everything better and at less cost than the evil government is the sacred 11th commandment of politics.

And, the debacle with Blackwater USA notwithstanding, there’s no question that some jobs are done best by private contractors.

On that everyone can agree.

Trouble is, a whole back-slapping system of financial rewards has evolved to corrupt the process. …

Here in Colorado, private firms supply everything, even bus drivers and prisons. Former Gov. Bill Owens was a believer in the 11th commandment, so contracts for public services during his terms exploded.

One result was a $300 million computer system that never worked, Carman notes.

In Carman’s world, then, you can either work directly for the government or indirectly for the government. If you work indirectly for the government, then that’s “private” enterprise.

What’s missing from this picture? Hmm… I know it’s a toughie! How about the possibility of not working for the government at all?

Let’s take the example of bus drivers. Is it true that bus drivers either have to work for the government directly or work for companies that contract with the government? Obviously not. The alternative is to get government out of the business of running busses and allow bussing companies to operate independently, with the ability to set their own rates and routes and compete on a free market.

Carman actually knows that it’s possible not to work for the government — after all, she works for The Denver Post — yet she packages government contracting together with real free enterprise as “private.” But a company that’s paid by the government — i.e., by tax dollars taken forcibly from citizens — is not really “private” at all. A truly private enterprise earns its revenues from willing customers.

I’ll take another example to drive home the point. Currently, book publishers decide which books to publish and then sell the books to readers who buy them. That’s private enterprise. But what if the government published books? (In fact, the government publishes government reports already.) If the government pays a contractor to print and distribute books, is that “private” in the same sense? To take an extreme example, if the government taxed everyone at a rate of 100 percent, then hired contractors for every job, then, by Carman’s reasoning, that would be an entirely “private” economy.

So it is rather important to maintain the distinction between a real free market — actual private enterprise — and government contracting, which relies on the forcible transfer of wealth.

Is there a legitimate role for government contracting? Yes — but only for tasks essential for the government to fulfill its job of protecting individual rights (which need not involve coercive taxation). For example, the government may properly hire contractors to build military equipment. However, when it comes to prisons, I think employees should work directly for the government, not for contractors, because of the perverse incentives created by indirect financing.

Carman makes another crucial mistake. She presumes that one must hold one of two views: either the government should finance bus drivers and all sorts of other occupations, or the government is “evil.” What this leaves out is the view that government plays a crucial and essential role in protecting individual rights, but that government should be restricted to that role. The fact that government is not evil does not imply that government should restrict, compete with, or push out (actually) private enterprise.

Unfortunately, Carman draws her errors directly from the conservative movement. Conservatives often fail to distinguish between the proper and essential role of government and the misuse of governmental power. Conservatives usually endorse the forcible transfer of wealth, though for “conservative” aims. Conservatives also pretend that government contracting means the same thing as “private” enterprise.

Here’s a recent example. A Colorado Republican release from October 16 states:

Leadership and members of House and Senate Republican caucuses gathered on the west steps of the Capitol today to unveil a comprehensive education package…

Among the GOP proposals addressing those priorities: a uniform, statewide curriculum standard to graduate high school; a general proficiency exam before any student could graduate; a requirement to display English proficiency before a student could graduate, and a plan to reward and retain the best teachers through performance bonuses. …

Assistant Senate Republican Leader Nancy Spence… the ranking GOP member of the Senate Education Committee, showcased two of her education-reform bills at the conference. One of the bills would offer parents tuition assistance for special-needs children, and the other offered performance incentives to teachers.

She said that students with special needs are particularly vulnerable when their educational options are limited and that their parents ought to be able to choose a program, private or public, that addresses the unique challenges their children face.

There’s that word “private” again, this time used by Republicans to mean government-financed schools for “students with special needs.”

But what does a real “private” or free-market school look like? It does not accept any tax dollars. It earns its revenues from willing customers. It sets rates of tuition, perhaps including sliding scales to accommodate the poor, in cooperation with its customers. It might accept charitable donations or even (actually) private vouchers, meaning vouchers funded voluntarily, rather than through tax dollars.

But, with a few rare and quiet exceptions, conservatives will not endorse free markets in education. Government-run education is conservative orthodoxy. True, some conservatives want the government to control education via tax-funded vouchers, and they pretend that this is the same thing as “private” education, but this is merely a minor variation on the theme of government force.

Indeed, Colorado Republicans have proudly assumed the role of central planners. They want to micromanage every government-run school in the state. And why do government-run schools require such micromanagement? Because of the perverse incentives created by tax financing. Government-run schools face little incentive to serve their “customers.” These Republicans have no problem with government-run schools; they just want the government to run the schools their way.

Here is another example. This evening, the El Pomar Foundation is hosting a talk with Thomas Krannawitter of Hillsdale College. Here’s what Krannawitter has to say about government-run education:

In Ohio, as in the rest of America, taxpayers for years have poured billions of dollars into failing public schools. Dissatisfied with dismal results, the citizens of Cleveland decided to try something different. Parents would be given a voucher — tax dollars, that is — they could use to send their children to any school of their choice, public or private. By making choice available to more parents, schools would compete to attract students, providing a powerful incentive for all schools to strive for educational excellence. …

Contrary to the ACLU, the men who framed and ratified the Constitution and Bill of Rights rightly believed political freedom and good government require moral citizens capable of governing themselves. And they thought religion a powerful means of moral education that ought to be promoted by government.

Krannawitter confuses government-financed schools with “private” schools, thereby helping to obliterate the very idea of an actually “private,” free-market school. He enthusiastically endorses tax-financed education. And he suggests that government should also spend tax dollars to promote religion.

The broader critique is that Krannawitter conflates religion and morality, when actually objective morality can only be derived independently of religion. Religion undermines morality. But that debate is too broad for this post. For now, I need merely point out that Krannawitter does not advocate the right to control one’s own resources with respect to education or even religion; he believes the government should be in control.

The modern contest between “liberals” and “conservatives” is merely one to seize government control over our lives.