Archive for the Government Category

How State Legislatures Can Initiate a Balanced-Budget Amendment

The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. Never has it been amended by state-initiated conventions. Robert Natelson, a law professor for 25 years who now works with the Independence Institute of Denver, hopes to change that. Specifically, he hopes to help persuade state legislatures to initiate and then ratify one or more amendments to restrain federal spending. With a national debt of $16.4 trillion and growing, that may be the only hope for fiscal sanity.

Natelson explained the history and purpose of Article V at Liberty On the Rocks, Flatirons, on January 14. Here is his main presentation.

Natelson also answered a variety of questions about Article V amendments. Here he addresses the problem of state dependence on federal funding, generating grassroots support, passing state measures close enough in wording to trigger a convention, the myth of the “runaway convention,” and the need for “eternal vigilance.”

Does the U.S. Constitution allow for secession? No, argues Natelson:

Natelson argues the Supreme court of the late 1930s and 1940s largely failed to uphold the U.S. Constitution:

Would an Article V convention “run away” into an unrestrained effort to rewrite the Constitution? Did the participants in the Constitutional Convention act within their established authority? Natelson addresses both questions:

Natelson addressed one final question. What were the reasons for the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment, which allowed for the direct election of U.S. Senators? There were real problems with the old system, Natelson argues.

Image: Independence Institute

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 AriArmstrong.com 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

The Renaissance of Liberty Begins in Colorado

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published April 13 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Over the last century the federal government has claimed sweeping powers over our lives. It has spent the nation into debt that races past yearly productive output, continued its decades-long march to nationalize health care, and seized control of our economic and personal lives far beyond the powers enumerated in the Constitution.

Unfortunately, the typical individual can exercise little if any meaningful control over national politics. Sure, we can try to elect better people to Congress and then hold them accountable. But congressional districts are large, the District of Columbia is far away, and national politics is dominated by special-interest groups seeking political favors. What, then, is the alternative?

Citizens of the original states created the federal government to handle national defense, prevent the states from imposing economically damaging protectionism, and handle a few other jobs beyond the capabilities of the state governments. The federal government was never supposed to turn into the monolithic power it has become. Indeed, the Tenth Amendment explicitly reserves “powers not delegated” to the federal government “to the states respectively, or to the people.”

Every school child learns that the Founders separated powers among the branches of the federal government, but, just as importantly, they separated powers among levels of government. Federalism—the separation of state and federal powers—is a central doctrine of American government. It is high time we fought to restore American federalism, not as an end in itself, but as an important means to protecting individual rights. We in Colorado can and should play a pivotal role in that fight.

A good indicator of the loss of federalism is the role of federal spending in state budgets. Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee reports that, for fiscal year 2011-12, federal funding accounts for over $5 billion of the total $19.6 billion budget, or 26 percent. Over half of that federal spending goes for health care.

But why should we in Colorado have to beg the federal government to hand over a portion of our own money to our state government? Such federal spending turns federalism on its head. Every year we witness the grotesque spectacle of Colorado’s elected officials dancing like marionettes to the demands of federal politicians who hold the purse strings.

Imagine a league of independent state governments that stood up to such federal tyranny. Imagine state legislators who grew a spine and said enough is enough. We look forward to the day when state legislatures routinely pass resolutions condemning federal abuses, then start passing laws to the reaches of their authority to stop those abuses.

To take one possible strategy, Colorado could pass a law saying that we will turn down all federal funding in our state, once a certain number of other states have passed a comparable law.* Then we can demand that the federal government reduce its tax burdens and simply let citizens keep their own money.

Of course, the goal is not to replace federal tyranny with state-level tyranny, but rather to turn all governmental entities into protectors of individual rights rather than the biggest threat to our rights. The same state governments that would stand up against federal abuses of individual rights would also be more amenable to protecting rights themselves. So how do we achieve that?

We must continue to develop a culture of liberty in Colorado. We must stand up for individual rights to life, liberty, property, and voluntary contract and association. We must unflinchingly defend freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and religious worship, and freedom to use the fruits of our labor as each individual decides. We must demand that government act to protect individuals from the coercion of others, from murder, theft, assault, fraud, and every form of force that one person might initiate against another. At the same time, government must cease acting as the primary instigator of coercion, stripping us of our wealth and our liberties.

Many of the seeds of our future liberty renaissance have already been sown. Many new liberty-oriented groups have arisen in the last few years, and older groups have gained a new vitality. As a single illustration, last week over fifty people gathered at Denver Liberty On the Rocks to listen to philosopher Diana Hsieh explain why, yes, people deserve what they earn, contrary to the nonsense of John Rawls. We are starting to return to the tavern-style, take-it-to-the-streets, energetic and principled activism that marked the work of such American legends as Sam Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine.

We must make the principle of individual rights a living force in the minds of our countrymen. We must make coercion—the initiation of force—something that the people denounce, despise, and reject. Then we must elect pro-liberty state legislatures that protect our rights and stand up to federal abuses.

As F. A. Hayek wrote, “We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.”

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

* Obviously we’re talking about federal funding funneled through state legislatures, not federal funding for legitimate federal programs that happen to have a presence in Colorado. Here is a related tidbit I came across: “[F]or every $1.00 the feds send to the states, states increase their own future taxes between $0.33 and $0.42.” —AA

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.

Related:

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.