Natelson Brings Original Constitution to Colorado Activists

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published January 20 by Grand Junction Free Press.

As Americans we live under the greatest Constitution ever devised. Unfortunately, few Americans know much about what our foundational legal document means or how it properly applies to modern life. And those who do study the Constitution often abuse (or artfully ignore) its text to advance a narrow political agenda.

Rob Natelson aims to remedy those problems. Natelson, one of the world’s foremost scholars on the original meaning of the Constitution, taught law at the University of Montana for over two decades. Now he has returned to Colorado, where he once practiced law, to serve with the Independence Institute. In recent months Natelson has lectured on the Constitution in Denver and Colorado Springs, most recently attending a meeting of Liberty In the Books (which Ari moderates).

Recently Natelson’s book “The Original Constitution” came out in a second edition. We encourage you to buy a copy and read it (search at Amazon), then share it with your friends. We are among the most fortunate people ever to walk the planet, because we have inherited the intellectual and legal traditions embodied in the Constitution. It is up to us to keep that heritage alive. We know of no better place to start than with Natelson’s book.

“The Original Constitution” embodies Natelson’s findings from years of research into stacks of documents, many in Latin, that informed the Founders. Yet the book is widely accessible and beautifully written. Natelson also offers a few hundred well-placed footnotes, as well as a descriptive bibliography, for those who wish to study further. The Constitution is a document for “We the People,” and so is Natelson’s book.

We especially admire the book’s integrity: “Among other academics, law professors are notorious for writing works of special pleading and calling them ‘scholarship’ — a practice I actively resisted during my long career in legal academia. I can assure the reader that this book is not a work of special pleading, but a depiction of a slice of history: the legal force of a particular legal document at a particular time.”

Natelson dismisses the notion, as expressed by Barack Obama, that it is “unrealistic” to “somehow discern the original intent of the Founders or ratifiers.” Instead, Natelson writes, “Competent Founding-Era scholars largely agree on what most of the original Constitution’s provisions mean. Much of the disagreement among constitutional writers results from unfamiliarity with the historical record or with eighteenth-century law.”

To offer an example of how Constitutional clarity can resolve today’s debates, consider what one writer claimed in the Washington Times: “Mr. [Herman] Cain’s 9 percent national sales tax simply isn’t constitutional.” Wrong. While we think a national sales tax is a really bad idea, it passes Constitutional muster. The Constitution grants Congress the power to impose “indirect” taxes such as a sales tax, as Natelson makes clear. In aninterview he confirmed, “A national sales tax is clearly constitutional, so long as uniform throughout the country.”

During the Liberty In the Books meeting, Natelson debunked another view of the Constitution that we have expressed. The idea is that the “commerce clause” grants Congress the authority only to “make regular” (regulate) interstate commerce, not restrict commerce. Not so, says Natelson. Instead, that clause gives Congress power to restrict commerce. However, Natelson explains, the “commerce clause” was intended to grant much less power than is commonly assumed today. For example, properly interpreted it would not allow Congress to force people to buy insurance, as ObamaCare proposes.

We are not convinced, however, that original intent always should dictate Constitutional interpretation. The literal meaning of the text also matters, as do the logical implications of the text.

Natelson offers an example in his book that we think supports this line of reasoning. Originally, Article III established that the “judicial power of the United States” extended to “controversies… between a state and citizens of another state.” Natelson convincingly argues that the Federalists thought this would not overturn “sovereign immunity,” or the power of states not to be sued by individuals. But the Supreme Court decided to read the text literally and allowed a man from South Carolina to sue Georgia. This unpopular decision quickly led to the passage of the Eleventh Amendment, which affirmed that a state cannot be sued by “citizens of another state.”

As Natelson pointed out, Chief Justice John Jay helped decide the Georgia decision. Jay, you’ll recall, was an author of the Federalist Papers. If even Jay looked to literal meaning over original intent, might that justify us doing the same?

It matters very much whether we look strictly to original intent, or whether we also examine literal meaning and logical implications, in evaluating the significance of the First Amendment, “due process of law,” and other key Constitutional provisions.

Yet, regardless of where we may ultimately end up in that debate, we acknowledge that it is critically important to understand the original intent of the Constitution. We thank Natelson for helping us do that.

Take Responsibility When Carrying a Gun

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published January 6 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Colorado residents suffered several horrific murders recently. In one case,a man shot his ex-wife to death outside a restaurant in Parker as their two children sat inside. She was pregnant and engaged to be married. Besides the murders, two five-year-olds died from unintentional shootings.

In the wake of such horror, those with an aversion to guns may wonder why interest in gun ownership and concealed carry remains so high. Practically every day someone asks Linn (a National Rifle Association instructor) his opinion of various training programs required to obtain a concealed carry permit in Colorado.

CBS (of all sources) published a recent article, “More and more women embracing gun ownership.” We especially enjoyed a quote from Deirdre Gailey: “I’m a yoga instructor, I work at a vegan bakery — and I also like to shoot guns.”

Yes, some people do very bad things with guns. But stripping law-abiding citizens of their ability to keep and bear arms only further empowers the bad guys. Particularly in cases of domestic violence, attackers often can physically overpower their victims. Besides their sporting value, guns are extremely useful for self-defense.

Horrible stories get the most media attention. Often the defensive use of a gun results in the bad guy running away without a shot fired or a drop of blood spilled. Thus, while papers typically devote many follow-up stories to each murder, usually they give defensive gun uses little or no mention.

The ability to carry a concealed handgun constitutes an important part of the right of self-defense. It’s worth reviewing the history and benefits of concealed carry (CCW) here in Colorado.

Mesa County gun owners and officials became important leaders in the effort to achieve a more fair and objective permit process.

Former Sheriff Riecke Claussen ran his first campaign in 1990 by promising to institute a concealed carry permit in the county. True to his word, Claussen worked with different training groups to develop a permit. One of these groups later evolved into the Grand Valley Training Club (which Linn cofounded).

Initially Grand Junction would not sign off on any city resident applying for a county permit. Linn and others pointed out the problem to then-Police Chief Gary Konzak. The city even denied a permit for a firearms instructor who had certified several Grand Junction police officers for a Utah CCW. The chief conferred with the sheriff to resolve this problem.

However, while the county permit was valid throughout Colorado, other states recognized only state-issued permits. When former Governor Bill Owens signed a state-wide CCW bill in 2003, that system looked remarkably like what Claussen had established years before. See [the NRA’s web page] for a description of states that offer CCW reciprocity. We think Bill Buvinger was the last local to offer classes for the Utah permit for its validity in other states; now the Colorado permit offers the same advantages.

Colorado’s constitution strongly supports the right to keep and bear arms, though it is ambivalent about concealed carry. Denver outlaws open carry anyway. In some cities open carry may result in a conversation with law enforcement. Once you get a CCW permit, then, you’re freer to carry a gun for self-defense.

Carrying concealed offers several tactical advantages. If you carry openly, not only might a criminal target you first, he might try to capture your weapon. Criminals often are deterred when they think somebody may be carrying a gun but they don’t know whom.

Carrying a gun concealed offers protection outside the home (except where legally restricted). Moreover, if your handgun is secured to your hip, it cannot be picked up by a criminal, child, or irresponsible adult. Concealing a gun may be important especially for women, who tend to be smaller and who may have children and grandchildren to care for.

One of the debates over the CCW bill was whether to mandate training. Our attitude was that, while training should not be mandatory, if a mandate allowed the bill to pass it was an acceptable compromise. A relative asked Linn what he thought of classes that promised only four hours of instruction with no live shooting. To some surprise, Linn responded, “I do not have a problem with it.”

Don’t get us wrong: we’re all for extensive firearms training. We agree with the NRA that those who own defensive guns should take the responsibility for getting trained. Grand Valley Training Club offers over 16 hours of instruction with numerous live-fire exercises. True, in an emergency, having a gun with little training usually trumps having no gun. But don’t let it come to that: get your training before an emergency arises.

Ultimately, the goal is to prevent emergency situations. Thankfully, the more people carry guns for self-defense, the less often people need to use them. Criminals hate the thought of their intended victim pulling out a gun and knowing how to use it.

Read more about this issue:

Joey Bunch Misstates Gun Statistics in Denver Post
(The Post corrected the article in question.)

The Tragedy of Fatal Hazards for Children

‘Twas the Night before They Occupied the North Pole

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

The Occupy Wall Street movement has found a new place to protest. But instead of camping out in tents they “community organize” from hastily-constructed igloos. Participants call it “Occupy the North Pole,” or ONoP for short. Their primary target: Santa Claus.

We contacted Invidia Elf, declared ONoP’s spokesperson by unanimous uptwinkles, to discuss the group’s goals. Following is her statement.

“We’re sick and tired of that so-called Jolly Old Elf reaping all the benefits of Christmas magic. While Santa lives in his grand Christmas castle, 99 percent of elves live in tiny huts or workers’ quarters. Some elves in the wood-toy construction department have even had to set up triple bunk beds due to lack of space.

“Santa owns 60 percent of the North Pole’s developed property, and he controls 80 percent of the Pole’s wealth. Nearly the entire North Pole economy is based on the production of Christmas toys, and who controls that entire enterprise? You guessed it: Santa Claus. He’s nothing but a Robber Baron monopolist.

“I won’t even get into Santa’s dietary habits. He eats more calories every day in cookies and milk alone than most elves eat all week. And his clothes! How many fluffy red tailored suits does the man actually need?

“Don’t even get me started on Mrs. Claus, dashing around in her fancy, stainless-steel sleigh like the Queen of the town. She even gets her own chauffeur. Did you know it takes a whole division of elves just to tend the reindeer? The Clauses’ barn alone is ten times the size of an average elf house, and it consumes fifteen times the electricity.

“Santa himself doesn’t actually do any work; he merely oversees and directs all the work of thousands of other elves. We’re the ones who do the real work around here, and I say it’s about time we got to call the shots. It’s high time to subject the means of production of Christmas toys to a more democratic process.

“A ‘living elf wage?’ Ha! There’s no law whatsoever setting wage standards. Sure, we don’t have the unemployment problem you have in America, but at least there workers are protected by laws that force employers to spend more on wages. Did you know that until about a decade ago a new elf employee got paid only room and board? Not even a stipend!

“I tried to unionize the workers a while back, but Santa said ‘Ho Ho Ho Merry Christmas’ and everybody started feeling all cheery again. It’s like a Jedi mind trick or something. A lot of these elves don’t even know how bad they’ve got it; they’re deluded into thinking they live a wonderful life. It’s just a good thing I’m here to educate them.

“The Nog Party? What a bunch of drooling dwarves. Laughably, they think it’s a good thing if some people get super rich; it’s like they think their so-called ‘free market’ is guided by invisible magic or something. We know what’s in their nog! But here in the real world people have to fight for their lick of the candy cane.

“Oh, sure, Santa spends most of his time making toys to give away. But does he give to everyone equally according to their need? No. Instead, there he sits in his office, day after day, going through his list not just once but twice, checking to see who’s naughty and who’s nice. And if for no good reason he puts you on the naughty list? Too bad for you! You get nothing but coal.

“It’s not the naughty kids’ fault. They were not born with the same advantages of nice kids. Why should the nice kids get all the rewards? They already have plenty. Instead, Santa should give the naughty kids most of the gifts to help make up for their disadvantages in life.

“Santa delivers free toys to all the (nice) children of the world, but he does that only one day a year! Here’s Santa, the most magical elf of all time, this guy who’s been building up his powers for centuries, and all he can manage is a single day of holiday bliss? You’d think Santa could have worked himself up to delivering gifts at least two days a year.

“Just this last winter Santa took a trip with the missus to the Caribbean. Do you know how many times I’ve relaxed on Caribbean beaches sipping pina coladas? That’s right: none. Santa has more inborn ability than fifty other elves together, so what’s he doing taking all that time off? ONoP demands that, henceforth, each elf contribute according to his ability, as decided by a democratic process.”

To us, it seems an awful lot like Invidia is attacking Santa for his virtues.

We called up Santa for a reply, but all he said was, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! And to all a good night!”

Gessler Emerges as the Free Speech Secretary of State

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published December 9 by Grand Junction Free Press.

True, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has made some public-relations missteps, as when he attended a Larimer County Republican fundraiser in September to cover campaign-finance fines that Gessler’s office oversaw. On the whole, though, Gessler deserves praise for having the guts to stand up and take heat for what he believes in: the principles of free speech. Indeed, Gessler deserves the national title as the Free Speech Secretary of State.

Gessler has done the best he can to make sense of the contradictory, often-ambiguous mish-mash of Colorado’s campaign finance laws and court rulings about them. His job in that regard is not an easy one: the voter-approved section in Colorado’s Constitution gives him one set of directives, while judges give him another, and he must craft the rules guiding the process.

The problems begin with the campaign-finance laws, which inherently violate rights of free speech. As we wrote back in May, those laws specify that, to speak out for or against any ballot measure while spending over $200, you “must first register with the proper authorities, then report to those authorities the names and addresses of every significant donor to your cause, as well as all of your significant expenses… on penalty of daily fines, and in accordance with a hundred pages of dense legalese.” Obviously those laws undermine free speech and discourage civic participation.

The courts should throw out the entire mess on First Amendment grounds. Instead, last year the 10th Circuit Court ruled that the $200 “trigger” for reporting is unreasonably low. But the court declined to specify a more reasonable amount, leaving Gessler to implement the rules without clear guidance. Gessler reasonably drafted rules setting the “trigger” at $5,000, meaning if you don’t spend that much, you don’t have to file and comply with the paperwork requirements. Gessler did the best he could to protect free speech within the constraints of the campaign laws and the court decision.

But on November 17, Denver District Court Judge Bruce Jones threw outthe $5,000 trigger, recognizing Gessler’s “conundrum” but again declining to offer any clear guidance.

Thankfully, Gessler announced he’d appeal Jones’s ruling. In a news release Gessler described the problem precisely: “Under Judge Jones’ ruling, we have one threshold for $200 and another threshold for ‘some other amount.’ We want to encourage participation in our political process but the ruling today only further confuses an already complex process.” In other words, without a clear “trigger” for reporting, activists have no idea when they have to file or whether they’ll get sued for not filing. Such ambiguity leads to after-the-fact rulings that violate citizens’ rights and undermine the rule of just law.

In a December 15 meeting, Gessler will reassert the need for the $5,000 “trigger” and offer numerous other rule changes as well. The Denver Postsummarized two other major proposed rule changes: limit to 180 the number of days the $50 per day fine accrues, and confirm that groups must “expressly advocate” a candidate or measure in order to fall under the campaign laws. (Rich Coolidge, spokesperson for Gessler’s office, confirmed that those three rule changes will be on the table; those wanting more detail can find the 58-page document on the Secretary of State’s web page.)

Regarding the fine limit, it’s just not fair for hostile, political attack groups to be able to sue somebody long after the fact and keep racking up daily fines.

As for the language about “express advocacy,” our ability to speak out on candidates and issues goes to the heart of the First Amendment. The legal issue is that some groups run ads praising or castigating some candidate or issue without actually suggesting how people should vote. If you tell people how to vote, you use the so-called “magic words” that trigger the campaign laws. Incidentally, the Colorado Supreme Court will hear a caseabout this, though the mere fact that we’re discussing “magic words” illustrates nicely why the campaign laws by their very nature violate free speech.

Unfortunately, Gessler has been been relentlessly attacked by leftist activists who champion censorship of political speech, including Luis Toro of Colorado Ethics Watch and Jenny Flanagan and Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause.

The left is obsessed with the idea that, somewhere, someone may spend their own money to advocate their political beliefs. But free speech is central to our liberties, and that right is meaningless without the physical means to advocate our beliefs. Often that requires spending money. Yet many on the left would restrict our political speech in many contexts and open the door wide to more far-reaching forms of censorship.

When Flanagan debated Ari on television earlier this year and Ari brought up the First Amendment, she retorted, “That’s not part of the conversation right now.” Thankfully, Gessler is doing what he can to change that.

Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari, edits FreeColorado.com from the Denver area.

Note: See also Diana Hsieh’s detailed summary of the proposed rule changes in a first and second post.

Offer Gifts of Liberty This Season

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published November 25 in the print edition of Grand Junction Free Press.

Why fight the crowds when you can buy liberty-promoting gifts from your computer? We have several suggestions for you.

The final Harry Potter movie will make a popular gift. So will all of J. K. Rowling’s novels, which chronicle Voldemort’s rise to tyrannical power and Harry’s struggle to defeat him. Ari’s book Values of Harry Potter makes an excellent companion to any Potter-related gift for teens and adults.

Ari’s book reveals the heroes’ fight for values in the Potter novels and their fierce independence. A chapter on free will describes how the heroes forge their own character, while the villains bring themselves to corruption. The book’s discussions of religion take on the controversies of sacrificial love and immortality. The new 2011 edition contains essays on the novels’ rich psychology as well as their politics, journalism, and more.

Ari has also started writing regularly for The Objective Standard, a journal influenced by the ideas of Ayn Rand. (Ari gets paid for that work.) For example, you can find Ari’s October 19 article, “The Justice of Income Inequality Under Capitalism,” on the publication’s blog.

The journal’s editor, Craig Biddle, reviews Rand’s objective theory of rights for the Fall 2011 edition. Rights don’t come from God, Biddle argues, but neither do they come from society. Instead, he writes, “they are conceptual identifications of the factual requirements of human life in a social context.” That article is available for free, as is a piece by John David Lewis on the Islamist threat to American security; both merit your attention.

You should subscribe to the journal to access all of its articles, and you should consider buying subscriptions for your active-minded friends. You can buy subscriptions to the print version or for audio, online, or ebook versions. A subscription to the journal makes an especially great gift because its benefits extend throughout the entire year.

Any of the films shown at the Free Minds Film Fest in Colorado Springs last month would make wonderful gifts. We recommend three in particular.

The dystopian short film 2081, based on Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” imagines a society in which everybody is finally equal. People are no longer merely equal under the law, but they are made physically equal by political force. The strong must wear weights, the intelligent must wear shrieking headphones, and so on. But the hero of the story, not content with suffering chains and imprisonment for his strengths and virtues, stages an “occupation” event of his own, and one with a very different message from today’s Occupation protests. This film would make a great addition for everyone on your list.

We also recommend two films about Soviet Russia. The first, Soviet Story,reveals the brutal slaughter and oppression of the Soviet regime. The film demonstrates that the Communists paved the way for genocidal mass slaughter, while the Nazis (National Socialists) followed the same path. The film features a segment in which the socialist George Bernard Shaw speaks candidly of killing off those deemed undesirable (by the socialists).

Moreover, the film reviews, before and during WWII the Communists actively collaborated with the Nazis to slaughter Jews and oppress most of Europe. It’s a brutal film, but one everyone should watch, lest mankind be doomed to repeat the horrors of totalitarian slaughter.

A much happier film showing the collapse of the Soviet regime is The Singing Revolution, the story of the valiant and nonviolent Estonian uprising. The Estonians used singing, long a central part of their cultural traditions, to express their rebellion. It is a magnificent film, and one perfect for holiday viewing. But be warned: you won’t be able to watch it with dry eyes.

If you’re looking for something more practical, you can buy a gift certificate for those 18 and older for a Grand Valley Training Club Basic Pistol and Personal Protection in the Home Course. These are NRA certified classes taught by outstanding local NRA volunteer instructors, and the classes meet the qualifications for concealed carry. Whether somebody is new to handguns or needs a refresher course, this class offers first-rate training, and for $100 it offers a great value. (For more information call Linn.)

For the readers in your life, anything from the Liberty In the Books list (www.LibertyInTheBooks.com) would make a great gift. (Liberty On the Rocks pays Ari a bit to run this program.) Our last three titles are How an Economy Grows and Why It CrashesWhy Businessmen Need Philosophy, and The Right to Earn a Living.

The great thing about giving the gift of liberty is that it benefits not only the recipient but all of us, including future generations of Americans.

Thank the Industrial Revolution for Longer Life

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published October 28 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Growing older comes with its problems, but, as we’ve all heard, it surely beats the alternative. Earlier this month Ari turned 40. (We don’t need to go into details of Linn’s age.) An interesting fact about the age of 40 is that it’s older than the average lifespan of almost all of human history. So if you’re older than 40, or hope to be, thank the industrial revolution, which radically extended human life.

The industrial revolution, fueled by the philosophical Scottish Enlightenment, gained steam in England in the late 1700s. This was right around the time of the founding of the United States, which, as the freest country in the history of the earth, soon adopted the industrial revolution as its own and created unparalleled prosperity.

Modern humans have walked the earth for roughly a quarter of a million years. So you are extremely lucky to have been born during the tiny fraction of human history in which you have a good chance to live to see old age as we now understand it.

According to the CIA’s World Factbook, one nation still has a life expectancy less than 40: Angola. Several African nations still have life expectancies less than 50. Why the difference? Much of Africa remains ravaged by tribal warfare, political corruption, and an almost total lack of industrial progress, exacerbating such problems as famine and the AIDS epidemic.

Throughout almost all of human history, most people faced conditions roughly comparable to those of the poorest regions of modern Africa. Violence, starvation, and disease were the normal conditions of life.

The Wikipedia entry on “life expectancy” offers some good leads; for example, it cites a recent text on American history that discusses England in the early 1600s. That book summarizes, “Life expectancy was only about thirty-five years, and two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.” Today children rarely die. Throughout much of human history, many or most children died, and that was considered normal.

In the industrial world, life expectancy has risen into the upper 70s and 80s. The United States comes in only 50th on the CIA’s list with a life expectancy of 78.37. (Monaco tops the list at 89.73.) But the U.S. suffers relatively high rates of auto fatalities and homicides; adjusted for those factors, our country approaches or hits the top of the list.

But how could early industry, with its dirty coal and poor working conditions, so dramatically extend human life? Prior to industry, most people lived in abject poverty, and even the few wealthy of the time had relatively few of the amenities even America’s poor now take for granted. (Andrew Bernstein does a good job of reviewing early industrial advances in Capitalism Unbound.)

Prior to industry, people had to walk wherever they went; the lucky few had horses and carriages (which left stinking, pestilent messes in city streets). Steam-powered boats and trains, then petrol-powered automobiles, gave mobility to the masses. Today we can ride by helicopter to a far-away hospital if we need urgent medical care. We can jet around the world in the time it used to take to traverse a state. A relative recently flew to Europe for discretionary health care.

In the good old days, often you were luckier if you did not have access to a doctor with his leeches and concoctions. If you got an infection, often you would die. Today advanced machinery can scan your bones or peer into your heart. We have access to mass-produced drugs effective at alleviating a wide range of ailments. We have access to heart surgery and advanced cancer treatments.

At America’s founding, roughly 90 percent of all working people farmed. Eking a living from the dirt without the aid of tractors and trucks, irrigation pipes, and modern fertilizers imposed severe hardships. Today less than three percent of the workforce raises all our food—freeing up the labor of others to provide our other wants and needs.

Prior to industry, people made their few items of clothing by hand. With industrial production of cotton clothing, the masses could afford to buy clothes and subject them to the rigors of routine cleaning. Today, we can clothe ourselves modestly for perhaps a couple hour’s worth of labor.

True, industrial progress requires legal stability and relative freedom. Capital formation—the development of the tools and machines that expand our productivity—drives our improving standard of living. People don’t invest in capital when others loot or destroy the products of their effort. The prosperity of capitalism derives from the political protection of people’s rights. To the degree we stray from that standard, we undermine our prosperity and threaten our futures.

If you value your high standard of living and your potential to live into your 70s and beyond, live in gratitude for the industrial revolution—and help protect its future.

A Parable of Shoe Stores and Bureaucrats

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published October 14 by Grand Junction Free Press.

The following discussion took place in an alternate universe very much like our own, but different in a few important respects. Any resemblance to real persons in our universe, living or dead, is purely accidental.

The scene is a coffee shop in a town called Great Junction, a town nestled between the Federal Monument, the Bookcliffs, and the Great Mesa. Ralph sits at a table, sipping his brew, sharing a quiet conversation with a few friends.

“Here’s how it went down,” Ralph began. “For three years my son John and I tried to open a shoe store over at the strip mall by Urban Market. We developed a great business plan and lined up our funding, and John finished up his degree in business while working in a shoe store on the side to earn experience in the industry.

“We did all the basic work in the first year. But then John reminded me we had to apply to the state Shoe Utility Commission, or SUC. I guess their job is to ensure that shoes meet their standards of utility, whatever that means. SUC required us to ask permission from the other shoe store in town, Shoe Central, before we could go into business.”

At this point Ralph’s friend Henry barged in, “Now hold on there, Ralph, you mean to tell me SUC wanted you to get the permission of your competitor to go into business? That can’t be right. That’s just insane! When I opened up my burger joint I didn’t have to ask permission from McDoogle’s! What’s next: are they going to make Cameron here ask permission from Orange Cabs to keep his own cab up and running?”

Cameron snorted at the absurdity.

Ralph took a breath, pushed up his shoulders, and continued, “Well, SUC uses pretty fancy language to describe asking permission. SUC says new shoe stores have to ‘show a public convenience and necessity’ before they’ll issue a shoe-store license, all to prevent ‘ruinous competition.’ And SUC was pretty keen on hearing Shoe Central’s claim that it already met the local demand for shoes.”

Henry could not contain himself. “‘Ruinous competition?’ What the hell does that mean? Most businesses compete for customers; that’s part of what makes them work hard to offer good service. Shouldn’t people have a choice about where they buy their shoes?”

After a pause Cameron asked, “So what happened next?”

Ralph continued, “At least SUC let us ask some local residents whether they’d benefit from a new shoe store in town.”

Henry started turning red in the face. “But wait a minute! Doesn’t a customer say he wants to shop at a store every time he walks in and spends some money? People say lots of things, but when they put their money on the counter, that’s what counts, right? How can a bunch of pencil-pushing bureaucrats predict where people want to shop? Isn’t that what the marketplace is for?”

“That’s what I always thought,” Ralph replied.

“So did SUC give you a permit to open a shoe store?” Cameron asked.

“SUC finally signed off on our shoe store, after forcing us to waste tens of thousands of dollars waiting around,” Ralph said.

Henry exhaled sharply.

“Unfortunately, Shoe Central then took the matter to court so a judge could make the decision.”

Henry jumped to his feet, spilling his coffee. “You mean, once you kiss the backsides of SUC bureaucrats for a few years, then you’ve got to start all over with a judge? What country did you say we’re living in, again?”

“Take a seat, Henry, it’s over,” Ralph said. “Amazingly, the judge also signed off on our store. But then SUC got to work again. SUC said we could carry only five types of shoes, and only in three sizes. Also, only people who lived within six blocks of the strip mall could shop at our store. SUC also dictated the prices we could charge for shoes. So we couldn’t charge more for better shoes, and if our stock piled up or dwindled we couldn’t raise or lower our prices. We’ll see if we can make a go of it.”

Henry said nothing. He sat hunched over, a single tear welling in his eye, staring at his cap with the emblem of his military service.

After a few moments of silence, a perky young lady walked up to the table and said, “I couldn’t help but overhearing, but I for one am grateful that SUC protects the consumer from the anarchy of the marketplace. Shoes are just too important to society to let just anybody sell them. Who would protect us from too many shoes and unfair pricing?”

The woman turned up her nose, spun on her Shoe Central high heels, and walked away. Ralph stared into his coffee.

Those of us living on the alternate side of the universe can only thank heaven that nothing as crazy as the SUC exists in our world.

Prop. 103. Would Hurt Working Families, Kill Jobs

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published September 30 by Grand Junction Free Press.

They’re ba-a-ck, and they want to raise your taxes, again. They always do. Yes, it’s “for the children.” It usually is.

But Proposition 103, the tax hike brought to this fall’s ballot by Boulder Democrat Rollie Heath and the teachers’ unions, is really about taking more money out of the pockets of working families to enrich those unions. Throwing more tax dollars at government-run schools hardly would improve the quality of education.

If you really want to help “the children” (and everyone else), you will vote no on the job killer Prop. 103. Taking even more money out of the voluntary economy would only make it harder for working families to put food on the table and afford other necessities.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the economy remains weak, with unemployment nationally hovering at around nine percent and Colorado not far behind. The mortgage bust and the bipartisan political bungling that followed hit Grand Junction especially hard. Politicians have already burdened the economy with myriad taxes and reams of controls — how much more can it take?

Taking more money from working families for taxes would dry up private-sector jobs. While the cost of the tax hike would depend on the state of the economy, Legislative Council estimates the measure would suck around $2.9 billion out of the voluntary economy by raising sales and income taxes for five years. Think about how many salaries that represents.

Prop. 103 devotes the money to “public education” from preschool through college, taking the 2011-12 budget as the base level. Legislative Council estimates that base at about $4.3 billion (which includes only state funding, not local and federal). Thus, the added taxes would raise state spending by around 12 to 15 percent per year. Of course, how the legislature would adjust education spending absent the tax hike remains anybody’s guess.

Even those who want to raise taxes may question a hike specifically for education. If you think state government should spend relatively more on roads and criminal investigations instead, you may not like Prop. 103 so much. On the other hand, those with particular ideas about how the state should fund education may not see the measure as specific enough.

We think state legislators should prioritize better, cut spending, and lower tax rates so people can keep more of the money they earn. Then people could spend their own money on what they find most important, whether education, a new business, health care, or whatever.

Would spending more tax dollars on education even improve the quality of education? We think not. The Joint Budget Committee notes total Colorado spending on education has jumped from just over $5 billion in 2004-05 to $7.2 billion in 2011-12, a 44 percent increase, while student enrollment has climbed 10 percent. Has education gotten proportionately better over that period? Hardly.

Taking a longer view, Ben DeGrow of the Independence Institute notes, “Since 1970 per-pupil spending in Colorado and the U.S. have more than doubled after counting inflationary changes — even given the real modest freezes and cuts many Colorado K-12 schools have experienced over the past two years.” (Note: Ari has written for the Institute, in one case on a contract basis.)

Coloradans already spend tons of money on education. The NEA recently estimated per-pupil spending here at over $9,500. Education spending already consumes around 37 percent of the state’s total operating budget of $19.6 billion, dwarfing spending for corrections and transportation combined.

What do we get for all that spending? “Adding more tax dollars to K-12 systems on a large scale has no connection to improving academic results,” DeGrow summarizes. As Andrew Coulson reviews for the Cato Institute, as U.S. per-pupil funding has skyrocketed over the last few decades, reading, math, and science scores have virtually flatlined.

Rather than throw more tax dollars at the teachers’ unions and the political cronies they finance, we need to instead find better value for our education dollars. Schools need greater ability to fire dud teachers without incurring union lawsuits. Most districts can get by with fewer administrative paper-shufflers. Schools should stop following the latest expensive fads and get back to teaching the basics.

Over the longer term, we should look at ways to reduce political involvement in education, not expand it. We are heartened by the success of various charter schools throughout the state. Ultimately we’d like to see real choice in education. We prefer universal tax credits over vouchers. Eventually we’d like to see truly free markets emerge in education, with parents, educators, and voluntary charities assuming the basic responsibility for organizing and financing education. Get politicians and bureaucrats out of it.

This fall, though, we face an immediate choice. Should we divert even more money from the hard-pressed voluntary economy to the teachers’ unions, or should we demand greater accountability and better prioritization for the tax dollars we already turn over? Only the latter option comports with economic sanity and your liberty to spend your money as you choose.

The Saul Alinsky Connection: Obama’s Unprincipled Class Warfare Threatens the Nation

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published September 16 by Grand Junction Free Press.

President Obama proves difficult to pin down. On the campaign trail, he opposed mandated health insurance; as president, he sought to impose it. He decried deficits even while ramping up federal spending. Obama answers the domestic jobs crisis by throwing ever more money at it; he answers the Iranian nuclear threat mostly with evasion.

What explains Obama’s slipperiness? After all, this is the man who succeeded a wildly unpopular Republican president on the vague and still-undefined platform of “hope and change.”

A hint to Obama’s character comes through an examination of the original Chicago “community organizer,” Saul Alinsky, author of Rules for Radicalsfrom 1971, the Bible for many on the left. As Peter Slevin writes for a 2007 Washington Post article, Alinsky once offered Hillary Clinton a job (she turned it down), and “a group of his disciples hired Barack Obama” to implement Alinsky’s vision.

We have nothing against radicals per se; indeed, many rightly see in us a radical bent. The term comes from the Latin word for roots; a radical is somebody who tries to get to the root of the matter. Our two favorite radical quotes come from Barry Goldwater — “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice” — and Martin Luther King — “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

But the term “radical” doesn’t reveal which roots a person seeks. On the good side, America’s Founders became the best sort of radicals in their struggle for liberty.

But radicals can also bear deadly poison. A radical racist dyes the whole world a race-tinged hue; radical socialists slaughtered scores of millions of people during the 20th Century.

Our problem with Alinsky rests in his particular sort of radicalism of class warfare and character assassination.

Beneath his platitudes about democracy and the “importance and worth in the individual,” Alinsky reveals his core goal: to “use power for a more equitable distribution of the means of life for all people.” As Obama reformulates it, the goal is to “spread the wealth around” through political force.

In Alinsky’s world, “Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots,” and those in between. “Rules for Radicals,” he explains, “is written for the Have-Nots on how to take [power] away” from the Haves.”

Observe the unmentioned premises behind Alinsky’s project. He presumes that wealth just somehow arrives around us, and some people unfairly grab it first. On such a premise, class warfare becomes inevitable, and forcibly redistributing “the wealth” becomes the radical’s goal.

But in a free society that protects people’s rights, individuals create wealth by reshaping aspects of the natural world using their intelligence and hard work, then trading on a voluntary market. In such a society, the “Haves” earn their wealth through productive effort, and they provide the employment (and at times the voluntary charity) that enables the “Have-Nots” to get ahead in life.

In a free society, some people produce vastly more wealth than others, and profit accordingly, while all remain free to live their lives by their own judgment and participate in a broadly prosperous economy. In a free economy all can prosper, though to different degrees. The mark of a free economy is peaceful and voluntary association, not the power struggles of class warfare.

Unfortunately, in the power-controlled world created by the presumptions that both Alinsky and Obama share, politicians forcibly transfer wealth from those who justly earn it to the politically-favored “Haves.” We call such programs things like “bailouts,” “stimulus spending,” “quantitative easing,” and “entitlements.”

Alinsky preaches the dogma of class warfare while pretending he opposes all dogma. The community organizer, Alinsky writes, “does not have a fixed truth — truth to him is relative and changing.” You may read Obama’s campaign slogan in Alinsky’s line: “Man’s hopes lie in the acceptance of the great law of change.”

Alinsky’s ever-changing world lacking timeless truths gives rise to his unprincipled pragmatism. He openly mocks those concerned about whether the ends justify the means. “The real arena is corrupt and bloody,” he writes, so “one does not always enjoy the luxury” of upholding “individual conscience.” Moral rhetoric on this view becomes a political weapon; “Moral rationalization is indispensable at all times of action,” he writes.

Guided by such views, the left continually employs character assassination against its opponents; note the groundless demonization of Tea Partiers as violence-prone racists. Alinsky explicitly encourages such tactics; he writes, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” He adds, “One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.” As for the truth, well, there’s no such thing, and all that matters is the “moral rationalization.”

Everyone who wants to restore American liberty should read Alinsky’s book, not only to better understand Barack Obama and his allies, but to learn the tactics of the left and how to fight them.

Nation Needs Shared Liberty, Not Sacrifice

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published September 2 by Grand Junction Free Press.

President Obama calls for “shared sacrifice” to address the nation’s debt. But forcing individuals to sacrifice their present and future wealth to politicians’ whims caused the problem. To restore economic prosperity, we need to stop sharing sacrifices and start sharing a respect for liberty and people’s rights.

Obama’s appeal depends on a basic confusion about the nature of sacrifice. The term shares the same root as sacred. Historically, a sacrifice involves a religious rite of giving a gift, often a slaughtered animal, to some deity. That’s where we get the term sacrificial lamb. When viewed in this light, “shared sacrifice” presents an obvious problem: somebody plays the role of the lamb.

Over time sacrifice in popular usage came to mean giving up anything. But because so many things can be given up, and for so many different reasons, the term lost any clear meaning. Instead, often it functions to cloud people’s thinking.

Some use the term to mean giving up something minor to get something better. Chess players call surrendering a piece to get ahead in the game a sacrifice. In baseball, a player makes a sacrifice bunt to allow a teammate to advance a base, though the hitter returns to the bench. In these cases, making a “sacrifice” is good for you: the narrow or short-term loss increases your odds of winning in the end.

Consider the student who stays home to study, rather than going to the movies or the mall, to earn a good education and career. Or a mother who cuts her own budget to expand the opportunities for the children she dearly loves. Or a soldier who risks his safety to defend his liberty and home. Or a fundraiser who supports medical research in memory of a loved one. Should we call these “sacrifices,” even though the person achieves a greater value?

In other cases people use the term sacrifice to mean giving up something important for something trivial or even evil. Someone may sacrifice his career for a drinking binge, his marriage for a meaningless affair, or his savings account for a night of gambling. In extreme cases, various cultures murdered people for human sacrifices to appease some make-believe god, worship a ruler, or try to mystically gain the victim’s strength.

When people apply the same term to earning a good job through hard work and slitting somebody’s throat, that reveals a fundamental confusion.

So what does Obama mean by a “shared sacrifice?” He wants us to imagine that each of us needs to hit a sacrifice bunt so Team America can win the economic game. What he really means is that he wants to sacrifice the time, labor, and earnings of some people for the benefit or pleasure of his political supporters.

Obama clearly wants to raise taxes. From the left we hear envious snarls to further loot “the rich.” Proposals on the table include raising tax rates for some and eliminating tax breaks for things like mortgages and health insurance, for the purpose of raising net taxes. (We approve of dumping tax deductions for special groups, but only to lower rates generally.)

A tax involves forcibly seizing people’s wealth, usually for the benefit of some special interest. Ultimately, Obama threatens to send armed federal agents to your house to drag you off to prison to make you share in this sacrifice.

Other aspects of Obama’s “shared sacrifice” involve reducing sacrifice, not increasing it. CNN writes of a farmer “sympathetic to the president’s calls for shared sacrifice, even if that means cuts to ethanol subsidies.” But a subsidy entails forcibly looting other taxpayers. Eliminating the subsidy means halting the sacrifice of some Americans to others. We’re all for that!

If sacrifice means forcing some individuals to surrender their hard-earned wealth to others, then our goal should be to eliminate sacrifice entirely. A society that sacrifices some people to others relies on brute force and rampant injustice.

A civilized society does not demand sacrifices. Instead it protects people’s rights, including their right to control their own wealth and property as they see fit. In a civilized society, people interact by voluntary consent, not coercion.

“Shared sacrifice” — forcibly looting some for the benefit of others — caused the debt crisis. The solution is to phase out shared sacrifice, not expand it. We should dramatically cut federal spending to balance the budget and then start paying off the debt.

If we care about solving the debt crisis and restoring America’s economic strength, if we care about protecting the rights of each individual, then we must reject shared sacrifice and instead demand shared liberty.