‘First Freedom First’

A reader pointed me to FirstFreedomFirst.org, a project of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The site encourages people to ask candidates ten questions.

First Freedom asks whether candidates believe that “America is a ‘Christian Nation’,” or, alternately, that “everyone’s religious freedom needs to be protected by what Thomas Jefferson called ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state.” First Freedom also asks candidates whether they believe that “one’s right to disbelieve in God is protected” by law. Those questions are fine.

Unfortunately, other questions are ambiguous or otherwise problematic. Moreover, they are not nearly as useful as the five questions that I have proposed.

First Freedom does not ask any question specifically about abortion. Its final question asks, “What should guide our policies on public health and medical research: science or religion?” But various Christians can and do rationalize bans on abortion and stem-cell research on the (alleged) basis of “science,” so the question accomplishes little.

I, on the other hand, ask candidates to declare whether they “Oppose efforts to restrict the legal right of adult women to obtain an abortion” and “Oppose bans on embryonic stem-cell research.”

Even worse, First Freedom implies that it’s fine for government to forcibly transfer wealth to religious groups. The site asks, “Should ‘faith-based’ charities that receive public funds be allowed to discriminate against employees or applicants based on religious beliefs?” But forcing people to fund “‘faith-based’ charities” violates the rights of those who do not wish to fund such organizations. That is why I ask whether candidates “Oppose the spending of tax dollars on programs with religious affiliations, such as ‘faith-based’ welfare.” Freedom of religion entails the right not to fund religious groups.

First Freedom asks, “Do you think my pharmacist should be allowed to deny me doctor-prescribed medications based on his or her religious beliefs?” “Allowed,” by whom? The question implies that pharmacists must be subjected to federal controls. My view is that pharmacists have the right to conduct business however they see fit (so long as they do not damage their clients through fraud, negligence, or other abuses); what medicines a pharmacist sells should be strictly up to that pharmacist. If you don’t like the policies of a particular pharmacist, you are free do to business with another pharmacist and to publicly criticize the one you don’t like. The separation of church and state implies that the state cannot force business owners to act against their religious beliefs.

First Freedom asks, “Do you think Houses of Worship should be allowed to endorse political candidates and retain their tax exempt status?” The thrust of the question is fine, given modern laws, yet my deeper problem is with the tax laws. I don’t think any advocacy group should be subjected to taxation or federal rules. But, then again, I do not think that any business or group should be subject to taxation; every group should be “tax exempt” and free from federal rules. (I’m not a a fan of taxation in general, but I think taxing individuals only would be a vast improvement over taxing individuals as well as groups.)

First Freedom asks two questions about “public” schools: “Do you think public schools should sponsor school prayer or, as a parent, should this choice be left to me? Would you support a law that mandates teaching creationism in my child’s public school science classes?” These questions are pretty good, but the problem lies with the definition of a “public” school. While my questions don’t include a specific reference to school prayer, my question about creationism is more precise: I ask whether candidates “Oppose the spending of tax dollars to teach creationism and/or intelligent design as science.”

First Freedom asks, “Will you respect the rights of those in our diverse communities of faith who deem same-gender marriage to be consistent with their religious creed?” This is a poor question because it focuses on rights of conscience rather than rights of contract. What about people who are not part of “diverse communities of faith?” The point is that contract law — of which marriage law is a type — ought not be driven by religious dogma. I favor “domestic partnerships” for gay couples because they have the right to enter contractual relationships just as heterosexual couples do.

However pleased I am to see First Freedom taking up the fight for the separation of church and state, the organization cannot be very effective until it develops a consistent set of principles.

Taxes for God

Today’s Denver Post reports:

Religious groups feel bullied by proposal
A lawmaker says she’s willing to discuss the bill dealing with employment discrimination.
By Electa Draper
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 01/29/2008 11:28:19 PM MST

State Rep. Alice Madden said a flawed draft of a bill, meant to repair a 2007 statute dealing with employment discrimination, has given her a little taste of hellfire.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Denver and Focus on the Family have attacked Madden’s draft, which would prevent faith-based organizations that accept government funds from hiring people of a particular religion to carry out their charitable missions.

Archbishop Charles Chaput said the bill appeared to be an attempt “to bully religious groups out of the public square.” …

“This is not meant to change real-world behavior one iota,” Madden said. “We are trying to make it clear that employers generally should not discriminate on the basis of religion. Clearly, there could be exceptions.”

It is telling that Chaput regards your money as “the public square.”

Chaput easily could resolve the issue by declining to take other people’s money by force.

But, clearly, the Christian injunction against theft poses no theological challenge to the forcible redistribution of wealth, as some religious libertarians claim.

Jesus, Taxes, and the Media

On January 24, The Denver Post published a story by Electa Draper titled, “Psalm 1040: Prof urges a fairer tax.” The teaser line states, “Government, she says, fails to follow the Scriptures’ lead in helping the poor and the kids.” The story reviews the ideas of “Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor with credentials in taxes and theology.” It begins:

How would Jesus tax?

It wouldn’t be the way Colorado, the 49 other states and the federal government do it, says Susan Pace Hamill, a University of Alabama law professor with credentials in taxes and theology.

Despite Scripture principles, state and federal tax systems burden the poor and relieve the rich, she says.

Jesus paid taxes, told followers to give the government its due, broke bread with tax collectors and chose one, Matthew, to be an apostle, according to the New Testament.

This story is odd for a couple of reasons.

First, it is an advocacy piece masquerading as a news story. Why isn’t this on the editorial pages? Notably, Draper does not interview a single religious critic of Hamill’s thesis. (While many religious conservatives would agree to reduce taxes for the poor, they would not agree to raise taxes on others.) Surely there is no shortage of religious conservatives in this state. Nor does Draper interview a non-religious leftist, or a non-religious advocate of low taxes. Does The Denver Post’s news side really see its proper role as advocating particular religious doctrines?

Second, the story is old. It contains no news “hook.” Moreover, it is derivative. For example, on August 1, 2006, the Lancaster Intelligencer Journal published a similar story by Jeff Hawkes titled, “Who Would Jesus Tax?” Draper’s story discusses taxes generally and sites some figures about Colorado, but it is not based on any Colorado-specific event or personality. Why is this news?

Hamill’s thesis is essentially egalitarianism draped in religious cloth.

Nevertheless, Hamill does make an interesting point:

Among Colorado’s offenses is that the state makes its lowest-earning 20 percent of the population pay 9.9 percent of their income in taxes, while the top 1 percent of wealthy Coloradans pay 6.1 percent of their income.

“The poor and middle class pay almost four times the tax, proportionately, that the rich people pay in Colorado,” Hamill said.

Apparently, Hamill’s figure of “four times” is based on the fact that the middle class vastly outnumber the rich. I’ll accept her figures at face value, unless someone can point to an error in them.

I don’t think anybody would argue that the poor should pay a greater percent of their income in taxes than the wealthy pay. For example, in 2004 I wrote:

I have a simple proposal that should gain bi-partisan support… Exempt everyone making less than $20,000 per year from nearly all taxes.

If you make less than $20,000 in a calendar year, after expenses, I propose you don’t have to file income taxes at all. The burden of proof then lies with tax collectors to prove you earned more than that. You don’t have to pay federal or state income tax. If you’re in retail sales, you don’t have to collect state or local sales tax. If you own property, you don’t have to pay property tax.

You also don’t have to pay Social Security tax. Why should a poor working family be forced to pay a retired millionaire to play golf in Hawaii?

However, I did not propose taxing others at a higher rate: “I would favor reducing government spending by the amount lost in tax revenues.” Indeed, I would lower taxes on everyone, across the board. But my position does not depend on any religious doctrine: it depends upon a theory of individual rights, rooted in the objective requirements of human life. (For one source of empirical support for the view that economic liberty brings prosperity, see The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.)

But which is the more faithful interpretation of Christianity? That of religious conservatives, who at times support free markets and low taxes, or that of religious egalitarians? As Paul Hsieh reviews, the religious right increasingly adopts the welfare agenda of the left. What defines the religious right is not a commitment to free markets — far from it — but rather a commitment to more political controls over our personal lives.

"Crank This Sucker Up"

Deb Riechmann writes for the AP that President Bush supports “an economic rescue package that would include extra money for food stamps and jobless benefits in addition to tax rebates of hundreds of dollars each for millions of Americans. … ‘Crank this sucker up,’ he exclaimed…”

But the only suckers are the ones who believe that Bush’s plan will do any long-term good.

There are two obvious problems with Bush’s proposal. First, it includes no commitment to offsetting the welfare transfers and tax rebates with reductions in federal spending. Second, it seems to promise more federal spending to cover the additional welfare transfers. In other words, spending will go up even more, while tax revenues will go down. This will be achieved through the magic of deficit spending, which necessarily takes real wealth out of the private economy by reducing investments, and/or more inflation. And, to address the problem of unemployment, Bush will pay people more not to work. That’s Bush’s strategy for “rescuing” the economy.

The Democrats are unhappy because Bush does not want to bump up federal spending to even higher levels than he already plans: “‘We want a balanced package of tax rebates for the middle class and spending stimuli that jump-start the economy quickly. The president has included one; he also needs the other to quickly improve our economy,’ said Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.”

Because the way to “jump-start the economy” is to forcibly take even more wealth from the people who earn it and turn it over to bureaucrats. “Spending stimuli” in this context is a euphemism for taking other people’s money for political payoffs to special interests.

The Denver Post agrees with the basic strategies above but also wants more tax breaks for businesses and, apparently, some sort of federal bailout for people who signed onto mortgages that they cannot now afford. Oh, and force down the interest rate more.

Nowhere in the popular media have I read about the policies that would actually improve the economy over the long term: cut (or at least restrain) federal spending and reduce political economic controls.

Cato’s Daniel Mitchell gets the basic problems with Bush’s proposal:

The president’s proposed stimulus based on “temporary” tax cuts designed to boost “consumer spending” will not work. It is a disappointing re-run of the misguided policies of Jimmy Carter. Rebates are particularly disappointing because they resuscitate the discredited Keynesian notion that an economy benefits when the government borrows money from people in one sector of the economy and distributes it to people in another sector of the economy. Economic growth occurs when there is an increase in national income, not a redistribution of national income.

However, even Mitchell, a supply-sider, talks about tax cuts without mentioning spending cuts:

That is why lower marginal tax rates on work, saving, and investment are the best short-term and long-term strategy for faster growth. But such tax rate reductions should be permanent since temporary tax cuts — even well-designed tax rate reductions rather than rebates — do little more than generate economic activity today at the expense of less activity in the future.

Yet the first part of Mitchell’s comments explains why tax cuts without spending cuts don’t work.

Douglas Bruce Faces the Music…

… Yet, unfortunately, he seems to be tone deaf. As I’ve reviewed, on his first day on the job as a state representative, he kicked a photographer from the Rocky Mountain News. Bruce has not, so far as I’ve heard, apologized for the incident. Instead, he has tried to blame the journalist and downplay his behavior.

Now Bruce faces an investigation by the state house:

Joint statement from House on Bruce investigation
By The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 01/15/2008 01:37:37 PM MST

Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, and House Republican Leader Mike May, R-Parker, issued the following statement today in response to the formation of a special committee to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident that occurred between then Rep.-elect Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, and a member of the press on the floor of the House of Representatives on Jan. 14, 2008.

“We are both deeply troubled by the incident that took place yesterday morning. We are committed to preserving order and decorum in the House of Representatives.

“We have asked the committee to collect evidence and to hear testimony and to report back to the House on or before the 25th of January. …”

Editorials by The Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, and The Daily Sentinel, and other papers have condemned Bruce’s behavior. Columnists Mike Littwin and Susan Greene have written humorous and biting criticisms of Bruce.

Bruce has become the Democrats’ new best friend. What better way to promote the stereotype of Republicans as heartless jerks? If Bruce is the “father” of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, then Democrats will reply that the fruit does not fall far from the tree. That’s too bad, because limiting taxes is really about expanding voluntary interaction and reducing the initiation of physical force.

Perhaps that’s why one of the harshest condemnations has come from conservative John Andrews:

State Rep. Douglas Bruce jerking around Speaker Andrew Romanoff before joining the House was one thing: a calculated bid for attention, rude but arguably shrewd. His putting the boot, literally, to a Rocky Mountain News photographer is something else again, however: plug-stupid with no conceivable justification.

Someone needs to tell him the ink-by-the-barrel rule of political life and public relations. Bruce’s foolhardy footwork, bringing down the wrath of Rocky publisher John Temple along with a near-unanimous rebuke from his own Republican caucus, is an utter loser for the man’s legislative aspirations and, worse, for the GOP conservative cause he claims to support.

Deliver us, please, from such friends. My endorsement of Bruce’s candidacy for this House seat, and my congratulations to him upon winning in it, are on extreme probation and rapidly approaching termination.

What a circus!

New year’s Resolutions for the Legislature

New year’s resolutions for the Legislature

by Linn and Ari Armstrong

The following article was originally published by Grand Junction Free Press on January 7, 2008.

Unfortunately, if legislators articulated their New Year’s resolutions, some of them would go like this: “Pander to special-interest groups,” “Tax the disorganized masses in order to reward the politically powerful,” “Talk about freedom while increasing state power,” and “Figure out how to spin my opponent’s record so that I can win votes without having to debate the real issues.”

If most legislators were not allergic to principles of liberty, we would suggest resolutions such as the following: dramatically reduce the level of state spending so that individuals can decide how to spend the money they earn, repeal the property-rights violation known as the smoking ban, and eliminate corporate welfare.

But we know that such “radical,” “extreme” positions would never gain a hearing in the modern Capitol, where the only “principle” is that no principles are allowed. Therefore, we will offer a set of milder resolutions that even this year’s legislature might consider.

1. Help restore freedom in medicine. Even though decades of political controls have wreaked havoc with health care in America, many of today’s “reformers” call for even more political controls. Legislators should resist such demands. To address the problems in health care, legislators should not raise taxes, impose more controls on doctors or insurance companies, or force people to buy politically-approved insurance. Such measures will only make matters worse.

Instead, the legislature should do what it can to restore liberty in medicine, so that doctors, insurance companies, and patients can interact voluntarily to find solutions that work. The state imposes a variety of mandates that force up insurance costs; the legislature should repeal those. However, many of the most important reforms, such as fixing the tax distortions that drive up costs, must be made at the federal level. While the Colorado legislature cannot fix federal problems, at least it can resist “reforms” that would make those problems worse. It could also pass a resolution calling for the repeal of national controls.

To learn more about the causes of modern problems in health care, and how those problems can be solved, read “Moral Health Care vs. ‘Universal Health Care’,” by Coloradans Lin Zinser and Paul Hsieh, MD, available at TheObjectiveStandard.com.

2. Fight the expansion of the Nanny State. For now, we seem to be stuck with the rights-violating smoking ban. But at least the Democrats have mostly shied away from trying to push more controls on peaceable, law-abiding gun owners. We know that some Democrats sincerely want to put the screws to honest gun owners, but they are holding back for political reasons. Whatever their reasons, we hope that the Democratic leadership continues to resist the siren song of the victim-disarmament lobby.

It looks like some Democrats might actually try to roll back the Nanny State where alcohol laws are concerned. In Colorado, we still can’t legally purchase alcoholic beverages at liquor stores on Sundays, which is ridiculous. Nor can grocery stores sell anything other than 3.2 beer. We call on the legislature to repeal those restrictions. Consumers and sellers have a right to conduct business on terms to which they agree, rather than terms forced on them by politicians.

3. Keep tax spending under control. The left is great at talking “on message,” and already we are hearing calls to “fix” the state’s Constitution. State Senator Bernie Buescher has joined this crowd, according to The Denver Post. Yet, as Douglas Bruce told the Post, “This is all a big smoke screen to go after the [Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights] amendment… The way they want to fix the TABOR amendment is the way a veterinarian would fix your pet. They want to neuter it.” This despite the fact that we’re still paying for the multi-billion dollar net tax increase of Referendum C.

The problem, says the Post, is a set of “provisions limiting taxes and mandating spending.” We’re all for repealing provisions that mandate spending, such as Amendment 23, which automatically increases the flow of tax dollars to government-run schools. The only reason that the spending limits are a problem is that politicians can’t get enough of other people’s money. The lesson that politicians constantly forget is that people are able to spend their own money wisely, thank you very much. At least for most of the state’s budget, political spending forcibly takes money from some people in order to give the money to others.

We also suggest a broader resolution: protect individual rights. We have the right to control our own bodies and property, so long as we don’t interfere with the equal rights of others. We have the right to spend our income as we see fit. The sole legitimate purpose of government is to protect individual rights. With every vote, legislators should think about whether they are about to violate or protect individual rights.

Even legislators have been known to do the right thing.

Ref. C Costs Keep Rising

Referendum C is the net tax hike passed in Colorado in 2005. For background, see my “Referendum C Central.”

In Colorado, tax dollars collected in excess of what may be legally spent must be returned to the taxpayers, under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. But Referendum C allowed the state government to keep all of the excess dollars for several years, regardless of the amount. (That is why I call it a net tax hike.) The amount has risen dramatically, as The Pueblo Chieftain recently pointed out:

When it was pitched to voters, supporters of the measure initially said it would raise an additional $3 billion over five years – then the figure quickly was raised to $3.75 billion.

We believed the figure would be closer to $7 billion, based on the additional bounty the federal Treasury was bringing in as a result of the economic boost from the Bush tax rate cuts. But we were being too conservative.

Last week the office of Gov. Bill Ritter released its quarterly economic and revenue forecast. That document admitted that our prediction was closer to the truth.

So now we will go boldly where no one has gone before and predict that Ref C will result in an increase in state revenues of $10 billion over the five-year period.

The exact figure will not be known till after the fact, but obviously it will be billions of dollars more than Referendum C’s supporters originally predicted.

Dave Kopel writes about this for the recently created Colorado Union of Taxpayers Weblog. Kopel argues:

Although the ref C advocates dishonestly described ref C as as “temporary” “five-year” “time-out” from the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, the effect of ref C will be a permanent increase in state government taxing and spending levels allowed under the state Constitution. And yet, $10 billion extra dollars, over five years, plus billions and billions more in perpetuity, is not enough for the tax consumer lobby, which is gearing up to push another tax increase on the 2008 ballot.

It’s not clear exactly when or how the tax-hikers will make their move, but they obviously want to figure out a way to take even more of other people’s money by force. Apparently, to them the refrain, “just a few billion more,” never gets old.

The Morality of Force

Yesterday I discussed Governor Bill Ritter’s plans to ask for more tax dollars — for a goal yet to be decided.

The Rocky Mountain News article that I cited contains another telling line:

Ritter appeared before the committee to present his first proposed budget, which was received warmly, signaling it has a good chance of being adopted mostly intact.

Ritter told the committee that his “moral document” would boost funding for higher education and children’s health care…

In other words, Ritter believes that it is moral to take wealth by force from some people in order to give it to others. Thus, it is no surprise that Ritter wants to increase tax spending even more than it has already been increased in recent years. Yesterday I asked, “And how much will he ask for?” The answer is, “As much as he can get away with.” That is, as much as Coloradans will tolerate. According to Ritter’s explicit moral premises, there is no “moral” limit to increases in tax spending, so long as some people have wealth that other people “need.” According to Ritter’s philosophy, people who earn wealth have no right to it. In times past, Ritter’s “moral” philosophy at its most consistent was summed up by the principle, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Yet Ritter is not content merely to forcibly transfer wealth and allow the recipients to define their needs. Instead, he wants to tell people what they need, then redistribute wealth accordingly. For example, Ritter’s administration thinks that children “need” to be taught more rigorously how to be good little environmentalists — at taxpayer’s expense, of course. As David Harsanyi writes for The Denver Post:

Not long ago, Ritter assembled the P-20 Education Coordinating Council to foster a “seamless education system from pre-school to grad- school.”

Nowhere in the literature of the P-20 Education Coordinating Council — and I’ve looked far and wide — does it mention anything about the educational system being used to politically indoctrinate children.

Yet, the Climate Action Plan [proposed by Ritter] says that “the state will work through the Governor’s P-20 Education Council and others to make sustainability curricula become standard fare in K-12 classrooms throughout the state.”

Why doesn’t Ritter “think big” and “be bold” and propose using the tax-funded “seamless education system from pre-school to grad-school” to teach endless classes on the theme, “Why Politicians Should Run Your Life?”

Ritter the Leader

Chris Barge wrote an amusing article November 8 for the Rocky Mountain News. He reports:

Gov. Bill Ritter said Thursday he may ask voters to approve a tax increase next year to pay for either health care, transportation or higher education.

But he emphasized that while all three priorities need extra funding, only one of them should wind up on the ballot. Colorado voters are too fiscally conservative to approve more than one tax increase at a time, he said.

Barge reports that Ritter told the Joint Budget Committee, “I don’t think we can go for all three. That would be unfair to voters and would demonstrate a lack of leadership on my part and on the part of the legislature.”

We wouldn’t want a lack of leadership! Because, you know, promoting a tax increase for an unspecified goal, that’s real leadership. Especially when we’re still in the initial phase of the spending hikes from Referendum C. And, assuming that Ritter can figure out which tax hike to promote next year, when can we expect requests for the other two items? And how much will he ask for? The “208” Commission promotes health controls that will cost over a billion dollars of new taxes every year (and those are according to the figures bought by the Commission). Is that the end of the list? Even if Ritter got more tax dollars for health care, transportation, and higher education, would he be satisfied, or would he ask for still more?

Apparently, Ritter thinks that leadership consists of expanding the power, scope, and spending of government. The particulars of how that happens are of secondary concern.