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Hugo Chavez is asking for numerous constitutional changes to “put an end to central bank autonomy, reduce the length of the standard working day, strengthen state expropriation powers and create new types of property managed by co-operatives.”

Whatever Venezuelans think of Hugo Chavez, they must recognize that he is asking for too much power. Someday, a president they don’t like will be elected, and that president will wield the same power that Chavez is now asking for. Surely it is not difficult to imagine a president that wields the power of expropriation or the power to print money indiscriminately for his own personal good, rather than for the good of the people. Venezuelans must place their trust in processes, and not in specific leaders.


The Washington Post reports that congress has passed the warrentless wiretapping expansion the executive branch had requested:

The bill would give the National Security Agency the right to collect such communications in the future without a warrant. But it goes further than that: It also would allow the interception and recording of electronic communications involving, at least in part, people “reasonably believed to be outside the United States” without a court’s order or oversight.


Under the administration’s version of the bill, the director of national intelligence and the attorney general can authorize the surveillance of all communications involving foreign targets. Oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, composed of federal judges whose deliberations are secret, would be limited to examining whether the government’s guidelines for targeting overseas suspects are appropriate. The court would not authorize the surveillance.

I have never understood the conflation of judicial oversight with executive weakness. The ACLU has condemned the Senate for passing the bill.

The Instant Runoff Voting/Ranked Choice Voting in Washington blog points to an article about the King County (my home county) Charter Review Commission which considers improvements to the county’s constitution every ten years, and it is currently considering moving King County to some form of ranked choice voting.

There are a number of interesting things in this article:

  • I didn’t know that the King County constitution got reviewed every ten years; I think that’s pretty cool. I will note that this sort of thing supports John M’s claim that more local governments simply govern better.
  • The article author is woefully uninformed about ‘proportional representation.’ As the commenters note, he fails to differentiate between the result of elections (proportional representation) and the method (ranked choice, which does not even produce proportional representation).
  • I think this bit from the local Democrats was just asinine:

We’re against ‘instant runoff voting,'” Weiss said on behalf of local Democrats. He warned that proportional representation “will blur party lines.”

“It’s meant to cut in on the two-party system. The two-party system has worked pretty well,” Weiss said. “We’ll do everything possible to drive a stake in the heart of instant runoff voting.”

I am glad the King County is considering ranked choice voting, it would certainly be an improvment over first-past-the-post voting, especially for single-seat offices. Establishing local electoral systems where third party and independent candidates can win is an important step in moving towards a country wide political system where the major political parties can actually change over time. Local third party successes will allow third parties to build reputations for being able to win and eventually allow them to seriously contest more important offices.

I will point out that Direct Representation would be a much better approach to proportional representation for multi-seat offices, especially since by-district ranked choice voting does not produce proportional representation.

The Bush administration is again seeking to expand the sphere of presidential power. Not only has the president made several new dubious assertions of executive privilege, but the president now also claims that those assertions are unreviewable by a judge because charging agents of the executive branch with contempt of congress, which would be required in order to have a judge review assertions of executive privilege, requires the executive branch to enforce the law. The administration claims it will not enforce the law, relying on a 1984 Justice Department opinion that:

The President, through a United States Attorney, need not, indeed may not, prosecute criminally a subordinate for asserting on his behalf a claim of executive privilege. Nor could the Legislative Branch or the courts require or implement the prosecution of such an individual.

The Bush administration’s position that one part of executive branch cannot prosecute another part is dangerous to the rule of law. The position traces back to unitary executive theory, which claims that the president holds all executive power. A unitary executive with powers of executive privilege essentially renders the president beyond oversight by congress because the president can always invoke executive privilege and refuse to prosecute himself for contempt to avoid judicial review for executive privilege assertions.  This seriously threatens the rule of law because without strong oversight, the executive branch has enormous power to apply the law arbitrarily.

As a side note: the unitary executive theory is plainly not technically correct. At the very least, congress always holds the power to impeach the president, which is an executive power because congress can initiate enforcement.

On Monday, the SCOTUS ruled that “schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use” (link). This decision explicitly gives schools the right to restrict student speech based on content, rather than the disruptiveness of speech.

The justices have it backwards when they defend the right of the school to restrict student speech that cannot “plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.” Students do not need to justify their speech to the government; the school needs to justify its restrictions. There is a clear reason for limits on disruptive student speech; if any one student is allowed to disrupt a whole classroom or school, public schools would simply not function most of the time, but there is no similarly convincing argument for restrictions on speech which advocate violation of the law, drug laws or any others.

The court argues by fudging the issues. Any public speech advocating the use of drugs must be either social or political speech. It attempts to argue that this is not so by citing the fact that the “bong hits 4 Jesus” student claims the banner was intended as a joke and not to make any sort of political or social statement, but the intent of the student is irrelevant. The banner could certainly be “plausibly interpreted” as advocating the use of drugs, which falls under “commenting on any political or social issue”. This is demonstrated by the fact that the principle did interpret it this way; she interpreted it as advocating the use of marijuana. Public encouragement of drug use can always plausibly be interpreted as either advocating that the use of drugs be decriminalized or advocating for people to use drugs, which is social advocacy and therefore protected speech. If you don’t be believe advocating for people to use drugs is social advocacy, consider advocacy for the opposite behavior; it is impossible to argue that advocating for people not to use drugs is not social commentary. How could advocating one social behavior be social commentary but advocating the opposite social behavior not be social commentary?

I would like to point out that in a voucher system, free speech rights would almost never come up, and the government would not have to restrict the free speech rights of students. If a family felt that a school’s controls on student expression were overly restrictive, they could simply choose another school.

The reason a lot of libertarians object, in general, to government action, is because they view those actions as fundamentally coercive. The power of governments to tax or otherwise expropriate must always ultimately be backed up by force. I take a somewhat different view: while current governments are non-voluntary (coercive), government very much like many western governments is potentially voluntary. I think that the protection of private property rights can be used as the excludable good used to get people to voluntarily pay taxes for collective goods and generally participate in government. For this argument, I will assume that I believe in private property rights as ‘natural rights.’

A lot of the goods that government provides are collective goods, meaning they can’t really be denied to anyone, and if people have a choice whether to contribute resources to help provide for collective goods, they won’t. This is main argument for the necessity of non-voluntary government. Because collective goods cannot be denied to anyone, every individual has an incentive to mooch off the contributions of others but not contributing themselves and if there are a great number of individuals, without noticeably affecting the total amount of good supplied. Since everyone has this same incentive, without the existence of a good that only goes to those that contribute to producing collective goods, collective goods will be largely under-produced. A separate, private, excludable good is needed to convince people to contribute towards collective goods.

Let’s look at an example. One of the simplest examples is national defense. National defense is a collective good because if someone provides defense services they cannot really deny those services to anyone. In the case of national defense, if individuals have the a choice whether to pay taxes to support an army to defend the nation, they won’t. No person will voluntarily pay those taxes because it is very tempting to simply take advantage of the national defense that already exists without themselves contributing, and since the contributions from one person don’t even buy a single soldier, the effect of one person’s non-contribution is not noticeable. People require another incentive to contribute to national defense in order to achieve a reasonable level of security.

If government largely provides collective goods, and collective goods require other incentives or coercion to get people to contribute to them, why do I think that government can be voluntary? I think voluntary government is plausible because I think the protection of property rights (I use the term broadly here) by the police and the courts is potentially that excludable benefit. The general tranquility provided by those services, is a collective benefit, but the individual protection of those rights is excludable, because a government can declare that it will no longer protect a certain individual’s property. There is no doubt that if the government made such a declaration, that individual would be in a heap of trouble, so there is a large non-collective aspect to private property protection services. The important thing about the protection of property rights is that they are very important to the enjoyment of a lot of other goods, it is hard to enjoy physical goods if there is no one stopping others from taking them from you. I won’t use municipal services, like water and sewer, which are often excludable, in my argument because I think that is an issue for another day. The key to voluntary government is bundling collective goods with the protection of individual property rights, people get and pay for all that the government provides or none of it. People will be willing to pay for the collective goods they enjoy if it is the price they pay to get the protection of the police and the courts.

The United States citizen, Jose Padilla, who was designated an illegal enemy combatant by president Bush in an attempt to deny him habeas corpus protections has finally been brought to trial (link). Padilla’s attorney sums up the case:

Political crises can cause parts of our government to overreach. This is one of those times.

I would go further than that; the government always tries to unduly expand its power; political crises let it get away with it.

In the Dallas, TX suburb Farmers Branch, the city council become the first in the nation to pass an ordinance to require renters to prove their legal national status (link). The key phrase from the article:

[City councilman] O’Hare contends the city’s economy and quality of life will improve if illegal immigrants are kept out.

O’Hare means the economy and quality of life of current residents, obviously, not the economy and quality of life of business owners or those immigrants. Farmers Branch residents are trying to use their superior organization to improve their position, in terms of rent and wages, at the expense of business owners and illegal immigrants. By restricting who can live in their area, residents keep housing demand and labor supply in their favor, keeping local rents down and local wages up. Restricting and monitoring immigration might be a national security issue, but small suburbs have no business setting immigration policy, especially no business restricting intra-national immigration.

Daniel Klein at CATO has a wonderful article on coercion (HT to Arnold Kling). Klein has two main points: first, that the distinction between coercive interaction and non-coercive interaction is a useful one to make, and second, that the presumption that more liberty (less coercion) is good, should be a maxim, not an axiom, and should be used as a principle for analysis not automatic condemnation of coercion.

I like his idea of using the presumption of liberty as a maxim, but I think he overemphasizes the coercive nature of government action. Most government actions are indisputably coercive (if we accept private property ethics, at least) because they are enforced by the threat of force; in general, if one doesn’t comply with a government rule, government will ultimately use executive force to ensure compliance. Furthermore, many individuals would ignore certain individual government orders, for example to pay their taxes, without that threat of force. The government as a whole, however, is much less coercive. While the threat of force is used to require participation in the government as a whole (the civil war made that clear), most individuals would choose to participate in the government if they could only choose between total participation, including taxes etc., and no participation, losing all protections and benefits the government provides. The government as a whole is technically coercive, but the moral harm caused by the coercion is fairly small because most individuals would choose to participate in most western governments anyway. Furthermore, I can easily imagine a government which lets its citizens make that choice, eliminating coercion even for individual government actions.

I don’t think we need to discard Klein’s maxim as a tool for analysis because government power need not be coercive, but it needs to be modified a little bit. I have not found a good way to articulate how I think it needs to be modified, so I will talk about that in another post.

I should note that Klein’s view of coercion presumes individual private property as its ethics, which I am not ready to wholly accept, but I will leave that discussion for another day.