Evidence for Emerson

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In the olden days — say, the 1960s — college professors were still carrying on debates about something called the Influence of Great Men on History. Basically, they denied that there was any.

Emerson had written, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man . . . and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.” A century later, not many earnest professors, spending their lives in the lengthened shadows of the American Historical Association, cared to believe that. Even Bismarck and Napoleon were the products of social circumstances, etc.

Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality.

Arrayed on the other side were the writers of popular history. Whether they were sincerely attracted to the Emersonian idea, or they knew that social history doesn’t sell, they busied themselves about topics that assumed the crucial influence of a few important people. The multitudes of What Would Have Happened articles exemplify the trend: what would have happened if Hitler had ordered more air attacks at Dunkirk? What would have happened if Lincoln had not been shot? What would have happened if Lee had occupied better terrain at Gettysburg?

Well, what indeed? But the academics just got more and more “social.” Today, if you want to publish historical articles with Emersonian assumptions, you will not, I repeat not, get tenure.

Yet although they don’t seem to realize it, the professors are now faced with a dilemma. Almost all of them hate President Trump, and lots of them spend their idle hours — which appear to be many — campaigning against him, asserting that if he is permitted to prevail, America will become a nationalist, white supremacist, xenophobic state. But this assumes that the political shape of the nation has a good chance of being irrevocably changed by the election of a single powerful personality. And this is contrary to what you think you believe.

Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters.

I’ll leave people who are so wise about history to discuss that problem among themselves. I simply wish to note that Trump’s very deficiencies offer good evidence for the historical influence of personality. If Trump’s personality were not significant, wouldn’t the social movement that elected him have the professors and the other members of the ruling class on the run by now?

A person of normal discernment could have followed up his victory, which was a triumph over the entrenched leadership of both political parties, by getting at least three or four parts of his agenda immediately enacted. Every victory would have strengthened his position for the next big effort to fulfill his movement’s social demands. But no. Trump — because he is Trump — diverted himself with midnight messages, confused assaults on Obamacare, and puerile entertainment of his core supporters. So far, none of his opponents’ fears, real or purported, have turned out to have been justified. Is this not evidence for the crucial importance of the individual personality?

And as to his opponents . . . Their strategy has depended on the socialist ideal of mass resistance among the populace. And what has this strategy accomplished? Nothing in particular. What has stymied Trump hasn’t been their Marches for Science and Marches for Women and Marches Against the Border and Marches for the Sake of Marches. It has been the lengthened shadow of Trump himself.




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Infighting: The Libertarian National Pastime

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Baseball is America's national pastime, or so the saying goes. I can say something similar for the libertarian movement. Not a day goes by that two well-known libertarians don't have a fight on Facebook or Twitter, each accusing and condemning the other and seeking to persuade the other to leave the libertarian movement entirely. On some days, in Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other. All of these people self-define as "libertarian"!

Why does this happen? I think one explanation is that, to be a "libertarian," one must (probably) possess certain core beliefs about freedom, capitalism, etc., and have a certain attitude toward government and individual rights. The Non-Aggression Axiom is a nice summary of that attitude. But that leaves room for many positions, on many issues — which means that there are many issues about which libertarians have passionate feelings. Since core libertarian values don’t clearly define what your position on these issues should be, there are going to be many people in strong opposition, within the same tent.

In Facebook’s libertarian groups, there are entire wars — the military campaigns and attacks and counterattacks of masses of people fighting each other.

For example, a libertarian can be pro-choice or pro-life, can be minarchist or anarchist, can be for open immigration or closed borders, can be pro-GOP or pro-LP or pro-anarchy, can be pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I would even say that a libertarian can be anti-Union and pro-Confederacy (from opposition to centralized government) or anti-Confederacy and pro-Union (from opposition to slavery) — although it is curious that this quarrel is still considered relevant, more than a century and a half after the Civil War ended.

So, let's be frank. Take, for example, abortion. Pro-life people believe they are crusaders against the murder of babies. Pro-choice people believe they are crusaders for women's rights, and that the government’s taking control of a woman's body is the moral equivalent of rape. These people hate each other. But, within the big tent of libertarianism, both types of people exist, often in even numbers.

Because this issue is so important, fighting is inevitable. But note that libertarians, as a group, tend to be people who define their identity by means of their political positions. As such, libertarians will tend, not merely to argue, but to try to say that theirs is the position that should win, that it is the "one true libertarianism," that it is logically necessary from libertarian core principles (which it never is, because the core principles don't define these positions), and then kick everyone who disagrees out of the movement. To continue my example: the pro-life libertarians will accuse the pro-choice ones of being liberals who should go join the Democratic Party; in return, the pro-choice libertarians will call the pro-lifers closet conservatives who should call themselves such. And then, to each other, they will say GFY, GTFO, and other rude, insulting acronyms I only learned after spending some time on Facebook Groups.

A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom.

And do you know what I think? I think this is necessary because of the structural foundation of the libertarian position itself. Liberty specifies a few core positions and then leaves gaps and room for individuals to think through their own beliefs on each specific issue. And you know what else? I think that this is how things are always going to be, and any alternative would be no better, even though this state of affairs has some toxic consequences.

What would be better? For some master leader of the movement to choose his position and impose it on every other libertarian, so that the movement could have ideological purity and unity? A bunch of robots marching in unison is not what people seek in the spirit of truth and beauty that comes from political freedom. And, in the absence of someone forcing everyone else to conform to one position, the diversity of positions will persist, and from them follows the necessary infighting.

But what are the toxic side effects? Libertarians can't agree on specific political issues, hence cannot rally around one candidate. If all the libertarians who are registered Republican, and all the ones who are registered Libertarian, and all sympathizers of both, could vote on one unity candidate, that might be enough votes to pose a threat to the establishment. But it can't happen, because there is too much disunity to unite around one candidate. With libertarian votes split between GOP, LP, and people who don't vote as a matter of principle, we just don't have the votes to elect our own candidates. Furthermore, constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

What is the solution to this problem? As I see it, there isn't one, and if there were it would be worse than the problem. In a free-for-all, there is fighting, and unregulated capitalism is, among many other things, a free-for-all.

Constant infighting creates a militant, disrespectful culture, in which libertarians, who should naturally be friends, become their own fiercest enemies.

But, to conclude on a note of hope, the candidacy of Trump proves that charisma is far more important for getting votes than party unity. If the Libertarian Party would nominate a candidate with great personal charisma and a cult of personality, then he or she could win the White House. If Trump can win then anyone can. But until that happens, we'll just wait on the sidelines of politics and kick one another in the teeth for disagreeing about which color of mouthwash is correct for libertarian dental hygiene. And, of course, both sides will think that the color of their mouthwash is defined by the Non-Aggression Axiom or Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul, and that they themselves are obviously correct, and that everyone else can JGTFO.




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All that Glitters Is Not Green

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Say what you will about urban woes, there is an American City — let’s call it the Emerald City — where everything appears to be swell, all the time. Just think: even among its lowly municipal employees there are 10,600 who make over $100,000 a year. That’s $1.3 billion a year, total.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks. The commissioner must do a good job, because last year she earned a $100,000 bonus, on top of her $300,000 salary.

Emerald City’s Water Management Department employs none but the finest: more than 700 of its people merit and receive over $100,000 a year, each.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks.

To keep the streets all green and shiny, Emerald City pays at least 160 of its Streets and Sanitation employees more than $100,000 a year. And to keep those streets safe, the city fields 5,007 Police Department employees who work so hard, what with overtime and all, that they too make more than $100,000.

Their salaries are especially well merited, considering the extreme and demoralizing difficulty of solving the city’s crimes. In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Only a happy and wealthy populace can afford to employ civil servants at prices like these. The willingness — nay, the eagerness — of Emerald City’s citizens to employ no one but the best is indicated by the fact that during the past five years, the average family’s tax contribution has increased by $1,700. That’s city taxes alone, mind you. But the citizens go farther: as of three years ago, they were willing to go into debt to the tune of $63 billion, an average of $61,000 per household — more than enough to move into a brand-new house almost anywhere on the Yellow Brick Road. And those figures have risen since.

But here’s a curious thing. The median household income of the United States is something like $56,000, but in only 16 of Emerald City’s 50 most populous statistical neighborhoods is the median household income $56,000 or greater. The bottom 16 neighborhoods have incomes of less than $37,000. Isn’t that interesting?

In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Another interesting statistic: In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Emerald City, a number that a police spokesman called “unacceptable.” Yet by mid-August of this year, the figure for 2017 already stood at 463.

And if report be true, Emerald City is not the spotless land of delight that Dorothy Gale reported visiting. Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Yet, according to statistics, not many of the very rich actually live in Emerald City. None of the city’s 50 neighborhoods has a median household income of $100,000. In the wealthiest one, median incomes are in the low 90s, less than the incomes just cited for the 10,600 civil servants. And since the median income of the entire city is only $47,000, it seems likely that a sociologist would analyze the situation as one in which a comparatively small number of city employees ruthlessly exploit the great majority of their employers, giving them practically nothing in return.

The sociologist might then turn to the political scientist and ask, “How long can this go on?” The political scientist might answer, “Who knows? Somehow, the voters of Emerald City have empowered the same political party, the same political customs, the same political regime, for more than three generations, no matter what happened as a result. This looks like a job for a psychologist.”

Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Thus consulted, the psychologist would probably say, “The citizens of Emerald City are like almost everyone else in the United States. They all do things like this. Who am I to judge? Statistically, people in Emerald City are sane and normal.”

I think there’s a chapter in one of the Oz books where this problem comes up. Having discovered what is actually going on in the Emerald City, a crowd rushes to the palace, shouting, “To the Wizard! To the Wizard! The Wizard will explain it!” Sure enough, the door of the palace opens, and out comes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He’s carrying a book, and he says, “Back where I come from, we have people who are called theo . . . theologo . . . theologians! They spend all day thinking about the human soul. And they have nothing more to say about it than they can find in this old book.”

The Wizard opens it and reads:

A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

“So,” said the Wizard, “you can all go home. Get out of here now — go on! Go on home.”




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The Liberty League

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Individuality is a concept crucial to liberty. The understanding that each of us is an individual is necessary if we are to keep our freedom and use it wisely. Individuality is, therefore, the main concept that tyrants want us to forget. Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I hear a lot of talk, in libertarian circles, about “isms” and “ists.” It seems that these days, everyone has to adhere to an “ism,” be some sort of an “ist” or at least march under a banner that makes a bold statement. Am I a paleolibertarian, an anarchocapitalist, an Objectivist, a Rothbardian, or a Gold Coinage Free Spiritarian? (I made that last one up, but it sounds grand.) When I tell people that I consider myself a just plain libertarian, they tend to sigh as if to say, “How boring!”

It’s disheartening to me to hear my fellow liberty-lovers label themselves like that. I like to think that only statists think that way. But to most people of any political stripe, it seems inadequate simply to be themselves. It’s as if they’re little kids, trying on different superhero costumes at the department store. Which color cape, tights, and boots do they want to wear? What sort of special superpowers do they aspire to possess?

Tyranny makes war on the individual. That means that it makes war on each and every one of us.

I have reached that settled point in middle age where my main concern is how I believe I should live. How can I be the best individual human being I’m capable of being, based on my own priorities in life? Flashy capes and go-go boots do nothing for me (as probably everyone who could visualize me in them would agree). Living my own, ordinary, non-superheroic life is pretty much a full-time job.

Perhaps our society’s fascination with superheroes springs from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant. To many people, minding their own business and living their individual lives as best they can is simply boring. Being masters of themselves and wielding power in their own lives doesn’t strike them as enough.

But the truth of the matter is, that’s all we’ve got. Each of us can do, in our lives, only whatever it is given us to do. If our liberty to live as we see fit is not impeded, and we accomplish this, then at the end of our lives we can be satisfied that we’ve reached our full potential. It could very well be that the reason big government and political power have become so important in our society is that few of us understand that.

Our society’s fascination with superheroes may spring from the notion that we, ourselves, as individuals, are woefully insignificant.

Many people feel the burning need to tell others how to live. They aren’t content unless they’re wielding power over as many other people as possible. Because they don’t see themselves as enough, they feel they must join some entity larger than themselves, wear a fancy label, and function as components of a collective endeavor. Planning their own lives is not nearly as exciting as planning everyone else’s.

We wear labels in order to influence other people. To mind our own business, we need no label. A life of quiet integrity leads by example. Few of us ever learn that this is the deepest and most profound influence any human being can ever wield.

It’s possible, of course, that those of us who are libertarians would win more converts if we donned colorful costumes with tights and capes. Instead of “The Justice League,” we could call ourselves “The Liberty League.” Ours would need to be more effective than the old American Liberty League of the 1930s. After all, we wouldn’t want to be one-picture wonders. To endure, we must have an entire franchise.

If Hollywood did make movies about us, liberty would become — as the kids say — a thing. But under those conditions, my own wish would be to possess Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. I could stride into D.C. brandishing that magical weapon and drive every politician and ideologist, of whatever kind, out of town. I can imagine no service I might perform for my country that would be more superheroic.




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Capitalism Claims Another Victim

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A few years ago I invented something called the Atlas Shrugged Scale. It’s a way of estimating how close reality comes to the satire in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

Some may recall the time when the novel’s portrayal of bureaucrats, social activists, government enforcers, and crony capitalists was denounced as impossibly far-fetched, as just downright pigheadedly mean. We don’t hear much talk like that anymore.

The reason is that every day brings us real-life stories that seem to be written by Ayn Rand, still satirizing from the Next World.

The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of the capitalist system.

Here’s one. A college is started by a dissident professor who thinks it’s a good thing for faculty to be scared by their students. He puts his college in an economically depressed town where lots of people have time and government benefits on their hands. It apparently admits everyone who wants to enroll, and to have no required courses. There are no grades. Yet in 40 years it manages to enroll at most 200 people at a time. When the college wants to establish a “cultural exchange” with another institution, it chooses the University of Havana. Vaunted college accreditors vouch for the place.

The annual budget of this college is around $20,000 per student, a hefty sum for a place that barely exists. But its president, who seems to owe her appointment to the fact that she is married to a congressman who is a former mayor of the town (and a future US senator), borrows millions of dollars to expand the campus, assuring lenders that there is plenty of money coming in. The money doesn’t come in, although the president has no problem collecting her large salary. Finally she is prevailed upon to resign. Her successor is persuaded to resign by a student mob. Two years after that, the college collapses and ceases to exist. The moral that friends of the college take home with them is that the college was a victim of . . . the capitalist system.

The story is well summarized here. The institution is Burlington College. Its former president is Jane Sanders, wife of Bernie Sanders. The story’s score on the Atlas Shrugged Scale is 9.

Don’t ask me what events would justify a 10. I’m not sure we can take that much satire.




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Buchanan the Wicked?

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Morbid curiosity tempts me to buy and read Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, but I have resisted so far; for I don’t want to add to the unearned wealth that her book’s notoriety will probably bring her. I know enough from reviews, favorable and unfavorable, and from a published interview with the author herself, to understand that one main theme is the supposed wicked influence of James Buchanan.

I knew Buchanan very well from 1957, when, as Economics Department chairman, he brought me to the University of Virginia. There I was his academic colleague and friend. After he left the University of Virginia (in honorable protest against the University administration’s maltreatment of a colleague), I kept in contact with him and often saw him at professional meetings and occasionally at his homes in Blacksburg and then Fairfax.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He drew inspiration from his admired professor at Chicago, Frank Knight, and from the writings of the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell. He encouraged the creative thinking of his graduate students. He was a fabulously hard worker whose collected writings fill 20 large volumes and whose Nobel Prize was amply deserved. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

I understand Buchanan’s economic and political philosophy quite well, for my own is close to his. He was more of an egalitarian than I am, favoring an extreme estate tax and pondering redistributionary taxation as an arrangement whereby people insure one another against economic distress. While not completely agreeing with John Rawls, who called for social and economic arrangements designed to maximize the welfare of the least-well-off stratum of the population, he admired Rawls and his writings.

As for his thought on limits to democracy, I could expound it at length and enthusiastically. He admired the American Founders, who wisely tried to create a constitutional republic charged with protecting people’s rights even against abusive majorities and government itself. (“Democracy” is a much abused word, sabotaging clear thought by cramming various and even inconsistent good things together under a single label.)

In short, James Buchanan was an entirely different person from the one that Ms. MacLean imagines. She did not bother to know what she was writing about. But historians and journalists have a professional duty to check the truth of what they write.




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Expiring Minds Don’t Want to Know

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I fear for many of my friends. I fear for my country. Because of many of my friends, I fear for my country.

Earlier this summer, I attended a pool party hosted by the local chapter of a gay and lesbian Catholic organization. Though a precious few of us are libertarians or conservatives, it shouldn’t be hard to guess the political sentiments of the rest. And sentiments they are. I’ve come to believe that they amount to little more.

Prior to the Era of Trump, these people talked about politics only slightly more often than anyone else. Since this past November, they’ve been obsessed with the president. Specifically, they’re obsessed with the notion of deposing him from power.

In their minds, Vice-President Mike Pence has morphed from a homophobic zealot into a genial and benevolent soul, sort of an amiable dunce.

How are they going to accomplish this? Though the details are fuzzy, it has something to do with the Russians. They’ll find some other reason when the Russian thing poops out — as it eventually and mercifully will. And after that, there will be another, and then another. Their logic about each reason will be as murky as it was about the one before.

Reason itself is now considered, by the enlightened souls who have taken it upon themselves to enlighten my friends, to be Western and Judeo-Christian, white-skinned and patriarchal. Therefore it has been banished from Left World. I’m not sure what’s supposed to replace it. But if the leftists I know give any indication, what they say scares the hell out of me.

In the minds of my “progressive” pool party friends, Vice-President Mike Pence has morphed from a homophobic zealot into a genial and benevolent soul, sort of an amiable dunce in the tradition of their cartoon-character Reagan (rehabilitated from villainy when it suits them), who will be a “responsible caretaker president” in a time of new political peace. Which, of course, they’re currently convinced the nation will enjoy, once the Evil Donald has been driven from the White House. It’s what they are evidently being told by those who tell them what to think. When I told them what I thought would really happen, they reacted as if I were as unfabulous as the Wicked Witch of the West, swooping down on herbroom to snatch Toto.

Because of my pesky and apparently incurable habit of thinking without seeking permission, I became a heretic.

What I said was that Trump is not going to be impeached. But that if he were, the Republicans would probably not permit another Democrat president to finish a term for some time to come. And that in the meantime, the leftist puppeteers and their puppetettes would quickly turn from seeing President Pence as a harmless caretaker into damning him as the Devil. He’d almost certainly give them a lot more to be outraged about than Trump ever would.

How soon they forget that the same Mike Pence advocated taking money from research on HIV/AIDS and using it, instead, “to provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” That he defended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by calling it “a successful compromise” and warned that permitting gays to serve in the military without hiding their orientation would “advance some liberal domestic social agenda.” That he declared, “There’s no question [that] to mainstream homosexuality within active duty military would have an impact on unit cohesion.” And that he imagines Disney engaged in a dark plot to corrupt the tender flower of American womanhood, having once said, of the movie Mulan, he suspected “that some mischievous liberal at Disney assumes that Mulan’s story will cause a quiet change in the next generation’s attitude about women in combat and they just might be right.”

Do my friends even realize the next step to which they’re being led by their lords and masters? The goal, of course, is not merely to get rid of Trump. By whatever means necessary — no matter how illegal or unconstitutional — they want to control the government of this country and the lives of its people. This means that however benign the Left’s leaders may sound about the vice-president at the moment, they will not ultimately let him stand in their way.

Whatever must it feel like, to be told exactly what to think and not to be permitted to think anything else, on peril of excommunication from the Church of Progressive Feelgood? I don’t know; because of my pesky and apparently incurable habit of thinking without seeking permission, I became a heretic. I was a libertarian even before I knew what a libertarian was. I left the Left for many reasons, but perhaps the main one was that being led around like a sheep is little better than a walking death. The greater distance I place between myself and my former political comrades, the more horrifying their mentality becomes to me.

Would they want to live in a country where the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another was no longer possible?

Another friend of mine, an 80-something Hillary Clinton Democrat, recently remarked of Trump that “we need to get him out of there.” Once upon a time, simply to avoid an argument, I would have let that slide. But I’ve gotten so tired of listening to all the mean-girls-in-the-cafeteria sniping that I asked her for an explanation. She spluttered a little, then changed the subject.

I don’t think she knew why she thought “we” needed to get President Trump “out of there.” She just knew that she was supposed to think it. And she was perfectly comfortable saying so, because she assumed I knew that I’m supposed to think it, too.

Do the leftist demigods’ obedient little do-bees even realize what life in this country will be like if our electoral system is destroyed by nonsense like this? Would they want to live in a country where the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another was no longer possible? There’s a lot about our political life that I dislike. That doesn’t mean I want to see the United States turned into a Third World hellhole.

Our political environment is beginning to resemble one of those horror movies in which an evil entity possesses people, transforms them into zombies, and programs their terminated brains so they’ll destroy the country. That may sound hyperbolic, but I’m no longer sure that isn’t really what’s happening. As the undead rise out of the cornfields wielding scythes, they aren’t even allowed to suffer a stray idea. If there are any other ideas, expiring minds don’t want to know about them.

It simply isn’t natural for a huge population of human beings to have such uniform opinions. When their views are truly their own, unanimity is impossible. Even if they were all inspired to random acts of kindness and goodwill toward all, their uniformity would still be creepy, although it might make the world a nicer place. If they were all possessed by the spirit of self-reliance and fiscal responsibility, they could save the country. But the ideas they share are almost all abysmally stupid and destructive. It’s hard to understand how even a few of them could come up with such foolishness by their own best mental efforts.

There’s a lot about our political life that I dislike. That doesn’t mean I want to see the United States turned into a Third World hellhole.

There is no way to turn this idiotic tide by dint of any collective counteraction. As big a job as it is, it must be tackled by a great many of us as individuals. It won’t be pleasant, because we’ll need to be the skunks at an endless number of garden parties. But I’m beginning to find that it isn’t as difficult as I feared. I keep making an infernal, contrary nuisance of myself, but I haven’t lost a friend yet.

What I do, in polite conversation, is the equivalent of waving a hand in front of their faces, snapping my fingers, shining a flashlight in their eyes (or ears) and saying — as encouragingly as I can — “I know you’re in there somewhere.” I tell them they’re too smart to believe the things they say. Instead of calling them idiots, I say that the people telling them such rot are mendacious hucksters who think (quite wrongly!) that their audience must be idiots. A surprising amount of the time, this works at waking them up,at least for a fewminutes.

They live in such a bubble that many of them honestly don’t know there’s any other way to think, but friends don’t let friends become zombies. Every expiring mind is worth saving. As they’re probably sure former Vice President Dan Quayle once said, “A mind is a terrible thing to lose.”




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The Courts and the Second Amendment

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In 2008, the Supreme Court started a new era of second amendment jurisprudence.

This is no exaggeration. When the Heller opinion was published (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 [2008]), I was surprised to learn that the Court had never decided whether the Second Amendment gave individuals (as opposed to collectives, such as militias) any right to keep or carry firearms. That had been an open question. So, Heller was a big deal, and the justices knew it. The case opened a can of worms — hundreds of plaintiffs would try to wriggle out of states’ prohibitions on the possession and carrying of guns. However, the case said very little about the extent of the right or how it could be limited by law.

In restricting private ownership, possession, and use of guns, the D.C. laws went almost as far as imaginable without imposing a complete ban.

How could a legal opinion say so much and so little at the same time? It was the factual context of the decision that made this possible. When I was in law school I heard the maxim “hard cases make bad law,” meaning that cases of extraordinarily sympathetic circumstances (think widows and orphans) might motivate a lawmaker or judge to create a rule that had bad unintended consequences when applied generally. I think that the majority in Heller saw the case as sort of the opposite: an easy case to make good law. The plaintiff was challenging the laws of the District of Columbia. In restricting private ownership, possession, and use of guns, the D.C. laws went almost as far as imaginable without imposing a complete ban. Private ownership of handguns was banned. Rifles and shotguns might be kept at home but locked or disassembled, in other words, not useful in an emergency.

Finding an individual right in the Second Amendment was a big step. But if you wanted to make that big step as small as possible, the facts behind Heller were just about perfect.

What Heller said was that the Second Amendment gave the plaintiff some kind of individual, civil right, and that right was enough to invalidate D.C.’s heavy restrictions. It was a very limited application of an individual right. Even so, the opinion, a 5–4 split of the Court, drew sharp criticism from the dissenting minority and also from some very good scholars, including Richard Posner, generally thought to be a conservative from the “law & economics” school of jurisprudence. Critics accused the conservative majority of being unprincipled by practicing judicial activism instead of the restraint they often championed.

How far do the rights established in Heller go? What other restrictions on guns might be unconstitutional? Nobody knows. The individual right may be very modestly interpreted. Maybe every other gun law in the country is still constitutionally permitted.

Heller must mean a little bit more than sitting in your bedroom with a shotgun. Eventually, starkly contrasting circuit court cases will force the Supreme Court to say more.

The lower courts and the circuit courts of appeal have had to deal with Heller many, many times. The appeal of California’s Peruta case (Peruta v. County of San Diego, 824 F.3d 919 [9th Cir. 2016] [en banc]) gave the Supreme Court an interesting opportunity to apply Heller. In Peruta, the Ninth Circuit said that the Constitution does not give individuals any right to carry concealed firearms. In California, concealed carry requires a license, granted only for “good cause.” Licenses are rarely and, the plaintiffs would say, arbitrarily granted. Also, open carry is generally banned, by California Assembly Bill No. 144. The Ninth Circuit explicitly declined to say whether banning open carry was constitutional. Therefore, Peruta presents a nice little web of questions. Can all public carry be banned? Maybe. Heller was about keeping guns at home. But its principles seem to go much farther, once this is determined to be an individual right: “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Can concealed carry be banned when open carry is permitted? Can open carry be banned when concealed carry is permitted? Can open carry be banned while concealed carry is extremely limited (the current law in California)?

We know that the Supreme Court does not want to answer any of these questions right now, because on June 26 it declined to hear the appeal. That means fewer than four justices voted to take the case. It does not mean they agree with the Ninth Circuit or that they disagree.

I guess that, if forced to decide, the Court would find something wrong with California’s restrictions. Heller must mean a little bit more than sitting in your bedroom with a shotgun. Eventually, starkly contrasting circuit court cases will force the Supreme Court to say more. For now, outside of a few states like California, the political battle for gun rights is way ahead of the courts. All but about 15 states have either “shall issue” licensing or no license requirement at all for the concealed carry of handguns.




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All the News that’s Fit to Tweet

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It case you’ve missed out on this, President Trump keeps making his tweets a subject of national controversy. Friends defend his messages as his way of breaking through the mainstream media’s circle of lies; foes denounce the messages as vulgar and stupid. Both sides are right.

I have a suggestion for Mr. Trump. If you want to hurt your enemies while bringing attention to your programs (not to your anger, about which everyone is fully informed), why not tweet some facts that might advance your agenda? Why not tweet things like the following (they’d be news to most people)?

It’s strange to me that Trump and his staffers haven’t thought of this already. But if he wants a stack of stuff he can use whenever his fingers get that 3 AM itch, I’ll be pleased to send it to him. It wouldn’t take much work.




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The Smartest Girl I Know

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When I first met Deja and Zhane, they were living with their mother in a Section 8 housing unit in Yonkers, New York. Their mother was what most people would describe as a “typical welfare mom” — she got a job once in a while, although the risk of losing her benefits if the job didn’t work out made it difficult to get off welfare. But she was proud of those girls! They didn’t go out on school nights, studied hard, stayed away from boys and drugs, and won numerous school awards. When Zhane was offered the opportunity to attend a scholastic camp during the summer, her mother hustled to contact everyone she knew who might be willing to sponsor the girl with a donation of $20, $10, even $5 if they could spare it. I was one of the hustled. More than once. And I was happy to help.

I lost track of the girls when they stopped attending our church, but I ran into Deja recently at the grocery store in my middle-class neighborhood north of Yonkers, where she is working as a clerk and saving money for college. She also works at a Burger King in the evenings, but she enjoys her grocery job better. “I like the customers, and I feel like ‘somebody’ here,” she said. I asked about her sister, and we caught up.

An estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars.

Zhane is also working two jobs, trying to earn enough money to pay off the debts she accrued after one year of college. “She didn’t want to owe all that money,” Deja told me, “so she’s working to pay it off before she goes back to college.”

Smart girl.

According to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank and the Chronicle of Higher Education, an estimated 40 million Americans are saddled with outstanding student loans totaling over a trillion dollars. Many of them are well into middle age now, with little hope of ever paying off their debt. In fact, student loans are the only debt that cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, and if the loans aren’t paid off by age 65, when Social Security kicks in, payments to Sallie Mae will be deducted off the top. So add student loans to the inevitability of death and taxes — and don’t plan to leave that fancy engagement ring to your heirs, because Sallie Mae will be first in line when your will is probated.

The average student debt is $30,000, but many students owe well over $100,000 when they graduate, and it isn’t unusual today for grad students from Ivy League schools to amass debts totaling over a quarter million dollars. Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

Deja and Zhane might not be in college yet, but they know the difference between “aid” and “debt.” Other college students aren’t so wise. One of my own students, repeating a required English course for thethird time, was rather flippant when I cautioned her that she was amassing a huge debt without making any progress toward graduation. “I don’t have to pay for it,” she said proudly. Thinking she meant that her parents or grandparents were footing her tuition bills, I reminded her that she should be more respectful of their money. “Oh no,” she crowed, “they don’t have to pay either. The school gave me financial aid!” This poor, foolish girl thought “aid” meant “help.” She had no idea that it really meant, “Let me hold the door for you as you step into a lifetime of debtors’ prison.”

Unless you’re fortunate enough to land a six- or seven-figure job, those loans will never go away. Never.

At the university where I teach, I encourage my students to purchase their textbook, an anthology of classic literature, on Amazon. Cheap, used editions are seldom available at the college bookstore because the book is updated every three years, making the older editions conveniently obsolete. Half the time the new edition is the only option, and they can’t sell it back at the end of the semester because a new edition is usually about to come out. But I don’t care which edition they use. It’s classic literature, after all! Most of my students find the book online for $5 or so (one found it for a penny!), instead of paying $120 for the new edition at the bookstore. However, last semester I received an email from the dean: “Please encourage students to purchase their books at the college bookstore. Remind them that this is to their advantage, as they cannot use their financial aid if they purchase books online.” So let me get this straight: my students are better off borrowing $120 from Sallie Mae and paying 4–8% interest for the next 20 years than they would be if they simply skipped Starbucks for one day and bought the book online with cash? What kind of new math is that?

“Learn now, pay later” is one of the main reasons tuition has skyrocketed in the past two decades. When students can enroll without putting a penny down, they don’t give enough thought to how much it’s going to cost them later, and colleges can raise tuition almost indiscriminately. When our daughter began college at a private southern California university 15 years ago, she was awarded a scholarship that covered 50% of her tuition. We were delighted, and budgeted accordingly as we allowed her to select this expensive school. By the time she graduated four years later, however, the scholarship was only covering 25 % of her tuition, because tuition had doubled in those four years. How can anyone plan for college, when tuition is changing that drastically?

Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans.

I fear for this generation whose future is being sold for a mess of pottage. Fully 60% of students accept some kind of loan for college, without ever considering the consequences. Most of them are mere teenagers when the university’s suave, educated, comforting grownups tell them to sign their lives away on the dotted line because “that’s the way everybody does it.” After all, it’s financial aid. The government is helping you get ahead. Aren’t you lucky.

I’m not suggesting that these loans should be forgiven. I don’t really have a solution for the 40 million Americans who are already hopelessly strapped with debts they knowingly contracted. I certainly don’t think free college is the answer. But something has to be done. Banks would not be awarding these astronomical, uncollateralized loans to unproven debtors if the government weren’t guaranteeing the loans by making them undischargeable through bankruptcy, and college tuitions wouldn’t be rising beyond the ability to pay if these loans weren’t creating artificial demand.

As I left the grocery store that day I congratulated Deja again on her wisdom in avoiding debt. By saving her own money for college, she is more likely to spend it carefully on a degree that truly interests her, and she’ll study more effectively because she won’t want to waste the money she has worked so hard to earn. She’ll live at home with her mother and sister instead of paying $1,000 a month for dorm life, and she plans to attend community college before transferring to a university, which will also help keep her costs down. She expects to have enough saved to pay for her first year of tuition by September. And she sleeps well, knowing that her savings account, not her loan balance, is growing.

Smart girl.




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