To the Lifeboats! Obamacare Is Sinking!

In a shocking revelation, the White House admitted this week that the technical rollout of the Affordable Care Act was “unacceptable.” Before that, it was subject to “glitches.” In other words, a scratch on the hull of the Titanic was finally admitted to be a dent. Yes, such glitches are unacceptable, clearly unacceptable.

Most mortals would at this point wonder if cruising through a field of icebergs was such a terrific idea. But not our starry-eyed Captain, Barack Obama. By God, he’ll get us where we’re going, if it kills every last one of us.

Unencumbered by doubt and immune to sensible correction by reality, the President has sailed us into territory that neither he nor anyone else knows how to navigate. Even Democrats, some of whom seem to be shaking off the effects of their infatuation with Obama, are beginning to look over the bow and see trouble ahead. Let’s see how we got here and ponder how we get out.

Lifeboats

First, liberals are dedicated to–actually defined by–the idea that there is something called the “public good.” A foggy and constantly drifting notion, this is supposed to be the guiding beacon of modern governance. As it turns out, the public good is whatever annoys liberals the least. So, off the list of things alleged to be good for us all are: things that are successful without governmental oversight, individuals who say what they please, and junk food.

We libertarians are dubious of such airy notions as the “public good,” favoring instead a reliance upon a much simpler and more digestible principle: that individuals are free to live as they see fit and enjoy the fruits of their labor as long as they afford others the same right. Whether the subject is health care or hair-braiding licenses, we ask first whether there is some compelling reason for government to intervene. “Compelling” for us is not synonymous with “lots of people want this.”

Liberals, however, are inoculated against such elegant arguments. For them, the world is an ocean of complexity, requiring a skilled captain to navigate for the good of all his/her passengers. This metaphor is largely to blame for our current woes. The Founders were clear that government was not to be “run” by someone or several someones, even if they comprise a majority. Power was divided among our three branches of government to keep both thugs and do-gooders from trampling on individual rights.

The current sinking of the health care ship is not due to inclement weather (those nasty Republicans) but to the mistake of setting sail in the first place. No president, congress, or court can direct the trillions of individual decisions that go into providing health care as well as a free market can. To be sure, one can attempt to steer something as complex as health care. Much like pushing a string, however, serious people don’t attempt it.

The doctor who prescribes medicine is at the end of an unfathomably long chain of events. None of the actors involved can possibly predict that Jane Doe will need a particular remedy at a particular time. The people who make steel do not know whether it will go into a scalpel or a scooter. The people who design computers do not know whether they will be used by nerds or nurses. Yet they provide the things that get used. How?

The answer is as simple as it is deep. When left to their own devices, people in large groups trade with one another to their mutual benefit. Health care is no exception. The poor can afford health care better within a free market for the same reason that they can own cell phones–producers competing freely and fiercely to deliver the best and the cheapest. What was a bulky and unsightly luxury a few years ago now enables even the poor to frivol away their time on Twitter.

When a liberal bemoans what the free market has done to health care, one should ask, “What free market?” For decades, government has tweaked markets, thinking that a regulation here and a tax there will make things just right. The result? An insurance industry chock-full of crony capitalists and a Medicare system that cannot last more than a few years.

So why is the Obamacare rollout so significant? Well, because all of America gets to see firsthand just how badly the government can screw something up. Instead of having to think a few years into the future, we can see the shipwreck right here, right now. Premiums are going up, servers are going down, and those insurance policies we were supposed to be able to keep are disappearing like rats from a doomed vessel.

I constantly hope that people will learn, and I am constantly disappointed that they don’t. Nonetheless, let’s see if we can plot a course out of these waters.

1) Let’s stop pretending that anyone is “owed” health care. No one is owed anything that is produced by the efforts of another. Liberals who stop insisting that they are will find that they have much more time to do some genuine good–like establishing voluntary health care cooperatives.

2) Get government out of the business of health care immediately. Repeal the ACA and begin the process of eliminating regulations having to do with how people treat, or seek treatment for, disease.

3) In order to ease the transition to a true free market for health care, establish unlimited tax deductions for medical savings accounts. Allow people to place as much money as they like into these accounts and to use them for the care of others if they choose, including voluntary health care cooperatives (see #1 above).

At one time, these three proposals would have been as unthinkable as abandoning a luxury liner for a small wooden boat. That was before the passengers came up to the deck and saw the icebergs for themselves. Let’s be gracious as we guide them to the lifeboats.

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The Tea Party Is Alive and Ill

Like most new ideas,* libertarianism must thrive in a hostile environment. The Tea Party, once the caretaker of the infant, has been infected by the very party that should have nurtured it to strength and health.

Originally, the Tea Party sprang from outrage that taxpayers were being forced to bail out banks, insurance companies, and auto manufacturers. For those afflicted with selective memory, this was during the Bush administration. So much for thinking the pot boils only for Obama.

Soon, after realizing that the outrage was shared by a wide swath of America, the Republican Party’s conservatives piled on the new bandwagon, bringing with them the social conservative flu. As noted by William Galston in today’s Wall Street Journal, this ain’t your libertarian’s Tea Party.

Although some tea-party supporters are libertarian, most are not. The Public Religion Research Institute found that fully 47% regard themselves as members of the Christian right, and 55% believe that America is a Christian nation today—not just in the past. On hot-button social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, tea partiers are aligned with social conservatives. Seventy-one percent of tea-party supporters regard themselves as conservatives.

In other words, the Tea Party now looks like a cranky old conservative after a makeover. How far we have slouched since this simple set of principles:

1) Lower taxes
2) Smaller government
3) Constitutionally-limited government

And how fresh that gust of fresh air coming from libertarians was. Most of them probably did not know yet they were libertarians. They just knew that something had gone seriously wrong with governance in this country and they had seen enough. Enough, that is, to start the most significant grassroots political movement in decades.

Medicine

And now, here we are, Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads with one another over mostly esoteric issues with nary a hint of the Tea Party’s original elegant message: There is too much government. Somehow, Republicans have managed to screw up the only thing they’ve had going for them in years, playing right into Democrats’ hands. Democrats who are of one mind, by the way–that more government is better, period.

The antidote to Democrats is the Tea Party, but not the one we have now. It was co-opted by social conservatives who (see above) cannot get it through their thick skulls that gays are never going back in the closet and some people do not worship the Christian god. No one, repeat no one is going to listen to to the Christian Right who is not already of that mindset. It’s defining inclination is to preach, and few of us like being preached at.

Reasonable people may, however, take heed of a calm but principled libertarian movement. Libertarians have much in common with liberals when it comes to social issues. We don’t care who you sleep with or how you worship. We don’t want to snoop on you or tell you what to eat. We also want people to be fed, clothed, and have access to health care. We just don’t think government is the best way to provide all that. Now that is the basis for a fruitful conversation.

As a friend of mine remarked recently, what we need is not a third major political party, but a second one–one that can take a principled stand against Democrats instead of running in circles and barking. Big government is a corrosive idea whose end has come. We may still have a choice about how to end it, but end it will, either in a painful turn away from the entitlement state or the deadly collapse of whole affair.

The Tea Party, before its unfortunate illness, was the voice of reason in a world gone mad with love for the state. Now its placard adorns the sleeves of goofy and hateful conservatives. They will squander any chance libertarians have of being respected and dealt with–at least those associated with the Tea Party.

Where does this leave us? Same place as usual. We are a country without a genuine alternative. Republicans are without principle and incapable of embarrassment. They are politically inept and of the same ilk as the roguish whores on the other side. They have infected the Tea Party and need strong medicine. Strychnine, maybe.

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*The principles of liberty are not new, but libertarianism’s emergence as a viable socio-political alternative is.

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You’re Rich, Now Shut Up

The Supreme Court just heard arguments concerning campaign contribution limits. At issue is the aggregate total that an individual may contribute to several candidates within a certain time period. Fortunately, questions from some Justices indicate that they may be ready to jettison this insult to free speech.

Most arguments about free speech since I have been aware of politics have centered on non-political speech. For example, commercial speech has (wrongly, I believe) long been considered a different category of speech, distinct from advocating for candidates or public policy. Though the Court has in many cases protected free speech even in cases involving economic transactions, there has remained a curious norm–that speech is only speech in certain contexts. Commercial speech does not count.

The other category of non-political speech is obscenity, which has a long and colorful history. Sexually-oriented material has variously been seen as harmful to adults and thus in the state’s interest to control, harmful to children, subject to zoning laws, etc. Again, except for the case of access by children,* I find the state’s interest in controlling access to any material dubious.

No matter what one’s opinion on the state’s interest in these two kinds of speech, though, one kind has always been considered a mainstay of our system of government–political speech. The Founders recognized that in order for a people to live in freedom, each person must have the right to speak his/her mind freely. Tyranny springs from a leader’s assurance that his/her actions cannot be criticized. This has not kept self-appointed monitors of propriety from trying to limit political speech. Campaign finance laws, for example, are based on the concern that money “corrupts” politics.

megaphone girl

Curiously, these laws assume that advocacy for public policies coming from the well-to-do are less worthy that those coming from the middle-class or the poor. Note the following exchange:

“By having these limits, you are promoting democratic participation,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. “Then the little people will count some and you won’t have the super-affluent as the speakers that will control the elections.”

Justice Antonin Scalia responded, sarcastically, that he assumed “a law that only prohibits the speech of 2 percent of the country is O.K.”

Bingo.

Amazingly, some people are perfectly comfortable with the idea of limiting a particular point of view by limiting the political speech of the wealthy. Presumably, having people advocate for less governmental interference in economic activity is intrinsically bad.** Should this point of view appeal to you, try this one on. Arguably, the single biggest threat to the United States is an avalanche of entitlement obligations set to hit us within a few years. Might we not with equal plausibility argue that poor people should have their speech limited? After all, are they not more likely to advocate for economic policies that accelerate our demise? That reach into the pockets of honest, hard-working citizens?

“But they don’t have the money to do that!” one can imagine liberals protesting angrily. No, but there are lots more of them. Collectively, they can be every bit as much of a menace as the Koch brothers are purported to be. Speaking of liberals, why don’t we limit their speech? The same arguments apply.

Yes, money is influential in politics. No one argues otherwise. It is influential to the degree it is because as a nation we have come to tolerate the symbiotically corrupt collusion of business and government. We have also come to tolerate the whines of the shiftless as equivalent to the cries of the helpless. Money is not the issue–we are the issue.

Anyone who knows the sources of a politician’s overflowing campaign coffers and does not figure it into his/her vote is lazy, stupid, or both. A person who is genuinely concerned with “corruption” in the system should spend some time and energy educating people about the political process and how to make informed choices rather than attempting to silence views with which they disagree.

Only one rule need apply to campaign contributions, period. Disclosure. Let anyone raise as much money as he/she wishes and disclose within 48 hours the contributor and the amount. With the information available on the Internet, anyone can find a way to learn what organizations and what individuals fund which politicians. Further, let anyone say anything he/she wants anytime, right up to the election.

Attacks on our rights are always offered with the argument that it is in the interest of the [downtrodden, poor, minorities…fill in your favorite victim]. The real reason is considerably less noble. It is to silence people whose views annoy pompous do-gooders or the government. Speech that is allowed only when approved by others cannot be construed as genuinely free, no matter what fairy tale reasons are conjured up to justify it. Perhaps the Supreme Court will remember that come their ruling.

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*Or the near-unspeakable case of participation in pornography by children.

**Though, by the way, not all wealthy people think that way. To wit, George Soros.

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Who Shut Down the Government?

Terry missed his blog last week due to a family medical emergency. He is sorry that in so doing, he allowed the government to shut down. Terry promises to make everything right by issuing a really strong opinion today.

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Quick! Find the progressive nearest you and administer CPR. The government has shut down. Wait…hang on…everything’s OK? Belay that order. Stand down. We may just make it.

I find it amusing, in a sick kind of way, for Democrats to be melting down over the shutdown. It was they, after all, who rejected the last attempt by Republicans to reach a deal. In it were some provisions they could not live with: delaying the individual mandate for a year and killing healthcare subsidies for legislators and their staffs. As for the individual mandate, it makes perfect sense even in a Democrat’s logic, given that the employer mandate has already been delayed and the rollout is more like a logjam. Refusing to kill the self-serving subsidies is so cynical as to defy comprehension.

What Democrats seem to be unable to fathom is that a significant number of citizens actually do think less government is better. Enough, in fact, for them to have sent legislators to make sure that happens. It’s what we do in America, for those of you who have forgotten. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are aghast that many Republicans are no longer just pretending to be the party of limited government. Sputtering incoherent phrases about anarchy and the Tea Party, the both of them look like children hearing a firm parental “no” for the first time.

Screwed

Not that Republicans are a vision of integrity and principle. The real issue here is not Obamacare so much as the whole corrupt philosophy of governance that Democrats are so infected with. They have ceased to be a political party that can be taken seriously. No set of facts seems to penetrate their shell of assurance that no matter what the problem, government is the answer. Yet Republicans continue to wallow about in the mud with them over trivialities instead of attacking them on their absurd principles.

Republicans are also, shall we say, inelegant when it comes to political maneuvering. They risked becoming as popular as a fart at a garden party by going after the whole Obamacare law when they knew perfectly well that they could not kill it as a whole. They would have been better off focusing on ways to let Obamacare and the Democrats sink themselves from the start. Their last-minute resort to asking only for the most embarrassing concessions from Democrats was late–maybe too late.

Obamacare should never have been passed, and a growing number of Americans realize it. It will not work because it cannot work. No amount of cross-chamber politics will ever convince Democrats that they have screwed the pooch on this one, but a voter revolt just might.

And what could cause a voter revolt? Think DMV. The closest I have ever come to homicide occurred during my fifth visit to a DMV office with the fourth set of papers I was asked to bring, none of which seemed to satisfy the attending clerk. Let a few hundred thousand people hear Obama assure them for the umpteenth time that all those “glitches” are, well, just glitches. Top it off with premiums that go up, benefits that go down, and a visit from the IRS for non-compliance and you have the makings of a revolution.

Sadly, this is what will be required for Americans to wake up to the sobering reality of progressive politics. Obamacare is only the latest infection from a host of maladies spawned by lovers of big, intrusive, and pushy government. Since we can’t defeat Obamacare, it will have to defeat itself. If the Republicans are smart, they will now let the train wreck happen and get busy with a plan for the aftermath–one that gets government out of the business of health care once and for all.

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What Does Barack Say?

Constitutional crises are generally more weighty than silly viral videos. Not so with Barack Obama’s baffling and puerile actions in the face of the Syrian “crisis.” One wonders how the man can do himself or the country any more damage.

When Obama speaks, it is with the certitude of a spoiled young prince–one who has never seen battle or held a job. He talks incessantly, never bothering to ask whether he is connecting with anyone, only reaffirming what he already believes–that his word is sacred. Those who doubt so are racist, stupid, or both.

It is not unusual for a politician to talk too much. Hour upon hour of the politician’s day is spent communicating, sometimes to persuade someone to do something but more often just to be seen and heard. Quality content is optional. For the most part, this kind of bloviating is annoying but harmless. In the case of a President of the United States, it carries the potential for a disaster.

A quiet fool may make it through life without being recognized. A loud one is always found out. Our President has been found out, and even a thug like Putin garners more respect and admiration than the alleged leader of the free world. How bad does it have to get for that to happen?

Barack Superman

I can’t help but try to grasp how a mind like Obama’s works. It is a futile exercise, I suppose, but I’d kind of like to know how my President thinks–what values he holds, how he makes major decisions, how he views his role in the world. The progressive in him was clear from the start. He loves big government and hates business. Every problem can be fixed by the public sector and everyone who thinks not is unworthy of consideration.

What I did not grasp until recently was our President’s deep-seated pathology. Inside Obama’s head is a looping video entitled, “What Does Barack Say?” For him, each word uttered is a transformation of reality to whatever form he proclaims. Unfortunately for him (and for us) the rest of the world does not quite see it that way.

Obama blabbered about “red lines” and chemical weapons like a schoolchild who draws a line in the playground dirt but who doesn’t know what to do when a challenger steps across. With John Kerry at his side, he then makes every mistake possible in dealing with Syria’s transgression, first threatening, then backing down, then asking Congress, then…well, you get the picture. And now here we are, seriously considering letting Russia disassemble Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. The man is out of his depth, out of his league, and quite possibly out of his mind.

John F. Kennedy once said that domestic policy can defeat us but foreign policy can kill us. Having done his level best to defeat us here, Obama has now been placed by history in the perfect position to kill us there. Do we really want a man who can screw up this bad over a civil war halfway around the globe to be in command of our nuclear arsenal? Do we trust a man whose opinion of himself smothers any ability to learn the harsh realities of international negotiation? Can a man-child like Barack Obama even be taken seriously?

I think not.

Fortunately, even the most servile of the Chosen One’s supporters are now looking around and hoping they are not recognized in public. Significant numbers of Democrats in Congress have openly expressed their skepticism of military intervention in Syria. His best friends in Congress are Old Guard Republicans who should have been put out to pasture years ago. The President not only looks stupid and childish, he is starting to look lonely.

Which brings us to the real problem. I am deeply skeptical of our intervention in conflicts like the current one in Syria. The might of the US military should be used only in cases where our soil or legitimate strategic interests are threatened directly and where we have a clear plan for victory–total and swift. The rest of the world should know that–all the time. One need not threaten here and bomb there to be recognized as the world’s strongest power. The mightiest and noblest rarely have to fight, but when they do their opponents must tremble. Ours now snicker at the man who calls himself President.

 

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The Right to Earn a Living

Early last year, Julie Crowe sued the city of Bloomington IL. She had not been hit by a bus. She was not injured by stepping in a manhole cover. She was not harassed by a loathsome jerk on the job. She sued for the right to earn a living.

Julie perceived a problem and recognized an opportunity to solve it. Young women wanting a safe ride home after visiting bars in town often had to ride “party buses,” which had the virtue of a sober driver but the hazard of getting groped or puked on. Julie had driven a van for hire before and her customers loved her, especially the young women who felt like Julie made sure they got home safely.

The city hearing on Julie’s application to start her own 15-person van service was called an “insurmountable obstacle” by Jacob Huebert, her attorney. The application was denied by the city manager then appealed to the city council, which also denied it. Julie filed suit and was represented for free by the Liberty Justice Center. This was their first case, and a good one it was.

Bureaucrat

Judge Rebecca Foley of the McClean County Circuit Court, who decided the case, agreed that Julie’s due process rights had been violated. In short, she found that the city was arbitrary in its decision and had afforded her no proper chance to defend her application. In the words of Julie’s attorney:

The judge struck down the law because your right to earn a living shouldn’t depend on a government official’s personal preference…This decision says that if the government is going to issue licenses for starting a business, the standards it applies must be clear, objective and fair. –Media Alert, Liberty Justice Center

The impact of this decision may be profound. Judge Foley struck at the heart of a real problem–governmental power cannot be wielded capriciously and arbitrarily. While die-hard libertarians may object that government should not regulate business at all, this decision sets a higher standard of transparency and accountability–surely a step forward for lovers of freedom. If used as a precedent, it will force other cities and municipalities to stop protecting established businesses just because they don’t want competition.

The larger implication is that at least one judge in the United States recognizes that a person may not be denied the right to make a living because of the political pull of competitors. In Illinois, 300 hours of training are required to…braid hair (down from 1500 a few years ago). In order to massage someone, expect 500 hours of training. Want to cut hair? 1500 hours.

Please don’t try to tell me that the public is in danger from a bad haircut or a less-than-heavenly hour on the massage table. These laws are designed to extract the same economic rents that the big guys harvest by getting in bed with politicians. Don’t want to see more competitors enter your market? Tell your representative about how special you are and how you need to be protected because you can clip hair or rub a muscle instead of proving it to everyone in the marketplace.

In addition to delivering a much-needed dress-down to city bureaucrats, Julie’s case did the poor a great favor by raising an important question. In a world where people find it difficult to live on the wages they can earn through a job, why do we make it so hard for them to start their own businesses? Wouldn’t it make more sense to allow people to do pretty much whatever they want, short of genuinely endangering others, say, with a fireworks factory underneath a daycare center?

Don’t expect the city of Bloomington or any other city to go down without a fight. Government officials are loathe to give up power, no matter what the context. Let us be thankful that Julie has forced them to explain themselves. It may not be the final solution, but it’s a heck of a start.

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You Owe Me

I never get ahead. Wanna know why? The system. Fat cats. Silver spoon types. You know what I’m talking about. I used to wonder if I was good enough. If I tried hard enough. Then I realized it’s not my fault. People don’t like me. Bad luck follows me like a shadow. I can’t be held responsible for not amounting to much. I got problems, I tell you, real problems.

It’s all this baggage. My parents argued and my father drank. My older brother shoved my face into a manure pile and my sister teased me. I went to a crappy school and I got bad teachers. My first love dumped me. I don’t trust anyone. And that wife of mine. Sheesh. Try dragging her around with you and see how far you make it. It’s a wonder I have a job at all. My boss is a bitch. I always get dumped on at work. God knows I do my best, but things happen. I can’t do everything. It’s not fair.

Some people have all the luck. They’re on the fast track, not that I want to be “successful.” None of that phony crap for me. I just want my fair share, my cut, my part of the action. Is that too much to ask? Is it wrong to want to get treated right? They owe me, and don’t try to tell me they don’t.

Damn positive attitude freaks. Think positive. Baloney. I’d be singing in the rain too if I had half the chance those guys had. I’d be rich, but not one of those greedy rich types. You know, the Gatsby wannabes. I’d be generous. I’d share the wealth, remember the little guy, give to charity.

People give this guy Obama such a hard time. I don’t follow politics much, but he understands. All he wants to do is spread the wealth around. Damn spoiled rotten rich bastards. Greedy, that’s what they are…greedy. Like a billion ain’t enough, know what I mean? Why not give some away. Sheesh, I work my ass off for that bitch at the office and barely keep up.

So don’t give me that BS about taking responsibility. That’s what all the lucky guys say. I need that healthcare. I need a guy in office who cares about people like me. Will help fix me. Wanna know who I think would be a good President? Hillary. Yeah, Hillary. She cares. She hates those fat cats who screw the rest of us over. She’d handle them. Got that right. Filthy scum.

So kiss my behind you rich creeps. You’re gonna get what’s coming to you. Next election, we’re going to clean your clocks. Make you live like we have to live. Make you pay what’s fair. Make you eat some dirt. Yeah, you bet we are. Welcome to the party.

Joe Voter

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The NSA’s Collateral Damage

Why would a successful e-mail service provider shut its doors and destroy its servers with no warning whatsoever to its users? Welcome to the new surveillance state.

Last Thursday, within hours of one another, Lavabit and Silent Circle shuttered operations. Both companies provided specialized e-mail service, primarily to people who wished to keep their correspondence private. Thus, as Groklaw today becomes the latest casualty of the surveillance state, let us pause to ask why apparently sane people are shutting down their businesses rather than risk having to comply with NSA orders.

Groklaw is not even in the e-mail providing business, but recognizes that it cannot conduct its business without secure e-mail. That means e-mail service will not be the only casualty of our government’s increasing brazenness in collecting and storing data on its citizens. Any business that risks exposing its customers to secret snooping by the government may now be faced with the same moral dilemma that prompted these three companies to shut down.

Peeping Tom

These are not wild-eyed anarchists defying the law on general principle. Lavabit’s founder, Ladar Levinson, has complied with over two dozen orders in the past to turn over information about specific users. Like most reasonable people, Levinson recognizes that criminal investigations have to include snooping–when it is focused and justified legally. It is becoming apparent that the government has gone well beyond that boundary–far enough to spawn mild forms of civil disobedience.

The government is not amused, judging from its threat to charge Levinson for shutting down his business. Lavabit cannot legally speak of the details of the government’s request, but it was clear that the court order just issued went far beyond anything in the past. He also hinted that it was designed to collect data about all users. Was the request for full “backdoor” access to Lavabit? It may well have been.

The right for two people to communicate privately is an extension of the more fundamental right of each individual to do as he/she pleases as long as it does not materially harm others or circumscribe their rights. Heretofore, the right to keep communications private has not needed much of a defense, but for practical rather than philosophical reasons. Until technology enabled cheap and easy snooping, it was simply too difficult to monitor private conversations. 

Now we find that the very technology that enables us to check on the kids by cellphone also opens the door for others to hear us talk with our customers, spouses, lovers, and drinking buddies. Ditto for e-mail. Even snail mail, once considered sacredly private, has been secretly scanned on the exterior in its entirety (160 billion pieces last year) by the Mail Isolation and Tracking Control program. I assume that includes my letters to Santa and inflatable doll order.*

Our government has long since forfeited any claim to trust from its citizens. If it would lie about Viet Nam, the IRS, Area 51, and about 10,000 other things large to small and grave to silly, it would most certainly lie about its purposes in gathering data on Americans who are not even suspected of a crime.

Aside from what we do know, there is the disturbing matter of what we don’t know. People who are privy to secret information about surveillance programs–some Congressmen, some tech executives, and in the case of Snowden, people who actually work for the companies that do the snooping, have been hinting for some time that all is not well in American privacy rights. The shutdown of three small companies is a stronger hint and it is clear they want us to find out what is going on. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the government to tell us.

In the end, rights are not granted, they are asserted. That includes privacy. I don’t need a law to permit me to converse with you out behind the barn where we can’t be heard. Same for my phone conversations, e-mail, and web browsing. It does not matter whether I am talking about something innocuous or something nefarious, that is my private business until such time as I pose an imminent, clearly identifiable threat to others. Law enforcement can’t just claim that I am a threat either. Officers must obtain a warrant or have some extraordinary set of circumstances (which must later be justified to a judge) that involve public safety. Such limits ensure that the innocent are not harassed for the potential sins of the wicked. Since 9/11, those limits have been consistently ignored.

Unfortunately, our government’s arrogance will also undo its power to neutralize legitimate threats. It will spawn private technologies that thwart every attempt to monitor them, meaning that terrorists and mobsters will have access to same. Not only will law enforcement agencies no longer be able to spy on everyone, they will not be able to spy on anyone, even those people who are about to blow things up. Worse, our government will look even more like our enemy than the protector of our individual rights. Good citizens will figure quite reasonably that if the government does it, it must have a hidden purpose, and probably not a good one. They will start to have a perfectly rational contempt for the law when they realize that the law has become a cynical joke.

As for me, I am glad that some people have the courage to take a personal loss rather than be complicit in illicit spying. They will be remembered as the mice that roared when the lions say no.

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*As a preemptive measure, I am admitting my connection with this product. Though my purpose is to free all Inflatable Americans from servitude to their oppressive masters, the government may think it can be used as leverage to force me to shut down this blog. Guess that shows them, huh?

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It’s Not My Fault!

As we age, most of us learn some hard lessons about what we can and cannot control in our lives. Friends die, children suffer, and despite our best efforts, we grow old and weak. The ones of us who make peace with that brutal fact do so by accepting that nothing we can ever do will change the fact that some measure of pain in life is unavoidable. Paradoxically, the ones of us who go on to build rich and fulfilling lives in spite of such a dark and gloomy realization do so by finding and working with the things we can control, and they are more numerous than most of us like to admit.

Life does not neatly divide itself into the controllable and the uncontrollable, however, and this is where we make mischief as human beings. On one extreme, there are those who believe that everything, everything is controlled by their thoughts. Think the right ones and good fortune will come your way as if the whole Cosmos were tuned in to your hyper-positive transmitter. Fail miserably and the explanation is simple–you didn’t really believe it.

Such a vacuous promise sells billions of dollars of books, audio programs, and seminars, but it does little to give people the real tools they need to manage life competently. “Thinking positive” is good advice…for someone wise enough to recognize its limits. For someone who wants to avoid dealing honestly with the harshness of reality, it is an elaborate and expensive avoidance mechanism.

On the other extreme, there are those who see everything as an inevitable consequence of forces beyond their control. They trick themselves into thinking that no matter what they do, the outcome will be the same. Too cynical to live and too cowardly to die, these people are somewhere between life and death. Having confused acceptance with acquiescence, their lives are pathetic and dull.

Not my fault

Most of us wind up somewhere between these two extremes, realizing that we are neither completely in or out of control. We know that friends may die, but that we can help them when they need it. We know that children suffer, but that we can ease their suffering by being good parents. We neither blame ourselves for every indignity visited upon us by fate, nor throw up our hands and let it rule us. We accept that life is largely a balancing act.

The culture in which we live can make that balancing act easier or considerably harder. An individual who asserts him/herself in life despite the cynical and apathetic attitudes of those around him is rare. In addition to coming to terms with the Universe as an individual, such a person must constantly fight through the sticky residue of cynicism that everyone else leaves behind.

Fortunately, some cultures have managed to develop into fertile ground for individualism. The Ancient Greeks celebrated man as a heroic being. Thus was born humanism and a full slate of accomplished thinkers, artists, and statesmen. Unfortunately, those sensibilities lay dormant for centuries until Renaissance thinkers resurrected it.

America’s culture emerged explicitly from the Founders’ Renaissance-inspired thinking. Americans developed a unique culture of independence and self-reliance, and a healthy skepticism of authority. Faced with a frontier that was both inviting and harsh, Americans learned to do whatever it took to survive. In the end, they did much more than survive, turning the United State into the richest nation on Earth. They made something out of nothing and asked for no one’s permission to do so. For the first time in history, a government was formed that explicitly placed the individual at the center of governance.

Early Americans’ fierce sense of independence did not mean isolation. American settlers learned to cooperate. They formed church and community groups, established corporations and small businesses, and grew a bustling economy. While the rule of law was essential to this heroic story, it was not primarily the government that drove the American nation forward. It was the fierce independence of the individuals who dared leave the comfort of civilization for the terror and promise of a new land.

The greatest curse of humanity, it is sometimes said, is success. And so it was with our unique culture. As wealth grew, so did the number of people who could survive off the daring and initiative of others. As industrialization created more jobs, fewer people had to establish their own enterprises. As government asserted itself beyond the functions described in our Constitution, economic freedom dwindled. People came to see economic enterprise as permitted by government, not merely supported by the enforcement of private contracts and property rights. We slowly drifted away from the celebration of the individual to skepticism and fear about independent thinkers and doers. Worse, we slouched toward finger-pointing as the excuse of choice. From blaming sexual harassment on “lack of training” to obesity as a disease, we have become a nation of reflexive blame-shifters.

Aside from the corrosive effect of this kind of thinking on the individual soul, it sets up a political dynamic that encourages tyranny. If I am not to blame, then someone else or some group of people must be. Ergo, get the government to take care of it. And it gladly will, judging from its growth in the last several decades.

And all this ends where? In a giant game of “It’s Not My Fault!” People who abdicate responsibility for their own lives eventually seek out a savior–someone who can make it all better. Not realizing that the same remedies applied ferociously to their perceived tormentors will soon be applied even more ferociously to them, they welcome the thought of giving someone power to make things right. Congress is stubborn? Bypass it with regulations. People in places you never visit want to keep their guns? Write them off as nut cases and make it near-impossible to own or carry one. Have trouble resisting sugary drinks? Limit their size by law.

Human beings did not evolve to live free of responsibility–survival requires it. The only question is whether we as individuals accept it or abdicate to someone or something else. With each passing day, we see more clearly just what that means. It means more watchful eyes on us (read “spying”). It means more regulations with the force of law handed down by unaccountable bureaucrats (think “EPA”). It means having our speech stifled by political hacks (bet you can come up with those initials). Every failure to assume responsibility as individuals is answered by a trimming of our freedom.

The only reason we have survived thus far with this deteriorating sense of individual responsibility is that politicians can delay the inevitable. A person who blames others constantly is not likely to ask whether the pension he/she is promised will ever materialize, whether anyone will be willing to deliver the health care he/she is assured, whether there will be enough businesspeople left to provide the bounty they have assumed is their right. The mindset of a blamer is far too shallow for that. Thus legislators live off the fat of voters’ stupidity and shortsightedness.

These are the first of many dark days to come. People who have convinced themselves that everything bad is someone else’s fault do not suddenly repent and start to take responsibility. Instead, they sic the hounds of tyranny on the providers until no one is left to provide. We are a nation about to reap the harvest of laziness and complacency. May we atone for our sins gracefully. And quickly.

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Don’t Follow the Money, Unless You Follow It All the Way

“Never get out of the boat…unless you are going all the way.”
–Capt. Willard from Apocalypse Now

Some people say that if you want to know the truth about something, follow the money. That is actually not bad advice, if followed to its logical conclusion. The problem is that most people stop at the first interesting distraction on the trail. To wit:

  • Don’t take medicine; pharmaceutical companies just want to make more money off things you don’t need.
  • Monsanto makes a lot of money off GMOs, so it must be paying off researchers who say they are safe.
  • Cars would be completely safe if auto manufacturers didn’t put profit ahead of safety.

It is a strain to call these arguments, yet they are passed off uncritically in common discourse as arguments against profit-making. Money = nefarious intent, or something like it.

Let’s break this issue down. First, money is morally neutral. In whatever form it takes, rocks, tree, furs, or that green stuff we carry around, money is simply a store of value. We use it because of an economic problem called “the coincidence of wants.” Bartering, trading one usable thing for another, works well–to a point. The problem is that if I have a blanket and I need a knife, I must find someone who needs a blanket and has a knife and wants to trade at the same time I want to trade.

Money solves this problem by giving traders a way to exchange value for value in a standard denomination that can be held back for future use. Money of this form accumulates in perfectly free economies to the persons who provide the most economic value to others. One who invents, produces, and offers for sale things that benefit others will naturally acquire more money.

Never get off the boat

The values that drive a person to accumulate money are not universally, or even mostly, those that lead to unethical behavior. The pursuit of profit in the above sense is noble, though one might not conclude that from our common discourse. Popular advertising is dominated by themes of conspicuous consumption and is thin on positive portrayals of the industrialists who actually make these consumables possible. Similarly, popular culture reflects a convoluted attitude toward wealth. It is OK to be rich and show it off in myriad shallow ways, but tasteless and base to openly want to become rich, especially through business.*

This near-universal disdain for and misunderstanding of the accumulation of wealth leads us to some strange social and political habits. We assume that if someone made a fortune, it must have been at the expense of someone somewhere who now has less. Wealth allocation through politics is the result, where politicians can appeal to the “no fairsies” element of voters’ psyches in order to take from the productive and give to the unproductive. No harm is done, so the reasoning goes, if one can be convinced that the wealthy somehow took it from the poor. No proof is needed, either, just a tear-inspiring story of someone having a hard time of it.

Our failure to recognize that political pull rather than virtuous production largely determines how wealth is distributed in this country leaves us with bad solutions to big problems. “Too big to fail” really means “politicians depend on us for re-election.” “Leveling the playing field” really means “punish the successful.” And this, my friends, is why we have to go all the way once we get off the boat.

On a tilted poker table, eventually all the money in play slides into the laps of the people on the low side. So, if you want to follow the money, figure out how the table gets tilted. It’s not hard. Businesses alone can’t do it. In a free market, they can only acquire what other people willingly pay them for goods and services. Politicians alone can’t do it. They are powerless without the money businesses make. It is the collusion between these two groups that threatens our very existence as a nation.

Once the problem is clearly seen, the solution suggests itself. Remove the mechanisms by which businesses can collude with government to gain illegitimate wealth. Remove legislators’ ability to game the tax system. Force them to stop delegating regulatory authority to unaccountable bureaucrats. Make them apply the laws they pass to themselves. In short, return government to its rightful limited role in the affairs of its citizens. Then, we will be able to follow the money to the best and brightest among us, not the sleaziest.

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*For reasons I cannot fathom, Hollywood celebrities get a pass on this. Apparently it is fine to get rich through acting, but not through making things.

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