At Least He’s No Hypocrite

One of the many reservations I have about the war on drugs is the punishment handed down to people who have done no harm to anyone but themselves. American prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders, and as a parent I reject the state’s claim that if (God forbid) my children are ever caught with a joint they deserve to be locked in a cage with rapists and murders. And I suspect many drug warriors would be exposed as hypocrites if their own children were caught in the state’s clutches, their support for such punishment evaporating as soon as the first mug shot was taken.

Many drug warriors, perhaps, but clearly not all.

As reported by the BBC, Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan recently doubled down on his support for not only the drug war, but also the death penalty for drug trafficking. This despite the fact that his own son, Jaycee Chan, spent six months in a Chinese prison last year for marijuana possession and “providing a shelter for others to abuse drugs.”

Although we obviously disagree on the drug war, it is clear that Jackie Chan is no hypocrite. A harsh and unforgiving father, perhaps, but not a hypocritical one.

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Compounding Error

From the recent Forbes article, Understanding Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF):

“One of the most common ways to get student loan forgiveness, beyond the secret student loan forgiveness options built into some repayment plans, is to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). The PSLF program is intended to encourage individuals to enter and continue to work in full time public service jobs after graduation. Realizing that many of these jobs have lower salaries that other careers, the PSLF program is designed to strike a balance between the cost of education and the post-graduation salary offered by many public sector employers.”

The assumption that public sector jobs pay less than jobs in the productive sector is questionable at best. As Adam Summers of the Reason Foundation commented a few years ago,

“While the recent study from the Center for State & Local Government Excellence and the National Institute on Retirement Security comparing public sector and private sector compensation levels correctly notes that aggregate comparisons of average public and private wages and benefits can be misleading, its conclusion that state and local government employees are undercompensated, compared to private-sector employees, is suspect at best. The analysis ignores the value of virtually ironclad job security and certainty of pension benefits, features that are notably absent in the private sector. It also overlooks the greater efficiency and productivity of private sector workers, which is a result of competitive pressures not experienced in government agencies. The conclusion that public-sector workers are more highly educated than comparable private sector workers, upon which higher pay and benefit levels is justified, is called into question by the fact that not all college degrees are equal (and may vary between public and private sector employees) and the possibility that governments are hiring overqualified workers because they face looser budget constraints than private companies (i.e., governments are overpaying for their labor).”

I would also add that, despite what public sector unions might think, higher education in and of itself does not justify a higher salary under any system of rational economic calculation. To the degree that an individual worker’s productivity is enhanced by that education a higher wage rate is merited (ceteris paribus), but as Mr. Summers alluded to above, the incentive structure of the public sector inevitably leads to lower average productivity rates than those found in the private sector.

Aside from the question of comparative wage rates, there is another reason the PSLF program is a bad idea. Public sector employment represents a net loss to society as a whole. Human capital is a scarce resource, after all, and every hour a person spends writing a new regulation or building a more lethal bomb is an hour they could have spent creating something people actually wanted instead. Even when the public sector provides services that would be valued in the free market (education, road construction, water provision, etc.) there is no way to perform those services in an economically rational manner given the government’s lack of a profit and loss signal. So a program like the PSLF exacerbates the losses inherent in public sector work by forcing taxpayers not only to pay government employees’ salaries and benefits, but also for the loans they reneged upon.

It seems a bit silly (if not downright insulting) that we should now be forced to compound that error by granting them special permission to repudiate the loans they voluntarily assumed just so they could pursue their dreams of sponging off the rest of us.

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What’s the Matter with Kansas?

During the Bush years, Thomas Frank wrote What’s the Matter with Kansas? The point of the book was to explain how neoconservatives had turned Kansas from a hotbed of socialism into a reliably red state, and had hoodwinked all the rubes in his former home (and mine) to vote against the big-government liberal policies that were so obviously in their self-interest. (Not surprisingly, Mr. Frank now lives in Washington, D.C.).

Voting for Republicans may be part of what’s the matter with Kansas, but not voting for Democrats certainly isn’t (the last time they did that they wound up inflicting Kathleen Sebelius on us).

Some now point to news of welfare restrictions as an example of what’s the matter with Kansas, but that’s not it either. Anyone taking handouts, from low-income households to multinational corporations, should expect there to be strings attached, whether the assistance comes from benevolent private charity or from coercive government redistribution. Granted, how low-income families spend their assistance money is probably not the most pressing matter facing the Sunflower State at the moment, but it’s hardly an indication that something has gone seriously wrong there.

So if it’s not the reluctance to vote for left-statists or attempts at welfare reform, what (if anything) is the matter with Kansas? Ben Swann may have found the answer. As he reported on his website on April 13th, the State of Kansas has separated an 11-year old boy from his mother because he expressed a heretical opinion about medical marijuana during a drug awareness program at his school.

The mother, Shona Banda, is a cannabis oil activist who has used the substance to treat her Crohn’s disease. When her son indicated he knew more about the substance than what was being taught in class, the school called Child Protective Services. Child Protective Services then called the Garden City police, who somehow managed to get a warrant to search the Banda’s home on the basis of what was at that point hearsay evidence three or four times removed. They found two ounces of cannabis and one ounce of cannabis oil in the house.

As Ben Swann reports,

Banda then described the actions that the State of Kansas began to take in an effort to take her son from her, “On the 24th, he was taken into custody. That was on a Tuesday. He was taken out of town Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday we had a temporary hearing… and temporary custody was granted to my ex. Now the only reason why temporary custody was granted to my ex is because the judge said something to the effect that the amount of cannabis found in my home was going to possibly be felony charges and it was pointless letting the child return home to his mother.” She believes that the state is trying to take her son away and said, “The state is trying to deem it to where [Shona’s ex-husband] is not fit and I’m not fit and they’re trying to take custody of our child.”

“For him to have spoken up in class I can’t be upset about because he hears me daily on the phone talking with people, encouraging people to speak up and speak out. We did have the talk about how it’s not OK to bring this up in Kansas, because it’s a different state [than Colorado]. It’s very confusing for a child,” said Banda, noting how difficult it can be for children to understand how something could be considered legal medicine in one state and contraband in another.

Authorities have yet to charge Banda with a crime, and her next custody hearing is set to take place on April 20.

If there’s something the matter with Kansas, this is it. Unfortunately, this is not just a Kansas problem. The nation’s failed war on drugs, fueled by decades of propaganda, has done far more harm to families than the illicit substances themselves ever could. Although states like Oregon, Washington, and Colorado have moved toward some semblance of rationality, Kansas and most other states still cling to the fantasy that filling up prisons and wrecking the lives of anyone who defies them – or, as in the case of the Banda family, so much as expresses a different opinion – will somehow make all the bad things in this world go away.

This coercively enforced wishful thinking is a bipartisan endeavor. Governor Chris Christie recently made headlines when he promised that, as President, he would enforce federal law in those states that had legalized marijuana – that he would “crack down and not permit it.” So much for Republicans’ alleged devotion to federalism, limited government, and strict constructionism (good thing Chris Christie will never be President).

And before the leftists get too impressed with themselves, we should note that the only thing President Obama has done on the matter is poke fun at those who raise this as a legitimate policy question – despite the fact that he himself engaged in the very same behavior for which his minions routinely imprison countless others.

As long as Kansas, Chris Christie, President Obama, and most of the rest of the country persist in their error, families like the Bandas will continue to be harmed. The question is not, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The question is, “What’s the matter with all of us?”

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Adams and Richman on the Income Tax

There is a tradition here at A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom (more honored in the breach than in the observance) of writing snarky posts each year on Tax Day (you can find them here, here, and here). This year, however, I’d like to take a different approach and share a couple of truly worthy passages on the subject of the income tax by writers who are far more gifted than I. Please hit the links to buy the books from which these snippets are taken – they’re both very good reads.

The first is by the historian Charles Adams, from the introduction to Section V of his book, Those Dirty Rotten Taxes:

The Tyranny of the Income Tax

As the nineteenth century came to a close, the tax principles of the founders began to disappear. The idea of limited government was replaced with the zeal for paternalism in government at home and imperialism abroad. Wolves began to appear in sheep’s clothing. Words that once stood for the noblest ideals of Western society took on strange and alien meanings. The state could take away anyone’s property through crushing taxation and this was “social justice,” or “revenue sharing.” The Communist states called themselves “democratic” republics, and, in the end, taxes, for some, were the government’s word for stealing. Or as one famous Supreme Court justice, John Harlan, called it, legislative plunder under the guise of taxation. The income tax became the fuel for paternalism in government, just as excises and land and wealth taxes had done in Europe centuries before.

Rebellion against the income tax began with the very first peacetime tax law, even though the rate was a paltry 2 percent. But modern income tax rebellions have taken a different course from the tax rebellions of the past, which were punctuated by riots and violence. Our income tax rebellions are quiet rebellions, taking place on the political field, in the schemes of tax planners, in peaceful emigration abroad, in the underground economy, in the privacy of tax haven institutions, legal and not-so-legal.

Today, riot or violence over taxes is unthinkable. Riots usually come from the masses, and the income tax has been engineered to be oppressive primarily to the rich, unlike many taxes of the past that provoked rebellion because they were uniformly applied. An excise like Walpole’s tax on tobacco and wine hit all Britishers, and successful riots followed. The stamp taxes in America, again, applied to everyone. But the income tax, because of exemptions and low rates for the lower classes, makes riots unlikely. Even when it was first instituted, the rich were the targets, and, like half-starved crows, they did not sit around to be shot at. Their wealth, as if by magic, began to disappear. Violence made no sense when an accountant or tax professional with a briefcase could engineer a very successful tax rebellion, with no blood, no mess, no yelling, no damage to private property or public tax offices, no assaults or lynchings of tax agents.

There is probably no tax in the past two hundred years that has been more debated, discussed, cussed, ridiculed, praised, and in the end, evaded, than the income tax. The British, who as we shall see, invented the modern income tax, hated it so much that the generation of Britons who experienced the first income tax had to pass away before the British government would dare try to introduce it once again. When it was finally reintroduced in Britain, it came in such a mild form one could hardly believe it had been the reputed “tyranny” of the Napoleonic world. One of the last holdouts was France, and it took a world war for them to get on the income tax bandwagon. The United States also climbed aboard at that time.

In America, the debate raged hot and heavy. Harper’s magazine was especially hard on the tax, depicting it as the arch enemy of liberty, and a demoralizing force in society. The income tax would become a millstone around the neck of Liberty…

By the beginning of the twentieth century the income tax was on its way to becoming the engine for running the modern state, for financing wars, and introducing socialism in its many forms. This was not the kind of world the founders had envisioned, but each generation that comes to power introduces its own ways of governing. Now, as this century comes to a close, the income tax seems to have run its course, as all taxes usually do. We are once again searching for a better way to tax. Our income tax has evolved into a revenue system that threatens liberty at every turn, and no doubt, most of the problems are of our own making. One of the lessons of tax history that recurs so often is that all good tax systems tend to go bad, and our income tax is a shining example. The excise became anathema to the Netherlands and Spain, as did other taxes that have appeared on the world’s scene, which blossomed for a century or two and then disappeared in violence, economic decline, or collapse.

The story of our income tax goes back to Great Britain, which invented this monster and then passed it on to the world. This, then, is where we begin our study – where the income tax was born.

“The harvest of the Exchequer [revenue authority] has been very considerable while the misery inflicted on hundreds of thousands of taxpayers, both innocent and guilty, is beyond description. It is very difficult for officials, even with the best will in the world, to administer an inquisitorial law with humanity.” – James Coffield, A Popular History of Taxation, 1970

The second comes from Sheldon Richman, vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation, in his book Your Money or Your Life (Chapter 1):

Man vs. State

Income taxation inaugurates a permanent war between the people, who want to keep what they earn, and the government, which wants as much of it as it can get. The government tries to make the war less obvious by deadening the pain when possible. The withholding tax makes it unnecessary for most Americans to write checks to the IRS; indeed, they eagerly await their refunds. But the war is part of the American psyche nonetheless. All Americans sense that an awesome power lurks, ready to grab an increasing portion of anything they earn. That adversary relationship has far-reaching consequences for a society founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, namely, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson said that when government fails to protect rights or itself threatens them, the people have the right and duty to “alter or abolish” it. That surely indicates that according to the prevailing philosophy among Americans at the time, government was the dangerous servant. The people were the master. But the income tax turns that relationship completely on its head. The tax and all the powers that must accompany it turn the people into cowering servants, ever fearful of being accused of concealing income or information and being compelled to prove otherwise. People have lost money, homes, businesses, and liberty to the IRS. A few have committed suicide under the pressure of a tax investigation. The income tax may not be the root of all evil, as the libertarian writer Frank Chodorov believed. But it is the root of many evils. The income tax radically undermined the American revolution.

Every American should ask himself what is was like to live in the United States before there was an income tax. Imagine not having to give up more than 30 percent of your income to the federal government. Imagine living without fear of being audited by the IRS. Imagine starting the new year and not having to think about where you stored the previous year’s receipts. Imagine not worrying whether your records are good enough for the IRS. Imagine not having to pay a tax preparer hundreds of dollars to fill out complicated forms in order to minimize your tax liability and avoid audit. Imagine such a world in which none of those burdens existed.

Americans lived without these fears and burdens for more than one hundred years (except in the Civil War era). They built a decent society nonetheless. Late-nineteenth-century America was the freest society in history. People could run their own lives with little interference from government. Prosperity increased as never before. Products that once only the nobility could afford became mass consumer goods. Specialization and the division of labor increased productivity, which in turn raised living standards. Taxes, mostly excise taxes and revenue tariffs, took only a small portion of people’s wealth. The federal government played only a bit part in the lives of the people. (That role was enlarged by the Civil War but was still small by later standards.)

The government does not publish figures for how much of GDP the national government absorbed in the late nineteenth century. But it does have them going back to 1930. In that year, before the income tax affected ordinary people, federal receipts were just 4.2 percent of GDP. (Spending accounted for an even smaller part, 3.4 percent.) In 1942, the share of GDP extracted by the federal government hit double digits for the first time, exceeding 10 percent. It essentially has gone up ever since. Today it stands at more than 21 percent, the highest since World War II.

The income tax has been a key factor in the growth of government. When enacted, only the few richest people in America paid the tax. In 1934 individual income taxes provided about 14 percent of federal receipts. It became a tax for ordinary people during World War II, ironically under that reputed champion of ordinary people, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Today, it accounts for more than 43 percent. Payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare account for about 35 percent. As you can see, Americans’ incomes have provided a rich vein for the government to mine. The income tax makes it easy for the government to raise money. Its sheer complexity often makes it difficult for people to know what any given change in the tax code will mean for their own situations. By the time they realize that their taxes have gone up, it is too late.

An ugly picture emerges. As we will see, the income tax has:

  • Given the government unprecedented access to the American people’s wealth.
  • Provided the rationale for the government to intrude into our personal affairs.
  • Reversed the traditional rule-of-law relationship between government and those suspected of lawbreaking.
  • Corrupted morality by labeling efforts to keep one’s own money as “cheating.”
  • Bewildered the American people with constantly changing technical rules that no one could possibly comply with perfectly.
  • Permitted lawmakers to influence our conduct through selective tax deductions and exemptions.

All this has come from the principle that government may tax incomes. As objectionable as other taxes are, none could permit the government to amass power, abuse citizens, or corrupt society the way the income tax has. That is why repealing the tax, along with the Sixteenth Amendment that permits it, is an essential blow in the struggle against power and for liberty.

So happy Tax Day, everyone! And remember, if you have any questions about how to fill out your taxes, you can always call the IRS Help Line [sic], where, as The Washington Post reports, “only 4 in 10 callers get through to a real person,” and “the number of ‘courtesy disconnects’ — a euphemism for an overloaded system hanging up on the customer — has reached 5 million so far this year…When callers do get a real person, they can forget about asking questions that require expertise. These are now considered ‘out of scope.’”

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Jackals and Jackasses

H.L. Mencken once described democracy as “the worship of jackals by jackasses.” To honor the late social critic and to confirm that he was right in every aspect of that particular observation, I have created a spin-off blog titled (what else?), Jackals and Jackasses. The new site will aggregate stories of corrupt government officials and lampoon the masses who adore them – in other words, it will shine a light on both the jackals who prey upon us and the jackasses who love them for it.

You can find it here: www.jackalsandjackasses.wordpress.com, or on Twitter (@jackalsjackass). It should be fun – I hope you enjoy it!

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Easter Eggs and Property Rights – 2015 California Edition

Back in 2009 I wrote a post titled “Easter Eggs and Property Rights,” in which I analyzed a Dallas-area public Easter egg hunt and the barbarity that ensued. Whereas the bureaucrats who organized the event (and the reporters who covered it) were flummoxed as to how such a thing could go so horribly wrong, the reason was clear to anyone who viewed it from a libertarian perspective – the lack of clearly defined property rights in the Easter eggs is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons, and inevitably leads to conflict.

Sadly, it appears that there are still some people in Sacramento, California who do not read A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom (as shocking as that may sound). If they had, they might have avoided this weekend’s chaos. In an attempt to set a world record, organizers set out over half a million plastic Easter eggs and sold around 7,000 tickets to the event. But as The Sacramento Bee reports,

As soon as the first eggs hit the ground, people of all ages lunged for the colorful plastic shells, scooping them up by the armful into oversized plastic bags and even laundry baskets. The dozen workers from organizer Blue Heart International, a Sacramento nonprofit, had intended a more orderly rollout, with egg seekers waiting for the signal to start.

Toddlers cried and parents pushed as they jockeyed for mostly empty plastic eggs, which later could be exchanged for candy.

“It’s really ridiculous,” said Michelle Rodriguez, who paid $140 for her seven children to participate in the VIP portion of the hunt, in which some of the eggs were stuffed with coupons for free food. “Parents are literally pushing other people out of the way.”

Many attendees complained about the chaos surrounding the event. No barricades were used to prevent people from prematurely collecting the eggs, and organizers did not verify whether parents had tickets for the VIP hunt. A separate, free egg hunt took place nearby on the grounds of the Capitol.

“It was crazy,” said Kori Houser, whose toddler Chase picked up only three eggs. “Adults were trampling over us.”

Trisha Pickerel, a Blue Heart board member, was yelling at the top of her lungs asking everyone abide by an “honor system” to no avail. Later, as parents complained, she replied, “We can’t control other people.”

To add insult to injury, the event did not set the world record because the eggs did not arrive in time for the organizers to register with Guinness.

So what’s the moral of the story? Clearly defined and respected property rights support social harmony, whereas “common ownership” leads to a Hobbesian war of all against all where not even toddlers are safe from the rampaging hordes out to gather as much as they can as fast as they can.

That, and everyone should read A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom.

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Life, the Universe, and Baseball

I think my eight-year-old son figured out the meaning of life this week. A few days ago he asked me, “Dad, why are we here?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean what’s the point of life?”

“Hmm, that’s a very deep question, buddy. Philosophers have been asking themselves that for thousands of years, and they haven’t come up with a definitive answer yet,” I responded.

“What’s a philosopher?” he asked.

“A philosopher is someone who thinks very deeply about big questions just like the one you’re asking now,” I said.

“I think the point is to do what you like to do and to inspire other people. Like Babe Ruth did with baseball. He was really good at baseball, and he made a lot of people happy by doing that. That’s what I want to do by playing baseball, too.”

So that’s all there is to it. The meaning of life is: do what makes you happy and inspire others to do the same.

It’s as good an answer as I’ve ever heard.

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