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Is “Less Big” Possible?

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

The idea of a streamlined welfare state is utterly foreign in today’s political climate. Offering some social services, but not others? Anathema — at least to our “progressives.”

It is also, even more obviously, not nurtured by current political process.

After all, we’ve witnessed two major expansions in “welfare” programs in the last decade, the bipartisan Medicare “Part D” and the Democrats’ “Obamacare.” The first was underfunded from the start, and the second was and remains a mess. Both are financial time bombs.

But if you think America has it bad, it’s worse in France.

Jean Tirole, the new (just announced) Nobel Laureate in Economics, calls the condition of the French labor market “catastrophic.” And he thinks France’s government has to be smaller.

Now, he’s no heir to J.-B. Say and Fredéric Bastiat. He does not support an extremely limited government, a “nightwatchman” state. He says he likes France’s basic model. But it has grown too far in size and scope:

Tirole remarked that northern European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, had proven you could keep a welfare social model with smaller government. In contrast, he said France’s “big state” threatened its social policies because there will not be “enough money to pay for it in the long run.”

He’s basically just demanding that government live within its means.

It’s not too far from common Tea Party sentiment.

But tell that to your average progressive pol. Or blogger. Or activist. Given protective cover for ever-growing spending by the likes of New York Times’s Nobel columnist, Paul Krugman, any idea of federal spending cutbacks have been and remain off limits.

Maybe Professor Tirole can convince them.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Red Light Robots

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Since we constantly battle against bad government — it being necessary to pare government down to its essential kernel, where it protects rather than tramples our rights — we sometimes lose sight of the fact that good government is both possible and necessary.

Now, many folks will raise an eyebrow, here. “‘Good government’ isn’t just about protecting our rights,” they might say. “It’s about providing key services. Like roads. Traffic lights. That sort of thing.”

Sure, we need roads. And safety measures. Nevertheless, good government is not about overkill.

Take automated intersection policing. That is, the infamous “red-light cameras.”

The New York Post reports that one camera — one intersection robot (better term, eh?) — snapped 1551 infractions on July 7. That was $77,550 for one camera for one day. No wonder that one city councilman likes it. And says it makes roadways safer.

But over at Reason, Zenon Evans marshals some skepticism. “A British study on speed cameras last year determined that ‘the number of collisions appears to have risen enough to make the cameras worthy of investigation in case they have contributed to the increases.’” These dangerous effects don’t appear to be limited to the other side of the pond, either: “[M]any reports,” Evans concludes, “have indicated that red light cameras in the U.S. increase accidents.”

More policing isn’t necessarily better policing. The old rule about traffic safety is that the rules should be set to what most people would drive without the rules.

Let’s remember: rewarding ineffective, counter-productive policing with lots of money is a bad way to govern the governors.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Giddy, Nope

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

The National Labor Relations Board has ordered CNN to rehire 100 workers and pay off 200 others.

NLRB rebukes CNN for “failure to bargain” with a union. The dispute apparently involves no breach of contract with employees — only a breach with a union’s demand that CNN deal with it.

Blogger Daily Pundit is giddy: “I can’t imagine a happier outcome than seeing CNN, the hack propaganda mouthpiece for the ‘respectable’ American left, being forced into bankruptcy” by a “rogue bureaucracy.”

But wait. Would the tyrannical destruction of CNN be — ideological schadenfreude aside — a happy outcome?

No.

However poetic the justice, or injustice, being inflicted on its owners and officers, their right to make economic decisions — the right to control our own lives and property — does not hinge on the content of their notions. The only way we can all have rights, share the same standing  in the world, is to ground our rights in our shared humanity … and not anything more specific, narrow, or particular. Only those who forcibly violate the rights of others properly forfeit some of the protections to which peaceful persons are normally entitled.

Even if Pundit’s point is only to relish CNN’s comeuppance, not to root for governmental harassment of lefty prattlers, it’s misguided. Each new assault on our freedom — to hire, to fire, to speak, to write — serves as precedent for comparable and worse assaults. If we hope to defend our own freedom, we should defend that of all peaceful individuals. And prefer that they be left alone.

We must defend even those with some pretty noxious ideas.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Thieves With Badges

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Civil forfeiture is the government practice of taking property from citizens without due process, but while pretending that it’s all above-board. When police say they suspect a crime, they can impound property associated with that crime. “Civil forfeiture” is the legal legerdemain: instead of suing the owner, the government sues (get this) the property itself.

And, because of this trickery, burden of proof is inverted: victims must prove their innocence and their right to the impounded property.

Generally, governments keep it. Some police departments are “rolling in the dough” they get from impounding property.

This has been known for some time; I’ve written about it before. But now the Washington Post has finally taken notice … and unearthed a new element to the story.

“Behind the rise in seizures is a little-known cottage industry of private police-training firms that teach the techniques of ‘highway interdiction’ to departments across the country,” the Post’s report relates. There’s even a private intelligence network, the Black Asphalt Electronic Networking & Notification System, through which police “share detailed reports about American motorists — criminals and the innocent alike — including their Social Security numbers, addresses and identifying tattoos, as well as hunches about which drivers to stop.”

Participating police officers compete to steal more and more booty from drivers and their passengers.

Yes, it is stealing. It is only nominally “legal.”

Unfortunately, it is only one practice among many that have turned local police departments into the moral equivalent of gangland robbers.

If you say you want limited government, this is an issue ripe for protest. And lobbying for reform. And citizen initiatives.

For starters.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Old Rules Gotta Go

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Old hat. Long in the tooth. Creaky as an outhouse door.

These are just some of the expressions that apply to how our cities, states and metro areas are run — by ancient principles that do not serve the common good.

Last weekend I wrote about the ongoing revolution in transit, the peer-to-peer online app services offered by Uber, Lyft and the like. These ride-sharing services allow normal folks to give and receive car rides at great convenience.

They blow mass transit “out of the water” and throw taxi service sideways. Super-convenient, they make it cheap and safe for people to co-operate in new and productive ways.

Art Carden, at EconLog, notes the “social waste” that governments add to the system. While the new app-based services provide true solutions to the high transaction costs of negotiating among many people, governments give us squabbles: “the battle over the rules governing the conditions under which people will be allowed to do certain things is pure social waste,” Carden argues. “The social waste is reflected in the resources consumed in the fight over the rules.”

We’ve gotta have rules, of course. But they needn’t require micromanagement, massive restrictions, or high taxes.

The new era will be run (if allowed) on the basis of convenient co-operation, transaction costs reduced by communications technology.

The old era that still rules the roost runs on clunky old ideas that Carden rightly calls “mercantilism,” the political ideology that Adam Smith argued against . . . in 1776.

Government should undergird free markets, not intrude and dominate by licensing near-monopolies.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Yes, You Are a Suspect

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

Sometimes the Internet makes a mistake.

The other day, one of my favorite websites embedded a Fox News video about NSA spying. Fox News entitles their video “Citizens Treated As Suspects.” At the site showcasing Fox’s story, though, the headline reads: “The NSA Grabs Information from Non-Suspects; Ninety percent of those spied upon are under no suspicion.”

Can this be right? When you’re treated as a suspect, you are a suspect, aren’t you? You’re being suspected of … something. At least of being somebody who might be up to something worth snagging in an all-embracing fishing expedition. If you’re not guilty, somebody else leaving comparable data traces is, surely.

On the other hand, no matter how innocent you feel, you gotta be guilty of something for which the government could come after you, right?

I do not say you have done something actually wrong. Only something some policeman or bureaucrat could hassle you for. We live in an era when parents get arrested for letting their kids play in the park

Fox News reporter Shephard Smith says that most Americans caught up in the particular NSA surveillance net discussed in his story are just ordinary, everyday blokes — not reasonably suspected of anything NSA-spy-worthy. This is unsurprising given all we’ve been learning from the NSA documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden (see ProPublica’s revelation-chart).

These days, in the eyes of our government we are all suspects. Continuously.

And there’s something very suspicious about that.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Google Mugged By Reality?

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Google says health care is unhealthy.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has conducted what he calls a “fireside chat” with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. In one much-cited passage, Brin observes that although he is excited about making gadgets like glucose-measuring contact lenses, health care, because “so heavily regulated,” is “just a painful business to be in. It’s not necessarily how I want to spend my time. . . . [T]he regulatory burden in the U.S. is so high that I think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.” Page echoes his colleague.

A blunt, and fair, observation. But it makes one wonder why these super-entrepreneurs have not been more critical (at least so far as their search engine can tell me) of Obamacare, which multiplies mandates and prohibitions in the medical industry by an order of magnitude.

Top Google executives are known to be liberal in their politics, and presumably have been sincere. It seems, though, that reality is not cooperating with any ideological tilt they may yet harbor in favor of government paternalism.

It’s in fields with which a businessman is best acquainted that he is most likely to recognize the value of freedom — at least his own, if not always that of competitors. So perhaps we should hope that Brin, Page and other Google principals try to achieve something great in every industry there is. That way, they can come around to consistent, principled support for freeing markets.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.