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This Ain’t Laissez-Faire

Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Things are what they are, not their opposite. Can we accept that as a starting point?

Not if we’re scoring ideological points regardless of the cost to clarity.

Newsweek calls drug-war violence in Long Island “a harrowing example of free-market, laissez-faire capitalism.” To this, Cato Institute’s David Boaz objects that “the competition between the local Crips and Bloods [is described] in terms not usually seen in articles about, say, Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Toyota.”

Under a truly free market, the rights of buyers and sellers to peaceably trade are legally protected from theft and violence, and their contracts defended from fraud. Black markets, on the other hand, are made up of illegal exchanges, actively prohibited trade.

Sure, black-market trade has something in common with legal trade. As with legal exchanges, persons willingly participate in black-market trades and expect to benefit.

But economic activity that can easily get you jailed is fundamentally different in just this respect from that conducted in a relatively laissez-faire context.

The difference has consequences.

You can’t go to court if you have a grievance with a black-market trading partner or competitor. And persons less scrupulous, more violent, more criminal than the norm tend to be disproportionately represented among sellers of illegal goods that have especially big markups precisely because they’re illegal.

So Boaz is right.

The legal capitalism at K-Mart, J. C. Penny, or a post-Prohibition-Era liquor store isn’t fertile ground for the gang warfare invited by the War on Drugs. We can’t tell the difference, though, if we ignore the difference.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

John Oliver vs. Cops Who Rob

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

“Since 9/11, under just one program police have taken two-and-a-half billion dollars in the course of over 61,000 seizures of cash alone, from people who . . . were not charged with a crime. That is the sort of behavior we laugh at other countries for, along with their accents and silly hats.”

So says a prime-time TV comedian who devotes more than 15 minutes of his monologue to exposing and critiquing the malignant practice of “civil forfeiture,” which lets cops grab and keep your cash just because it’s there.

You won’t find such an extended, mostly spot-on critique of civil forfeiture — bolstered by Q&A with the likes of Ezekiel Edwards and Scott Bullock — delivered by a “Tonight Show” or “Late Night” host. The credit goes to John Oliver (HBO’s “Last Week Tonight”), who finds plenty to satirize in the contradictions and silliness of “law enforcers” who function as thieves.

Much of the work is done for him. Oliver doesn’t have to try too hard, for example, to poke fun at the Funk Night raid, caught on video. The police seized 48 cars, contending, “simply driving vehicles to the location of an unlawful sale of alcohol was sufficient to seize a car.” Says Oliver: “Which means you might as well seize any car being driven by any teen on prom night.”

I’ve been more or less indifferent to the fate of John Oliver’s new HBO show; but now I say, ardently, “Live long and prosper!”

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

But for a Video

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I’ve argued that police be required to wear cameras on the job — for the sake of both the wrongly used and the wrongly accused.

But ensuring that video is recorded and then, if necessary, used in tandem with other relevant evidence to secure justice doesn’t happen automatically. It requires a culture dedicated to upholding ethical standards of professional conduct.

This culture seems in short supply in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

There, explains the Washington Post, “it is now clear that the police, without provocation, can beat an unarmed young student senseless — with impunity. They can blatantly lie about it — with impunity. They can stonewall and cover it up for months — with impunity. They can express no remorse and offer no apology — with impunity.”

Beverly Woodward, the circuit court judge in the case the Post outlines, should have recused herself because of a conflict of interest. She did not. Then, without explanation, she tossed the case’s one modest conviction — which had been obtained only with great difficulty. The matter would not have stretched even that far had a video of the incident not eventually surfaced, exposing the lies of the officers who pummeled the innocent student.

Suspicious circumstances in the case abound. Radley Balko gives the laundry list.

When corruption is this pervasive in a locale, state or federal government must intervene to reform and prosecute. It should be a lot easier at all levels to prosecute and punish those public officials who commit clear wrongdoing.

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?


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.

Police Officer Un-indicted

Friday, September 19th, 2014

We’re naturally worried about the potential for police abuse of power — cops who roust people for no good reason, then claim that the other party was “resisting arrest” or some such thing.

But sometimes it’s the person on the other side of the badge who reconstructs history.

Several days ago, a story broke about Django Unchained actress Danièle Watts, who is African-American, being accosted along with her white boyfriend by a police officer who wanted to see their IDs. Both later suggested that they were targeted by police for racial reasons. On her Facebook page, Watts reported that she “was handcuffed and detained by two police officers . . . after refusing to agree that I had done something wrong by showing affection, fully clothed, in a public place.”

But audio of the encounter that has come to light shows an officer politely asking for ID, and explaining that he was responding to a call. (The caller had claimed the couple were having sex in public.) The officer is calm; Watts is persistently histrionic. She brings up race; he says race wasn’t the issue, sexual activity in public was.

We can argue about whether the officer should have handcuffed the actress in response to her recalcitrance. (Apparently, an accusation is all that is required to trigger police power, a demand to “see our papers.” It’s hard not to be on Ms. Watts’s pro-freedom side on that.) But now that this recording is out there, her original version of the encounter just won’t stand.

Enough reason to put video-recording devices onto every police lapel . . . in L.A., in Ferguson, everywhere.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Like most Americans, I pride myself on being able to detect irony at seven paces. Skimming through the news, I can certainly detect sarcasm (which is to irony what a cannon is to sidearms), as in this first paragraph from Reason magazine’s online pages:

Los Angeles City Council today approved a new citation system. . . . This new system allows the Los Angeles Police Department to cite residents for a whole host of minor crimes that used to result in warnings (and potentially misdemeanor charges if police felt like pressing the matter). Now it’s a way for the city to extract more money from residents for minor issues, and I’m sure that won’t be abused at all.

The point that Scott Shackford is making: the new system will be abused. When he tells us that “the city predicts it’s going to take in $1.59 million in revenue a year,” we see the reason for predictable abuse: money as well as power.

Mr. Shackford worries about the effects, about the people who will be caught in this net for all sorts of small little infractions of laws that they probably don’t even know exist. He wonders, he says, “if I should warn my neighbors, several of whom have friendly dogs they take outside to walk without leashes. It’s rarely a problem and I don’t hear complaints (except for this one little dog with a Napoleonic complex. There’s always one).”

My big worry? These sorts of laws (like: don’t put signage up on telephone poles, though “everybody is doing it”) hit the poor the hardest. The fines, starting at $250 a pop, are not insignificant.

A few of those and you might as well call yourself a member of a persecuted class.

Welcome, friend. The modern state seems bent on making us all members of that class.

No irony, here; just Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.