liberty Archive

Gary Johnson For President

Posted January 15, 2012 By Steve

Gary Johnson for President
This will probably surprise those who know me well, but I’ve become interested in Gary Johnson’s run for President. Gary Johnson was a Republican governor of New Mexico for two terms, which was a feat in a state that leans Democrat. He started his campaign last year as a candidate for the Republican nomination, but after being shut out by the Republican establishment and assiduously ignored by the mainstream media, at the end of the year he decided to switch parties and run as a Libertarian Party candidate instead. His record as governor is surprisingly strong, and this basically makes him the highest quality presidential candidate the Libertarian Party has ever fielded.

One way I find Gary Johnson interesting is the contrast he provides to the other noteworthy libertarian running for president this year — Ron Paul. Both hold similar positions, with the noticeable exception of abortion, where is no universally recognized correct position among libertariana, and immigration, where Gary Johnson’s positions are a lot more freedom friendly than Ron Paul’s. Overall, while Ron Paul is more of a paleolibertarian with more natural appeal to those on the right, Gary Johnson’s lifestyle and record are much more in keeping with the sort of left-libertarianism that shares goals with many progressives. Left-libertarians like myself don’t always have the same “virtue of selfishness” or “God-given rights” motivation of their right-libertarian colleagues, instead many of us are primarily motivated by concerns about poverty, environmental degradation, eroding civil liberties, and the like and simply understand that markets are a better way to solve those problems than constantly expanding state power could ever be.

And by markets, I don’t mean big corporations! Indeed, many on the left are surprised to hear that there are libertarians who are as distrustful of big business as they are of big government. Ultimately, corporations are not the epitome of capitalism, they’re a perversion of it. To own a corporation is to have a state entitlement of limited liability for the actions of the company that you control. There’s nothing libertarian about that! Indeed it’s frustrating for people like me to see progressives correctly rail against certain corporate abuses but then don’t see that the corporate power they oppose comes primarily from the collaboration between those firms’ executives and government policy makers. And it’s especially frustrating to see progressives who understand the harm done in communities, the country, and even internationally by maintaining a law enforcement approach to drug abuse that has clearly failed — an approach Gary Johnson came out to oppose while still in office as governor of New Mexico.

While obviously not as radical as myself, I believe that Gary Johnson is a left-libertarian at heart. And I further think that it would be a fascinating experiment to see him run his campaign specifically to attract progressive voters who have lost faith in Barack Obama. I say this because Obama’s broken promises about closing Guantanamo, abandonment of civil liberties by signing NDAA, and refusal to consider alternatives to drug prohibition have left many on the left without a candidate they can believe. Unlike previous cycles, there’s no name brand candidate running to the left of the Democrat — two little known figures are fighting for the Green nomination and Ralph Nader’s finally sitting one out. There’s opportunity for a left-libertarian to come in and make the case to many progressives, particular younger ones, that freedom in every sphere of life, not just on social issues and civil liberties, is progress in its truest form.

The Airport Security Dilemma

Posted July 19, 2011 By Steve

“TSA. You are supposed to be protecting us, but at this point you are… terrorizing us.” — Elie Mystal

TSA Security Checkpoint This week I’m in my first doctoral residency at Northeastern University, and while I’m writing about that elsewhere, I did want to share the experience I had getting there in the first place.

Northeastern University is in Boston and I live in Northern Virginia, meaning I first had to get there. It’s about a ten hour drive, and at first I considered taking my car, but then when I considered gas, tolls, and mileage, and checked out how little the flight would cost, I decided to fly. It helps that I’ve taken public transportation in Boston once before, when I flew up to speak at the Free Culture National Conference a few years ago, so I knew that getting from the airport to the place on campus where I was staying would be fairly easy.

Of course, this is the brave new twenty-first century, and that means when flying one gets a choice. No, not a choice of sodas, those cost extra now. I mean when going through security one can either go through the porn-o-matic scanner, or one can be groped. Now, while I don’t believe any of this actually makes travelers significantly safer, and don’t believe that those with delicate sensibilities should have to suffer these sorts of indignities and violations of privacy to fly on an airplane, I personally don’t really care if some random person sees a black and white scan of my junk. So you probably expect that means I went through the porn-o-matic, right?

Nope, I went for the groping instead. I know I’m not a medical doctor or anything, but I’ve read enough about the millimeter waves used by the porno scanners not to want to go anywhere near them. Yes, it’s possible that the sources of information that question the safety of these scanners may be suspect, but if there’s anything one can learn from history, it’s to disbelieve anything a government official says until proven otherwise — and they’re desperate to make people believe those scanners are perfectly safe.

So, how bad was the procedure? Well, I don’t believe he went to school for homeland security, but, to give credit where it’s due, the guy who patted me down at Reagan National Airport was extremely professional about it, telling me everything he was going to do ahead of time. It didn’t take very long, and while it was thorough, it wasn’t the end of the world. Of course, I’m a mentally healthy adult who’s never been abused, adopted religious sensibilities, or anything like that which might lead me to be sensitive about this sort of thing. And I could definitely see why people in those situations might feel extremely uncomfortable, even violated, by this procedure.

The other thing was that I was surprised I didn’t have to go through a metal detector. My bags went through the x-ray machines, as usual, but the pat down was the only procedure for everything on my person between the street and the airplane. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in information security, but whenever I see a security measure I think of it (intellectually, of course) as a challenge to be defeated. I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone determined couldn’t figure out some means of getting dangerous items. There was a scan for chemical residue, but that wouldn’t pick up any metal objects I might have cleverly concealed on my person.

I know I sound dismissive of security, but that’s not really my objective. When I get on an airplane, I want to land at my destination and live my life, I don’t want to be on a plane that gets hijacked and flown into an office building or shot down by an F-16. But I also don’t think that sort of 9/11 scenario is as likely today as it was in 2001, for two main reasons. First, cockpits are inaccessible, so hijackers might take over the cabin, but they’re not going to gain control of the plane. Second, before 9/11 passengers were told to comply with hijacker demands. Does anyone think hijackers will be obeyed by a plane full of Americans from the “Let’s roll!” generation?

Homeland Security spokespeople and others often say that any security measures, no matter how intrusive, are acceptable in part because no one is forced to fly on an airplane. But someone who needs to fly somewhere for work is hardly in a position to resist in a time of double digit unemployment. More to the point, however, is that “You’re not forced to fly” works both ways — why can’t it be the easily terrorized, who demand unreasonable security measures to feel safer, be the ones who take the bus?

How Not To Approach Campus Violence

Posted March 16, 2011 By Steve

“If you think the problem is bad now, just wait until we’ve solved it.” — Arthur Kasspe

20050610-atomic-ray-guns
Recently I read a commentary in UniversityWorldNews from John Woods, who opposes efforts by some U.S. state legislators to allow people to carry guns on college and university campuses. It seems he lost a loved one in the Virginia Tech massacre a few years ago, and the issue has been haunting him ever since.

What many people seem to overlook when it comes to these sorts of proposals is that there’s a difference between banning something and actually making it go away. No one who has it in them to walk around murdering other people will be dissuaded simply because one more aspect of their plan is illegal. Simply put, campus gun bans do not disarm potential shooters, they only disarm potential victims, leaving them helpless to defend themselves.

This is not a hypothetical argument. Virginia Tech was not the only university in Virginia where a shooting occurred in the last decade. There was also one at Appalachian School of Law. The difference was that in this other incident the shooter was quickly subdued by other students, who were armed. This is why the Virginia Tech incident is rightly termed a massacre, and the Appalachian School of Law incident is relatively unknown.

Mr. Woods is not the only one who wants a world free of violence. We all do. But unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, and that being the case we should make decisions based on reason, and not emotion. Gun bans fail that test.

Freedom In North Africa

Posted February 13, 2011 By Steve

“Thank you Facebook!” — Egyptian protester, recorded by NPR

El tahrir
Three cheers for the people of Tunisia and Egypt! May those in every nation rise up so boldly to cast off those who would oppress them! The last few weeks have been “Fall of the Berlin Wall” quality for those of us who care about liberty and the developing world. It’s especially gratifying to see that protesters in other countries are inspired by these grassroots revolutions, and that dictators in Algeria, Jordan, and Yemen are losing sleep over this.

One thing that’s interesting here is the discomfort that U.S. officials seem to express in admitting that their three decades of support for the regime in Egypt means that they can expect the next government there to be markedly less friendly, even as it (hopefully) will be much more democratic. Some American commentators have also remarked that since the U.S. didn’t do more to prop up Mubarak even now that similar dictatorships, especially those in the Persian Gulf, will become less compliant to U.S. interests.

Amazingly, they say this like it’s a bad thing. But one of the lessons of 2011 is that when you stand up for dictators rather than democracy, the world can see that you really stand for nothing. American policy makers have talked emptily about their wish for democracy in the Middle East for years, but it’s obvious to everyone, particularly Middle Eastern democrats, that they really couldn’t care less about this. The Cold War has been over for twenty years. Even if support for right-wing dictatorships was necessary as bulwarks against communism, and I’m not saying it was, that rationalization reached its sell-by date a long time ago.

Another case in point is the Republic of Somaliland in the northern part of what still shows up on the map as Somalia. There has been a functional republic there for years, with peaceful transition of power through elections and everything. It’s completely unlike Mogadishu. But decision makers in the U.S. government won’t even recognize its existence, much less support it. With friends like that….

By the way, I chose today’s quote for a reason. I was one of the ones who was unimpressed that Mark Zuckerberg was Time’s Person of the Year last year rather than Julian Assange. But given the pivotal role that social networks played in coordinating the efforts of those who rose up against Ben Ali and Mubarak, perhaps they weren’t just being cowardly, perhaps they were also inadvertently prescient. Either way it’s nice to see that the Internet is living up to at least some of its promise for being an equalizer when it comes to who gets to wield societal power. But especially given that the U.S. diplomatic cables leak helped to inspire the protests in Tunisia, I still say that Assange — warts and all — deserves to be Person of the Year.

Using Gold As Money: Just Do It!

Posted January 8, 2011 By Steve

“An almost hysterical antagonism toward the gold standard is one issue which unites statists of all persuasions. They seem to sense… that gold and economic freedom are inseparable.” — Alan Greenspan


gold coins

The Washington Post is reporting that conservative state legislator Bob Marshall is proposing the Virginia government study the feasibility of minting gold and silver coins to be used as money in the event that hyperinflation renders the U.S dollar unusable. Rather than address the proposal itself, the response to this from the left has been ridicule Marshall for wanting to bring back the Confederacy.

Now, I realize that Southern whites are the last remaining group in America against whom it’s still culturally acceptable to be bigoted, but this is not a proposal for the South to rise again, and I think most of its better-educated detractors know it. It ought to be enough to damn Marshall’s proposal for the flaws it actually has, which are (1) it’s not constitutional, as Article I, Section 8 assigns the federal government the exclusive authority to coin money, (2) it’s unlikely to pass in the General Assembly, and (3) if one government is debasing its currency it’s a little foolish to trust a different government not to do the same thing.

The real solution for those who want to use gold and silver as money is to use the Nike maneuver — just do it. You don’t need to wait for some government to tell you it’s okay. If you own a store, list your prices both in dollars and in ounces of silver. If you’re a customer, offer a silver round and see what the store owner says. It wouldn’t be that hard for someone enterprising to set up an online directory of businesses that participate. If there really is enough interest, those people can have their own sound money economy just like that. It’s the sort of thing I’ve always thought I might do using simply web technologies like PHP and MySQL if I can find the time. And with “quantitative easing” and related euphemisms for running the printing presses to churn out more money coming out of Washington, maybe sooner would be better than later.

Palin Missing The Point On Childhood Obesity

Posted January 5, 2011 By Steve

“Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” — William Shakespeare, Julius Caeser, Act 1, Scene 2


obesity parody poster

A friend of mine pointed me to an article in the Christian Science Monitor in which Mario Rizzo defends Sarah Palin’s criticism of Michelle Obama for having spoken out on childhood obesity. It made me realize how much commentary I’ve seen on this seemingly trivial issue in the last few weeks.

Some Republicans have come out in disagreeing with Palin, saying that Obama is simply speaking her mind about a societally important issue. Many of these seem delighted to have an opportunity to knock Palin down a peg or two going into the 2012 presidential election season, but surely that’s merely a coincidence. Others are agreeing with Palin, basically saying that as First Lady, Obama is close enough to being a government official that her campaign is an unwelcome social engineering effort on the part of the federal government.

Initially, I saw all this as a good barometer of hysteria. I find that those who’ve said Palin’s gone overboard with this are on the right side of the hysteria threshold. I mean, at this point the technical term for the size of the average American kid is “ginormous”. So what if Obama’s a quasi-politician, the message in this particular case is correct, right? But then I realized that if you’re really in favor of tackling obesity in government that focusing on what Sarah Palin is saying is pretty stupid, because it’s a lost opportunity to respond more directly to Obama’s approach to the issue.

What I mean is that if Michelle Obama really believes that childhood obesity is an important problem, then why doesn’t she come out in public opposition to government policies that encourage it? For example, shouldn’t she hold a press conference to trumpet her support for an end to government subsidies for sugar, corn, meat, and dairy?

But of course she isn’t going to do that. And the meanstream media isn’t going to call her on it. Agribusiness is big business, after all, and nothing, not even the health of America’s children, can be allowed to interfere with the ménage à trois of government, corporations, and the media. That’s why these sorts of subsidies weren’t even mentioned during the debates on the cost of healthcare last year, and they won’t be mentioned this year even as the federal debt continues to expand like, well, like an American waistline.

Climate Change Education?

Posted December 22, 2010 By Steve

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain


a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

Taxes And Generosity

Posted December 17, 2010 By Steve

“Entitlement is the antithesis of gratitude.” — Donald A. Palmer



When I’m on the exercise bike at the gym, I have three options. I can watch ESPN, in which I have no interest. I can watch the local ABC affiliate, in which I usually have no interest. Or I can watch CNN. I’m not really interested in that either, but it’s the least dull of the three, and it’s better to watch that than to think constantly about how hard I’m cycling.

One of the problems I have with CNN is that it reminds me how far journalistic standards have fallen. When a channel has “news” as its middle name, it ought to be in the business of news, not entertainment. I realize this is a quaint notion nowadays, but if it makes me a dinosaur to think that newscasters shouldn’t make exaggerated facial expressions to tell me what their opinion of an already slanted news story is, then I guess I’m a velociraptor. (Yes, Brooke Baldwin, I’m talking to you.)

Anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed about not just CNN but the rest of the meanstream media is the rhetoric they’re using when it comes to the deal on tax rates that Obama has made with Congressional Republicans. A few points:

  • What we’re talking about here is not a tax cut. I realize that because of the machinations of legislation that this is a continuation of a supposedly temporary tax cut from the early part of the Bush administration. But seriously, when tax rates have been the same for eight years now, then if they do go up, whether from legislative action or inaction, then that’s a tax increase, pure and simple.
  • Not raising personal income tax on those who make more than a quarter of a million dollars per year is not a “giveaway”, and it’s not “generous”. It’s taxpayers, not the state, who are giving something away; it’s taxpayers who are “generous” here. Anyone using this sort of rhetoric is demonstrating not only that they feel entitled to the wealth of others, but that those others should feel grateful for whatever they’re allowed to keep. Now, if you think that the wealthy, the middle class, or the poor should fork over a significant chunk of their earnings to the state for some sort of purpose, then it’s not like you don’t have a lot of company, but at least be intellectually honest about what you’re saying.
  • It seems that a common objection to this failure to raise taxes on the wealthy is that when they keep most of their money they don’t spend it all to boost the economy. I’ve heard repeatedly that tax cuts for middle income and poor people are better because those people will spend it all. Just because someone is well off doesn’t mean their bank account or paycheck should be thought of as a tool for monetary policy. It’s their money, not the state’s.
  • All this tax talk has focused solely on the personal income tax. Those who want to raise taxes on the wealthy say that supply side economists are wrong, because the rate at the highest bracket for personal income tax doesn’t really have very much impact on creating jobs and so forth. And that’s probably true. But the corporate income tax rate has enormous impact on that, and so far no one’s talking about that, even though Japan’s recent corporate income tax cut leaves the U.S. with the highest corporate income tax in the developed world. That’s especially stupid in that it would likely be revenue neutral to eliminate it completely, since the revenue would likely be made up by increased collection of personal income tax from those who would be able to get jobs as a result.

So if you happen to drop by my gym and see me frowning on the exercise bike, don’t worry, it’s not that I hate working out. It’s just continued dismay at how far those who treasure freedom have to go in this particular war of ideas.

Happy Halloween!

Posted October 31, 2008 By Steve
Boo! Although I can’t decide which is scarier tonight, the upcoming election or the fact that most people think one of those guys can fix the financial crisis. If ever anything called for a Vincent Price laugh, that’s it….

George Carlin, R.I.F.P.

Posted June 23, 2008 By Steve

Fresh off of a week’s worth of hagiographic logorrhea from the chattering class after the untimely death of Tim Russert comes the truly lamentable passing of George Carlin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Russert will be be missed. I found him an interesting interviewer who did occasionally ask tough questions of his interviewees despite their being his colleagues in the political/media elite.

The loss of Carlin, however, is truly a shame. I know him more from his recent work, as the goofy Archbishop in Dogma and in the work he did for kid’s entertainment, like narrating Thomas the Tank Engine stories and playing the voice of Fillmore the spacey VW bus in Cars — yes, I have a three year old son.

I’m aware, however, that long before this Carlin was a free speech pioneer, that his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” routine dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, leading, unfortunately, to one of their many failures to defend individual liberties. But he didn’t always lose, and comedians have cited him as an influence and inspiration ever since. Carlin’s sort of iconoclasm is vital for avoiding a descent into authoritarian stagnation. He’ll be missed.