Controlling Government

I've been reading a lot lately about what the constitution does and does not say. So, just for kicks, I went and read the thing (available from the government if you get a similar urge). I looked for two things, mainly. First, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in taking our money in the first place. Second, I wanted to see in what ways the federal government was justified in spending our money on all the crap currently in our federal budget.

Well, the first thing that occurred to me is that the vast majority of the constitution is concerned with the mechanics of choosing our representatives. Who can vote, who can run, that kind of thing. This is significant, but I'll return to it later.

On the first point, it turns out that the original constitution allows the federal government to make any taxes that are not individual or based on capitation. i.e. no taxes on individuals. It leaves the federal government able to tax literally any transaction if feels like. They can tax sales, or transportation, or mail delivery, or creating a business, etc. A later amendment (the 16th) then gives the federal government the unlimited authority to tax income (business and private) as long as it is based on universal rules and not targeted at individuals. That amendment was, in my opinion, a huge mistake, but there you have it. One article I read said that the 1909 amendment debates considered capping the amount of income taxable at 10%, but that limitation was voted down on the basis that no congress would be crazy enough to raise taxes that high.

So that means that the federal government is perfectly in its rights to raise all the taxes we currently pay to them.

On the second point, I thought I was in the clear for my gripes against continued federal funding of social security, welfare and other poorly run bureaucratic nightmares. I didn't find anything in the constitution that would allow spending outside of the military, sciences, the arts and some other, specific regulatory functions. Unfortunately, I brought this up in a learned gathering. While there, a certain clause was pointed out to me that is very small, but wide in its implications. It's called the general welfare clause and calling it that is pretty much as long as the clause itself. The clause is in the very first article section 8 "The Congress shall have power to ... provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States". Note that the general welfare clause is kind of buried there. That's how I missed it.

The effect of the general welfare clause is that the federal government can spend money on anything it wants to, as long as it can claim it is a benefit. Right now, that is interpreted so wide that literally anything fits under the general clause as long as it isn't targeted at a specific individual or region. That means it has to be based on some governing principle and not on individual instances (for example, disaster relief as a policy as opposed to disaster relieve for Florida residents only). Personally, I'd like to raise the bar (so that general welfare includes at least 50% of the population), but frankly, anything goes under the original wording and the current interpretation is certainly justifiable.

So what good is the constitution anyway, if it gives so much power to the federal government? Well, remember what I said earlier about the bulk of the constitution being taken up by procedural rules? I think that is the real genius of the constitution. Those procedures do two things that are extremely important. The first is that the constitution splits up the power of government in the three branches. This is important because it ensures a great deal of gridlock. I like government gridlock. Every time some media outlet or activist group gripes at gridlock, I am thankful for the foresight of our founders in creating a naturally gridlocked system. Budget battles? Do-nothing congress? Good. Please give me more of the same.

The second thing that occurs to me about the genius of the constitution is that it is designed to make sure we have a better government than we deserve. The federal government has a lot of discretion in interpreting the constitution. They have to have that kind of discretion in order to provide for important things (and some things do need to be handled at the federal level, I just think that it's a lot fewer things than most people think it is). The only check on rampant reinterpretation and grabs for power is that we get to elect representatives. The aggregation of these representatives, coupled with the natural gridlock at that level, conspires to give us a deliberative body that will on the whole tend to be unable to control and limit good people, yet gives them incentives to control and limit evil or corrupting people.

The only thing I can see that would improve the representative system is to take steps to make representation tighter. Right now, we are represented by people we just don't know and have no way of knowing. We are forced to elect people based on their public presentations and the depictions of an increasingly partisan press. I would very much like to explore systems that would make representation a little more like it was originally when it was far more likely to either know a candidate directly or at least know of them through personal channels. With our current population, this would substantially increase the size of congress unless we did something radical like introducing further layers of representation (representatives electing representatives electing representatives etc.).

Anyway, my point has become this: you can stop looking to the constitution to save you. It won't. It has no power to. If you really want to improve our government, you are going to have to first improve the people. It just doesn't work to go the other direction. I really do believe that we have a better government than we deserve. We are very fortunate to live in the United States of America. There is no better country on the planet at this time. I'm very glad I live here. Don't let my griping fool you. I've lived in another (first world) country and there just is no comparison. But we stand in very real danger today and we will feel the consequences of our choices for generations as we work so hard to destroy the moral foundations of our people.

5. October 2000 13:13 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

The Supreme Court

When Conservatives are Wrong

A lot has been said about some recent Supreme Court decisions. As plugged in to conservative activists as I am, I've received dozens of commentaries on the recent Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling that a community near Santa Fe, Texas cannot have student-directed prayer before football games. Naturally, the conservatives are outraged. Suppression of church!

I became intrigued by this case when it was mentioned by one commentator that the original case was brought against the school by two families. One Jewish. The other Mormon. Now, for the two of you who may be unaware of this, I'm Mormon. So wondering what could possess a nice Mormon family to press charges against prayer in school, I dug a little deeper into the facts of this case. I mean, they must be nuts or just calling themselves Mormon because religious freedom is actually a stated virtue in LDS tenets.

It turns out that they are, in fact, an active, believing and faithful Mormon family. They just happen to live in a community in Texas where the citizens overwhelmingly belong to a single congregation. This congregation has a pastor who is very much into denouncing other religions. This pastor and his congregation actively worked to express their, um, disapprobation of "sects" and jews.

And the "student-led prayers?" It turns out that the students were using this moment of prayer under direction of their religious leader as a platform to establish themselves as the only acceptable faith and that they were directly attacking other religions (specifically Mormons and Jews) in their 'christian' prayers. And they weren't using terms expressing hope for the salvation of the unbelievers, they were expressing sentiments designed to suppress and denigrate the beliefs of others not of their congregation.

I'm sorry, but I think I'm going to have to side with the Supremes on this one. Not because I'm Mormon and it is a Mormon family who brought the suit (that logic would mean that I'd have to like living in Utah and support Orrin Hatch--not gonna happen). I support the Supremes because I don't want even semi-official sanction of an activity designed specifically to exclude people from an activity based on religious delineations. The actions of these students is a movement by a prominent majority seeking to suppress the people they don't like. These prayers were being crafted with the deliberate intent to show exactly who was in charge and to make sure that the outsiders were fully aware of their pariah status.

A part of protecting freedom means protecting minorities from oppression by an intolerant majority. I think that this case really does speak to the establishment of a religion by the community.

19. July 2000 11:11 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

An Ex-libertarian

I Used to be a Libertarian

For some of you, it won't come as a great surprise that I carry a Libertarian Party ID. It might be new information to confirm it though. Just as it will likely be new to know that I was the party secretary for the SouthWest Washington Libertarian Party in Vancouver.

Like many in the party, I was initially sucked in by The World's Smallest Political Quiz. This quiz is remarkable because it introduces a new axis to give a two dimensional view of politics. You have the standard left-right, but you add a new dimension to give height. The designers of the quiz are very clever. Libertarian is on top of the grid, for example. Cleverer still, is the selection and phrasing of the questions. Three years ago, I scored strongly in the Libertarian spectrum. I think the only thing non-libertarian was my stance on the legalizing drugs question--which is important so bear that in mind.

So I felt pretty at home in the Libertarian Party. Libertarians are big on self-determination. Since I am pretty blessed in the abilities department, it's a comfortable ideology. And I'm comfortable accepting responsibility for my own charitable giving and feel strongly that government tends to get it dreadfully wrong when they get involved in 'helping' people. I still feel that way.

So why 'used to be' and not 'am'? Well, it has to do with that pesky drug question. At least, that was the start of it. It turns out that though it is only one question on the quiz, it's actually a large part of the party platform. Much of the effort of the Libertarian Party is centered around legalization of currently illegal drugs. I don't want heroin or LSD or cocaine legalized. I don't support the wildest excesses of the war on drugs, or some of the laws that violate the constitution (IMO) in the name of that war (some of the confiscatory laws are draconian). But I very much don't want that level of narcotic freely available to anyone who wants to use it.

In thinking this issue through, it forced me to figure out why I am so much dedicated to individualism but want to restrict individual choice in this instance. The problem is, my conclusions force me to abandon the Libertarian Party (leaving me party-less for those keeping score).

The problem with individualism (self-determination if you wish) is that we aren't lone individuals in this world. I wrote in an earlier post that the evil of money is that it obscures our dependency on each other. The same problem exists with un-checked individualism. Libertarianism denies the effects we have on each other. On the road, we are only as safe as the least safe driver. That's why we license the privilege to drive. While our personal lives aren't nearly so dangerous as the highways, we are dependent on each other for our comfort and upkeep--a relationship crash won't often kill you, but the long-term fallout can be as life-altering. We are bound to one another in an inexorable net of need.

Libertarians often ask what possible meaning it could have if someone chooses to destroy their life with drugs? Like the sulky teen, they are essentially saying 'It's my life, you stay out of it.' What they don't understand is that there is no such thing as an individual choice. All of our choices affect the people around us. Often deeply. The pregnant woman on crack is only the most obvious example of this dependency. It is obvious to me that certain forms of individual expression are damaging enough to warrant the intrusion on individual choice.

If you are at all religious (and I assure you I am), then you might believe that a large part of our test in mortality involves how well we make our choices to uplift those around us. My religion puts a strong emphasis on 'moral agency' for example. We are on the Earth to learn to choose what is right--informing our choice in the Spirit of God and our love for each other. We also believe that God goes to great length to protect this freedom to choose, going so far as to sacrifice his Son to pay for the spiritual consequences of our failures.

Some would say that in order for choice to have meaning, the chance to choose wrong has to be available. Certainly, history shows that much harm comes when good people attempt to force others to choose good. Many libertarians choose to interpret this historical force as a mandate against using force in any situation, and ask us to implement punishment for wrongs rather than prevention.

Obviously, I disagree. Some actions are so obviously wrong that they should be prevented. If there were a way to prevent murder, I would strongly advocate for it. So yes, there are times when government needs to step up and say that we can't do certain things. I don't think it is good to try to force people to do good. But I do think that it is imperative that we actively prevent people from committing irreparable harm.

The founding fathers acknowledge the benefits of enlightened self-interest. Not unhindered selfishness.

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18. July 2000 13:09 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Politicians Explained

Stupid or Corrupt

Some of you know I moved to Utah a little over a year ago. One of the odd things about Utah is the politics here. Utah seems to have an excess of well-meaning stupid people in office. I won't name names, but let's just say that the exposure to Utah's politicians on the local level has been an eye-opener. I think Utah has more honest politicians than most states, but what they have in honesty, they tend to make up for in stupidity.

So this got me to thinking. What is it about politics that seems to select for either the corrupt or the stupid? I hope there are politicians who aren't one or the other, but I just don't see any. I've seen some who are both, though. Also, I should probably state that I'm not merely calling politicians I disagree with stupid. That's a temptation, but I find that the one's I tend to agree with most are actually the ones I consider the dumbest (which probably says something about my politics--why am I always on the side of the idiots?).

Well, I decided to take my observations as givens and see if I couldn't come up with a reason why politicians are either corrupt or dumb. The scary thing is, I think I found a reasonable explanation.

The key, as it turns out, is money. You see, we are many years past the point where we can elect people we've met, or have even heard of from friends. Our populace is too large, and our representatives too few to actually get to meet them, even through mutual acquaintances. That means that we have no way to have actually met the candidates we vote for, or even know anything about them. The only way we know anything about the people we are electing is to have them purchase time in a mass-market medium. Radio, newspapers, or television. Preferably television because that has the largest audience and the connection is closer (i.e. visual).

Thus, for a candidate to have any hope of being elected, they have to 'get their message out'. That takes money. And lots of it. Advertising isn't cheap, and effective advertising is more expensive still.

Now, I don't believe that the best funded candidates always win. That simply isn't true, or at least, it isn't supported by actual statistical analysis. However, it is true that people with no money will always lose. Period. And it is true that money does play a key role in a campaign and can make up for some differences.

So who is it who is giving these politicians money? Politicians don't have a product they can sell. They don't have a service they can market directly. That means that people have to give politicians money for other reasons. Frankly, most fund-raising happens in order to get time to visit the candidates. One of the reasons regular people can't get access to the candidates is because that access is about the only commodity politicians have to sell. If you have $10,000 you wish to part with, you can probably pick a politician of your choice and have a nice little chat.

There are some people who give money to politicians because they agree with their policies and want to support 'the cause', but I think that is actually rather rare. People just don't often put their money on the line based on altruism. That's because most altruists think that their positions are self-evident and anyone who disagrees with them is probably either dumb or corrupt :).

So why would you give money to a politician to get face-time? The only reason I can see any organization giving money to get access to a candidate is if they honestly feel that they can change the policies of a politician based on that time together. Obviously, if you were a pro-life organization, and a candidate has declared their undying devotion to pro-choice, you aren't going to waste your money trying to talk them out of it.

So what politicians are likely to change their opinions based on purchased face-time? Easy. The corrupt who will do it for the money. Or the stupid who can be easily persuaded/manipulated.

And that is how we get a profession that is either stupid or corrupt.

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9. July 2000 10:08 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink


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