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Legislators, Know Thy Limits

A certain legislator wished to make his state great via technology. My reply:

Technology is hardly the forte of the legislature. There are fundamental differences between a body of random people whose sole qualification is the ability to get voted into office, and entrepreneurs, who risk their own skin in the game, rather than risking the lives and livelihood of millions of others.

Legislators need to absorb a few economic realities, beginning with Public Choice Theory and the Economic Calculation Problem. This might inoculate them from the virus of Magical Thinking.

Or, as a shortcut, ponder the legend of King Cnut, whose courtiers believed him capable of anything; he bade them carry his throne chair to the beach, and there commanded the tides to desist, so that his courtiers might understand that even the king’s powers had limits.

Legislators cannot transcend the laws of physics, nor of economics.


No Such Thing As Free School

Remember the saying? There’s no such thing as a free lunch? This is true for all “free” goods provided by the government. First off, obviously, taxpayers cover the costs. Second, government is seldom or never the most efficient provider of services.

But most importantly, “free” school (the topic of this article) comes packaged with a bundle of problems. Someone else, not you, gets to decide which hours children should attend school; which subjects should be taught; and what the content of those subjects might be. Some one else decides which spin of history and economics and philosophy shall be taught.

It should come as no surprise that, when the government teaches, it happens to teach that government is a positive good, and that without government, there’d be no roads, and we’d all be at the mercy of war lords and other horrible creatures. So shut up, submit, pay your taxes and follow the rules.

We are discovering, however, that many things which were presumed to need government intervention, do not. Parents are teaching their children at home and in co-ops, independent of government. In India, millions of parents are spurning government schools, in favor of parent-funded government-free schools. Millions of customers use ride-sharing services, breaking the stranglehold of licensed taxicab drivers. People are using Bitcoin to transact business. In a myriad of ways, people are discovering that government isn’t free; that freedom works better and at lower cost.


Patriotism and the Pledge

Patriots ought to ask, as I do, what sort of country we wish to be patriotic about. Do we want to emulate North Korea and Communist China, with their mandatory displays of patriotism? What is it about this country (the U. S. of A.) that we most admire?

For me, it’s the ideal of freedom, however much the government itself may abuse that ideal. This meme sums up my feelings about the recent flap about flags and songs. On what side do we wish to stand? As for me, I stand for freedom itself, not for the symbol.

 

 


Nativism Self-implodes

I’ve opposed nativist know-nothings for decades, for many reasons. Their theory of wall-building-as-panacea rests on many shifting assertions, including the belief that immigrants necessarily vote for more government, and/or necessarily vote Democrat.

Both parts of that theory have always seemed suspect to me. In addition, the last claim – that immigrants tend to vote Democrat – seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you spend a great deal of time advertising your dislike of immigrants, are they supposed to happily rush to endorse your pogrom, excuse me, program?

Alex Nowrasteh tackles this fallacious marketing strategy in his commentary Saving the GOP from Modern Know-Nothingism

California’s Gov. Pete Wilson took another path. Facing a tough re-election campaign in 1994, the Republican decided to blame illegal immigrants for all of the state’s troubles. The result was that he and the rest of the state GOP were perceived as blaming all immigrants for California’s woes. Mr. Wilson won re-election but doomed the GOP for decades in that state.


Against Intellectual Property

This will raise the ire of some libertarians, but I can see no merit in arguments that a copy of the product of one’s mental effort is “property.”

Suppose I make a clay pot. Assuming that the clay was mine, and the tools were mine or were legitimately in my hands, and I had no prior commitment to produce the pot for others, that pot is mine.

If a replicator then makes an exact duplicate, the pot belongs to whoever owns the replicator, just as a copy machine produces copies of paper documents. So-called IP laws seek to claim property in copies and even sort-of-vaguely-like “copies” of the arrangement of bits, blobs of ink, or physical stuff. If taken to extreme, you would owe royalties to the first creators of every word you utter, in perpetuity.

There’s a lot to be said on this topic. Recommended reading list:

The Case Against Intellectual Property

Against Intellectual Property 

The Case Against Patents


Border Collectivization

Government borders are categorically different from private borders. When you and I separately define the borders of our individual properties, we define them for ourselves only. You and I may allow or exclude whomever we please. We may make different choices for ourselves, but may not impose those choices on each other.

National immigration controls take that choice away from us. They collectivize not only the external border, but every private border within; they deprive every property holder of autonomy. They also threaten to physically break down our private borders, and to shoot our pets, children, and ourselves, if anyone so much as alleges that immigration controls have been violated.

If you wish to compare a front door to a national border, the proper comparison is this: do you want your front door to be broken down by ICE agents whenever a vengeful neighbor makes a phone call? Because that is the natural consequence of immigration controls.

 


A Deficit of Proper Language

The words and phrases we use shape our thought. Bad language can lead to bad policy decisions. Daniel B. Klein and Donald J. Boudreaux take aim at a deeply misleading phrase: “trade deficits.”

Deficits sound bad. But deficits look only at part of a trade: the units of account, or dollars in the United States. What were those dollars traded for? Stuff. Food, steel, computer chips, and so forth. We could just as easily say that the United States enjoys a surplus of stuff – we acquire more stuff than we send abroad. Nor is this the entire story; folks abroad are not hoarding ever-increasing piles of green-paper pictures of dead Americans; they send the paper back, and purchase American capital, thereby investing in America, and ultimately encouraging increases in American productivity, and thence American real wages.

Or to put it another way: we do not work to obtain dollars; we work to obtain the things which dollars can purchase: housing, food, electronics, books, and so forth. It’s the “stuff” which motivates us. People in Venezuela are earn ever-increasing numbers of Bolívares, but they’re able to purchase less and less food.


Against War: Standards

Folks who read or listen to me know that I am deeply against war; indeed, I have been against war since my earliest memories, going back to the Vietnam War. But why?

To answer simply: I have standards. War is about “breaking things and killing people;” especially the latter. Now, I am no pacifist; there are times when I think it might be justifiable and proper to kill a person; but I think it morally abhorrent to do so lightly, without consideration of the harm, with hardly any justification but rumors and speculation.

The drone strikes in the Middle East, and the Tomahawk missile strikes in Syria, are cases in point. A drone strike is not a sniper bullet, killing a particular guilty person; it lays waste to that person’s home, to their neighbors, to the people across the street who may be trying to help the wounded and dying. It is an atrocity; it should be loudly denounced as a war crime, not praised. Nor can we be certain of the quality of the evidence which led to the strike in the first place.

Similarly in Syria; we hear rumors that a poisonous gas was used by Assad. Before any investigation of these allegations was even possible, missiles flew; people were killed. No amount of sophistry could possibly turn this into a morally justifiable act.

These acts did not make the United States safer; if anything, they increased the number of people who wish us ill. They do not add to America’s greatness, but diminish it. They are of value only to war fetishists, to worshipers of Mars,  god of war, and to war profiteers.

Yes, folks, I am against this war, and against the next one. I think little of the politicians and pundits and preachers and profiteers and all those who praise these acts of mass murder. Of all the fools, tools and trolls in this world, these are the most despicable. If government exists to protect us, let it protect us from these. With “protectors” such as these, we hardly need enemies.

Constitutionally, Congress ought to declare war before the government undertakes war. But I suggest a still higher standard. Before condemning a single person to death for even the most heinous of crimes, our criminal justice system demands a high standard of evidence, and still a single juror may stay that sentence, by refusing to convict. Let Congress hold itself to similar standards; if even one person of twelve refuses to declare war, let the matter pass.


Freedom Zone Confronts City Council

“Let’s bring this meeting to order,” said the Mayor. “Order, please.” He banged the gavel. Quiet emerged in the packed City Council Chambers. Cameras flashed.

“All right, to begin, this is a highly informal meeting, at the request of a group which calls themselves the Freedom Zone. This group, and the area where they reside, have no legal basis, but the City has agreed to work with them informally, to move this forward and try to come to a resolution.”

In the back, somebody whispered “windbag.”

“hush” whispered another.

The Mayor continued. “I’d like to give the floor to our Finance Director, Sasha Baldwin. Sasha.”

Sasha rose. “You can read a summary of our findings up on screen. As you can see, landowners and retail establishments are in arrears on property taxes, sales taxes, and wage taxes. These property taxes are based on assessed values. The sales and wage figures are guesstimates, since the people in arrears have filed no reports; they have not complied with laws which require them to file tax forms. In addition, no fees have been paid for inspections, licensing, and other matters which are deemed vital for public safety.”

After further speechification and verbiage, the Mayor invited Troy Freeman-Li to the stand. An aide made an adjustment to the video projector; a map appeared, showing the informal Freedom Zone, and the words “Speaking: Troy Freeman-Li.”

About 1.9 meters tall, dark haired, athletic in build, wearing a bespoke suit, Troy commanded attention. He introduced himself in strong, confident tones. “Hello, my name is Troy Freeman-Li, of the Freedom Zone. I speak for myself and, by their request, the interests of the others who have been described by the finance minister as ‘in arrears.’ They remain free to speak for themselves or to separate themselves from my informal representation, should I depart from their intentions.” As he spoke, captions appeared, in sync; all of this video generated by Troy’s Interface.

The Mayor had scrawled “A kid?” on his scratch paper. His aide wrote “Owns 1/2 zone. Could buy 1/2 city. Respect.”

“I’d like to address two issues with the property tax. First, the assessed value; the City has raised appraised values by 140%, not because it spends more money on us in the Zone, but because the City believes that we have no choice but to pay; it seeks to charge the highest price that we will tolerate. Second, with respect to school tax: No child in Freedom Zone attends city schools, and some outside of this zone have chosen to study within it. Twelve thousand students are educated at our own expense. We see no reason to continue to pay City school taxes, nor to pay these huge increases, simply because of arbitrary increases in assessed value.”

Graphics compared the increases in assessed values and taxes, versus the drop in cost of actual services, since the Zone had begun providing better and cheaper alternatives.

Troy took a sip of water. “Furthermore, I’d like the Police Chief to speak a moment about crime statistics, and demand for police services in this Zone. Chief, please.”

The Police Chief stood. “It may cost my job to say this, but any of my officers will tell you the same story. There is hardly any violent crime in this area; it is a ‘Safe Zone.’ One officer has been killed in the past three years; it was found that he was attempting to rape a woman, who shot him. This was ruled a regrettable but justifiable homicide; no charges were filed. Two officers who were beating a homeless man, and got themselves a bit of a beat-down; they chose to file no charges. A few purses have been snatched; the perpetrators were caught, the property returned. In short, the zone does a great job of policing itself. Furthermore, ambulance services run out of a facility adjacent to ours. They report zero calls from this zone, the past three years. The same for fire services. This zone resolves their own problems.”

The Chief sat down. Troy continued. “To sum up our position, we hardly need the City; the City needs us. We’ve happily paid for and supported city water and sewage, which we do use. We have our own waste disposal firms. We police our streets. We educate our children. We are asking only to keep what is our own, and to put it to better use for our own purposes.”

A Council Member stood up: “You are asking for tax subsidies.”

“No. We are asking to be left alone. We have little need for your ‘services.” And I, personally, have offered to buy your decrepit water treatment facilities, improve them at my expense, and to sell better water to city residents at lower prices than they now pay.”

Another Council Member: “Your 12,000 children don’t seem to go to school at all. They’re in the streets and shops at all hours of the day.”

A boy stood and requested attention. He looked to be about twelve years old. He approached the mike. Troy stepped aside.

“Hello everyone. My name is Isaac Kaplan. I don’t go to school, because I want to learn all the time, every day. I learn when I read at the library; I learn when I play with my friends; I learn when I visit with Rabbi Small; I learn when I work in my Aunt Tilda’s book store. I’m learning right now, and I don’t need somebody to make this an ‘assignment’, nor to tell me to write a report. I’ll write my own report in a newsletter for my paying customers, and the better I write, the more I get paid. I write for incentives which are real to me, not for gold stars.”

Audience members applauded.

Another Council Member rose. “What about drugs and prostitution?”

Troy answered. “Both are openly available, of high quality, offered under conditions which are safe for both customers and providers.”

“What about licensing and code enforcement?”

“Were somebody to explain the benefits of specific programs, we would be more than happy to find ways to provide better services at lower cost. In fact, as a landlord, I fund inspectors who examine every property I own, and fix problems so that my tenants and I can have a good working relationship in a safe and healthy environment. This is how we do things in the Zone.”

The audience ooohed. The Mayor called for order. “Anything further, Mr. Freeman-Li?”

“To sum up, the City has broken faith with us. It collects taxes under false pretenses. These taxes, we have been told, are merely the ‘price we pay for civilization’; the price for safe street, for good schools, for paved roads, and so forth. By any honest assessment, the City has hardly ever delivered on its promises. Any contract between equal parties would be voided by such egregious non-performance, but the City claims special status – the power to demand taxes without actually having to deliver on its side of the bargain. I ask that a new bargain be struck, a bargain which more fairly reflects the interests of those who carry the burden and bear the costs.”

“We choose to protect our neighbors because we want to live in a clean and safe neighborhood. We provide food, health, and lodging for the indigent because they are our neighbors, and when we help them, we help all of our neighbors. And we are able to do this because we have refused to been pay millions of dollars in unjust taxes for services which the City is actually not providing. I’d be happy to sit down and talk with the folks in your city who provide services which we do use – such as water and sewage – and find ways to pay a reasonable price for reasonable service. But the attitude of the city is not based upon service, nor upon voluntary exchange; it is based upon their determination to use law suits and the threat of police action and account seizures to pick a price – your price, not ours – and to demand it, whether or not we even wish to be included with what you have decided is the “right” package of goods and services.”

“As I said earlier, we do not use your schools. If your city had to pay for the 12,000 childdrenn within our boundaries, you’d have even worse finanical problems – and both parents and children would be deeply unhappy with your services.”

“This young man” – Troy put an arm around Isaac – “can run rings around most of your high school graduates, and he is six years younger than they. Neither he, nor his parents, nor I wish to pay top-drawer prices for bottom-drawer goods.”

“So I conclude. Please let me know when we can negotiate terms which respect our needs and wants, where you and we are not enemies, nor master and subjects, but voluntary, equitable partners. Until this happens, we will not send a dime to the City, except for the water and sewage.”

“Is that an ultimatum?” asked the Mayor.

“It is what it is – a reasonable position which we hope that any reasonable person would at least consider.”

“Or else?”

“Or else, we will leave. You can have your empty property. We will take ourselves away. You’ll not be bothered by our presence. You’ll have empty land and buildings, and nothing to show for it.”

Behind Troy, people began to disappear, one by one. Seats emptied. Only Troy and Isaac remained, calmly gazing at the Mayor and City Council.

An Aide to the Mayor spoke in a stage whisper. “I wasn’t kidding about Wallenberg. Troy Li-Freeman is the brother of the girl who invented the teleporters, and their father helped to organize the evacuation of Wallenberg, the Rapture.”

“I thought that was a tabloid story.”

“My dad was there, sir.”

The Mayor stood. “I take your point, sir. My council and I will withdraw and consult amongst ourselves. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing, please.”

Isaac walked up to the Mayor, and hung a bright golden sun amulet around the Mayor’s neck, and proceeded down the line.

“This State has a Sunshine Law. In the interests of Sunshine, I’ve made it easy for you to keep a transparent and open record of all your conversations. Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to our next meeting.”

The Mayor looked at the amulet with some distaste. But he did not remove it. He nodded his head, and watched as Troy and Isaac winked out.