From all the discussion of requiring universal firearms background checks, you might assume that this is an entirely untried idea in the United States. Not at all: there are at least thirteen states that have had, for some years, some sort of mandatory background check for firearms transfers.
Six states require them for all private party transfers of firearms: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. Six more states have, for many years, required them for allhandgun transfers: Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. At least one state, Missouri, usedto have such a requirement for private party handgun transfers, but repealed it in 1997.
One of the wonderful aspects of America’s experiment with federalism is that it gives us fifty laboratories, where each state can experiment with different ways of solving social problems and see what works. What troubles me about the current headlong rush towards a national universal background check requirement is how little attention we have paid to the thirteen states that have already performed the experiment….
What startles from my paper’s findings is how ineffective those laws have been at what should be the most important measure: murder rate.
Of the twelve states that still have these private party background check laws, four adopted them before 1960, so the relatively consistent murder rate data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program can’t be used to test the hypothesis. Of the remaining eight, changes in murder rates are only statistically significant (at the 95% confidence interval) for five: three had an increase in murder rates after adopting mandatory background checks, two had a decrease in murder rates.
Of the three that were statistically insignificant, two states had increases in murder rates, and one had a decrease.
[W]hen nine different states, in many different years, in different regions, show a neutral to perhaps slightly negative impact on murder rates, it suggests that background check laws are either completely or at least largely irrelevant to the problem of murder.
Here’s a harsh truth: people that commit murder are not ordinary Americans, and do not obey laws. As the director of the National Institute of Justice recently observed in a leaked memo to the White House, a 2000 study found that 26% of criminal guns were stolen (often from retail stores or in transit), and 8% were the result of retail diversion by corrupt dealers. None of these criminal transactions will be affected by a background check law.
In addition, 47% of criminal guns were obtained through straw purchasers. This is already a crime, for which you can get a five-year prison sentence. But as police chiefs and U.S. attorneys admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few weeks ago, they don’t have time to prosecute these straw purchasers right now. Will they have more time to prosecute people who neglect or intentionally skip the background check requirement?
Of course, the roughly one-third of murders that do not involve guns will not be affected at all.
The unfolding IRS scandal is a symptom, not the disease. For decades, campaign-finance reform zealots have sought to limit core political speech through spending limits and disclosure requirements. More recently, they have claimed that it is wrong and dangerous for tax-exempt entities to engage in political speech.
The Obama administration shares these views, especially when conservative, small-government organizations are involved, and the IRS clearly got the message. While the agency must be investigated and reformed, the ultimate cure for these abuses is to unshackle political speech by all groups, including tax-exempt ones, from arbitrary and unconstitutional government regulation.
Beginning in March 2010, the IRS engaged in an unprecedented campaign of harassment against conservative groups, either through denials or delays in approving their tax-exempt-status applications, or through endless and burdensome audits.
In notable contrast, liberal and “progressive” organizations got approvals with remarkable speed. The most conspicuous example involves the Barack H. Obama Foundation, which was approved as tax exempt within a month by the then-head of the IRS tax-exempt branch, Lois Lerner. From media reports and firsthand accounts, we also know that the IRS disproportionately audited donors to conservative causes and leaked confidential tax information concerning conservative groups in violation of federal law.
This IRS politicization is not an isolated problem. It is an inevitable result of the broader efforts to regulate and, in fact, suppress political speech….
The proper lessons of the unfolding IRS scandal are twofold. First, any effort to have the IRS police advocacy activities of social-welfare organizations is bound to be clumsy and prone to degenerate into either selective or broad witch hunts. Second, the remedy is not to further limit political speech by nonprofit entities—which would certainly raise significant constitutional issues—but to encourage such speech by imposing fewer restrictions.
This hostility to critique serves as a backdrop to the twin scandals of the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups and the Justice Department’s secret tracking of journalists’ phone calls. An administration in permanent campaign mode and ready to unleash the politics of personal destruction at a moment’s notice now faces a firestorm of questions about the use and abuse of federal power.
There are obviously political implications for these scandals. But we should also take a step back and think of their broader implications for the president’s political and philosophical agendas.
Contemporary progressivism depends upon faith in bureaucracy: to collect data, to manage daily affairs on the local and national levels, and to serve as an impartial arbiter of fairness. Many of the major initiatives of the Obama presidency — from Obamacare to his expansion of executive authority to comprehensive immigration reform — demand this bureaucratic faith.
So every scandal that reveals a bureaucracy’s capacity for corruption deals a methodological wound to this centralizing enterprise. While the president might deride those who fear the subversion of a free republic into a less-than-free state, these sorts of scandals — whatever their outcomes — reveal that such fears are hardly misplaced. After all, we now know that federal tax-collection authorities systematically targeted opponents of the reigning ideology. We now know that federal agents could blithely monitor the phone calls of journalists. Those are not the figments of tea-party paranoia; as far as we can tell, they are facts.
The way it looks at the moment, there are two possible impulses behind these scandals: malice or incompetence. Neither one bears good tidings for bureaucratic progressivism.
The prevailing view in the so-called mainstream media is that “Team Red” is made up of bad people. The Tea Party wasn’t just angry and boisterous, it was “racist.” The National Organization for Marriage isn’t just uncomfortable with a radical change to the institution of marriage; it’s “hateful” and “bigoted.” The Catholic Church doesn’t simply adhere to countercultural views on human sexuality, it’s waging a “war on women.”
That makes it easy to understand how, in Douthat’s words, the abusive IRS employees might have “thought they were just doing their patriotic duty, and giving dangerous extremists the treatment they deserved.”
An unshakable sense of one’s own moral authority makes it easier to rationalize wrongful actions in the interest of preserving tenuous political and cultural authority. What, after all, is a purloined IRS document or a (nonactionable) slander in an editorial by comparison to the horrors of racism or antigay hatred? Of all forms of power, moral power may be the most seductive and corrupting.
“He has, acting personally and through his subordinates and agents, endeavored to . . . cause, in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens, income tax audits or other income tax investigations to be initiated or conducted in a discriminatory manner.”
— Article II, Section 1, Articles of Impeachment against Richard M. Nixon, adopted by the House Judiciary Committee, July 29, 1974
The burglary occurred in 1972, the climax came in 1974, but 40 years ago this week — May 17, 1973 — the Senate Watergate hearings began exploring the nature of Richard Nixon’s administration. Now the nature of Barack Obama’s administration is being clarified as revelations about IRS targeting of conservative groups merge with myriad Benghazi mendacities.
This administration aggressively hawked the fiction that the Benghazi attack was just an excessively boisterous movie review. Now we are told that a few wayward souls in Cincinnati, with nary a trace of political purpose, targeted for harassment political groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their titles. The Post has reported that the IRS also targeted groups that “criticized the government and sought to educate Americans about the U.S. Constitution.” Credit the IRS operatives with understanding who and what threatens the current regime. The Post also reports that harassing inquiries have come from other IRS offices, including Washington.
Jay Carney, whose unenviable job is not to explain but to explain away what his employers say, calls the IRS’s behavior “inappropriate.” No, using the salad fork for the entree is inappropriate. Using the Internal Revenue Service for political purposes is a criminal offense.
The most important economic chart in Western civilization. How it happened: “Respect and reward innovators and innovation.” (via AEI)
In that dreary winter of 1979, the piles of uncollected trash in London’s Finsbury Park seemed to stretch for miles. The garbagemen were on strike. So too, at one time or another, were hospital workers, ambulance drivers, truck drivers, railwaymen. Also gravediggers: In Liverpool, corpses had to be warehoused as they awaited burial—yet another long queue that socialist Britain had arranged for its patient masses.
This was the “Winter of Discontent,” when Great Britain came about as close to economic collapse as at nearly any point in its peacetime history, and it was the country Margaret Thatcher inherited when, on May 3, she defeated the Labour government of James Callaghan to become Prime Minister—the first woman in the office and 49th in a line that includes some of the greatest figures of Western civilization: Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli, the Duke of Wellington, William Pitt the Younger.
Thatcher died in London Monday, at age 87, having earned her place among the greats. This is not simply because she revived Britain’s economy, though that was no mean achievement. Nor is it because she held office longer than any of her predecessors, though this also testifies to her political skill. She achieved greatness because she articulated a set of vital ideas about economic freedom, national self-respect and personal virtue, sold them to a skeptical public and then demonstrated their efficacy….
And so it went for the next 11 years, as Thatcher and her government stopped printing excess money to kill inflation, cut marginal tax rates to unleash private incentives, privatized public housing so the poor could own their own homes, did away with currency, price and wage controls to eliminate the distortions they imposed on the economy, curbed runaway spending and sold off one state asset after another so they might be competently and profitably managed.
All this was done despite sharp short-term economic shocks and in the teeth of ferocious resistance, particularly from trade unions. In 1984, the coal miners union of Arthur Scargill went on strike for nearly a year. Similar strikes had brought past governments to their knees, but Thatcher, in a feat of immense courage and political skill, remained immovable and eventually won public opinion to her side. As she had famously said of herself a few years earlier (without being believed), “the lady is not for turning.”
…Deeper than this was Thatcher’s sympathy with what is best in America: freedom, enterprise, opportunity, optimism and the urge for self-improvement. No doubt this reflected Thatcher’s background as a grocer’s daughter who’d risen on her own talent and effort…. Thatcher came to power when Britain and the West were in every kind of crisis: social, economic, moral and strategic. Along with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, she showed the world the way out. She believed in the inherent right of free men to craft their own destinies, and in the capacity of free nations to resist and overcome every kind of tyranny and injustice.
The key to understanding Mrs. Thatcher is recognizing that she was neither a conservative nor a Tory but a radical. The British Tory party is a pretty specious organization and it all too often leans toward maintaining the current order rather than defending the classically liberal principles that made Britain great. Mrs. Thatcher had no time for all that, and as a consequence the Tories were never quite comfortable with her, nor she with them. On more than one occasion, she found herself on the end of terrible snobbery from Conservative-party grandees, grey-suited fellows who regarded her with suspicion as an arriviste and as “just a grocer’s daughter.” It is no surprise she loved America as she did.
“Diversity” types are amusingly silent about her — and for good reason, as her example is utterly lethal to the culture of victimhood on which they rely. The global Left, likewise, has strong motives to disparage her: She realized that decline was a choice (“I can’t bear Britain in decline, I just can’t”), unashamedly believed that the Anglosphere was crucially important to the world (“During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or other, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it”), and was possessed of an unwavering belief that America and Britain were forces for good and must lead. Today, I feel particularly for my father, who came from nothing and made something of himself. He abhorred the patronizing socialism of the Labour party and credited the opportunity society in which Mrs. Thatcher believed with making his social mobility possible. She was his hero.
In death, her enemies will be vile about her — that is their right, and there is no need to pretend that they liked her just because she is dead. Indeed, the usual suspects have already started. But, ultimately, who cares what they say? She was right and they were wrong. While they blathered, she helped to defeat Communism, restored democracy to the Falklands, and saved Britain from the reds at home. She was, without doubt, our finest post-war premier and she made an incalculable contribution to the life of my country of birth.
Charles C. W. Cooke
Would you stomp on a piece of paper with the name Jesus written on it as part of a classroom assignment? Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon student at Florida Atlantic University, had to make this bizarre decision in his Intercultural Communications class. The incident ignited a firestorm of national outrage when Rotela told local news sources, last week, that he was being punished for refusing to complete the assignment….
Students do not have a right not to be offended by classroom speech, including assignments. Yet what precisely happened in Rotela’s class matters in determining what rights and principles are at stake. The idea of students at a public institution being required to stomp on the word Jesus evokes the 1943 decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Supreme Court found that students could not be compelled to salute the American flag against their will. In the case, brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses who believed the salute was blasphemy, the Supreme Court staked out a broader moral argument defending the right of private conscience in rousing language. The Court held that students in a free society could not be compelled to engage in an act that amounted to a rejection of their most deeply held beliefs….
[T]he double standard is glaring. I have zero doubt that a professor would have immediately understood the problem with the assignment if the name to be written on the paper had been “Mohammed” or “Martin Luther King” instead of Jesus. I also hope that a professor would understand he had crossed a line if he asked an atheist, like me, to bow down to a shrine. The fact is that universities these days rely on double standards to function, as the overwhelming majority of colleges, like FAU, maintain unconstitutional speech codes that typically ban inappropriate, offensive, or hurtful speech. If the plain language of these codes were followed, they would not last a day, since every professor and student would be found guilty of violating them. In order to exist, these kinds of codes must be selectively applied.
The incident also highlights attitudes about Christian students on America’s campuses. In my time at [the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education], I’ve seen a sustained effort to punish evangelicals or push them off campus to a degree that would never be tolerated if aimed at other religious groups….
“Academic freedom” can be a difficult concept to define. Among various theories, the academic freedom of professors is often emphasized, while the academic freedom of institutions is misunderstood, the academic freedom of departments is forgotten, and the academic freedom of students is ignored. While a student’s right to academic freedom may be comparatively humble, it at minimum should include the right to principled dissent and the right not to be required to publicly reject your beliefs. Let’s hope FAU’s very public embarrassment on this issue leads to some desperately needed recognition of its students’ academic freedom.
“ The liberty of the press is the birth-right of Britons, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability and duplicity, have thus been detected and shown to the public, generally in too strong and just colours for them long to bear up against the odium of mankind. Can we then be surpriz’d, that so various and infinite arts have been employed at one time entirely to set aside, at another to take off the force, and blunt the edge, of this most sacred weapon, given for the defence of truth and liberty? A wicked and corrupt administration must naturally dread this appeal to the world; and will be for keeping all the means of information equally from the prince, parliament and the people. Every method will then by try’d, and all arts put into practice to check the spirit of knowledge and inquiry. Even the courts of justice have in the most dangerous way, because under sanction of law, been drawn into the dark views of an arbitrary ministry, and to stifle in the birth all infant virtue. ”
John Wilkes, 1752
When one moves beyond all the budget numbers floating around Washington these days, much of the debate over future policy boils down to a question of the size of government. The Left often dismisses this issue as symbolism or rhetoric, but it is much more than that. The question of big government vs. limited government is not an abstraction. How we answer that question has real consequences for real people. For example:
1. Big government is unaffordable….
2. Big government is incompatible with economic growth. Economists debate the exact relationship between the size of government and economic growth, but few argue that government can consume an unlimited proportion of the national economy without its having a significant impact on that economy….
3. Big government doesn’t work. Quickly now, can you name three government programs that work? And if you have to reach back to the GI Bill, you lose.
The further government gets from its core functions, the more it gets involved in areas where it just isn’t qualified to do a very good job. We have 126 separate federal anti-poverty programs, at a cost of $668 billion per year, yet poverty has hardly been dented. We spend more on education every year, but test scores remain stagnant. The stimulus bill spent as much as $540,000 for every job it created. Social Security is a giant pyramid scheme. Medicare and Medicaid are models of inefficiency.
Perhaps worse, government intervention crowds out the private actions of civil society, which are far more effective in addressing people’s needs. Big government doesn’t only make it harder to care for ourselves and our families; it also makes it harder to care for our fellow man.
4. Big government breeds corruption. Corruption is endemic to big government, and it goes far beyond the occasional scandal about congressional bribery, nepotism, or Dominican prostitutes….
5. Big government limits freedom. Perhaps most important, the debate over the size of government is about the ability of people to make decisions for themselves and be responsible for their own lives. Every dollar that big government spends the way it wants is one less dollar that individuals have to spend the way that they want. As Frédéric Bastiat put it in his parable of the broken window: If the shopkeeper with the broken window hadn’t had to pay to replace it, “he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes or added another book to his library.” Or to put it in today’s context, he might have purchased health care, saved for his retirement, or donated to charity. He might have started a business or hired workers. Or he might have spent it entirely on frivolities. Whatever he might have done, he is now deprived of that choice.
Moreover, when government tells us how to save for our retirement, what health insurance to buy, what charities to support, what to eat, or whom we can marry, it forces people to live by the government’s standards rather than their own decisions. It prevents people from pursuing their own goals and objectives, merely because people in government believe that those goals are mistaken. But, as Milton Friedman warned:
Those of us who believe in freedom must believe also in the freedom of individuals to make their own mistakes… . We may argue with him, seek to persuade him that he is wrong, but are we entitled to use coercion to prevent him from doing what he chooses to do? Is there not always the possibility that he is right and we are wrong? Humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the true believer in freedom, arrogance of the paternalist.
This is why the fight over the size of government really matters. Big government leaves us poorer and less prosperous. And it fails to alleviate our social ills. But most significantly, big government denies the unique value and self-worth of every individual.
The Obama administration answered more requests from the public to see government records under the Freedom of Information Act last year, but more often than it ever has it cited legal exceptions to censor or withhold the material, according to a new analysis by The Associated Press. It frequently cited the need to protect national security and internal deliberations….
In a year of intense public interest over deadly U.S. drones, the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, terror threats and more, the government cited national security to withhold information at least 5,223 times — a jump over 4,243 such cases in 2011 and 3,805 cases in Obama’s first year in office. The secretive CIA last year became even more secretive: Nearly 60 percent of 3,586 requests for files were withheld or censored for that reason last year, compared with 49 percent a year earlier.
Other federal agencies that invoked the national security exception included the Pentagon, Director of National Intelligence, NASA, Office of Management and Budget, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs.
U.S. courts are loath to overrule the administration whenever it cites national security. A federal judge, Colleen McMahon of New York, in January ruled against The New York Times and the American Civil Liberties Union to see records about the government’s legal justification for drone attacks and other methods it has used to kill terrorism suspects overseas, including American citizens. She cited an “Alice in Wonderland” predicament in which she was expected to determine what information should be revealed but unable to challenge the government’s secrecy claim. Part of her ruling was sealed and made available only to the government’s lawyers.
“I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules — a veritable Catch-22,” the judge wrote. “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the executive branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”
The AP could not determine whether the administration was abusing the national security exemption or whether the public was asking for more documents about sensitive subjects.
Hugo Chavez is dead. He leaves behind a country ruined by populist policies he referred to as “Socialism of the 21st Century.” Venezuela under 14 years of Chavez’s leadership benefited from about $1 trillion in revenues from the oil bonanza but has little to show for it. Instead, the country has largely followed the path described by economists Rudi Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards in their 1991 classic, The Macroeconomics of Populism in Latin America.
Again and again, in country after country, policymakers have embraced economic programs that rely heavily on the use of expansive fiscal and credit policies and overvalued currency to accelerate growth and redistribute income. In implementing these policies, there has usually been no concern for fiscal and foreign exchange constraints. After a short period of economic growth and recovery, bottlenecks develop provoking unsustainable macroeconomic pressures that, at the end, result in the plummeting of real wages and severe balance of payment difficulties. The final outcome of these experiments has generally been galloping inflation, crisis, and the collapse of the economic system.
Venezuela’s economy, kept afloat by the long commodity boom, has not yet collapsed. But it is headed for crisis. A devaluation of more than 30% this year brought the official exchange rate to 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. The black market exchange rate—about 26 bolivars to the dollar—shows how much further it has to go. Inflation in 2012 reached 20%. Uncontrolled spending, expropriations, price controls, monetary expansion, capital controls and other misguided policies have also led to scarcities of basic goods, recurrent power outages, water rationing, increased dependency on imports and on oil exports, and a rising public debt and fiscal deficit.
Chavez also centralized political power as he gained control of the main institutions of Venezuelan society—the military, the judiciary, the congress, the central bank, the electoral council, the most important broadcast media, etc.—and did so by trampling on due process and basic civil and political liberties.
The vast expansion of state power led to a neglect of traditional functions of government such as security or keeping up infrastructure, and to an increase in corruption. Crime under Chavez skyrocketed. When he came to power in 1999, the country experienced less than 6,000 homicides per year; in 2012 that number reached about 21,700. By 2012, Venezuela’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index fell to 165 out of 174 countries.