A Surefire Way to Improve the World

Imagine how wonderful it would be if each American, rather than lining up in support of politicians who promise to wield state force to Make America Great Again (or in pursuit of some equally preposterous and meaningless slogan), resolved instead to make himself or herself a better person. Who among us cannot be a better spouse, a better parent, a better son or daughter, a better friend, a better neighbor, a better employee, a better employer, a better business partner, a better member of our community?

The beauty of this alternative dedication is that it requires no state force whatsoever, no passage of 2,000-page statutes, no stationing of armed forces at the border, no dropping of bombs on strangers thousands of miles away. And it is feasible. It is simply impossible to imagine anyone who has already done everything possible to make himself or herself a better person. All that is required is that each of us act within the bounds of his or her feasible set, and the only thing that stands in our way is ourselves.

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Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.

Marbury, Crackpots, and Judicial Supremacy

I just returned to the United States after a short-term teaching stint at European University in Tbilisi, Georgia. It seems I’ve arrived home on the tail end of a controversy over the venerable Marbury v. Madison decision. According to luminaries at the Washington Post, anyone who questions the greatness of Marbury is a “crackpot” and unfit to serve in the national government.

Here’s how the Post describes the decision:

Decided in 1803, at the dawn of the new republic, Marbury v. Madison is the foundational case of American constitutional law. It represents Chief Justice John Marshall’s declaration that the Supreme Court possesses the ultimate power to interpret the Constitution and determine the legitimacy of acts of Congress.

Can California’s Next Governor Gain Victory over Revenue Volatility?

California gets about half of its income-tax revenue from the top one percent of earners, which makes for high revenue volatility during an economic downturn. Back in 2009, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set up the Commission on the 21st Century Economy to deal with this problem. The commission recommended cutting tax brackets down to two and replacing the corporation tax and state sales tax with a 4 percent tax on business activity, but the legislature failed to vote on the proposals.

As Dan Walters of CALmatters notes, after governor Jerry Brown took office for the second time and grasped the threat of volatility, “he clearly didn’t want to take on such an immensely complex issue with a high probability of failure.” So Brown will leave office “with the fiscal time bomb still ticking away and likely be succeeded by someone with less ability, politically and intellectually, to do what needs to be done.”

Where Is Latin America Going?

During a recent tour of Latin America, I met some of the people who are heading or significantly influencing the new governments of the region. Here are some conclusions:

1. The new governments, many of them perceived as leaning toward free markets and the rule of law, have inherited a far worse situation than previously thought. One way to measure this problem is to look at the size of the fiscal deficits and the debt. Argentina’s consolidated deficit amounts to 7 percent of GDP, and although they are aiming for a zero-percent primary deficit in 2019, the servicing of the debt has gone up by 50 percent due to the rise of interest rates in the United States and the traumatic devaluation of the peso. In Ecuador, which has run fiscal deficits for the past ten years, debt-related payments have risen 42 percent. In Brazil, the fiscal deficit has risen 77 percent this year, with debt-servicing payments amounting to 6.2 percent of GDP.

No One Owns a Culture

To own something is to have the rights (1) to determine exclusively how it is used, (2) to appropriate exclusively any income or other benefits it yields, and (3) to transfer the foregoing rights to others by sale, gift, or bequest. In this light, it is clear that no one owns a culture, and hence no one may legitimately seek state violence for the defense of such asserted property rights.

One may have preferences about culture. One may have affections for or aversions to a culture or particular elements of a culture. But such preferences do not entail any rights of ownership. Moreover, all cultures are constantly changing to a greater or lesser degree by spontaneous, decentralized processes, including interaction with other cultures. Such interaction has always been the case except for the cultures of people completely isolated from the rest of the world.

To treat the arrival of new members of society who live to some degree in accordance with different cultures as if these persons were “invaders” who threaten to destroy one’s culture is simultaneously to evince little faith in the attractiveness and strength of one’s culture and to seek its defense as the enforcement of property rights where no such rights exist.

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Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.

Sacramento Slashes Fees on Housing Development

Last month, before the misguided Proposition 10 rent control measure failed, the Sacramento City Council voted unanimously to cut many city development fees for qualified affordable housing units. The sewer development fee, the water system development fee and the park development impact fee will all be reduced to zero dollars and this will trim costs from $10,000 to $13,000 per housing unit. The fee reductions are part of a quest to spur more development of affordable units at a faster pace. On that theme, a local example may prove instructive.

Back in 2007, a fire consumed 1,400 feet of a 2,200-foot wooden Union Pacific trestle bridge on a heavily used rail line for consumer goods and passengers alike. The city of Sacramento promptly waved regulations for reconstruction of the trestle in steel and concrete. The fire started on March 15 and Union Pacific crews had the new trestle in place by March 28, so within two weeks people and goods were rolling again. Similarly, if officials want more affordable housing at a faster rate, they must start slashing or eliminating the fees and regulations that bulk up costs, with zoning restrictions as a priority. As Emily Hamilton of the Mercatus Center notes, “when supply constraints prevent new construction in the places where people want to live, only zoning reform can increase access to housing.”

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K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at The Daily Caller.

Leviathan and the Budget Deficit

In October 2018, the U.S. government collected more revenue in taxes than any previous October on record. Terence P. Jeffrey of CNSNews reports:

The federal government collected record total tax revenues of $252,692,000,000 in October, the first month of fiscal 2019, according to the Monthly Treasury Statement released Tuesday.

Despite the record tax collections, the government still ran a deficit of $100,491,000,000 for the month—because it spent $353,183,000,000.

This October’s record $252,692,000,000 in total tax collections was $11,414,590,000 more than the $241,277,410,000 (in constant October 2018 dollars) that the federal government collected in October 2017, which was the previous record for federal tax collections in October.

To Help the Terminally Ill, the FDA Must Deregulate

In a recent press statement, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced plans to improve and broaden FDA’s Expanded Access Program. Sometimes called the Compassionate Use Program, the Expanded Access Program provides terminally ill patients with access to experimental medications before they are fully approved.

Current proposed changes to the program include streamlining the submission process that physicians undergo to provide required documentation and allowing individuals (instead of the entire board) to approve treatment requests. The agency also previously commissioned an independent review board to assess aspects of the program needing improvement.

The program has had recent success in expanding access. From 2005 to 2014, the FDA provided approximately 9,000 patients with access to experimental drugs. It has granted access to an equal number of patients in the last five years.

Although expansion has improved and the FDA’s commitment to helping the terminally ill is praiseworthy, current access levels are a far cry from what is needed.

Does Your Vote Matter?

Aggregates of voters may swing an election by voting one way or the other or by not voting. But you, amigo, are not an aggregate of voters; you have only one vote. And how you cast that one vote will almost certainly fail to swing any large election. Why this simple reality flies over so many people’s heads is a bit of a mystery (various explanations may be offered), but if you don’t understand it, you really need to stop and think harder about the matter. By doing so, you will independently rediscover the following:

Higgs’s Law of How Much Your Own Vote Matters

A = the state of affairs that will prevail if you vote
B = the state of affairs that will prevail if you don’t vote
A = B

Of course, saying that “your own vote doesn’t matter” is not the same as saying that “voting doesn’t matter,” although the latter may also be true in a different sense (e.g., elections are only rituals, and the deeper system will persist regardless of electoral outcomes).

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Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.

A Disarming New Governor Greets a More Dangerous State

Hours after Ian David Long murdered 12 people in Thousand Oaks last week, California governor-elect Gavin Newsom pledged to “raise the bar” on gun control when he takes office in January. Outgoing governor Jerry Brown had vetoed “a number of things that I would have not vetoed,” Newsom told reporters. He offered no specifics, but some clues are at hand.

Shooter Ian Long was “deeply troubled,” but “not prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms,” writes Garen Wintemute of the Baker-Teret Chair in Violence Prevention at the University of California, Davis. Wintemute wants to extend prohibition on gun purchases to include misdemeanors such as assault and battery. He also wants to recover firearms from “persons who purchased them legally, but then became prohibited from owning them,” but it may go farther.

Wintemute also heads the University of California Firearm Violence Research Center, created in 2016, and funded with a five-year grant of $5 million from Governor Brown’s budget package. The Center’s first project was “a survey that looks at who owns guns, why they own them and how they use firearms.” So the Center, allegedly driven by data, not a policy agenda, wants “the names” of gun owners. As Stephen P. Halbrook showed in Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State,” the German National Socialists also wanted to know “who owns guns” and ruthlessly suppressed firearm ownership.

In 2016, Jerry Brown signed bills mandating background checks to purchase ammunition and restrictions on the loaning of guns, even to close family members. Look for Gavin Newsom to “raise the bar” on all that while leaving in place new incentives for criminals.

On January 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1391 takes effect. Under this measure, signed by Brown on September 30, any person age 14 to 18 could murder 12 people, face prosecution only in juvenile court “without weighing of factors,” as Yolo County Judge Samuel McAdam notes, and by law serve only until age 25. Under this law, California will be decidedly more dangerous. Under governor Gavin Newsom, law abiding citizens will be less able to defend themselves against violent criminals.

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K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at The Daily Caller.

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