NSA Mission Creep: It’s for the Children

It's for the Children

It’s for the Children

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s, and numerous other credible whistleblowers‘ irrefutable revelations that the National Security Agency (NSA) and other government agencies are capturing and indefinitely storing millions of innocent Americans’ phone calls, emails, internet transactions, and even movements and whereabouts at any given time—Apple and other tech companies are rightfully responding to their customers’ demands for enhanced encryption to protect their privacy rights.

The concept of rights is apparently unknown to the nation’s top attorney, who wants the government to continue to be able to capture, store, and peruse at its leisure your private emails, phone calls, photos, etc. In a speech last week:

U.S. attorney general Eric Holder said on Tuesday he was worried that attempts by technology companies to increase privacy protections were thwarting attempts to crack down on child exploitation.

Speaking at the biannual Global Alliance Conference Against Child Sexual Abuse Online in Washington, Holder warned that encryption and other privacy technologies are being used by sexual predators to create “more opportunities to entice trusting minors to share explicit images of themselves.”

“Recent technological advances have the potential to greatly embolden online criminals, providing new methods for abusers to avoid detection,” he said. “When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”

Government continually sets up strawmen boogie monsters to provide cover for violating our rights, and it’s time for us to act like adults, not scared little children who need the big strong men to keep us safe.

It’s not to protect us from “German [Japanese/Nazi/Communist] spies,” or “the War on Drugs” or “Terrorists who hate our freedoms,” or even “Sexual predators”: it’s for Big Brother.

Let’s just say No.

Amazon’s “Dark Side” Is a Bright Spot for Workers and Consumers

Amazon-BezoJim Hightower is an old-fashioned Texas progressive, who, if memory serves, once ran unsuccessfully for the governorship of that state. He may be a great polemicist – see “The Dark Side of Amazon” – but he does not know the first thing about how markets work and how Amazon.com, like Wal-Mart, is a benefactor of consumers nationwide and worldwide.

Before the advent of Wal-Mart, rural America was a retail desert. Small shops, limited product availability and, yes, “hometown service”. But the prices of most items were high because the only alternative to shopping locally was to drive to the nearest city or order through the Sears or JC Penney catalog and depend on timely delivery by the US mail in, it was to be hoped, an undamaged package. The downside of local retail shops (limited options and high prices) fell most heavily on low-income households, which may not have had an automobile or could not afford to take time off work to shop at larger urban retailers or even at local merchants, which typically closed at 5 p.m. Wal-Mart solved both problems in one fell swoop.

Sure, local retailers suffered losses of business and some were forced into bankruptcy, but consumers (the only group whose welfare matters in a free market economy) won big-time. Amazon has generated benefits for consumers many times larger than Sam Walton ever dreamt of.

But what about the jobs that disappeared in local retail outlets as Amazon and Wal-Mart drove costs (and prices) down by inventing markedly more efficient distribution networks and negotiating lower prices with manufacturers and other suppliers on behalf of millions of consumers with little bargaining power of their own? An economic system’s chief purpose is to create prosperity (wealth), not jobs. Creating jobs – at the point of a gun, as Josef Stalin proved, or as FDR did by drafting millions of men to shoulder arms against the Axis powers – is easy; creating wealth is not. Prosperity materializes only if existing resources (land, labor and capital) can be utilized more efficiently, squeezing out “waste” and redundancy so that resources can be released from current employments and redirected by alert entrepreneurs to the production of new products that consumers may not even know they want (an iPhone ten years ago, for example) until they become available.

Hightower bemoans the working conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, a few of which literally become sweatshops during hot summer months. I am willing to bet, however, that if the people employed in one of Amazon’s “dehumanizing hives” (his phrase) were asked whether they wanted to quit their jobs, not one hand would be raised, especially so in an economy with an unemployment rate still hovering around six percent and a rate of underemployment twice that figure.

Hightower, like many before him, claims that Amazon’s ability to avoid collecting sales taxes on orders shipped out of state from the company’s Washington state headquarters or from its warehouses located around the United States gives Amazon a tax subsidy ranging “from about 4 to more than 10 percent.” That subsidy, which actually ranges from zero to more than 10 percent (four U.S. states – Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana and Oregon – impose no local or state sales taxes at all), supposedly confers a significant competitive disadvantage on brick-and-mortar retailers, who must remit sales tax receipts to the appropriate state tax authority.

But in making that claim, Hightower ignores taxes paid by FedEx and UPS, which deliver Amazon’s packages to customers’ doorsteps. Those delivery services pay, among others, state and local gasoline taxes and corporate income taxes; their employees pay state and local personal income taxes and spend some of their disposable incomes at local grocery stores and other retail outlets, purchases on which sales taxes are due. So, too, do the owners and employees of Amazon’s warehouses.

Amazon relies increasingly on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver packages to customers’ homes or places of business, especially in rural areas, a relationship that must have been seen by the beleaguered USPS as something like a lifeline thrown to someone going underwater for the third time.

It is true that, like Wal-Mart, Amazon has benefited from tax breaks (“incentives”) offered by local and state governments to lure companies to one particular geographic location rather than another. Handed out to encourage local economic development and the jobs and tax receipts associated with it, such corporate “incentives” are a national scandal, squandering taxpayers’ hard-earned money for dubious benefits. But neither Wal-Mart nor Amazon should be blamed for accepting such incentives, which are offered by politicians who want to claim credit at reelection time for attracting high-profile corporations to their home districts or states. Consumers, by and large, don’t care about the points of origin of their orders, as long as they are delivered when expected, whether from Toledo or Timbuktu.

It is someone ironic, but understandable, that Wal-Mart has joined the chorus demanding that Congress put an end to the sales-tax-free Internet retail environment. Wal-Mart has a physical presence in virtually every state and thus is obliged to collect sales taxes on almost everything it sells. Wal-Mart, of course, would benefit itself by erasing one of Amazon’s competitive advantages. But consumers would be harmed, not only by seeing prices rise by the amount of sales tax Amazon collects and then remits to the treasuries of its customers’ places of residence. Even more seriously, expunging the virtual border between the more than 3,000 separate taxing jurisdictions throughout the United States would mute the interjurisdictional tax-rate competition that makes it politically costly for any one of them to jack up its sales tax rate.

Competition can seem to be ruthless to someone who loses a small business or gets fired from a retail job, but the benefits to consumers swamp the harm done to producers. Already, Amazon is facing threats from Uber and other web-based delivery services that will pick up and deliver orders from local retailers in hours, not one or two days. Amazon could respond by getting permission from government regulators to deliver packages via drones. No one knows what the next new thing will be, but the answer cannot be found by hamstringing Amazon or any other large retailer, but by allowing free and open competition to flourish.

But a mercantilist, anti-market mindset is exactly what one would expect from a progressive defender of the Empire against Sam Walton, Jeff Bezos, and innovative rebels like them.

Debunking Democracy with James M. Buchanan

JamesBuchananAmong the first questions young people ask upon their political awakening is one that should concern Americans of all ages: Why don’t democratic governments operate the way our civic classes taught us? Perhaps no one of his generation thought more deeply about this question than the economist James M. Buchanan (1919–2013). The late Nobel laureate would have turned 95 years old on October 3, and we’re happy to use the anniversary of his birth to publicize his legacy. Last winter, The Independent Review published a six-article symposium on Buchanan’s contributions to political economy and classical liberalism—all of which is now available for free on our website. Christopher J. Coyne, one of our journal’s three co-editors, kicks off the discussion with an introduction that traces Buchanan’s development of new tools to help us better understand how a democracy actually works, as distinct from how we wish it would work.

Buchanan called his approach “politics without romance,” yet he was fully invested in the romantic notion that intellectuals could and should inspire the public to imagine a better political community. Symposium contributors Geoffrey Brennan and Michael C. Munger (another co-editor of The Independent Review) make the case that both branches of Buchanan’s thought—his realism and his idealism—grew from the same root: his emphasis on constitutional rules of order and disdain for the rule of elites. Buchanan was also a moralist: He believed that one of the most appealing major features of a free society was its absence of dominion and discrimination in human relationships. Independent Institute Research Fellow Peter Boettke author of Living Economics, suggests that by stressing this benefit, freedom’s friends would help many people overcome their fear that life without Big Government would entail too many responsibilities for them to manage well.

As with many prolific writers, Buchanan wrote so much over the decades that claims of his consistency are open to debate. Independent Institute Research Fellow Randall G. Holcombe, for example, argues that aspects of Buchanan’s constitutional thought might be at odds with individual liberty—particularly Buchanan’s argument for coercing individuals to support collective actions that he believed were necessary to further their own goals. Also, like other prolific scholars, Buchanan left a huge body of work rich in insights that have yet to be fully mined. Niclas Berggren, for example, believes that Buchanan and Tullock’s seminal 1962 book, The Calculus of Consent, has untapped potential to inspire new thinking to advance the cause of liberty. Finally, Hartmut Kliemt concludes the symposium with a look at the logic of Buchanan’s classical liberalism. Buchanan came to his views, Kliemt explains, because he was a communitarian philosopher who discovered the unanimity rule.

(Readers hungry for more discussions of Buchanan’s thought can find several related pieces on The Beacon, archived here, as well as a review of volume 1 of Buchanan’s collected works. Also, see Buchanan’s insightful essay, “The Soul of Classical Liberalism,” and a response by Dwight R. Lee, in The Challenge of Liberty: Classical Liberalism Today, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close.)

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[A version of this post first appeared in the September 30, 2014, issue of The Lighthouse. For a free subscription to this weekly newsletter from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Berkeley’s Free Medical Marijuana Plan Shows Economic Thinking Has Gone to Pot

14448260_S-230x242In 1996, California passed Proposition 215, making it the first state to legalize medicinal marijuana. Its passage, however, did not trump federal law, under which cannabis remains illegal as per the Controlled Substance Act. Due to this illegality on the federal level, private insurance companies, as well as state programs like Medi-Cal, do not cover medicinal marijuana. Thus, many low-income patients are paying significant portions of their income on the drug, expenses that they cannot easily afford.

Attempting to combat this problem is the city of Berkeley. In July the city council unanimously approved an ordinance that will allow low-income persons to receive free marijuana if they have a legal prescription, which is scheduled to go into effect in August 2015. (The program covers individuals with annual incomes below $32,000 and families of four with incomes below $46,000.)

The plan mandates that Berkeley medical marijuana dispensaries give away 2 percent of their product to eligible customers. As Councilmember Darryl Moore put it, “The city council wants to make sure that low-income, homeless, indigent folks have access to their medical marijuana, their medicine.”

Regardless of the merits of medical marijuana, the ordinance as written is emblematic of a problem that plagues many safety net programs: the creation of perverse incentives. This particular plan encourages low-income residents to earn lower incomes in order to qualify for the giveaway. It also takes a toll on an industry that contributes a disproportionate share of the city’s taxes.

The arbitrary income cut-off of $32,000 means that participating patients who earn slightly less than this amount would receive significantly more effective income than those who earn at least $32,000 but who would lose out on the benefits of the free medicinal marijuana. This is what economists mean when they say that low-income citizens pay higher “marginal tax rates” than wealthy Americans, even with an effective tax rate close to 0 percent. They would lose money for every marginal dollar earned that eliminates them from receiving benefits that have income cut-offs.

This problem is prevalent in many poorly designed government safety nets, and is also the reason that many programs use phase-outs to lower the marginal tax rate. Phase-outs mean that earning more money above the income limit would, for example, simply lower the amount of free marijuana that one receives until it is gradually reduced to none. Although phase-outs do not completely fix the problem, they are a better option than a single fixed cut-off.

A second problem has to do with the arbitrary quantity of medical marijuana that the government would require dispensaries to give away: in this case, 2 percent of their product. This is poor policy for two reasons. First, it creates a “cross-subsidy,” which means that the price for paying patrons of the dispensaries will rise in order to cover the loss of profit on the 2 percent of free marijuana. Second, it provides a disincentive for dispensaries to locate their business in Berkeley. The dispensaries could respond by moving to nearby Richmond or Oakland and avoid the loss of sales revenue from providing a free product, which would mean that the city of Berkeley would not receive tax revenue from this heavily taxed drug, and that the intended beneficiaries of the ordinance would not receive the free marijuana as the nearby cities do not have similar laws requiring the free distribution of the medicine.

The Berkeley City Council wishes to see itself as providing a valuable benefit to low-income residents. Unfortunately, its medical marijuana plan has many basic economic problems—blunders that regrettably still exist in many government programs today.

[Ryan Atkinson is an economics major at UC Berkeley and a former intern at the Independent Institute.]

Florida’s Very Interesting Race for Governor

541c4a1b34ed9.imageIn November, Floridians will see three names on the ballot for Governor: incumbent Governor Rick Scott, the Republican; former Governor Charlie Crist, the Democrat; and Libertarian candidate Adrian Wyllie.

Incumbent Rick Scott is probably the least interesting of the candidates. A former hospital CEO, he won in 2010 spending mostly his own money ($70 million) to fund his campaign. He ran as a fiscal conservative, and mostly has followed through on his campaign platform to lower taxes and shrink state government.

Scott has played politics a bit. Originally, he opposed Medicaid expansion in Florida under Obamacare, but he reversed his position to support it once it was clear that it wouldn’t pass the legislature. And after cutting education spending at the beginning of his tenure, he supported expenditure increases in K-12 education last year, and is campaigning on his support for public schools. But mostly, he’s followed through on the fiscally conservative platform on which he ran.

Scott’s Democratic challenger, Charlie Crist, is well-known to Floridians because he was governor prior to Scott. Crist was elected as a Republican in 2006 and would have been easily reelected, but he chose to run for an open US Senate seat rather than for a second term as governor. He began his Senate race as a Republican, but when it became apparent that Marco Rubio had a lead for the Republican nomination, he dropped his Republican affiliation and ran as an independent.

As we know, Crist lost the Senate race to Rubio, and subsequently changed his party affiliation to Democrat, and is now running for the office he voluntarily left four years ago.

Crist is a charismatic candidate, and clearly has Scott beat on that count. But it does appear to me he has two big strikes against him. First, he voluntarily vacated the office he is now seeking, and second, he changed parties to do it. Voters must be thinking that if he really wanted to be governor, he would not have left the office after one term when he could have easily been reelected. And, will Democrats really support the candidate they were running hard against just eight years ago? Of course they will prefer him to Scott. But that doesn’t mean they will actually go to the polls and vote for him.

This makes Adrian Wyllie a more interesting candidate. Scott and Crist are polling about even right now, but Wyllie’s support seems to be about 8%, which is pretty high for a candidate from the Libertarian Party. That’s not going to win him the election, but it could affect whether Scott or Crist wins.

Ordinarily, I’d expect a Libertarian candidate to get most of his support from potential Republican voters, so he’d be taking votes away from Scott. But the baggage Crist brings to the election might cause some Democrats to think twice about voting for him. Of course they won’t vote for Scott, but as a protest vote, or an expressive vote, as academics might phrase it, they might vote for Wyllie. They’d be thinking, “I don’t want to vote for Crist, but I can’t vote for Scott, so I’ll vote for this other guy I don’t know.”

My prediction is that Scott will be reelected, but not for any of the reasons I gave above. Incumbents have a big advantage in any election, so I’ll always bet on the incumbent, and win that bet most of the time.

U.S. National Defense: Just Another Government Program

0804772282In a recent address to the Institute for Humane Studies board of directors, George Mason University economist and co-editor of the Independent Institute’s The Independent Review Christopher J. Coyne offered a “case for humility” regarding foreign intervention. I had the pleasure of hearing the address in person, and the written version can be found here.

There is one point, mentioned briefly in the piece and discussed during the Q&A portion of the address, I’d like to explore further.

National defense, not surprisingly, is a hot topic on both ends of the political spectrum. What may be surprising, however, is that there is significant disagreement among libertarians and other “liberty-minded” individuals about military and other foreign intervention. It is not difficult, for example, to find an individual who is critical of domestic government programs and an ardent supporter of individual liberties, but favors a strong military and active foreign policy.

The military is not just another government program—it’s one of the largest government programs. The U.S. military faces the same systematic problems as other government activities. The DOD is guilty of the same sins as Social Security, nationalized healthcare, government-run education, and every other bureaucratic government initiative providing a “service” to the U.S. citizenry.

Coyne’s remarks capture this well. He describes how foreign intervention increases the scale of government activity more than almost any other government program. With a budget for 2014 over $750 billion, the U.S. federal government spends more on defense than on Medicare, Medicaid, education, housing, and agriculture.

Coyne describes how interventionist policies change the composition of domestic markets as resources are transferred away from private uses to the government. These changes bring further distortions as they alter the incentives facing individuals in both the private and public sector. The military, like any other government program, faces strict limits on what it can achieve. As the military operates within complex systems, it is impossible to know at the outset how its actions today will impact tomorrow (see my previous post for further discussion of complex systems).

Moreover, interventions change the structure of domestic government and expand the scope of government power. These changes work to undermine civil liberties.

Despite these issues, there are still those who suggest our current military is appropriate for issues of “national defense.” Allow me to suggest that “defense” is complete misnomer. It is difficult to argue that preemptive strikes against targets that “may harm U.S. interests” are defensive. Current U.S. defense, put simply, if offense.

It is particularly important for those of us concerned about liberty to recognize these issues of national defense are of particular importance. It’s the star-spangled elephant in the room. These “defense” activities, as opposed to protecting our freedoms and expanding the rights of those abroad, often have the opposite effect. They diminish the liberties they are intended to protect.

So what can those who love freedom say regarding national defense? I know I’ve been accused, as have others who hold a similar position, of burying my head in the sand. “Certainly, we have to do something.” “Well, OK. What would you do then?” The truth is, if we are honestly concerned about helping people, we should first work to do no harm. Again, Coyne hits the nail on the head:

I lack confidence that foreign interventions can generate net benefits systematically across cases of foreign intervention…. Let me suggest that a good starting point is to discuss the specifics of defense in a free society…. From there we can move on to discussing whether the state is actually able to deliver on the desired end in a manner that maintains, rather than undermines, a free and prosperous society.

The Free Speech Movement Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary, but the Eternal Battle Between Liberty and Power Goes On

Free Speech MovementFree speech is an eternally radical idea, so it is always under threat at all times in human history.” —Greg Lukianoff

October 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, the iconic student rebellion that rocked the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, during the tumultuous 1960s. As summarized by Berkeley’s Alumni Gazette:

The resulting protests, unprecedented in scope, were the harbinger of the student power, civil liberties, and antiwar demonstrations that convulsed college campuses throughout the country for the next decade…. After decades of ambivalence, UC Berkeley is finally embracing this important part of its history.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, the university administration sponsored a large number of classes, lectures, concerts, and exhibits alongside unofficial events organized by current and former activists. Near the end of September, a reunion took place that brought together veterans of the original Free Speech Movement.

9781594037306_p0_v2_s260x420On Saturday, September 27, I went to Berkeley to take part in the festivities and explore the legacy of a seminal movement that shaped American history. I heard many interesting stories from old-timers as well as current activists reflect on their experiences and discuss modern controversies. As one might expect, some of the panels and audience responses became very heated. I couldn’t help but notice a strong tension between the civil libertarian and “social justice” wings of the Left. This particular controversy carried over into a panel that discussed current challenges to free speech and academic freedom. Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), lamented the fact that large numbers of activists from the 1960s and 70s, once they became administrators and faculty, used their new powers to push through “speech codes” and enforce political correctness. We’re now reaping the rotten fruits on many campuses where environments of ideologically driven censorship and a trend of “unlearning liberty” are the norm, not the exception. As of January 2014, FIRE has documented that almost 60 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities have unconstitutional speech codes.

Clearly, advocates of free speech still have much work to do. As anyone who has been through higher education knows well, the modern American campus is not particularly friendly to views that dissent from left-wing orthodoxy. But this is not and shouldn’t be a partisan clash of Left versus Right, or Democrat versus Republican. The battle will always between liberty versus power, and the individual versus the collective. Lukianoff is absolutely right to emphasize that “free speech is an eternally radical idea, so it is always under threat at all times in human history.”

The good news, broadly speaking, is that current signs seem to show that many Millennials are mistrustful of authority and support full freedom of expression. A number of recent events are reaffirming the revolutionary spirit of youth. In one Colorado school district, for example, hundreds of students staged walkouts in protest of a new proposed curriculum that ironically downplayed civil disobedience and resistance to authority. In Hong Kong, a largely student-driven (including many as young as twelve) protest movement has mobilized tens of thousands of protestors into the streets to push back against Beijing’s attempt to further control the city’s elections. In the city Milton Friedman once praised as the exemplar of a free market economy, it is thrilling to see youth stand up for individual rights, free elections, and local autonomy instead of demanding for more central government control and one-size-fits-all “solutions” for societal ills.

All over the world, people of all ages make use of the treasured principle of free speech to speak out against abusive authority. The legacy of the Free Speech Movement is still being felt today. Even for those who might not agree with its ideological positions and perceive excesses from the 1960s, the lessons for contemporary student activism are profound. If anything, it is important to recognize that rights are like muscles. They become stronger through regular exercise, and they atrophy from neglect. Let us the hope the current generation honors and expands upon the human freedom that was accomplished by their forebears.

Obamacare Might Have Enrolled Only 2.3 Million; Spent $73 Billion to Save Less Than $6 Billion in Uncompensated Care

According to the latest report from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), it looks like the number of people who bought subsidized private insurance on Obamacare’s exchanges is only 2.3 million: “Based on an estimated 10.3 million decrease in the total number of uninsured and an estimated 8 million increase in the number covered by Medicaid, ASPE estimates that hospital uncompensated care costs will be $5.7 billion lower in 2014 than they otherwise would have been.” The difference between 10.3 million and 8 million is only 2.3 million, and that is quite a comedown from HHS’s May estimate that 8.1 million people “selected” private coverage in exchanges.

The number of newly insured is important, because if we asked an Obamacare advocate for a one-sentence justification for Obamacare’s increased federal spending on Medicaid or tax credits for private health insurance, it would go something like this: “People with health insurance will get timely primary care, and that will relieve the pressure on hospitals’ emergency departments.” This feel-good statement has been rolled out countless of times by advocates of so-called universal coverage. Empirically, it falls flat: Emergency departments are jammed with patients, post-Obamacare.

However, it does benefit hospitals, which can monetize more of their ED care, which was previously uncompensated. Let’s accept that $5.7 billion estimated drop in uncompensated care costs. How much did it cost taxpayers to buy that reduction?

The answer comes from Bloomberg Government’s Peter Gosselin: We’ve spent $73 billion on Obamacare so far. Gosselin has added up all the spending on health IT, grants, contracts, and subsidies, as shown in the chart below:


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For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, please see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book: Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman.

Individualizing Justice in The Equalizer

The_Equalizer_posterAs a libertarian, I often enter a theater to watch an action movie like The Equalizer with a bit of trepidation. Inevitably, the story depends on the destruction of human life as a plot driver. In many cases, particularly those with martial arts or superhero roots (think Ninja Assassin or Wolverine), the story depends on vengeance as the vehicle for restoring justice.

As a libertarian, I believe that human life has objective value and should be protected. To the extent a State exists, its most important role is to protect life. As a social scientist and martial-arts centered self-defense coach, I am deeply skeptical that individuals can “know” enough about an event or circumstance to act on their own to take someone else’s life short of a direct and imminent threat. All individual actions are based on subjective valuations of the choices in front of them, and while they may be rational, they may not be correct. This means that I err on the side of restraint.

So, action movies pose a bit of dilemma, as a matter of ethics, and The Equalizer is no exception. In fact, that’s why I enjoy seeing them, particularly ones with the high production values evident in this vehicle for Denzel Washington. The plot isn’t new: a highly skilled spy (or assassin) goes into calm retirement, only to be brought out when he sees a miscarriage of justice. In this case, a prostitute who he has befriended is brutally beaten to keep her in line with the Russian mob that pimps her out and to “send a message” to the other girls in their stable. This is a clear case of human trafficking because we know that this girl’s prostitution is forced and impossible to leave as a practical matter.

Robert McCall, the lead character played masterfully by Washington, decides to take matters into his own hands and buy her freedom. This is an elegant libertarian solution—use free exchange to secure individual freedom. Win-win. Except if you’re the Russian mob. Events don’t progress as hoped. The vigilante price for beating up the girl? Five dead gangsters. To start.

Fortunately, the story in The Equalizer is more nuanced and layered. This makes for more than just an engaging movie. It also sets up a series of ethical dilemmas that McCall struggles with (but not so much he can’t take care of business).

This is why I think The Equalizer, or at least this version, would be a useful touchstone for discussions of libertarian ethics and social policy (including criminal justice). At one point, McCall notes that the people he has killed all were given a choice: Do the right thing—let McCall purchase the freedom of the beaten prostitute—or face death. Because this is a movie, and screenwriters get to set the context, all the bad guys are real bad guys. McCall is dehumanized and mocked and sent on his way by the arrogant gangsters. If he persists, they make it clear he will likely be killed. It’s how the Russians impose their will on their hapless victims and employees. McCall, however, decides that this is the line in the sand and acts to restore some sense of justice by freeing his friend and killing the mobster and his body guards/enforcers.

But, is this enough? Is freeing one person worth killing five? Or one? This is private justice, Equalizer style.

The ethical issues deepen as the movie progresses—I am grateful to the screenwriters and director for keeping them central to the plot and character arc of McCall—as McCall faces the confirmed sociopath who is leading the effort to destroy him to maintain order in their underworld. McCall tells the mobster that he promised his dead wife that he wouldn’t kill someone without giving them an out. While a bit sketchy, he follows through on this promise even though it requires a bit of clairvoyance on the part of his targets. Still, McCall is explicit about making an exception for the Russian enforcer.

Again, we have no doubt by this time that the bad guy has no redeeming social qualities. No empathy for the bad guy here. It’s the way his character is scripted. This isn’t completely implausible, of course. Sociopaths exist, and we find them in the dysfunctional behaviors of serial killers, sadistic rapists, child abusers, and those engaged in human trafficking.

From a libertarian (and Western) way of thinking, this makes the ethical dilemma even more complicated. Is this enough? At what point is private action justified, even to the point someone else’s life is ended by those actions?

As a practical matter, this issue is playing out across the nation in the debate over the Second Amendment, gun control, and self defense. In my home state of Florida, the so-called “stand your ground law” legally eliminates the need to consider retreating from a violent or potentially violent altercation before someone can lawfully shoot, and kill, a potential attacker. Is the state of mind of the defender all that is needed to justifiably take someone else’s life?

In The Equalizer, while we are sure that the Russian mob is willing and able to kill McCall, it’s McCall who initiates the scenario that leads to the deaths of the mobsters. He may have given them a choice, but they didn’t know the depth McCall was willing or able to go before they were in mortal danger to secure the freedom of the prostitute. Does that matter? At what point to vigilante justice, or private law enforcement, create a destabilizing effect on a community by weakening the most basic principle of protecting human life?

Good movies trigger deeper thinking, and I found this was the case for The Equalizer. Kudos to the producers and directors for making a movie with a story more thoughtful than most in this genre that is also well produced and well acted to boot. While The Equalizer is “just” a movie, I found it more than suitably provocative to mull these questions, and I’m interested in what my libertarian friends and colleagues have to say, and if they had the same take on the movie.

More Evidence That Medicaid Expansion Increases Emergency Department Use

18862233_SThe evidence that Medicaid expansion increases use of hospitals’ emergency departments is coming fast and thick. Hospital executives are longer afraid to admit it, and have given up the pretense that Medicaid increases timely, quality, primary care. Here’s one data point from Fort Smith, Arkansas:

Almost a year after the first health insurance enrollment under the Affordable Care Act, local hospitals Sparks Regional Medical Center and Mercy Fort Smith have seen an uptick in emergency room visits. Shelly Cordum, nursing chief executive for Sparks Regional Medical Center in Fort Smith, says the Sparks emergency department saw 6,700 patients in July. The trend is not expected to decline either. “The Medicaid expansion and the health care option certainly has spurred this influx, without a doubt,” Cordum said. “It’s people from all walks of life. They’re coming in with all different kinds of medical problems, and they enter the hospital through the ER because many don’t have a primary care physician and they are very sick.” (Fort Smith Times Record)

Also, the Colorado Hospital Association has issued a report comparing certain trends in states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare with states that did not. The most important take-away is how much Emergency Department visits increased in expansion states versus non-expansion states:

The average number of emergency department (ED) visits to hospitals in expansion states increased 5.6 percent from second-quarter 2013 to second-quarter 2014. This change was greater than expected from the variation over the last two years, and resulted in the highest number of average visits over that time. In comparison, hospitals in non-expansion states reported a 1.8 percent increase in Emergency Department visits between the second quarters of 2013 and 2014.

It is increasingly clear that Medicaid expansion does not increase access to primary care.

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For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, please see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book: Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman.