The Independent Institute


Playing Offense: Defeating the Assault on Free Speech

We live in times of hypersensitivity. One way in which collectivism acts against individual freedom is by declaring morally reprehensible—and oftentimes prohibiting—what is deemed “offensive.” The expression “political correctness” has come to define this assault on free speech that hides behind the mask of respect for the sensibilities of others.

Any attempt to deviate from this hypocritical abuse of power should be welcome. Which is why we should rejoice at two recent developments.

One is the courage shown by Kara McCullough, Miss USA 2017, a young scientist who works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in answering two questions during the pageant. She was asked whether affordable health care for all Americans is a right or a privilege. She said that she sees it as a privilege because her own insurance comes from her employment; in order to obtain coverage one should get a job, she added, and we should cultivate an environment in which people can have jobs and therefore health care. When asked about feminism, she stated that she was more for “equalism” and associated the other term with not caring about men. Of course, she was massacred in the social media and part of the mainstream media (which, realizing she was not going to back down, subsequently tried to present her comments on the controversy as a retraction).

The second development is the decision by the Supreme Court to side with the Asian-American rock band The Slants against the Patent and Trademark Office, which has refused to register a trademark for the group on the grounds that the name is offensive to Asians. This is not the first time the Patent and Trademark Office, armed with a provision against offensiveness in the federal trademark law, has made decisions based on political correctness. They canceled the Washington Redskins’ mark in 2014 on the grounds that the name offended Native Americans.

“The Slants” Win on Free Speech

In Matal v. Tam, the Supreme Court handed down an important First Amendment decision. This case dealt with a band’s application for federal trademark registration of the band’s name, “The Slants.” The Patent and Trademark Office (“PTO”) denied the application based on 15 U.S.C. 1052(a), which prohibits the registration of trademarks that may “disparage . . . or bring . . . into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” The PTO denied the application because “Slants” is a derogatory term for persons of Asian descent. All the band members are Asian-Americans and believed that by taking that slur as the name of their group, they could “reclaim” the term. The group draws inspiration for its lyrics from childhood slurs and mocking nursery rhymes and has given its albums names such as “The Yellow Album” and “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts.”

The Court ruled for the Slants and held that the statute “offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.”

Considering all the efforts underway on college campuses and elsewhere to silence offensive speech (i.e., speech with which the progressives disagree) Tam is much needed good news!


William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Patent Trolls: Predatory Litigation and the Smothering of Innovation.

Death by Government Housing (Policy)

The AP reports that “grief turned to outrage” yesterday, as survivors of the London high-rise inferno learned that their government landlord’s “green” retrofitting of the building last year included the installation of exterior insulation panels that fueled the quick spread of fire from floor to floor.

Survivors’ outrage is now directed at the current government, the individuals who may or may not be the same as those whose policies produced the housing shortage that made the building’s tenants dependent on government housing in the first place—or those responsible for the climate models feeding “green” building theories leading to the retrofitting—or, most proximately, those who chose to use non-flame retardant insulation panels.

Nevertheless, at least their turning their outrage against government as the agent responsible for their plight is a step in the right direction.

Protestors angry with a lack of affordable housing in “progressive” cities such as San Francisco ought similarly open their eyes to government as the proper object of their anger. For, contrary to the popular narrative parroted—that “gentrification” is driving rents and home prices out of reach for all but the very rich—San Francisco’s median home price now reaching $1,672,100, and its streets filled with the homeless are the direct result of decades of government policies deadlier than the London fire.

“Smart” growth, “affordable housing,” and other regulations suppress private housing construction by an average of 30 percent. In one area studied, affordable housing laws resulted in a decline of new units from 28,000 in the year before the legislation, to 11,000 following its passage: a decrease of 60 percent.

Meanwhile, the homeless are three times as likely to die in any age group than the general population, while working families endure greater risks from commutes growing longer and longer between housing they can afford and jobs.

Governments depriving those they rule from access to low-cost housing is neither new nor confined to “developed” nations. In the 1960s, my father built extremely low-cost housing developments, providing for first-time home ownership for the poor, in developing nations from Peru to India. In country after country, he was driven out by governments hostile to private property rights, hostility fed by the collective wisdom of Western “development” experts.

It’s time for those victimized by these policies to stop being duped and rise up: You’re not being kept down because “the rich are getting richer.” You’re being killed and dispossessed by your rulers “protecting” you from housing you can afford and the opportunity to make a better life for yourself and your families.

Can Christians Serve in Bernie Sanders’s Amerika?

Bernie Sanders does not believe that orthodox Christians should be able to hold high office in the government of the United States. Sanders made this clear when voicing his opposition to confirmation of Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee for deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. Sanders took umbrage at an op-ed Vought wrote surrounding a controversy at Wheaton College. The comment Sanders focused on is as follows: “Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.”

A little background helps. Back in 2015 Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor at Wheaton, donned a Muslim headscarf to show solidarity with Muslims and then declared that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God.” For this comment she was suspended because it was contrary to the College’s statement of faith, which in pertinent part declares, “WE BELIEVE in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons: the everlasting Father, His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, the giver of life; . . . all who receive the Lord Jesus Christ by faith are born again of the Holy Spirit and thereby become children of God and are enabled to offer spiritual worship acceptable to God.” Hawkins and Wheaton eventually agreed to part ways.

Vought is a Wheaton alum and took up his pen to support his alma mater’s stand on salvation through faith in Christ alone. It is simply orthodox Christian teaching that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God, and because of Muslim rejection of the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, Muslims are still at enmity of God and can lay no claim to the penal substitutionary work of Jesus. Reformed scholar and pastor Richard Phillips has this helpful article on the matter.

Back to Sanders. Here’s what he says about Vought’s defense of orthodox Christian teaching:

In my view, the statement made by Mr. Vought is indefensible, it is hateful, it is Islamophobic, and it is an insult to over a billion Muslims throughout the world. This country, since its inception, has struggled, sometimes with great pain, to overcome discrimination of all forms ... we must not go backwards.

Ultimately Sanders concluded: “I would simply say, Mr. Chairman, that this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about. I will vote no.”

In other words, if you hold to orthodox Christian teaching, you are unfit to hold an appointed office in the US—at least in Bernie Sanders’ Amerika. And remember that over 13 million folks voted for Sanders in the Democratic Primary.

The Atlantic points out that “Article VI of the U.S. Constitution states that ‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,'” and implies that Sanders is flirting with violating this basic tenet.

It seems to me the test Sanders wants to impose is one that is congruent with modern, secular humanism. There is no real truth, all religions point in the same direction, and true worship is only due to the god of diversity.

Christianity’s claim that Christ is the only true way to the Father offends Sanders just as the ancient Romans were offended by followers of the Way who refused to accept that there were many gods who were equal with Jehovah. These early Christians eventually faced massive persecution and many lost their lives because of adherence to Christ alone.

Of course, modern America is not ancient Rome, but Bernie Sanders and his comrades are certainly pushing us in a familiar direction. In his desire to “overcome discrimination,” Sanders would discriminate and push orthodox Christians out of public service.

These are scary times for religious liberty.


William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

How Soviets in 1960 Imagined 2017, and the Biggest Changes They Missed

A 1960 Soviet filmstrip surfaced earlier this year depicting a vision of life in 2017. As Russia prepares for the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it is interesting to reflect on the filmstrip to see what Soviet propagandists got right and what they got wrong.

The 45-frame filmstrip, found in a family collection of St. Petersburg resident Sergei Pozdnyakov, depicts a day in the life of Igor, a boy living in 2017 Moscow. Titled “In the Year 2017,” it was created by V. Strukova and V. Shevchenko and produced at the Diafilm Studio in Moscow. The creators got a few things right.

Igor chats live with his mother, who is onboard a ship on the Black Sea, using a videophone, which foresees the emergence of today’s mobile connectivity via Skype or FaceTime. Another frame depicts scanning technology that reads handwriting on a note to know what a person wants to eat and then automatically cooks the meal. And another frame depicts what appears to be a self-driving car.

Young Americans and Hope for the Future

Bob Higgs, in a recent post on all the foolishness in American higher education, reminds us of what a danger we face as our colleges attempt to mold students into young Jacobins. In light of the state of American education, we need some bright spot on what is a dismal landscape. One bright spot I have found is the blog America Restored, which is operated by several high school students. In trying to rekindle a respect for liberty in modern America, these students advise “the key to accomplishing this is to stop asking the world for approval, and begin doing what you know is right. Once you do this, you will feel happiness and joy, rather than discomfort and nervousness. Read the words from the men and women who came before us, who loved and cherished liberty, and you will see that they knew these things to be true.”

This is a good point for us all to remember. Rather than seeking approval from those in power or those enthralled with our current welfare-warfare state, we should do what we know is right whether it causes discomfort or chastisement. It encourages me to see young folks devoted to liberty in a world that prefers to focus on power and intervention. Check them out.

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William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Hardcore Socialism Would Render Britain Destitute

Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist policies of state control, high spending, class warfare and punitive taxation have been tried in many countries. We know how these policies turn out and it is always the same: badly.

As a starting point, he appointed a Stalinist as a key advisor, ignored warnings about Trot infiltration of the Labour Party and called for the “complete rehabilitation” of Leon Trotsky himself.

We should all know what hardline Communism produces: the Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea or, at best, Cuba or East Germany. Yet Mr. Corbyn thinks that the same policies that produced repeated catastrophes before will produce a socialist nirvana in the UK. While the Bourbons learnt nothing and forgot nothing, the UK Hard Left seems to have learned nothing at all. Consider some of Mr. Corbyn’s comrades abroad and the damage they have wrought.

Exhibit Number One is Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Twenty years ago Venezuela was one of the richest countries in the world. Now it is one of the poorest. Food is scarce, people are starving and inflation is approaching a thousand per cent. Venezuelan agriculture and industry have been all but destroyed and the country’s oil wealth has been wasted. But to quote Corbyn shortly after Chavez died in 2013: “Chavez showed us that there is a different and a better way of doing things ... It’s called socialism, it’s called social justice and it’s something that Venezuela has made a big step towards.”

Sorry, Jeremy, but a system that starves the population it serves is not one that promotes social justice and the only big step made by Venezuela recently is towards breakdown, mass starvation and a looming revolution.

Exhibit Number Two is Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. At independence in 1980, the Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere told Mugabe “You have inherited a jewel; look after it.” Instead Mugabe squandered it and shamelessly too. Run by a self-described socialist, Mugabe’s regime is a kleptomaniac plutocracy that has mismanaged the country to the point of ruin, produced a hyperinflation of almost 80 billion percent a month by 2008 and destroyed what was left of Zimbabwean civil society. One can add to that enormous human rights abuses and a collapse in public health as the government botched attempts to contain AIDS and other epidemics. Yet the Zimbabwean First Family have accumulated enormous wealth under their dictatorship and Mrs. Mugabe is a notorious shopaholic who is reputed to spend millions on each of her shopping trips.

Example Three is former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina. Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world in the early 20th century. Decades of economic mismanagement have since reduced it to a third world basket case. Ms. Kirchner’s own policies were a disastrous interventionist cocktail that left the Argentinian economy in yet another major crisis as she left office. She was however one of the first world leaders to congratulate Mr. Corbyn on his election as Labour leader. She described his election as a “triumph of hope” and a victory for those “putting politics at the service of people and the economy at the service of the well-being of all citizens”. She is now facing charges of corruption in office.

What do these examples all have in common? They show how to take a prosperous country blessed with abundant resources and reduce it to destitution—and all in the name of the people. In each case, there is also a massive increase in inequality between the very top and the mass of the population below, the key to which is breathtaking corruption made possible by state control. This is how socialism works in practice.

Nor should we forget that hardcore socialism has been tried in the UK too. We had flying pickets, energy cuts and candlelit diners as the Hard Left in the trade union movement took on the ailing Heath government in 1974. The government then called—and lost—a “who runs Britain” election and Labour came to office with a Socialist agenda.

The results? Out-of-control unions, a bloated inefficient public sector and an economic crisis requiring an IMF bailout. This crisis was followed by the winter of discontent, unburied bodies and trash piling up in the streets.

Really. We have seen this movie before. Vote for Corbyn’s Labour and our past will soon become our future.


Kevin Dowd is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and co-editor of the Independent book, Money and the Nation State: The Financial Revolution, Government and the World Monetary System (with Richard H. Timberlake, Jr.

Prosperity, Not Soda Taxes, Fosters Good Health

Berkeley’s soda tax is being trumpeted as a success because a new study finds that purchases of sugary soft drinks fell by 10 percent in the city from March 2015 to February 2016. Of course, soda-tax advocates claim that the penny-per-ounce excise tax, which took effect in 2015, is fully responsible for the drop.

We could make many criticisms of the study and the tax advocates’ use of it, but more fundamentally, it’s wrong to think that bludgeoning (not just “nudging”) people with taxes is the best way to improve their diets. Those who are worried about soda’s health effects have identified a real problem—sugary beverages are not good for you—but they’ve yet to find a solution consistent with the principles of liberty.

Economic theory and empirical research suggest instead that health can best be promoted by removing the barriers to wealth creation in low-income communities, which are plagued by obesity, Type II diabetes, and tooth decay.

Put simply, richer people eat better and have more time to exercise than poorer people.

Recent economic research shows that selectively taxing products that elites disapprove of exacerbates income inequality because such levies burden people living in poverty more than others. That is, the soda tax makes the folks it is meant to help worse off economically, and fails to encourage healthy dietary habits because the effects of selective taxes on consumption are tiny.

The better path to health, then, is individual economic empowerment, which increases the wealth of low-income people, rather than singling out and punishing the consumers of one class of goods. Instead of making bad habits more expensive, policymakers should remove the many barriers that keep poor people poor.

One of those barriers, occupational licensing, may be intended to protect consumers from shoddy services, but it bars entry into many jobs that serve customers in poor communities, blocking the first steps to prosperity for individuals who sorely need it.

Trying to change poor people’s behavior by raising prices through “sin” taxes won’t bring about the results that soda-tax advocates want to see. In fact, the history of other sin taxes shows that people find ways around the barriers between themselves and their vices. Prohibition in the 1920s was a boon to moonshiners, and cigarette taxes in New York today are equally a dream come true for cigarette smugglers.

Soda taxes elicit similar changes in behavior. The new Berkeley study shows that, while soda sales fell by 10 percent in Berkeley, they rose by almost 7 percent outside the city. So soda taxes are unlikely to deliver the health benefits their supporters promised. The increase in sales outside the city is consistent with a wealth of peer-reviewed economic research showing that individuals shop across borders to avoid taxes.

Until policymakers and health advocates realize that the people they want to help aren’t mere chess pieces to be moved around on the board at will, but rather are autonomous, thinking individuals whose choices deserve respect, failed policies—with all their unintended consequences—will persist.

Instead of being enamored with their own brilliant plans, policymakers should get out of the way of individuals who are trying to improve their lives. Good health will follow.

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William F. Shughart II is Research Director at the Independent Institute, J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination. Josh T. Smith is a master’s student in economics at Utah State University.

Response to Gordon Lloyd’s Review of Crossroads for Liberty

Gordon Lloyd has a review up on the Law of Liberty Blog of my book Crossroads for Liberty. Lloyd is the Dockson Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University and has been heavily involved in the creation of the useful website I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Lloyd a few years back at a Liberty Fund Colloquium. I enjoyed his company and the exchanges we had. He consistently and vigorously supported Federalist positions, whereas I argued for a rediscovery of republican (small “r”) and Anti-Federal ideas.

In the review, Lloyd states that he agrees “we need, in effect, an Antifederalist Revival. . . . We are not going to get back to limited government through the Federalist because it is through the perversion of the Federalist by the Progressives that we find ourselves in the current irrelevant and incoherent position of presidential government.” So far so good.

However, after agreeing we need an Anti-Federalist revival, Lloyd accuses me of believing that the Anti-Federalists were uniformly attached to the Articles. This is a misinterpretation. As I point out in Chapter 4, the Articles were not perfect, and sensible amendments were needed so confederative government could survive in the U.S. The Anti-Federalists understood this and were willing to grant Congress additional powers over certain continental concerns. What they did agree on was that the plan of government proposed by the Philadelphia Convention abandoned much of the good found in the Articles and that a puissant national government was inevitable under the new plan.

Lloyd also complains that most of the book concerns “a historical description of the politics of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation, odd citations from the Constitutional Convention, and the Federalist, with an admixture of random Antifederalist remarks; and 2) analysis of specific constitutional clauses.” Well, yes. As I note at the end of Chapter 4, the book is intended to examine the arguments of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists regarding myriad constitutional provisions and to examine how these provisions were actually used by the national government. In other words, in light of over 200 years of experience, I wanted to examine which group had the better argument about the effects of the new Constitution. The Anti-Federalists win this unequivocally.

Lloyd’s big problem with the book is that “unfortunately, the coherence and relevance of the Antifederalists, for Watkins, are anchored in an abiding attachment to the Articles of Confederation.” Am I attached to the Articles? In comparison to the Constitution that has given us a consolidated government, yes I am.

Despite what we are told, the Articles were an American success story. The two main goals of the Confederation were the defeat of Great Britain and preservation of self-government in the 13 states. Both were achieved in a confederative structure. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris officially ended the American Revolutionary War. King George III acknowledged that the 13 former colonies were “free sovereign and independent states.”

Under the Articles, each state retained “its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right [not] expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” After the experience with British meddling in colonial affairs, the people preferred to be governed by their own local and state leaders rather than a distant centralized body. The Articles magnificently secured this right of self-government.

Writing in 1786, Thomas Jefferson described the Articles as a “wonderfully perfect instrument, considering the circumstances under which it was formed.” Upon his initial reading of the Constitution of 1787, which ultimately replaced the Articles, Jefferson observed that “all the good of this new constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique.”

Amen to that.

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William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the Independent book, Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.

TSA Treatment of Gun-Toting Travelers

What happens if the TSA catches someone with a firearm at one of their checkpoints? It happens a lot. Last year the TSA found 3,391 guns in carry-ons at checkpoints. This happened to a friend of mine this week. Here’s what he told me.

He and his wife were going through the TSA checkpoint to go to their flight when the TSA found a handgun in her purse. She carries it regularly and had forgotten to leave it home before her flight. The TSA allowed my friend to take his wife’s handgun back to their car in the airport parking lot. A TSA employee accompanied my friend to the car and watched him lock the handgun in the car’s glove compartment. They then left on their flight, gun-free.

My friend’s story reminded me of another story I’d read in the news a few months ago. Guitarist Rick Derringer had been found with a handgun at a TSA checkpoint, was charged, pleaded guilty and was fined $1,000. Some people are charged; some they let go.

There are several differences in the two cases, including the fact that Derringer actually carried his gun on a plane and the TSA discovered it after he arrived in the US on an international flight. Also, Derringer claimed to have carried the gun regularly on past flights, whereas my friend’s wife forgot she had it in her purse. But, if she’d gotten past the checkpoint with the forgotten gun, she also would have carried it on the plane.

I’m not passing judgment here on the TSA, Rick Derringer, or my friend’s forgetful wife. I’m just passing along this story because I thought it would interest some readers of The Beacon.