The Independent Institute


Sanctuary Cities and Federal Dollars

Sanctuary Cities are in an uproar over President Trump’s executive order promising to withhold federal money from “sanctuary jurisdictions.” They are seeking court intervention to nullify the order. Sanctuary cities, as a general matter, prohibit local cops from cooperating with Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents, forbid the local cops from notifying the feds regarding illegal aliens in law enforcement custody, etc.

According to Trump’s order, “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States. These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” The Order calls upon the Attorney General and the Secretary for Homeland Security, “in their discretion and to the extent consistent with law,” to compile a list of sanctuary jurisdictions that will “not [be] eligible to receive Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary.”

This could be a huge hit for some cities. For example, it is reported that nearly a quarter of Seattle’s $4 billion budget came from federal government.

The Real Educational Choice Debate Isn’t About Money. It’s About Government Control

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking about the future of school choice at an event hosted in Washington, DC, by the Independent Women’s Forum, featuring The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke and SAVE President Edward Bartlett.

The core issue of this public policy debate is not about money. It’s about competing visions over who has the right and responsibility for the education and upbringing of children.

The rationale animating the creation of the US Department of Education is that government knows best. Consider the remarks of Congressman Samuel Moulton of Illinois one year before the US Department of Education was originally established back in 1867. The department would be:

...a pure fountain from which a pure stream can be poured upon all the States. We want a controlling head by which the conflicting systems in the different States can be harmonized, by which there can be uniformity. ...I take the high ground that every child [is] entitled to an education at the hands of somebody, and that this ought not be left to the caprice of individuals or [the] States so far as we have any power to regulate it.” (Remarks made on June 8, 1866, pp. 3044-45)

Flash forward over 150 years. Earlier this month Arizona enacted what is being hailed as “the most expansive choice program in the country,” a universal education savings account (ESA) program, which is being phased in to include all students over the next few school years (SB 1431).

Venezuela’s Inferno

The decision by Venezuela’s Supreme Court, a political poodle of President Nicolás Maduro, to take over the powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, has sparked off massive demonstrations that the government’s vicious repression has been unable to stop. Although the decision was reversed a day later, the spirit of rebellion has proven resilient. Three young demonstrators have been killed and hundreds are injured.

Maduro has ordered the use of helicopters to spread tear gas and other substances on protestors (a hospital was targeted in one incident), and stationed snipers in various buildings from which shots have been fired at opposition rallies. This level of repression by the National Guard, the political police, and the so-called “collectives” (groups of armed Chavista thugs reminiscent of Brown Shirts who roam the streets beating up dissenters) has not been seen since 2014, when some of the opposition leaders were incarcerated and dozens of students killed.

Maduro thought he had managed to survive an attempt to force a recall referendum at the end of last year, when he called a “dialogue” aimed at disarming his adversaries and gaining time. He had the invaluable help of three former Spanish and Latin American presidents, and, briefly but ambiguously, the Vatican. When the dialogue proved to be a joke, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, began an effort to expose the farcical nature of the process and the true measure of the Venezuelan dictatorship. He invoked, once again, the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which opens the door, under certain conditions, to the suspension of a country from membership of the hemispheric body.

Economic Analysis Cannot Justify Immoral State Actions

I am an economist. I am convinced of the power of basic economic analysis, and I believe that during the past fifty years or so my own work has demonstrated that power repeatedly. But economics is not the only aspect of a proper evaluation of the world’s workings, especially where government intrudes in economic and social affairs.

A certain species of economist—often those who took to economic analysis in grad school as if it were the be all and end all of understanding the world—tends to dismiss all moral elements in an appraisal of government action, maintaining that because every situation is one of trade-offs in an uncertain situation in which the outcomes of counter-factuals cannot be known with confidence, one must not criticize government actions simply because they are plainly immoral. After all, they might be necessary to preserve life on earth or to attain some other end of transcendent significance. For example, one cannot simply criticize George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq on moral grounds because—who really knows?—Saddam’s government might have been only days away from developing and using nuclear weapons against a large city.

This kind of who-knows-what-might-otherwise-have-happened appraisal often serves to exculpate even great evils, and to do so on very flimsy grounds. The main problem is that it disregards relatively firm information that is available and treats implausible relations as if they were as likely as anything else. It also fails to consider how often—which is to say, virtually always—the government seeks to justify its wasteful and destructive actions by spreading misinformation and propaganda. That is, such a priori dismissal lacks a realistic understanding of the nature and operation of the state as an institutional complex founded on violent force and ceaseless fraud.

So, yes, economic analysis is necessary for a sound appraisal of government policy actions, but such analysis does not render moral appraisal irrelevant. Far from it. If it is wrong to launch a military attack against a country that has not attacked one’s own and lacks even a capacity for such an attack, no amount of yammering about unknown counter-factuals can make such an allegedly preemptive attack a justifiable action. Likewise for countless other government actions, from the so-called drug war to drone attacks on Yemeni villages populated mainly by innocent men, women, and children. Some things are wrong; they violate people’s natural rights; and they ought not to be done. And no amount of agonizing over economic uncertainties and implausible but-what-if trade-offs can excuse such wrongful acts.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Jefferson!

April 13, 2017, marks the 274th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Most Americans know him as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia. While these are great accomplishments, what we should remember him for most of all in this age of centralization are The Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), Opinion on the Constitutionality of a National Bank (1791), and the draft of the Kentucky Resolution of 1798.

The Summary View was a critical document that called into question the power of the British Parliament to legislate for America. Jefferson argued that Parliament had no power over the colonies and instead the sovereign legislative power rested with each colonial assembly. These mini-parliaments were closer to the people and better situated to legislate than such a distant body in which the people had no representation. Jefferson wrote in the Summary View “that experience confirms the propriety of those political principles which exempt us from the jurisdiction of the British parliament. The true ground on which we declare these acts [various statutes and commercial regulations] void is, that the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.” Parliament’s acts were “exercises of usurped power” and “intermeddle[ing]with the regulation of the internal affairs of the colonies.” The Summary View could be said to be Jefferson’s first statement of nullification.

Review: The Liberty That Drives A United Kingdom

A film capable of tying political and economic freedom together in one story is rare, but the British film A United Kingdom makes a valiant effort. The story hinges on the culturally and politically taboo romance and marriage between the heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana), and his white, working-class English wife in 1948. While the film focuses primarily on the political implications and intrigue triggered by their marriage, the story is perhaps more important because it also exposes the intellectual foundations for what would become Africa’s most important and sustained economic success story (which I discuss further here).

Sir Seretze Kama III (David Oyelowo, Selma, The Butler) was studying law in London when he met Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike, Die Another Day, Gone Girl, Pride & Prejudice ), a clerk. Kama became the designated heir to the throne of Bechuanaland as an infant after his father passed. He was groomed for his future role under the guardianship of his uncle, Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene, Cry the Beloved Country), and was educated in South Africa and England. The mixed marriage was opposed by both the English authorities and Tshekedi, who served as regent of Bechuanaland under British colonial rule.

The Dignity and Value of Work in La La Land and Moonlight

The award-winning films La La Land and Moonlight did more than share a chaotic stage in the closing moments of the 89th Academy Awards. They also share an intriguing underlying economic theme through rare insight into the substance and dignity of work, albeit in radically different ways.

Work is front and center in La La Land, the widely popular musical that had Hollywood buzzing with its potential to gather a record-setting number of awards—which it did for the Golden Globes. (See my review here.) The film follows two aspiring artists, jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Drive, The Big Short) and hopeful film actress Mia (Emma Stone, Crazy Stupid Love, The Amazing Spider-Man, Birdman ), as they pursue their personal visions of professional success. Sebastian wants to open an authentic jazz club, even if it means staying poor. Mia wants to become a movie star as she toils away as a low-wage barista on a local movie set.

Their visions of work and its meaning clash, but their respect for each other grows with a deeper understanding of each other and of the dignity their professional aspirations give them. Eventually, they yield to practicality, forsaking what appear to be elusive dreams for the less-satisfying options the real world places before them. Sebastian takes a job with a contemporary pop jazz band, while Mia gives up on Hollywood after her one-woman show flops commercially. Both characters bend to reality, recognizing they need more than a personal commitment to art.

I Reject the Right of the Government to Choose My Friends and Enemies for Me

“I reject the right of the government to choose my friends and enemies for me.” – Bill Kelsey

Indeed, Bill, it makes no sense to allow the government to do so.

But the situation is much worse than such nonsensical allowance by the people at large. From time immemorial, the reigning myth of rule has been that the rulers provide a quid pro quo: in exchange for the people’s submission and payment of tribute, the rulers protect the people from the enemies who lurk “out there.” The promise was often unfulfilled, however. The lord of the manor might well flee into his castle, leaving the peasants outside the walls to suffer whatever outrages an invader chose to wreak on them. Or the lord might haul them off to a distant war in which they had no real interest, merely to satisfy the lord’s feudal obligation to the baron or duke just above him in the feudal pecking order.

Most important, however, is the sheer fact that the ordinary people’s most dangerous enemy, the one by far the most likely to plunder and abuse them, was their own impudent lord, the selfsame “nobleman” who forbade them to leave their place of birth or to engage in a variety of tasks and pleasures they might prefer—that is, the man who held and exploited them in a condition of serfdom.

Today as always, the “bad guys” from whom the government purports to protect the people are as a rule not a particularly serious threat to the people’s enjoyment of their life, liberty, and property in their own country. And when the threat is real, it is usually the product of provocation by the presumptive protector who rules the people at home. That people allow this rapacious government to decide one’s friends and enemies abroad (or at home, for that matter) is indeed preposterous. The root cause, however, is now ideological; it is the people’s nationalism, which causes them to stand idly by—or, in many cases, to cheer wildly—as their true enemy, the one who plunders and oppresses them every hour of every day, goes on its merry way of creating and supposedly combating foreign devils in order to frighten the people into submission, loyalty, and continued payment of tribute to their de facto lord of the manor.

The Tangled Web of Anti-immigration Argumentation

Probably the most often voiced objection to open immigration of all peaceful people is that “you can’t have open immigration and a welfare state.” (Even people as smart as Milton Friedman have made this objection.) But why can’t you?

Well, people claim, if you have a welfare state, the masses of the world will flood into the USA just to collect the welfare state’s “free stuff.” But why let them? Even under currently existing rules, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for nearly all welfare-state benefits. If a flood of immigrants will break the welfare-state bank, why not simply make immigrants ineligible? Case closed.

In that case, the opponents of immigration claim that making the immigrants ineligible for welfare-state benefits won’t work because they will find a way to get the stuff in one way or another. But this objection is, in effect, a declaration that the state is incompetent—which is not exactly a news flash, to be sure. So the anti-immigrationists insist that instead the government must “close the borders.”

Notice, however, that in this case the anti-immigrationists, having just insisted that the government is too incompetent to exclude ineligible immigrants from welfare-state benefits, now presume that the government is so competent that it can keep undocumented immigrants out of the country. This assumption is manifestly counter-factual, given that more than 10 million such immigrants are estimated to be living in the USA at present.

Oppose Your Enemies, or Look for Common Ground?

On a few occasions I’ve used my privilege as a blogger on The Beacon to write in support of viewpoints held by people that some readers of The Beacon view as the opposition. For examples, I supported the Black Lives Matter movement for protesting police brutality, and more recently, the Resist! movement for opposing overreach by the executive branch of government.

I’m confident that most readers of The Beacon oppose both police brutality and executive overreach; yet I received some pushback from readers, both in comments here and in emails sent to me privately, making the argument that both the Black Lives Matter and the Resist! groups, overall, do not support the pro-freedom and limited government values that underlie The Independent Institute and The Beacon, and therefore my posts were misguided.

The pushback I received made the argument that I should not have written in support of the positions of those groups, not because their positions were wrong on those specific issues but because overall, the groups are left-leaning supporters of bigger government.