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Obama’s Econ Advisers: Occupational Licensing Is a Disaster by Mikayla Novak

Libertarians received a rare pleasant surprise when President Obamaʼs Council of Economic Advisers issued a report highly critical of occupational licensing.

The report cited numerous problems arising from this increasingly burdensome regulatory practice, which requires ordinary Americans to obtain expensive licenses and permits to perform ordinary jobs.

It is a belated recognition by the administration that government has long been acting against the best interests of workers and consumers.

And it might give us something of a warm inner glow to consider, as the Wall Street Journal recently did, that reforming occupational licensing could catalyze important economic reforms that transcend traditional political and ideological divides.

And reform is vital: each and every day, occupational licensing destroys the ability of individuals to freely and peacefully pursue their own livelihoods.

Licensing hurts workers

Occupational licensing locks countless of people out of dignified and meaningful job opportunities.

The CEA report indicates that more than a quarter of all workers in the United States need a government license or permit to legally work. Two-thirds of the increase in licensing since the 1960s is attributable to an increase in the number of professions being licensed, not to growth within traditionally licensed professions like law or medicine.

The data show that licensed workers earn on average 28 percent more than unlicensed workers. Only some of this observed premium is accounted for by the differences in education, training and experience between the two groups. The rest comes from reducing supply, locking competitors out of the market and extracting higher prices from consumers.

What makes professional licensing so invidious is that it serves as a barrier to entry in the labor market, simply because it takes so much time and money to obtain a license to work.

For young people, immigrants, and low-income individuals, it can be extremely difficult to stump up the cash and find the time — sometimes hundreds or even thousands of hours — to get licensed. The fees to maintain a license can also be exorbitant.

Compounding the problem is that licensing requirements are spreading into more industries, such as construction, food catering, and hairdressing — occupations where it used to be easy to start a career.

Today, there is arguably no more lethal poison for labor market freedom and upward mobility than occupational licensing.

Licensing hurts consumers

Defenders of occupational licensing say that workers need to be licensed because without it consumers would be harmed by poor service.

In the absence of licensing, children will be taught improperly at school, patients won’t get adequate health care in hospital, home owners will not get their leaky sinks fixed, and somebody could fall victim to an improper haircut.

But, in the name of promoting quality, licensing regulations perversely raise costs and reduce choices for consumers.

The CEA concludes that, by imposing entry barriers against potential competitors who could undercut the prices of incumbent suppliers, licensing raises prices for consumers by between 3 and 16 percent.

Moreover, the effect of licensing on product quality is unclear. The report notes that the empirical literature doesn’t demonstrate an increase in quality from licensure.

By restricting supply, licensing dulls the incentive for incumbents to provide the best quality products because the threat of new entrants competing with better offerings is diminished.

Perversely, the inflated prices offered by licensed providers may force some consumers to seek unlicensed providers, or to use less effective substitutes, or to do jobs themselves — in some cases increasing the risk of accidents.

In a blow to the notion of efficient government bureaucracy, the CEA indicates that government licensing boards routinely fail in monitoring licensed providers, contributing to the lack of improvement in quality.

Ending the war on livelihood freedom

To restore a climate friendly to economic liberty, people must feel they have a direct, personal stake in what Deidre McCloskey calls “market-tested betterment” — that is to say, in capitalism.

There is no better way to achieve this than to allow individuals to build their own livelihoods, finding decent jobs serving customers with the goods and services they want, at prices they mutually agree on.

The argument for economic liberty is also grounded in the moral imperative of respecting the freedom of other people to lead their own lives as they see fit, including their right to choose their own livelihood.

Proponents of occupational licensing can always serve up a parade of hypothetical horribles about things that could go wrong if people didn’t need the state’s permission to work, but nothing has been more harmful to workers and consumers than occupational licensing.

Mikayla Novak
Mikayla Novak

Mikayla Novak is a senior researcher for the Institute of Public Affairs, an Australian free market think tank, and holds a doctorate in economics. She specializes in public finance, economic history, and the history of classical liberal thought.

What Should Libertarians Think about the Civil War? by Phillip Magness

The current national debate over the display and meaning of the Confederate battle flag has reopened a number of longstanding arguments about the meaning of the American Civil War, including within libertarian and classical liberal circles.

Because of its emotional subject matter, lasting political legacies of race and slavery, transformative effects upon American constitutionalism, and sheer magnitude as the most destructive military episode ever to occur on American soil, the Civil War exhibits strong tendencies toward politicization in the modern era.

Unfortunately, bad history often accompanies this politicization, and libertarians are by no means immune from this tendency.

Two common interpretations of the Civil War stand out as particularly problematic:

  1. libertarian support for the Confederacy; and
  2. libertarian support for the Union.

The Problem with Pro-Confederate Libertarianism

The first and perhaps best known “libertarian” approach to the Civil War attempts to find sympathy with the defeated Confederacy because of its resistance to the federal government and northern military authority or its professed cause of free trade and political self-determination.

Some aspects of this position have intuitive appeal that produces sympathy for the Confederate cause: it professes outrage against a Union that is said to have conquered by force, trampled on the rights of states and individuals, unleashed a military invasion, suspended civil liberties, denied government by consent, elevated Lincoln to a “dictator,” and effected a lasting centralization of federal power. In this view, the Union cause and victory is the foundational work for the modern state and all that is anathema to political libertarianism.

This interpretation falters in what it neglects: slavery.

This is no small irony, either, as the anti-slavery cause was arguably the preeminent political occupation of libertarianism’s classical liberal antecedents. A continuum of classical liberal thinkers from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and J.E. Cairnes forged the main intellectual case against the slave system.

Abolitionism was also always a preeminent political cause of liberalism, extending from 18th-century statesman Charles James Fox to the 19th century’s Richard Cobden in Great Britain and strongly influencing such figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, and Frederick Douglass in the United States.

This is no small matter for the libertarian intellectual tradition either, for in sidestepping the slave question’s intimate connection to the Confederacy, pro-Confederate libertarians also inadvertently abandon what is perhaps the single most important and beneficial contribution that classical liberalism has made to the human condition: the abolition of slavery.

This is not to suggest that libertarian defenders of the Confederacy share its historical affinity for chattel slavery or the plantation system. Rather, they are guilty of turning a tin ear to the one unequivocally beneficial outcome of the war in the permanent destruction of American slavery.

The Problem with Libertarian Unionism

A smaller set of libertarians gravitate to a second common interpretation of the Civil War, defined primarily by its consequential outcome.

Unlike the pro-Confederate position, these libertarian defenders of the North are keenly aware of both the centrality of slavery to the conflict as well as the importance of the abolitionist cause to the liberal intellectual tradition. Standing as a direct antithesis to the pro-Confederate arguments, these faute de mieux Unionists recognize the inherent and fundamental contradiction between slavery and human liberty.

Their position embraces the Union victory on a consequentialist acceptance of the resulting emancipation of the slaves, and disavows any conceivable association between libertarian thought and a brutish Southern slavocracy, born of no other motive or purpose but to entrench and expand that pernicious institution — and deserving of nothing short of a violent and warring elimination by any means or justification.

The argument is both morally appealing and marked by its clarity, but it also suffers from its Manichean simplicity and a tendency to read an inevitable “irrepressible conflict” into the hindsight of the Civil War’s destruction.

This view recognizes slavery and celebrates its abolition, but it tends to neglect or even rationalize the war’s uglier features and consequences: a dramatic weakening of the constitutional federalism laid out in 1787, a rapid acceleration of the scope and power of the federal government, a precedent-setting assault on habeas corpus and expansion of presidential war powers that persists to the present day — and the horrendous destruction itself.

Measured by deaths alone, current estimates place the war’s military toll at 750,000 soldiers. Civilian deaths are more difficult to estimate, though the most common number given is 50,000. And perhaps most telling of all, between 60,000 and 200,000 slaves likely perished as a result of disease and displacement caused by the war.

Why a New Interpretation Is Necessary

Where then does this leave the conscientious libertarian in assessing the Civil War’s legacy?

To address the faults of both the pro-Confederate and pro-Union positions, I’ll offer two propositions for libertarians to consider:

  1. One needn’t be for the Union to be against slavery.
  2. One needn’t be for the Confederacy to object to the North’s prosecution of the war.

Stated differently, a morally consistent libertarian view of the war should strive to dissociate itself from the political actors that waged it, while also seeking to recognize its consequences, both positive and negative.

This much may be seen in the faults of the two views described above. Libertarians who embrace the Confederacy are more often than not reasonably aware of both the evils of slavery and the distinction between the abolitionist cause and the Union.

But they neglect the second rule; because of their distaste for the Union’s wartime policies, they stake their claim to a Confederate cause that, whether they admit it or not, thoroughly attached itself to the moral abomination of slavery.

And libertarians who embrace the Union are also usually aware of the objections one might lodge against its indulgences in unrestricted warfare, suspension of civil liberties, centralization of power, or any of the other charges often made against the Union’s wartime cause or its outcome.

But they thoroughly subordinate these objections to the greater moral purpose of emancipation — a focus that obscures all but the most simplistic reading of the war’s other political and constitutional consequences.

In each argument, the problem is not its primary emphasis, but the complexities it obscures or leaves out.

In place of both views, and in recognition of their deficiencies, libertarians might develop a better appreciation for the Civil War’s complexity by turning their analysis to the nature of the ruinous agency of the conflict itself.

War, whether waged to hold human beings in bondage or subjugate a political rebellion, is a consciously coercive action of the political state in its most expansive and direct form. And armed warfare, as both the Union and Confederacy came to discover across four destructive years, is horrifically messy, unpredictable, and destructive of human life and human liberty.

Military goals and political motives also matter, as they define the objectives of the armies and prioritize their execution. Thus, a military maneuver to capture an opposing political capital will take a very different form from one that eschews political objectives and seeks to maximize the liberation of slaves or the protection of civilians.

There may also be small glimpses of just action amongst individual participants in a far more ambiguous conflict. When the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson raised the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black unit composed of escaped slaves, there is little doubt that they were fighting for emancipation, even as larger Union war goals moved far more slowly on this objective.

There is similarly little doubt about the motive of some Southerners who fought for their homes and families as hostile armies marched through their states; even a handful of Confederates — Patrick Cleburne, Duncan Kenner — pressed their government (in vain) to consider emancipation as a means of securing independence.

These graces on the periphery tell us more about the conflict’s moral complexity than anything that may be found in its political objectives. History is not a Manichean struggle between pure good and evil; we are not served by filtering its conflicts through a dualistic moral lens.

Instead of looking for a “side” to champion, we are better served by recognizing that even amid the unbridled horrors of slavery and the devastation of war, there may still be a few who are fighting for something better than their country’s cause.

Phillip Magness

Phil Magness is a policy historian and academic program director at the Institute for Humane Studies.

Europe Needs Regime Change in Greece: They Won’t Get It by Stephen Davies

It seems the saga of negotiations between the Greek Government and its creditors has arrived at a denouement but almost certainly not a final conclusion, and we may expect this show to return to the stage at some point, probably in the near future. The reason for this is the real nature of the ultimate problem facing both parties, something of which the creditors are still unaware.

The negotiations over the last few months have been marked by a remarkable degree of acrimony. Most of the other eurozone governments have become increasingly (and publicly) exasperated with the Greeks, and the expressions of hostility towards the Greek government from members of national parliaments have grown ever more outspoken.

Some of the reasons for this are well known — above all, the lack of a true European demos: there simply is not the kind of solidarity or shared interest in Europe that one finds in, for example, the United States.

However, there is another reason for the acrimony that has not received much attention. The creditors misunderstand what it is they are asking the Greek government and society to do. This lack of understanding is why any deal made now is likely to prove a disappointment.

The impression given by media reports is that this is all about debt, specifically the debts run up by the Greek state before 2009. Certainly there is a problem, but it is one that is soluble and does not require the kind of fraught negotiations we have seen.

The difficulty is that the fiscal state of Greece before the first bailout in 2010, and the underlying state of the Greek economy, are symptoms of a much more serious underlying problem. This is one not of debt but of competitiveness.

Quite simply the Greek economy is not productive enough to support the levels of income and public spending that it now has, without significant capital inflows from outside Greece. Before 2008 these came in the form of private loans, since then by government bailouts (even if much of this has been recycled back to private creditors).

Greek firms and labour are simply not competitive with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, above all in Germany. Being in the euro means that they cannot adopt the traditional way of regaining at least some competitiveness by devaluing their currency. Instead, they have to deflate internally, and the attempt to do this has devastated economic life in Greece.

This is all well known. It is the reason why the creditors are demanding that, in return for a third bailout, the Greek government introduce a series of reforms to public spending, the tax system, and the machinery of the Greek state, particularly it’s tax collecting apparatus. Successive Greek government have either refused to do this or promised to do it and then failed. This is why the rest of the eurozone is becoming ever more exasperated. It here however that the misunderstanding comes in to play.

What the creditors think they are asking for is a major shift in public policy. They recognise that the shift they are asking for is radical, and many also realise that what would be involved would be a shift in the general ideological basis of Greek politics, towards a more market liberal direction. However, they are actually, without realising it, asking for something much more fundamental and drastic.

One question that should be asked is why Greece got into a position that was so much worse than that of other “peripheral” economies. Also, why has the performance of the Greek economy been so much worse than that of other countries that have had bailouts and austerity, such as Spain, Portugal, and Ireland? The answer lies in the fundamental nature of the Greek state and the political economy of Greece.

Greek political culture is dominated by practices and institutions that certainly exist elsewhere in Europe but are not as dominant. The state has a narrow tax base, with powerful interests such as the Orthodox Church effectively exempt. The revenue collection apparatus is completely ineffective so that tax evasion is endemic at every level of income.

This means that simply raising or extending VAT for instance is not enough because so many transactions are off the books. At the same time, the Greek state provides generous pensions and other benefits, which it cannot fund.

The political system appears to be a modern democracy but is in fact a much older model. The key institution is clientelism, in which political actors give out rewards to their clients in the shape of handouts and sinecures in the very large public sector. This is done much more directly than with the kind of interest group politics that we find in most democratic countries, and it is central to the whole way that politics works.

The extent of patronage means that the Greek government (whoever they are) does not have a modern, Weberian, bureaucracy to call on. Instead, most of the people in the public service owe their positions to networks of patronage and these command their loyalty.

The economy is highly regulated in ways that entrench settled interests and inhibit innovation. In particular, a very wide range of occupations are subject to rules that make it very difficult for new entrants into those sectors. Because of the inefficiency and the existence of a plethora of rules that are irksome but ultimately unenforceable, corruption is endemic and widespread throughout Greek society.

This system cannot maintain anything like the standard of living to which most Greeks aspire and as such it means that, via membership of the euro, we have seen the development of an economy that depends upon inward transfers — to a much greater degree than is the case in countries such as Spain and Ireland.

Given all this, it becomes clear that what the creditors are asking for is much more than a shift in policy, no matter how sharp and dramatic. Policy shifts of that kind are part of the normal or regular political process that take place infrequently, but still regularly, in most polities. The shift brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 is an example.

What is needed in Greece, and what the creditors are asking for without realising it, is something more fundamental, a change in the very nature of the political system and in the entire nature of politics and government, rather than a change of policy within a system. This is a regime change in the original and correct use of that term.

The point of course is that changes of this kind are extremely difficult and only happen extremely rarely. Sometimes it requires a revolution, as in France; on other occasions, it takes place in the context of a fundamental crisis such as defeat in a major war. Very rarely it can happen when there is a near consensus in a society over what to do, as in Japan in the 1870s.

The current Greek government is almost certainly aware of this, but, apart from ideological objections to part of the list of reforms, they are quite simply unable, rather than unwilling, to do what is asked because a change in the political order is simply very, very hard.

So the creditors are likely to be disappointed and will then become even more enraged. Moreover, being in the euro makes any attempt at systemic change in Greece even more difficult than it would be already, because if removes a range of policy options that could alleviate some of the transition costs.

As most economists of all persuasions now think, the best option is a managed Greek exit from the euro. If this does not happen (as seems likely) then this farce is a production that will run for some time.


Stephen Davies

Stephen Davies is a program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies and the education director at the Institute for Economics Affairs in London.

“Contempt for the Screening Process” and 91 Other Reasons TSA Thinks You’re a Terrorist by Daniel Bier

It’s true that TSA’s physical screeners are embarrassingly bad at their jobs, failing to notice 95% of threats in tests by Homeland Security.

But always never fear! TSA also has Behavior Detection Officers. These super agents can spot terrorists just by looking at them. Now, thanks to a leaked TSA checklist (and scorecard) of suspicious behaviors, you can too!

The document shows 92 different behaviors that can flag you as suspicious — such as being too happy (or too sad); having “sweaty palms” or “rubbing hands”; “arriving late” and “body odor”; “gazing down” or “open staring eyes” — to which an arbitrary number of “points” are attached.

If you score six or more points, you win a trip to enhanced screening and an interrogation by police. But you can get points deducted for being old (minus 1 point for women over 55 or men over 65) or married and old (minus 2 for a couple over 55).

Of course, the Intercept reports, the program has

attracted controversy for the lack of science supporting it. In 2013, the Government Accountability Office found that there was no evidence to back up the idea that “behavioral indicators … can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.”

After analyzing hundreds of scientific studies, the GAO concluded that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”

The suspicious behavior checklist also includes “having a cold penetrating stare” and “expressing contempt for the screening process.” After reading this, I’m not sure it’ll be any easier for me to get through TSA without them.


Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is of TSA officer Robert Howard signals an airline passenger forward at a security check-point at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Jan. 4. (AP Photo)

Celebrate Independence With a Revolution Against the Surveillance State by Ryan Hagemann

In the decade before 1776, British courts began issuing “writs of assistance” for the general search and seizure of colonists’ documents. The intention was to permit British troops to inspect properties for smuggled goods, but these writs gave officials broad power to enter private homes to search for, and seize, anything and everything that might be considered contraband by the British Empire.

Such general warrants were among the many complaints the colonists levied against the crown and played no small part in the American Revolution.

This Independence Day, it would behoove us all, as Americans, to reflect on the motivations for the colonists’ revolt against Britain. In a 2013 piece at the Huffington Post, Radley Balko spoke on the core meaning of the Fourth of July:

Independence Day isn’t for celebrating the American government and whoever happens to be currently running it, but for celebrating the principles that make America unique.

And in fact, celebrating the principles that [animated] the American founding often means celebrating the figures who have defended those principles in spite of the government.

The list of modern Americans who have stood as stalwart guardians of the principles of liberty is regrettably short. More concerning, however, is what has happened in the years since 9/11, as fear and paranoia over terrorism gripped the American electorate and absconded with many of the basic liberties that the founding generation fought and died to uphold. America just isn’t what it used to be.

But the tides of unrestrained surveillance seem to be receding.

A few weeks ago, thanks to a vibrant and broad coalition of civil libertarians, grassroots organizations, and cross-aisle partners, America finally took the first step in reining in the secret surveillance state that Edward Snowden revealed to us almost two years ago to the day. The USA FREEDOM Act, for all its flaws, stands as the most significant piece of surveillance reform legislation since 1978 and signals Congress’s willingness to work on surveillance reform.

While there is much to do in preparing for upcoming battles over government surveillance, a look back at recent events can help shed light on how we as libertarians can best move forward.

Not surprisingly, the debate left some dissatisfied that the reforms did not go far enough, while others considered anything short of a full USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization to be an unacceptable compromise.

Filled with riotous rhetorical broadsides, the debate featured civil libertarians supporting reform against civil libertarians backing a complete, uncompromising end to the surveillance state, pitting Republican hawks against centrists and Democrats, and Sen. Rand Paul against pretty much everyone.

In a story of strange political bedfellows, Sen. Paul joined hawks such as Sen. John McCain and Sen. Richard Burr in voting against the USA FREEDOM Act. While Paul criticized components of the bill for not going far enough (all criticisms being perfectly fair and true), the political reality was such that this bill, however imperfect, was by far the best chance for reform in the near term.

As Cato’s Julian Sanchez noted prior to its passage: “While ‘Sunset the Patriot Act’ makes for an appealing slogan, the fact remains that the vast majority of the Patriot Act is permanent — and includes an array of overlapping authorities that will limit the effect of an expiration.”

In other words, the limitations of USA FREEDOM would actually be more effective than simply letting a two or three provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (temporarily) expire.

The heroes of this debate were a broad coalition of civil-society groups, technology firms, and nonprofits dedicated to moving the ball forward on reform, no matter how small the gain.

However, even as some are celebrating this small but important victory, there are troubled waters ahead for privacy advocates and civil libertarians. The upcoming Senate vote on the Cybersecurity and Information Sharing Act (CISA) is the next battle in the ongoing war against the surveillance apparatus. If passed, it would be one step forward, two steps back for the small victories privacy advocates have won over the past month.

I’ve written quite a bit on the issues that many civil libertarian organizations have with CISA, which is little more than a surveillance Trojan Horse containing a host of “information-sharing” provisions that would allow intelligence agencies to acquire information from private firms and use it to prosecute Americans for garden-variety crimes unrelated to cybersecurity, due process be damned.

A broad coalition of organizations has once more come together, this time to oppose CISA, to continue the battle against expanding the surveillance state.

In public policy, the Overton window refers to the spectrum of policy prescriptions and ideas that the public views as tolerable: the political viability of any idea depends not on the personal preferences of politicians, but on whether it falls within the range of publicly acceptable options.

That is why a willingness to compromise is so vital in public-policy discussions. Marginal reforms should be seen as victories in the slow but consistent effort to rein in the excesses of our Orwellian security order.

USA FREEDOM is far from ideal, and the expiration of provisions of the PATRIOT Act, such as Section 215, will not stop government surveillance in its tracks. The government can still use National Security Letters (NSL), and Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act can still be creatively interpreted by the intelligence community to justify continued mass surveillance, to say nothing of Executive Order 12333, which covers surveillance conducted outside of the United States.

Nonetheless, the new law is an important first step towards tearing down the most onerous provisions of the PATRIOT Act in a piecemeal fashion. This may seem a daunting and less-than-ideal approach for many libertarians, but the alternative is merely symbolic gesticulation.

So where do we go from here?

Libertarians need to start working with nontraditional allies to support, on an issue-by-issue basis, real, practical reforms to the surveillance state. If we do not, we cannot hope to be effective and valuable partners to those individuals and organizations working tirelessly in support of the same values and freedoms that we all hold dear.

We must also recognize that there are limitations to compromise, and we should never forsake our core principles in favor of political expediency. But, on the margins, we can make significant contributions to civil liberties, especially in the ongoing surveillance reform debate. Recognizing the reality of what is achievable in the current political landscape is necessary for identifying and taking advantage of the available opportunities for restoring liberty.

We have a choice in the upcoming surveillance-reform fights: We can be positive contributors to a legacy of liberty for future generations, or we can continue to fancy ourselves armchair philosophers, ignoring public-policy realities and taking comfort in the echo chamber that never challenges our worldview.

Given political realities, marginal reforms constitute the fastest path forward. The American people are owed their civil liberties; hence, we must fight to move, however incrementally, towards a freer, more civil society.


Ryan Hagemann

Ryan Hagemann is a civil liberties policy analyst at the Niskanen Center.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cyber Security: Where are we now and where are we headed?

Hillary Staffers Can’t Afford New York’s Government-Controlled Housing Market by David Boaz

The New York Times reports:

For decades, idealistic twenty-somethings have shunned higher-paying and more permanent jobs for the altruism and adrenaline rush of working to get a candidate to the White House. But the staffers who have signed up for the Clinton campaign face a daunting obstacle: the New York City real estate market….

Mrs. Clinton’s campaign prides itself on living on the cheap and keeping salaries low, which is good for its own bottom line, but difficult for those who need to pay New York City rents….

When the campaign’s finance director, Dennis Cheng, reached out to New York donors [to put up staffers in their apartments], some of them seemed concerned with the prospective maze of campaign finance laws and with how providing upscale housing in New York City might be interpreted.

Here are some words that don’t appear in the article: rent control, regulation, zoning.

But those are among the reasons that housing is expensive in New York. As a Manhattan Institute report noted in 2002:

New York City and State have instituted policies that severely distort the dynamics of housing supply and demand. Only 30 percent of the city’s rental units, for instance, are subject to market prices.

These distortions — coupled with Rube-Goldbergian environmental and zoning regulations — have denied New York the kind of healthy housing market enjoyed by most other major cities.

And a report by Edward Glaeser and Joseph Gyourko for the Federal Reserve Board of New York Economic Policy Review suggests that “homes are expensive in high-cost areas primarily because of government regulation” that imposes “artificial limits on construction.”

As I’ve said in other contexts: This is the business you have chosen. If you want the government to control rents and impose regulatory costs on the building of housing, then you can expect to see less housing and thus more expensive housing. Welcome to your world, Hillary Clinton staffers.

This post first appeared at Cato.org.

Related: Jim Epstein notes that fully one third of Manhattan, and 33,000 buildings and 114 entire districts across the city, are “encased in a life-sized historical diorama,” unable to be modified or demolished thanks to the city’s “landmark preservation” law.


David Boaz

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the editor of The Libertarian Reader, editor of The Cato Handbook for Policymakers, and author of The Politics of Freedom.

Blurred Lines: The Humanitarian Threat to Free Speech by Aaron Tao

“Think of liberalism … as a collection of ideas or principles which go to make up an attitude or ‘habit of mind.’” – Arthur A. Ekirch

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville was keen to observe that “once the Americans have taken up an idea, whether it be well or ill founded, nothing is more difficult than to eradicate it from their minds.”

Reflecting upon my experience as a first-generation immigrant who grew up in the United States, I concur with Tocqueville; this inherent feature of the culture and character of the American people holds true even today.

In America, there are no sacred cows, no one is above criticism, and no one has the final say on any issue. It is worth emphasizing that today, the United States stands virtually alone in the international community in upholding near-absolute freedom of personal expression, largely thanks to the constitutional protections provided by the First Amendment.

But without certain internalized values and principles, the legal bulwark of the First Amendment is nothing more than a parchment barrier.

As cliché as it may sound, it is important to recognize that our cherished freedom to think, speak, write, and express ourselves should not be taken for granted. Defending the principle of free speech is a perennial conflict that has to be fought in the court of public opinion here and abroad.

Unfortunately, a number of recent developments have greatly alarmed civil libertarians and may very well carry long-term negative repercussions for the United States as a free and open society.

In his new book, Freedom from Speech, Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and tireless free speech advocate, highlights a troubling cultural phenomenon: the blurring of physical safety with psychological and ideological comfort.

It is a disturbing trend that is not limited to the United States:

People all over the globe are coming to expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right. This is precisely what you would expect when you train a generation to believe that they have a right not to be offended. Eventually, they stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.

On the other side of Atlantic, Great Britain is undergoing what one writer describes as a “slow death of free speech.” The land of Milton is now home to luminaries who wish to reinstate Crown licensing of the press (not seen since 1695!).

Meanwhile, ordinary people face jail time for callous tweeting. In British universities, student-driven campaigns have successfully shut down debates and banned pop songs, newspapers, and even philosophy clubs.

While the United States is fortunate enough to have the First Amendment [to] prevent outright government regulation of the press, cultural attitudes play a greater role in maintaining a healthy civil society.

Lukianoff reserves special criticism for American higher education for “neglecting to teach the intellectual habits that promote debate and discussion, tolerance for views we hate, epistemic humility, and genuine pluralism.”

Within academia, “trigger warnings” and “safe places” are proliferating. In a truly Bizarro twist, it has now come to the point that faculty members are defending individual rights and due process and decrying mob rule, while their students run off in the opposite direction.

We now hear on a regular basis of campus outrages involving a controversial speaker or perceived injustice, and the “offended” parties responding with a frenzied social media crusade or a real-world attempt to shame, bully, browbeat, censor, or otherwise punish the offender.

A small sampling from this season include attempts to ban screenings of American Sniper at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland, resolutions to create a Stasi-like “microaggression” reporting system at Ithaca College, and the controversy involving AEI scholar Christina Hoff Sommers speaking at Oberlin College.

These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg.

With the endless stream of manufactured outrages, perhaps it is fitting that George Mason University law professor David Bernstein would raise the question, “Where and when did this ‘makes me feel unsafe’ thing start?”

My personal hypothesis: When postmodernism found itself a new home on Tumblr, spread across the left-wing blogosphere, became reinforced by mobs and echo-chambers, and spilled into the real world.

Luckily, not all progressives have sacrificed the basic principles of liberalism to the altar of radical identity politics and political correctness. One liberal student at NYU courageously pointed out the grave dangers posed by the ideology embraced by many of his peers:

This particular brand of millennial social justice advocacy is destructive to academia, intellectual honesty, and true critical thinking and open mindedness. We see it already having a profound impact on the way universities act and how they approach curriculum. …

The version of millennial social justice advocacy that I have spoken about — one that uses Identity Politics to balkanize groups of people, engenders hatred between groups, willingly lies to push agendas, manipulates language to provide immunity from criticism, and that publicly shames anyone who remotely speaks some sort of dissent from the overarching narrative of the orthodoxy — is not admirable.

It is deplorable. It appeals to the basest of human instincts: fear and hatred. It is not an enlightened or educated position to take. History will not look kindly on this Orwellian, authoritarian perversion of social justice that has taken social media and millennials by storm over the past few years.

I, too, am convinced that these activists, with their MO of hysterical crusades, are one of today’s biggest threats to free speech, open inquiry, and genuine tolerance, at least on college campuses. The illiberal climate fostered by these their ideologues seems to be spreading throughout academia and is continuing to dominate the headlines.

As of this writing, Northwestern professor (and self-described feminist) Laura Kipnis is undergoing a Kafkaesque Title IX inquisition for writing a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education and making comments on Twitter that offended a number of students. The aggrieved mobilized in full force to have her punished under the federal sex discrimination law.

These groups and their tactics represent what Jonathan Rauch would describe as the “humanitarian” challenge to free speech. In his must-read book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, Rauch identified how these “humanitarians” sought to prevent “offense” to “oppressed and historically marginalized” peoples. In the name of “compassion,” words became conflated with physical action.

As speech codes spread and the definition of “harassment” (reading a book in public, for instance) became broader within the bureaucracy of academia, an “offendedness sweepstakes” was cultivated and turned into the norm.

Rauch’s book was published in 1993, but his diagnosis and arguments still apply today, if not more, in the age of social media when the “offendedness sweepstakes” are amplified to new levels.

Nowadays, PC grievance mongers can organize much more effectively and more often than not, get rewarded for their efforts. The future of a free society looks very bleak should these types become a dominant force on the political landscape. I can’t help but shiver at the prospect of seeing the chronically-offended eggshells of my generation becoming tomorrow’s legislators and judges. The chilling effects are already being felt.

Even as numerous challenges emerge from all corners, free speech has unparalleled potential for human liberation in the Digital Age. The eternal battle is still that of liberty versus power, and the individual versus the collective. I remain confident that truth can still prevail in the marketplace of ideas. It is for this reason we should treasure and defend the principles, practices, and institutions that make it possible.

Last month marked the birthday of the brilliant F.A. Hayek, the gentleman-scholar who made landmark contributions to fields of economics, philosophypolitical science, and law, and established his name as the twentieth century’s most eminent defender of classical liberalism in the face of the collectivist zeitgeist.

For all his accomplishments, Hayek practiced and urged epistemological humility (a position that should be natural to any defender of free speech) in his Nobel lecture. Looking back on his life’s work, Hayek was highly skeptical of the nebulous concept of “social justice” and its totalitarian implications. He even went as far as to devote an entire volume of his magnum opus, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, to completely demolish The Mirage of Social Justice.

Hayek concluded:

What we have to deal with in the case of “social justice” is simply a quasireligious superstition of the kind which we should respectfully leave in peace so long as it merely makes those happy who hold it, but which we must fight when it becomes the pretext of coercing other men [emphasis added].

And the prevailing belief in “social justice” is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.

Hayek did not predict that “social justice” would be first used to silence dissent before moving on to its long-term agenda, but it would not have surprised him. Weak ideas always grasp for the censor in the face of sustained criticism — and feeble ideas made strong by politics are the most dangerous of all.

Humanitarians with guillotines can be found from the French Revolution to present day. Modern day defenders of individual liberty would do well to heed Hayek’s warning and resist the Siren song of “social justice,” the rallying cry of collectivists who cannot realize their vision without coercion.


Aaron Tao

Aaron Tao is the Marketing Coordinator and Assistant Editor of The Beacon at the Independent Institute.

The New Paganism? The Case against Pope Francis’s Green Encyclical by Max Borders

Paganism as a distinct and separate religion may perhaps be said to have died, although, driven out of the cities, it found refuge in the countryside, where it lingered long — and whence, indeed, its very name is derived. In a very real sense, however, it never died at all. It was only transformed and absorbed into Christianity. – James Westfall Thompson, An Introduction to Medieval Europe

In 2003, science-fiction writer Michael Crichton warned a San Francisco audience about the sacralization of the environment. Drawing an analogy between religion and environmentalism, Crichton said:

There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with nature, there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result of eating from the tree of knowledge, and as a result of our actions there is a judgment day coming for us all.

We are all energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment. Just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs, imbibe.

This analogy between religion and environmentalism is no longer a mere analogy.

Pope Francis, the highest authority in the Catholic Church — to whom many faithful look for spiritual guidance — has now fused church doctrine with environmental doctrine.

Let’s consider pieces of his recently released Encyclical Letter. One is reminded of a history in which the ideas of paganism (including the worship of nature) were incorporated into the growing medieval Church.

Excerpts from Pope Francis are shown in italics.


 

This sister protests the evil that we provoke, because of the irresponsible use and of the abuse of the goods that God has placed in her. We grew up thinking that we were its owners and rulers, allowed to plunder it.

Notice how Pope Francis turns the earth into a person. Sister. Mother. This kind of anthropomorphic trope is designed to make you think that, by virtue of driving your car, you’re also smacking your sibling. We’ve gone from “dominion over the animals and crawling things” to “plundering” our sister.

The violence that exists in the human heart wounded by sin is also manifested in the symptoms of the disease we feel in soil, water, air and in the living things. Therefore, among the most abandoned and ill treated poor we find our oppressed and devastated Earth, which “moans and suffers the pains of childbirth” [Romans 8:22].

First, if the state of the soil, water and air and living things is indeed symptomatic of our violent, sinful hearts, then the good news is that sin is on the decline. On every dimension the Pope names, the symptoms of environmental harm are getting better all the time — at least in our decadent capitalist country.

Do not take it on faith: here are data.

There are forms of pollution which affect people every day. The exposure to air pollutants produces a large spectrum of health effects, in particular on the most poor, and causes millions of premature deaths.

This will always be true to some degree, of course, but it’s less true than any time in human history. Pope Francis fails to acknowledge the tremendous gains humanity has made. For example, human life expectancy in the Paleolithic period (call this “Eden”) was 33 years. Life expectancy in the neolithic period was 20 years. Globally, life expectancy is now more than 68 years, and in the West, it is passing 79 years.

Yes, there is pollution, and, yes, the poor are affected by it. But the reason why the poor are affected most by air pollution is because they’re poor — and because they don’t have access to fossil fuel energy. Pope Francis never bothers to draw the connection between wealth and health because he thinks of both production and consumption as sinful. Brad Plumer writes at Vox,

About 3 billion people around the world — mostly in Africa and Asia, and mostly very poor — still cook and heat their homes by burning coal, charcoal, dung, wood, or plant residue in their homes. These homes often have poor ventilation, and the smoke can cause all sorts of respiratory diseases.

The wealthy people of the West, including Pope Francis, don’t suffer from this problem. That’s because liberal capitalist countries — i.e., those countries who “plunder” their sister earth — do not suffer from energy poverty. They do not suffer from inhaling fumes and particulate matter from burning dung becausethey are “sinful,” because they are capitalist.

See the problem? The Pope wants to have it both ways. He has confused the disease (unhealthy indoor air pollution) with the cure (cheap, clean, abundant and mass-produced energy from fossil fuels).

Add to that the pollution that affects all, caused by transportation, by industrial fumes, by the discharge of substances which contribute to the acidification of soil and water, by fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and toxic pesticides in general. The technology, which, connected to finance, claims to be the only solution to these problems, in fact is not capable of seeing the mystery of the multiple relationships which exist between things, and because of this, sometimes solves a problem by creating another.

It is strange to read admonitions from someone about the “multiple relationships that exist between things,” only to see him ignore those relationships in the same paragraph. Yes, humans often create problems by solving others, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve the problems. It just means we should solve the big problems and then work on the smaller ones.

Solving problems even as we discover different problems is an inherent part of the human condition. Our creativity and innovation and struggle to overcome the hand nature has dealt us is what makes us unique as a species.

Perhaps this is, for Pope Francis, some sort of Green Original Sin: “Thou shalt just deal with it.” But to the rest of us, it is the means by which we live happier, more comfortable lives here under the firmament.

The Earth, our home, seems to turn more and more into a huge garbage dump. In many places on the planet, the elderly remember with nostalgia the landscapes of the past, which now appear to be submerged in junk.

If you get your understanding of waste management and the environment from the movie Wall-E, then you might have the impression that we’re burying our sister in garbage. But as the guys over at EconPop have pointed out, land used for waste management is also governed by laws of supply and demand — which means entrepreneurs and innovators are finding better and less expensive ways to reuse, reduce, recycle, and manage our waste.

The industrial waste as well as the chemicals used in cities and fields can produce an effect of bio-accumulation in the bodies of the inhabitants of neighboring areas, which occurs even when the amount of a toxic element in a given place is low. Many times one takes action only when these produced irreversible effects on people’s health.

People, on net, are living longer and healthier than they ever have in the history of our species. What evidence does the Holy Father have that irreversible effects on people’s health rises to the level of an emergency that demands drafting in a papal encyclical? And why focus on the costs of “chemicals” without a single mention of overwhelming their human benefit? Indeed, which chemicals? This kind of sloppy thinking is rather unbecoming of someone who is (we are constantly reminded) a trained chemist.

Certain substances can have health effects, but so can failing to produce the life-enhancing goods in the first place. The answer is not to beg forgiveness for using soaps and plastics (or whatever), but to develop the institutions that prevent people and companies from imposing harmful costs onto others without taking responsibility for it.

The key is to consider the trade-offs that we will face no matter what, not to condemn and banish “impure” and unnatural substances from our lives.

These issues are intimately linked to the culture of waste, affecting so much the human beings left behind when the things turn quickly into trash.

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is where Pope Francis would like to add consumerism to production on the list of environmentally deadly sins.

Let us realize, for example, that most of the paper that is produced is thrown away and not recycled.

Heaven forfend! So would Pope Francis have us burn fossil fuels to go around and collect processed pulp? Is he unaware that demand for paper is what drivesthe supply of new trees? We aren’t running out of trees because we throw away paper. The Pope’s plan sounds like it could have been hatched in Berkeley, California, instead of Vatican City. And yet worlds have collided.

Michael Munger puts matters a little differently:

Mandatory recycling, by definition, takes material that would not be recycled voluntarily, diverts it from the waste stream, and handles it several times before using it again in a way that wastes resources.

The only explanation for this behavior that I can think of is a religious ceremony, a sacrifice of resources as a form of worship. I have no problem if people want to do that. As religions go, it is fairly benign. Butrequiring that religious sacrifice of resources is a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Well, Professor Munger, this is the Pope we’re talking about.

We find it hard to admit that the operation of natural ecosystems is exemplary: plants synthesize nutrients that feed the herbivores; these in turn feed the carnivores, which provide a lot of organic waste, which give rise to a new generation of plants. In contrast, the industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the ability to absorb and reuse waste and slag.

Where is the evidence for this? These are matters of faith, indeed. All this time I thought the industrial system did have the ability to absorb and reuse waste: It’s called the system of prices, property, and profit/loss. The problem is not that such a “recycling” system doesn’t exist, it’s that corruption and government distorts the system of property, prices and profit/loss so that our economic ecosystem doesn’t operate as it should.

Indeed, when you have the Pope suggesting we burn gas to save glass, you have to wonder why the industrial system is so messed up. A system that “requires us to limit the use of non-renewable resources, to moderate consumption, to maximize the efficiency of the exploitation, to reuse and to recycle,” is called the market. And where it doesn’t exist is where you’ll find the worst instances of corruption and environmental degradation.

Then, of course, there’s climate change. In the interests of brevity I won’t quote the whole thing. But here’s the punchline, which might have been plucked straight from the IPCC Summary for Policymakers:

Climate change is a global problem with serious environmental, social, economic, distribution and policy implications, and make up one of the main current challenges for humanity. The heaviest impacts will probably fall in the coming decades upon developing countries.

This might be true. What the Holy Father fails to appreciate is that the heaviest impacts of policies designed to mitigate climate change will definitely fall upon developing countries. (That is, if the developing countries swear off cheap energy and embrace any sort of global climate treaty. If history is a guide, they most certainly will not.)

Meanwhile, the biggest benefits of burning more carbon-based fossil fuels will accrue the poorest billions on earth. The Pope should mention that if he really has their interests at heart or in mind.

But many symptoms indicate that these effects could get worse if we continue the current patterns of production and consumption.

“Patterns of production and consumption”? This is a euphemism for wealth creation. What is wealth except production and consumption of resources to further human need and desire?

His suggested cure for our dangerous patterns of wealth creation, of course, is good ole demand-side management. Wiser, more enlightened minds (like his, he hopes) will let you know which light bulbs to buy, what sort of car to drive, and which insolvent solar company they’ll “invest” your money in. You can even buy papal indulgences in the form of carbon credits. As the late Alexander Cockburn wrote,

The modern trade is as fantastical as the medieval one. … Devoid of any sustaining scientific basis, carbon trafficking is powered by guilt, credulity, cynicism and greed, just like the old indulgences, though at least the latter produced beautiful monuments.

But the most important thing to realize here is that the “current” patterns of production and consumption are never current. The earthquakes of innovation and gales of creative destruction blow through any such observed patterns. The price system, with its lightning-quick information distribution mechanism is far, far superior to any elites or energy cronies. And technological innovation, though we can’t predict just how, will likely someday take us as far away from today’s energy status quo, just as we have moved away from tallow, whale oil, and horse-drawn carriages.

The Pope disagrees with our rose-tinted techno-optimism, saying “some maintain at all costs the myth of progress and say that the ecological problems will be solved simply by new technical applications.”

The Pope sits on his golden throne and looks over the vast expanse of time and space — from hunter-gatherers running mammoths off cliffs to Americans running Teslas off electric power, from the USA in 1776 and 2015, from England before and after the Industrial Revolution, from Hong Kong and Hiroshima in 1945 to their glorious present — and sneers: progress is a myth, environmental problems can’t be fixed through innovation, production is destroying the earth, consumption is original sin.

Innovation is the wellspring of all progress. Policies to stop or undo innovation in energy, chemistry, industry, farming, and genetics are a way to put humanity in a bell jar, at best. At worst they will put some of us in the dark and others in early graves. They are truly fatal conceits.

And yet, the Pope has faith in policymakers to know just which year we should have gotten off the train of innovation. William F. Buckley famously said conservatives “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” Greens are similar, except they’re yelling “Go back!”

Therefore it has become urgent and compelling to develop policies so that in the coming years the emission of carbon dioxide and other highly polluting gases is reduced drastically, for instance by replacing fossil fuels and by developing renewable energy sources.

I reflect again on the notion that this effort might be just another way of the Church embracing and extending a competitor religion. Then again, Pope Francis so often shows that he is a true and faithful green planner. In an unholy alliance with those who see the strategic benefit in absorbing environmentalism, the Holy Father has found the perfect way to restore the power of the Church over politics, economics, culture, and the state to its former glory.


Max Borders

Max Borders is the editor of the Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.


Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the editor of Anything Peaceful. He writes on issues relating to science, civil liberties, and economic freedom.

Why Is Snapchat More Secure than the Federal Government? by Andrea Castillo

Cyberhawks have seized upon this year’s massive hack of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to shove a wolfish surveillance bill in a sheepish cybersecurity bill’s clothing down America’s throat.

But the “Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act of 2015” (CISA) would have done nothing to stop the hack that exposed as many as 14 million federal employees’ personnel records. The pro-NSA crowd’s arguments are obvious nonsense — if anything, the OPM hack clearly demonstrates the danger of trusting incompetent government bureaucracies to manage huge datasets of sensitive personal information.

But amid all of the hubbub, these self-styled champions of strong cybersecurity — who also just happen to be anti-private encryption and pro-surveillance — have neglected to raise one important question: Why did a goofy picture-sharing app implement basic security measures before the central repository for all federal personnel data did?

This week, Snapchat announced that the private picture messaging service was offering two-factor authentication for its users. This basic measure of security helps to verify that the person logging in is indeed the legitimate owner of their account by sending out a text message with a special access code to the owner’s cell phone.

That way, a hacker must obtain both your password and your mobile phone to access and control your account. It’s simple, but simple security solutions can sometimes mean the difference between a foiled infiltration and a very, very bad day for a Snapchat user.

Of course, it is too much to expect the chief steward of federal employee information to implement such a simple policy. As the beleaguered office’s Inspector General reported last fall, OPM does not require multi-factor authentication to access its information systems.

If a careless OPM employee chose a weak and easy-to-guess password, or emailed it in plain text across an insecure channel, or merely left it on a sticky note on his or her desk (as is common practice in the federal government), than any common hacker could potentially access vast amounts of federal data.

In other words, an application for sharing pictures of wild parties and funny cats has better authentication standards than the federal government’s primary steward of millions of current and former federal employees’ and contractors’ addresses, Social Security numbers, financial information, and health records. Oh, and that of our military leadership and intelligence contacts — several of which are embedded deep undercover in dangerous missions — as well.

Hackers also accessed the feds’ cache of Standard Form 86 files for the aforementioned groups, dragging countless family members, friends, and colleagues into the databreach crossfire.

To call this a huge mess would be the second biggest understatement of the year. The biggest? That OPM’s substantial information security vulnerabilities are entirely unacceptable and directly at fault for the hack.

The OPM’s annual information security reports to Congress have admitted “material weaknesses” and “significant deficiencies” for years. The department lacked an IT team with “professional security experience and certifications”until 2013. Disgruntled employees could have merely walked off with this data if they wanted to, since OPM does not “maintain a comprehensive inventory of servers, databases, and network devices.” Nor did the OPM encrypt any of the data that the hackers stole — they might as well have just invited our forward friends in China to sweep in through the front door!

As Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher concludes, “Considering the overall condition of OPM’s security, it’s no surprise that an attacker — almost any attacker — could gain a foothold inside the agency’s network. But attackers didn’t just gain a foothold, they had practically a free run of the networks.”

It’s true that Snapchat has hardly been a paragon of good cybersecurity in the past, as previous security vulnerabilities, breaches, misleading marketing, and the infamous “Snappening” testify. However, there is another important difference between Snapchat and the OPM that puts the humble app ahead of the mighty federal office: Snapchat has to learn from its mistakes.

As a private service provider in a hotly-competitive market that must keep its users happy to stay afloat, Snapchat moved quickly to get its security house in order after their big mistakes. They hired the former social network security leader for Google and started to build a “culture of security” within the firm.

They may still have a long way to go, but these investments and cultural prioritization are important first steps that demonstrate a proactive sense of ownership in their platform’s security. And of course, if they keep screwing up, they’ll be sued out the nose and go out of business for good.

We see no such sense of urgency with OPM. The agency received what could have been a saving wakeup call in last year, when it was discovered that Chinese hackers had accessed OPM databases in March of 2014.

OPM had the opportunity to implement simple encryption and authentication measures, tighten up their ship, and increase employee education about good data and security practices. No such luck! The office more or less continued on its merry way.

No one was fired back then and it looks like no one will get fired now. It’s government work, after all.

Unfortunately, OPM is hardly the only sucker on cybersecurity in the federal government, as my research for the Mercatus Center has found. This kind of unbelievably poor cybersecurity posture is the norm rather than the exception.

In fact, it’s hard to pick what is scarier: that the federal government operates under the digital equivalent of leaving all of their doors and windows unlocked and wide open, or that these same federal agencies want more power to manage your personal data through CISA.


Andrea Castillo

Andrea Castillo is the program manager of the Technology Policy Program for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and is pursuing a PhD in economics at George Mason University.

5 Reasons the FDA’s Ban on Trans Fat Is a Big Deal by Walter Olson

The Obama administration’s Food and Drug Administration today announced a near-ban, in the making since 2013, on the use of partially hydrogenated vegetable fats (“trans fats”) in American food manufacturing.

Specifically, the FDA is knocking trans fats off the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) list. This is a big deal and here are some reasons why:

1. It’s frank paternalism. Like high-calorie foods or alcoholic beverages, trans fats have marked risks when consumed in quantity over long periods, smaller risks in moderate and occasional use, and tiny risks when used in tiny quantities. The FDA intends to forbid the taking of even tiny risks, no matter how well disclosed.

2. The public doesn’t agree.2013 Reason-RUPE poll found majorities of all political groups felt consumers should be left free to choose on trans fats.  Even in heavily governed places like New York City and California, where the political class bulldozed through restaurant bans some years back, there was plenty of resentment.

3. The public is also perfectly capable of recognizing and acting on nutritional advances on its own. Trans fats have gone out of style and consumption has dropped by 85 percent as consumers have shunned them.

But while many products have been reformulated to omit trans fats, their versatile qualities still give them an edge in such specialty applications as frozen pizza crusts, microwave popcorn, and the sprinkles used atop cupcakes and ice cream. Food companies tried to negotiate to keep some of these uses available, especially in small quantities, but apparently mostly failed.

4. Government doesn’t always know best, nor do its friends in “public health.” The story has often been told of how dietary reformers touted trans fats from the 1950s onward as a safer alternative to animal fats and butter.

Public health activists and various levels of government hectored consumers and restaurants to embrace the new substitutes. We now know this was a bad idea: trans fats appear worse for cardiovascular health than what they replaced. And the ingredients that will replace minor uses of trans fats – tropical palm oil is one – have problems of their own.

5. Even if you never plan to consume a smidgen of trans fat ever again, note well: many public health advocates are itching for the FDA to limit allowable amounts of salt, sugar, caffeine, and so forth in food products. Many see this as their big pilot project and test case.

But when it winds up in court, don’t be surprised if some courtroom spectators show up wearing buttons with the old Sixties slogan: Keep Your Laws Off My Body.


Walter Olson

Walter Olson is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

EDITORS NOTE: This post first appeared at Cato.org.

The Feds vs. Reason.com Commenters by Ryan Radia

Our friends over at the Reason Foundation, a venerable libertarian think tank and publisher of Reason magazine, recently received a grand jury subpoena from a federal prosecutor in New York, reports Ken White at Popehat.

The subpoena demands that Reason disclose “all identifying information” it has regarding six pseudonymous users who posted comments about the death and afterlife of a federal judge on Reason’s Hit & Run blog.

These comments came in response to a May 31 post by Nick Gillespie about the trial and sentencing of Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted in February of running an Internet-based narcotics and money laundering platform known as Silk Road.

In late May, Judge Katherine Forrest, who sits on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison. This sentence was met with mixed reactions, with many commentators criticizing Judge Forrest for handing down what they perceived as an exceedingly harsh sentence.

A few Reason users, some of whom may have followed Reason’s extensive coverage of the fascinating trial, apparently found Ulbricht’s sentence especially infuriating.

One commenter argued that “judges like these … should be taken out back and shot.” Another user, purporting to correct the preceding comment, wrote that “it’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot.” A follow-up comment suggested the use of a “wood chipper,” so as not to “waste ammunition.” And a user expressed hope that “there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

Within hours, the office of Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, sent Reason a subpoena for these commenters’ identifying information “in connection with an official criminal investigation of a suspected felony being conducted by a federal grand jury.”

This doesn’t mean a grand jury actually asked about the commenters; instead, in federal criminal investigations, it’s typically up to the US Attorney to decide when to issue a subpoena “on behalf” of a grand jury.

The subpoena demands from Reason information about the six users, including their email and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses — which, if disclosed, could enable the government to uncover the true identities of the commenters, perhaps after another round of subpoenas are sent to the users’ respective Internet Service Providers.

Popehat’s Ken White is quite troubled by the government’s decision to issue this subpoena. Ilya Somin, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, also objects to the subpoena. So do the Cato Institute’s Tim Lynch and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick, among many others.

I too find it quite concerning. Even if this subpoena is valid under current law — more on that angle in a bit — the government made a serious mistake in seeking to force Reason to hand over information that could uncover the six commenters’ identities.

Unless the Department of Justice is investigating a credible threat to Judge Forrest with some plausible connection to the Reason comments at issue, this subpoena will serve only to chill hyperbolic — but nonetheless protected — political speech by anonymous Internet commenters.

And if Reason decides to stand up for its users’ rights, the resulting court battle will amount to a waste of federal law enforcement resources that could instead help bring actual criminals to justice, as Tim Lynch reminds us.

To be sure, I have no problem with the feds seeking to locate and prosecute people who actually threaten to commit murder — which, if transmitted in interstate commerce, is a federal crime under Title 18 USC. § 875.

Threatening to kill a federal judge is especially problematic; assassinations of federal judges do happen from time to time. As such, it’s only natural that law enforcement takes such threats seriously.

Yet, while the comments identified in the subpoena are undeniably vile, they’re also protected by the First Amendment, and rightly so. Hyperbolic political statements have a long history in the United States.

For instance, Ken Shultz notes that Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that “the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Sound familiar?

As for the comments about shooting a federal judge, consider the Vietnam War-era prosecution of Robert Watts for “knowingly and willfully threatening the President.”

At age eighteen, Watts said that if he were forced to join the military and “carry a rifle,” then the “first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” The Supreme Court reversed his conviction, finding that Watts had merely “indulged” in a “kind of political hyperbole.” Id. at 708.

Although these statements, like the Reason comments quoted above, are understandably offensive to many listeners, causing offense alone is no basis for outlawing speech. To the contrary, “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute,” as the Supreme Court has noted. Indeed, speech can sometimes “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

As for the hyperbolic comments posted on Reason about Judge Forrest, they are plainly not “true threats,” but mere “angry bluster,” as Ken White explains in detail.

The remarks, he notes, were not directed to the Judge, or reasonably calculated to reach her; instead, they appeared on a libertarian political blog notorious for its trash-talking commentariat. The comments lacked any specifics about a specific person’s plans to actually carry out an act of violence; instead, they merely expressed a general desire that a particular person be killed.

And while courts have held on occasion that hoping for someone’s death without evincing a desire to personally kill them can be a true threat, this requires some “causal connection” between the statement and the desired outcome. Again, the Reason comments don’t come close to meeting this threshold.

In short, even if the six Reason users are indicted on federal criminal charges, the First Amendment means the government is all but guaranteed to lose (barring the unlikely scenario the US Attorney’s office is sitting on some damning evidence it hasn’t disclosed).

If the commenters didn’t break the law, then, why can the government use its subpoena power to force Reason to hand over whatever personal information it’s collected about them? Because, as Ken White frets, the US Attorney’s power to issue grand jury subpoenas is so broad that, in most cases, they can be quashed only “when they are irrationally burdensome … or for an improper purpose.”

Moreover, a grand jury — which, again, is typically just another word for “federal prosecutor” — is afforded “wide latitude” in investigating potential crimes, and the “law presumes, absent a strong showing to the contrary, that a grand jury acts within the legitimate scope of its authority.”

And when a grand jury subpoena is “challenged on relevancy grounds the motion to quash must be denied unless the district court determines that there is no reasonable possibility that the category of materials the Government seeks will produce information relevant to the general subject of the grand jury’s investigation.”

What about a grand jury subpoena that implicates First Amendment interests?

In theory, “where values of expression are potentially implicated,” a district court should act with “special sensitivity” to “prevent the chilling effect” of “prosecutorial abuse,” in the words of the Fourth Circuit.

In practice, however, courts are extremely reluctant to quash a federal grand jury subpoena on First Amendment grounds. For instance, the District Court for the District of Columbia held in 2011 that “merely issuing a subpoena to uncover the identity of the speaker so that the police can ascertain whether a threat is valid cannot be deemed a Constitutional violation.”

Where does all of this leave us? Reason could move to quash the subpoena — or at least petition the court to limit its scope to identifying information about the more threatening commenters — on the basis that, absent additional evidence that its commenters’ identities are related in any way to some criminally actionable threat, enforcing the subpoena would undermine Reason commenters’ constitutional interest in anonymity while generating information of “negligible value to the government.”

However, because Reason probably could not show the US Attorney is acting in bad faith, or that complying with the subpoena would be unduly burdensome, Reason’s chances of prevailing if it chooses to fight back are not good. That’s a problem for all of us.

This piece first appeared at CEI.org.


Ryan Radia

Ryan Radia is an Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He focuses on adapting law and public policy to the unique challenges of the information age.

A Shrine to a Socialist Demagogue by Lawrence W. Reed

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — It’s May 27, 2015. Driving south on First Avenue toward Masaya on a hot, late-spring day in the Nicaraguan capital, my eye caught an image in the distance. “That looks like Curly from The Three Stooges!” I thought. Nah, what would he be doing here? Nyuk. Nyuk.

As we approached, I suddenly realized it only resembled Curly. It was actually somebody considerably less funny. The statue was a garish, tasteless manifestation of the late Venezuelan socialist strongman Hugo Chavez, surrounded by ugly, orange curlicues. I repressed the urge to gag as I stopped to take this photo:

Hugo Chavez shrine

This tribute to a man whose ceaseless demagoguery ruined his nation’s economy is the doing, of course, of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and his party. Ortega, like Chavez, engineered constitutional changes that may make him effectively president for life. He has worshiped state power since the 1970s. He was a Cuban-trained Marxist and cofounder of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, the Sandinistas. I visited the country five times in the 1980s to interview key political figures, and whenever I was there, Ortega was pushing government literacy programs; meanwhile, his government was harassing and shutting down the opposition press.

Back in the 1980s, Ortega relied heavily on subsidies from his Soviet and Cuban sponsors. But now that the Soviets are ancient history and the Cuban economy is on life support, he’s had to moderate. Nicaragua is a very poor country. Its per capita GDP is about a third of the world average, better than Yemen’s but not as deluxe as Uzbekistan’s. According to the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, however, it’s ranked better than you might expect at 108th in the world. Seventy countries are actually less free.

Who do you think is ranked at the very bottom, at 176, 177, and 178?

None other than the workers’ paradises of Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

If you want a glimpse of the current state of the Chavez/Maduro experiment in Venezuelan socialism, look no further than the relative scarcities of toilet paper (you’d better bring your own if you visit) and paper money (more abundant than ever at 510 percent inflation).

I asked my old friend Deroy Murdock, senior fellow with the Atlas Network, Fox News contributor, and keen observer of affairs in the Americas: How would you assess the legacy of the Venezuelan caudillo memorialized by Ortega’s regime in Nicaragua?

“Hugo Chavez arrived in Venezuela, determined to make his country a gleaming showcase of socialism, and renovate Cuba in the process,” Murdock said. “Now, Chavez is dead, Castro still lives, and both countries remain in dire straits. Chavez’s legacy is the enduring lesson that big government is bad, and huge government is even worse.”

Indeed. Seems pretty self-evident whether you look at the numbers from afar or walk the streets in person. Venezuela’s economy has been in free-fall for almost all of the past 15 years.

But there I was, gazing at a giant Hugo in Managua, a monument intended to say, “Way to go, man!” One wonders where an impoverished country gets the money or even the idea to construct such a hideous gargoyle.

Then I realized the answer: Ortega’s Nicaragua is run by socialists. And by typical socialist reasoning, you can be an architect of disaster but reckoned to be a “man of the people” just by claiming to be one.

If you produced the same results while advocating capitalism, you’d be reckoned a monster.


Lawrence W. Reed

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s.

In Defense of Private Property: Mises and Aristotle by Jeffrey A. Tucker

I’ve just reacquainted myself with two seminal texts: Aristotle’s Politics and Ludwig von Mises’s Socialism. Though written nearly two and a half millennia apart, it’s remarkable how these two gigantically important treatises parallel each other.

They both come to the defense of property and realistic forms of political order in the face of all kinds of dreamers, fanatics, and would-be dictators. A central contribution of each book is to defend the institution of private property against its enemies, who, both Aristotle and Mises knew, would smash all that is wonderful about life.

They took different pathways toward the same goal. Aristotle focused on what makes people happy and permits the realization of the virtuous life. But he had very little conception of economics, and his theory of property was problematic, to say the least. Mises, on the other hand, focused on economic science, and presented a far more coherent vision of property, freedom, and economic growth.

Even so, they cover the same basic territory. What kind of social and political order is most conducive to human flourishing, and what is the role of private property and private life in this order?

Aristotle spoke of the impossibility of the realization of self under common ownership.

“In a state having women and children common, love will be watery; and the father will certainly not say ‘my son,’ or the son ‘my father.’ As a little sweet wine mingled with a great deal of water is imperceptible in the mixture, so, in this sort of community, the idea of relationship which is based upon these names will be lost; there is no reason why the so-called father should care about the son, or the son about the father, or brothers about one another. ”

The absence of ownership, then, leads to the disregard of one’s own life and the life of others. “How immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own,” Aristotle writes, “for the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain…”

Everything is at stake: benevolence, gifting, appreciation, and even love. “There is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property,” writes Aristotle. “The advantage is lost by the excessive unification of the state.”

These are hugely profound insights. To be sure, Aristotle’s conception of private property is seriously marred by his defense of slavery, and he is reluctant to admit women into the realm of citizens who deserve what we call rights today. To read this material, one must always keep in mind how lost the contributions of the Enlightenment truly were on the ancient philosophers. They knew nothing of universal rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. Still, given that proviso, we can see Aristotle working his way toward a coherent theory of the social order.

He goes further to condemn looting of property through the political system. “If the poor, for example, because they are more in number, divide among themselves the property of the rich, is not this unjust? … if this is not injustice, pray what is?” The reverse is also true, he wrote. It would be unjust for the rich to use their power and wealth to pillage the poor.

Aristotle repeats his injunction and summarizes: “I do not think that property ought to be common, as some maintain, but only that by friendly consent there should be a common use of it; and that no citizen should be in want of subsistence.”

Mises took this whole analysis much further. The first third of Socialism presents a complete theory of social order and the place of property within it. He treats property not as an ethic or plan from the top but as a technology, something created out of social consensus and made necessary by the existing of material privation.

The extension of the division of labor provides more opportunities for growing wealth, and, eventually the creation of money, which is the key to rational economic calculation in a modern economy. Without private property in capital goods, writes Mises, there is no hope for making sense of the main material challenges society faces.

We know about the opponents of Mises’s views. He was surrounded by an academic class of philosophers and economists who were generally sympathetic to the ideals of socialism. “Socialism is the watchword and catchword of our day,” he wrote. “The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses approve it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time.”

Later in the book, Mises addresses prevailing religious ideas at the time, which had turned decisively to favor the socialist idea. He took them apart, one by one, showing that most of the religious thinkers of his day had no conception of the practical need for a thriving society to have modern economic institutions rooted in private property ownership.

Mises takes his argument further to point out that the end of property really is the end of freedom. Every would-be tyrant excoriates private property, not because communism would be great for the people but because private ownership is a barrier to the tyrant’s power and control. In its absence, power rules and there is nothing like freedom. Without private property, there can be no free press, freedom of religion, or freedom of association.

The parallels with Aristotle’s book are uncanny. I’m trying to think of the problems Aristotle faced in the 4th century, BC. There was the epic influence of Plato and his many pupils. Plato wrote, whether ironically or not, in favor of a communist utopia with no property, no families, no ownership, no private life, and he found this to be the only society that is consistent with justice and social harmony.

Aristotle took on Plato, who was representative of the first group of enemies of property in all times: the highly educated philosophy elite. So it ever was and ever shall be.

In addition, in Aristotle’s time, there was an official religion that was stable and reliable and he urged people to be faithful to it. It served the ruling class but it was not utterly insane. But the world must have been populated with self-proclaimed prophets everywhere, people serious about jazzing up the population with some frenzied dream. Always and everywhere this seems to have included the socialist idea. If we could just throw all things into the commons, all human division would disappear and utopia would appear!

This group, the mystics and spiritual dreamers, then, was the second group of enemies of property. Then and now.

But there was still another dangerous force in the land: would-be tyrants. They lie to people. They come to power through promises of democracy. They use the destabilization of revolution to displace one government and push a much worse one. Despots resent the private life of the people that ownership makes possible. They proclaim the wonders of common ownership, but the result of their visions is always the same: more power to the dictators.

We really do face a choice. We suffer under the tyrant’s boot or we uphold the sanctity of private ownership. Aristotle discerned this in the 4th century, BC. Mises drove the point home with his marvelous book of 1922. They lived in radically different times and spoke from a different perspective. But their concern was the same. Ownership and freedom are inseparable ideals, both in their times and in ours.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Digital Development at FEE, CLO of the startup Liberty.me, and editor at Laissez Faire Books. Author of five books, he speaks at FEE summer seminars and other events. His latest book is Bit by Bit: How P2P Is Freeing the World.

Why Socialism Causes Pollution by THOMAS J. DILORENZO

Corporations are often accused of despoiling the environment in their quest for profit. Free enterprise is supposedly incompatible with environmental preservation, so that government regulation is required.

Such thinking is the basis for current proposals to expand environmental regulation greatly. So many new controls have been proposed and enacted that the late economic journalist Warren Brookes once forecast that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could well become “the most powerful government agency on earth, involved in massive levels of economic, social, scientific, and political spending and interference.

But if the profit motive is the primary cause of pollution, one would not expect to find much pollution in socialist countries, such as the former Soviet Union, China, and in the former Communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe. That is, in theory. In reality exactly the opposite is true: The socialist world suffers from the worst pollution on earth. Could it be that free enterprise is not so incompatible with environmental protection after all?

I. Socialist Pollution

The Soviet Union

In the Soviet Union there was a vast body of environmental law and regulation that purportedly protected the public interest, but these constraints have had no perceivable benefit. The Soviet Union, like all socialist countries, suffered from a massive “tragedy of the commons,” to borrow the term used by biologist Garrett Hardin in his classic 1968 article. Where property is communally or governmentally owned and treated as a free resource, resources will inevitably be overused with little regard for future consequences.

The Soviet government’s imperatives for economic growth, combined with communal ownership of virtually all property and resources, caused tremendous environmental damage. According to economist Marshall Goldman, who studied and traveled extensively in the Soviet Union, “The attitude that nature is there to be exploited by man is the very essence of the Soviet production ethic.”

A typical example of the environmental damage caused by the Soviet economic system is the exploitation of the Black Sea. To comply with five-year plans for housing and building construction, gravel, sand, and trees around the beaches were used for decades as construction materials. Because there is no private property, “no value is attached to the gravel along the seashore. Since, in effect, it is free, the contractors haul it away. This practice caused massive beach erosion which reduced the Black Sea coast by 50 percent between 1920 and 1960. Eventually, hotels, hospitals, and of all things, a military sanitarium collapsed into the sea as the shoreline gave way. Frequent landslides–as many as 300 per year–have been reported.

Water pollution is catastrophic. Effluent from a chemical plant killed almost all the fish in the Oka River in 1965, and similar fish kills have occurred in the Volga, Ob, Yenesei, Ural, and Northern Dvina rivers. Most Russian factories discharge their waste without cleaning it at all. Mines, oil wells, and ships freely dump waste and ballast into any available body of water, since it is all one big (and tragic) “commons.”

Only six of the 20 main cities in Moldavia had a sewer system by the late 1960s, and only two of those cities made any effort to treat the sewage. Conditions are far more primitive in the countryside.

The Aral and Caspian seas have been gradually disappearing as large quantities of their water have been diverted for irrigation. And since untreated sewage flows into feeder rivers, they are also heavily polluted.

Some Soviet authorities expressed fears that by the turn of the century the Aral Sea will be nothing but a salt marsh. One paper reported that because of the rising salt content of the Aral the remaining fish will rapidly disappear. It was recently revealed that the Aral Sea has shrunk by about a third. Its shore line “is arid desert and the wind blows dry deposits of salt thousands of miles away. The infant mortality rate [in that region] is four to five times the national average.”

The declining water level in the Caspian Sea has been catastrophic for its fish population as spawning areas have turned into dry land. The sturgeon population has been so decimated that the Soviets have experimented with producing artificial caviar. Hundreds of factories and refineries along the Caspian Sea dump untreated waste into the sea, and major cities routinely dump raw sewage. It has been estimated that one-half of all the discharged effluent is carried in the Volga River, which flows into the Caspian Sea. The concentration of oil in the Volga is so great that steamboats are equipped with signs forbidding passengers to toss cigarettes overboard. As might be expected, fish kills along the Volga are a “common calamity.”

Lake Baikal, which is believed to be the oldest freshwater lake in the world, is also one of the largest and deepest. It is five times as deep as Lake Superior and contains twice the volume of water. According to Marshall Goldman, it was also “the best known example of the misuse of water resources in the USSR.”

Factories and pulp mills have been dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of effluent into Lake Baikal each year for decades. As a result, animal life in the lake has been cut by more than 50 percent over the past half century. Untreated sewage is dumped into virtually all tributaries to the lake.

Islands of alkaline sewage have been observed floating on the lake, including one that was 18 miles long and three miles wide. These “islands” have polluted the air around the lake as well as the water in it. Thousands of acres of forest surrounding the lake have been denuded, causing such erosion that dust storms have been reported. So much forest land in the Lake Baikal region has been destroyed that some observers reported shifting sands that link up with the Gobi Desert; there are fears that the desert may sweep into Siberia and destroy the lake.

In other regions the fact that no compensation has to be paid for land that is flooded by water projects has made it easy for government engineers to submerge large areas of land. “As much land has been lost through flooding and salination as has been added through irrigation and drainage in the Soviet Union.”

These examples of environment degradation in the Soviet Union are not meant to be exhaustive but to illustrate the phenomenon of Communist pollution. As Goldman has observed, the great pollution problems in Russia stem from the fact that the government determined that economic growth was to be pursued at any cost. “Government officials in the USSR generally have a greater willingness to sacrifice their environment than government officials in a society with private enterprise where there is a degree of public accountability. There is virtually a political as well as an economic imperative to devour idle resources in the USSR.”

China

In China, as in Russia, putting the government in charge of resource allocation has not had desirable environmental consequences. Information on the state of China’s environment is not encouraging.

According to the Worldwatch Institute, more than 90 percent of the trees in the pine forests in China’s Sichuan province have died because of air pollution. In Chungking, the biggest city in southwest China, a 4, 500-acre forest has been reduced by half. Acid rain has reportedly caused massive crop losses.

There also have been reports of waterworks and landfill projects severely hampering fish migration. Fish breeding was so seriously neglected that fish has largely vanished from the national diet. Depletion of government-owned forests has turned them into deserts, and millions of acres of grazing and farm land in the northern Chinese plains were made alkaline and unproductive during the “Great Leap Forward.”

Central and Eastern Europe

With Communism’s collapse, word has begun to seep out about Eastern Europe’s environmental disasters. According to the United Nations Global Environment Monitoring Program, “pollution in that region is among the worst on the Earth’s surface.” Jeffrey Leonard of the World Wildlife Fund concluded that “pollution was part and parcel of the system that molested the people [of Eastern Europe] in their daily lives.” Evidence is mounting of “an environmental nightmare,” the legacy of “decades of industrial development with little or no environmental control.”

Poland

According to the Polish Academy of Sciences, “a third of the nation’s 38 million people live in areas of ecological disaster.” In the heavily industrialized Katowice region of Poland, the people suffer 15 percent more circulatory disease, 30 percent more tumors, and 47 percent more respiratory disease than other Poles. Physicians and scientists believe pollution is a major contributor to these health problems.

Acid rain has so corroded railroad tracks that trains are not allowed to exceed 24 miles an hour. The air is so polluted in Katowice that there are underground “clinics” in uranium mines where the chronically ill can go to breathe clean air.

Continuous pumping of water from coal mines has caused so much land to subside that over 300,000 apartments were destroyed as buildings collapsed. The mine sludge has been pumped into rivers and streams along with untreated sewage which has made 95 percent of the water unfit for human consumption. More than 65 percent of the nation’s water is even unfit for industrial use because it is so toxic that it would destroy heavy metals used by industry. In Cracow, Poland’s ancient capital, acid rain “dissolved so much of the gold roof of the 16th century Sigismund Chapel that it recently hd to be replaced.”

Industrial dust rains down on towns, depositing cadmium, lead, zinc, and iron. The dust is so heavy that huge trucks drive through city streets daily spraying water to reduce it. By some accounts eight tons of dust fall on each square mile in and around Cracow each year. The mayor of Cracow recently stated that the Vistula River — the largest river in Poland — is “nothing but a sewage canal.” The river has mercury levels that are three times what researchers say is safe, while lead levels are 25 times higher than deemed safe.

Half of Poland’s cities, including Warsaw, don’t even treat their wastes, and 41 animal species have reportedly become extinct in Poland in recent years. While health statistics are spotty — they were not a priority of the Communist government–available data are alarming. A recent study of the Katowice region found that 21 percent of the children up to 4 years old are sick almost constantly, while 41 percent of the children under 6 have serious health problems.

Life expectancy for men is lower than it was 20 years ago. In Upper Silesia, which is considered one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the world, circulatory disease levels are 15 percent higher, respiratory disease is 47 percent higher, and there has been “an appalling increase in the number of retarded children,” according to the Polish Academy of Sciences. Although pollution cannot be blamed for all these health problems, physicians and scientists attach much of the blame to this source.

Czechoslovakia

In a speech given on New Year’s Day of 1990, Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel said, “We have laid waste to our soil and the rivers and the forests…and we have the worst environment in the whole of Europe today.” He was not exaggerating, although the competition for the title of “worst environment” is clearly fierce. Sulfur dioxide concentrations in Czechoslovakia are eight times higher than in the United Sates, and “half the forests are dead or dying.”

Because of the overuse of fertilizers, farmland in some areas of Czechoslovakia is toxic to more than one foot in depth. In Bohemia, in northwestern Czechoslovakia, hills stand bare because their vegetation has died in air so foul it can be tasted. One report describes the Czech countryside as a place where “barren plateaus stretch for miles, studded with the stumps and skeletons of pine trees. Under the snow lie thousands of acres of poisoned ground, where for centuries thick forests had grown.” There is a stretch of over 350 miles where more than 300,000 acres of forest have disappeared and the remaining trees are dying. A thick, brown haze hangs over much of northern Czechoslovakia for about eight months of the year. Sometimes it takes on the sting of tear gas, according to local officials. There are environmental laws, but they aren’t enforced. Sulfur in the air has been reported at 20 times the permissible level. Soil in some regions is so acidic that aluminum trapped in the clay is released. Scientists discovered that the aluminum has poisoned groundwater, killing tree and plant roots and filtering into the drinking water.

Severe erosion in the decimated forests has caused spring floods in which all the melted snow cascades down mountainsides in a few weeks, causing further erosion and leading to water shortages in the summer.

In its search for coal, the Communist government has used bulldozers on such a massive scale that they have “turned towns, farms and woodlands into coarse brown deserts and gaping hollows. Because open-pit mining is cheaper than underground mining, and has been practiced extensively, in some areas of Czechoslovakia “you have total devastation of the land.”

East Germany

The new German government has claimed that nearly 40 percent of the East German populace suffers ill effects from pollutants in the air. In Leipzig, half the children are treated each year for illnesses believed to be associated with air pollution. Eighty percent of eastern Germany’s surface waters are classified as unsuitable for fishing, sports, or drinking, and one out of three lakes has been declared biologically dead because of decades of untreated dumping of chemical waste.

Much of the East German landscape has been devastated. Fifteen to 20 percent of its forests are dead, and another 40 percent are said to be dying. Between 1960 and 1980 at least 70 villages were destroyed and their inhabitants uprooted by the government, which wanted to mine high-sulfur brown coal. The countryside is now “pitted with moon-like craters” and “laced with the remains of what were once spruce and pine trees, nestled amid clouds of rancid smog.” The air in some cities is so polluted that residents use their car headlights during the day, and visitors have been known to vomit from breathing the air.

Nearly identical problems exist in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia.

Visiting scientists have concluded that pollution in Central and Eastern Europe “is more dangerous and widespread than anything they have seen in the Western industrial nations.”

II. United States: Public Sector Pollution

The last refuge of those who advocate socialistic solutions to environmental pollution is the claim that it is the lack of democratic processes that prevents the Communist nations from truly serving the public interest. If this theory is correct, then the public sector of an established democracy such as the United States should be one of the best examples of environmental responsibility. But U.S. government agencies are among the most cavalier when it comes to environmental stewardship.

There is much evidence to dispute the theory that only private businesses pollute. In the United States, we need look no further than our own government agencies. These public sector institutions, such as the Department of Defense (DOD), are among the worst offenders. DOD now generates more than 400,000 tons of hazardous waste a year — more than is produced by the five largest chemical companies combined. To make matters worse, the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the enforcement power over the public sector that it possesses over the private sector.

The lax situation uncovered by the General Accounting Office (GAO) at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma is typical of the way in which many Federal agencies respond to the EPA’s directives. “Although DOD policy calls for the military services to … implement EPA’s hazardous waste management regulations, we found that Tinker has been selling…waste oil, fuels, and solvents rather than recycling,” reported the GAO.

One of the world’s most poisonous spots lies about 10 miles northeast of Denver in the Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Nerve gas, mustard shells, the anti-crop spray TX, and incendiary devices have been dumped into pits there over the past 40 years. Dealing with only one “basin” of this dump cost $40 million. Six hundred thousand cubic yards of contaminated soil and sludge had to be scraped and entombed in a 16-acre, double-lined waste pile.

There are plenty of other examples of Defense Department facilities that need major cleanup. In fact, total costs of along-term Pentagon cleanup are hard to get a handle on. Some officials have conceded that the price tag could eventually exceed $20 billion.

Government-owned power plants are another example of public-sector pollution. These plants are a large source of sulfur dioxide emissions. The federal government’s Tennessee Valley Authority operates 59 coal-fired power plants in the Southeast, where it has had major legal confrontations with state governments who want the Federal agency to comply with state governments who want the Federal agency to comply with state environmental regulations. The TVA has fought the state governments for years over compliance with their clean air standards. It won a major Supreme Court victory when the Court ruled that, as a federal government enterprise, it could be exempt from environmental regulations with which private sector and local government power plants must comply.

Federal agricultural policy also has been a large source of pollution, in the past encouraging over utilization of land subject to erosion. Powerful farm lobbies have protected “non-point” sources of pollution from the heavy hand of regulation places on other private industries.

III. Policy Implications

These examples of environmental degradation throughout the world suggest some valuable lessons. First, it is not free enterprise per se that causes environmental harm; if so, the socialist world would be environmentally pristine.

The heart of the problem lies with the failure of our legal institutions, not the free enterprise system. Specifically, American laws were weakened more than a century ago by Progressive Era courts that believed economic progress was in the public interest and should therefore supersede individual rights.

The English common law tradition of the protection of private property rights — including the right to be free from pollution — was slowly overturned. In other words, many environmental problems are not caused by “market failure” but by government’s failure to enforce property rights. It is a travesty of justice when downstream residents, for example, cannot hold an upstream polluter responsible for damaging their properties. The common law tradition must be revived if we are to enjoy a healthy market economy and a cleaner environment. Potential polluters must know in advance that they will be held responsible for their actions.

The second lesson is that the plundering of the environment in the socialist world is a grand example of the tragedy of the commons. Under communal property ownership, where no one owns or is responsible for a natural resource, the inclination is for each individual to abuse or deplete the resource before someone else does. Common examples of this “tragedy” are how people litter public streets and parks much more than their own yards; private housing is much better maintained than public lands but maintain lush pastures on their own property; the national forests are carelessly over-logged, but private forests are carefully managed and reforested by lumber companies with “super trees”; and game fish are habitually overfished in public waterways but thrive in private lakes and streams. The tragedy of the commons is a lesson for those who believe that further nationalization and governmental control of natural resources is a solution to our environmental problems.

These two pillars of free enterprise — sound liability laws that hold people responsible for actions and the enforcement of private property rights — are important stepping stones to environmental protection.

ABOUT THOMAS J. DILORENZO

EDITORS NOTE: The featured image is courtesy of FEE and Shutterstock.