Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Citizens United v. FEC

A brief summary:

How it used to be: Corporations and unions were barred from broadcasting ads designed to affect an election outcomes. It was illegal for such an entity to run an ad that saying, "Defeat Candidate X." These regulations were in place under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (or the McCain-Feingold Act).

How it is: Now, it’s legal. Companies, unions, and independent organizations can legally advertise for or against a federal candidate during election season, including the final days before an election.

Notes: There are still limits on what such institutions are permitted to contribute to a candidate directly. Also, all contributions (and presumably expenditures) must be documented and donors identified. There is still a universe of rules and mandates that regulate every aspect political activity (Take it from someone who has run for office; if you want to spend or accept any appreciable amount of money for campaigning, there are enough rules to follow, backed up by the threat of fines and imprisonment, to make your head spin. Ultimately, such laws do restrict the little guy more than they restrict the people whose behavior they're intended to regulate, but that's an argument for a different post).

Now there’s this outcry about how corporate interests are going to decide elections and unions are going to appoint who gets into office because of all their newly granted influence, etc. I won’t deny that this does give more power to groups of organized individuals, so there’s truth to that allegation. But I’m not blown away by it. Maybe I’m not alarmed as much because I honestly never knew electioneering regulations were really that restricted to begin with. I had just assumed that politicians were elected in large part by the special interests they serve, regardless of how they’re legally allowed to advertise. Is there anyone out there who seriously believes the whole election process isn’t pretty much a complete sham anyway? Is it really substantially any more corrupt now than it was before Citizens United v. FEC?

Love it or hate it, the "speech" of a corporation or a union (which are groups of individuals) is just as guaranteed under the first amendment as is the speech of any individual. Whether it’s going to flood the airwaves with more ads or tip an election in favor of someone is irrelevant. That very behavior, in fact, is a completely predictable consequence of freedom of expression. People with money will use it how they want. For whatever reason, you may not like the fact that an organized group can pool its resources and campaign against someone. But you should at least be happy that the same protection afforded them is afforded to you. Technically.

The worst part of this decision is that it distracts from the real problem, which is the immense power politicians have to abuse in the first place. This is the heart of the issue that nobody ever mentions and seemingly nobody puts their finger on. There is nothing inherently wrong with organized groups of people getting together, pooling their resources, and using them to campaign for or against a candidate as hard as they can. Nothing. Whether it’s you, me, your local teamsters, NJEA, SEIU, Exxon, or Walmart. Go ahead, this is America. What’s wrong is the fact that the politicians, once elected, are able to wield the power of the law to politically help their donors/friends and punish their enemies.

That is the real problem, and the only solution is to bar the government of the power to make or break people or industries in such a manner. So long as we have a government that is in a position to hand out favors to begin with, we will always have people down here in the trenches like you and me getting together and fighting for their piece of the pie with all the resources at their disposal. Really, it’s no different from anything else. No set of mere campaign finance laws, no matter how restrictive, will ever effectively stop organizations from getting what they want out of the people in government who call the shots. The best that strict campaign finance laws really offer us is the illusion of honesty and fairness in politics. Don’t fall for it.

Free speech is constitutional, and federal abuse of power is unconstitutional. Disregarding the former does not put us on the path to fixing the latter. Whenever we ignore our founding documents, we do so at our own peril.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Conservative or Liberal?

There are many issues that face voters and politicians. If we consider the whole gamut deeply enough, relatively few issues are 100% black and white. For example, even something seemingly as simple as abortion can have degrees. You’re either pro-life or you’re pro-choice. Or maybe you’re pro-life, except in certain cases. Then the issue branches out in other directions- maybe healthcare plans should pay for abortions. Then again, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe it’s okay sometimes.

There are different degrees of attitudes towards many things, in spite of the fact that people like to attach labels to things to portray them as good or evil. But two terms I hear thrown around the most are conservative and liberal. Which one are you? Maybe there are varying degrees of conservative and liberal, but basically you fall into one of two camps, right? The good guys, and the bad. Us, and Them.

I have a confession: I have little more than a vague notion of what either of these words really mean. They seem to mean different things to different people. When words begin to lack their descriptive power, is it really wise to use them? The thing that bothers me is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what people consider conservative or liberal. To me, "conservative" is a synonym for Republican, and liberal is a synonym for Democrat. That’s the meaning I generally come away with.

According to the dictionary, neither word adequately describes any political philosophy that I’ve ever heard of. It sounds more to me that someone’s personal opinions were just collected and simply branded "conservative," with the implication that its opposite would be "liberal." Silly as they might be, they’re catchy. Just another tool designed to divide people politically and distract them from what really matters- people thinking for themselves.

Another funny thing is that people who identify with one camp usually claim I’m from the other. I hate war and I’m very socially tolerant, so I must be a pinheaded liberal. Then again, I don’t believe in the state redistributing wealth, and I’m in favor of the people arming themselves for self-defense, so I must get all my news from Fox. Right? Well, which is it?

I’ll tell you which it is. It’s neither. When I look at an issue, I’m not thinking, "What would a conservative think about this?" I’m not asking myself where a conservative would stand on issue X, or what a liberal would probably think about issue Y. I don’t file my perspectives under conservative and liberal, but rather government involvement or not. To me, that is a much better metric to use to decide where to stand on something. Moreover, it’s actually descriptive. Is this a job for the government, or not? Is this something best left in the hands of politicians, or not? Do you want government, or do you want freedom?

That is the real issue, but no political party will cop to that. Either someone thinks it proper to use government in a certain situation, or he does not. That’s the litmus test. In a political context, the words conservative and liberal have turned into catchy titles used to deceive people into identifying with a political party’s platform. Unless so many people just so happen to have all the exact same viewpoints in common with no coaching.

I mean no disrespect to the millions who label themselves as conservatives or liberals. Everyone’s entitled to her opinion. But if I have to be labeled as anything, I prefer not to be branded as conservative or liberal, but pro-freedom.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Brown Wins!

So, last night a Republican took the Senate seat from the Democrats in Massachusetts. A Republican hasn't held that seat in thirty years. Facebook is abuzz with celebrations, and I'm constantly reading messages about the victory and how the "tide is turning." There are two positives I'm hearing about. One is that Brown's vote is enough to derail Obamacare, and the other is that the Republicans are making a comeback. I know this will rub a lot of people the wrong way, but I honestly don't see what all the fuss is about. To me, the Obamacare issue notwithstanding, Scott Brown is just another big government person who has been elected to office. His victory is a signal that change is possible, not that it has arrived. Forgive my skepticism, but referring to this as some sort of new sunrise for the nation is a stretch.

First, I'm not that hyped about the Republican comeback or the fact that this is a sign the Democrats are probably going to lose the majority in November. Really. I've lived through a time when the Republican party controlled the legislative and the executive, and it wasn't exactly the rebirth of the Jeffersonian era. Government still grew. Unless our new lawmakers are going to be faithful to their commitment to smaller government and their sworn oath as federal legislators, it makes little difference to me who's running the show. I don't want a Republican comeback; I want a Constitutional comeback. That is when I will start celebrating.

Second, while it is true that Brown may well be the final nail in the coffin for Obamacare (for which I am grateful), that is where the victory parade stops. Blocking an unconstitutional federal mandate is the least I expect of any senator elected to office. Yes, it's a major issue. But the Fed and the income tax (and some might argue the War on Terror) are both at least as serious. Healthcare wouldn't even be on the table if the government weren't in a position to loot us through the power to tax and inflate.

Third, the tea party movement backing Brown was a disappointment. I don't know the situation completely, but I was always under the impression that the tea party people wanted real limited government- not merely "better than the worst" government. Hearing the tea parties were behind Brown opened my eyes to the fact that maybe it's all just the same old political BS dressed up as a revolutionary grassroots movement. I hope I'm wrong and that they supported Brown because of the un-electability of Joe Kennedy. Don't get me wrong, I had no illusions about Kennedy winning. But there's a difference between truly endorsing someone and endorsing someone because there's no viable alternative. I wasn't there, so I don't know, but I'm hoping this time it was the latter (sick of the latter as I've become).

Come November, I hope freedom-loving Americans recognize yesterday's election's outcome for what it was, and don't take their eyes off the ball because of it. I hope they realize that less government, not different government is the answer, and that they're not somehow hijacked and led astray because of some political organization's self-serving agenda. I hope they maintain a healthy distrust of politicians and power, and that they don't mistake mere bumps in the road to liberty for the leaders they're seeking. Most of all, I hope they have the wisdom to recognize and outright reject their own party's plan for big government when it comes down the pike.

Still, having said that, it was nice to see another pillar of the Democrat structure crumble.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On the foiled terror plot and airport security

After the news of the latest foiled airline terror plot, everybody has been up in arms over how lax security is and how much more we need. Now, I hear about full body scanners across the board, patdowns of all passengers, mandatory racial profiling, air marshals on every flight, and wait times on the order of hours. This sounds less like a free country every time I turn on the news.

People have been quick to criticize the government about its failure to detect the threat- and rightly so. Warning signs were ignored, and the existing regulations didn't catch the bomber before he boarded the plane. This much is true. The irony is that the solutions everybody is looking for all involve calls for more government security. People don't realize they're demanding better results from the very entities whose failure is still fresh in their minds. They don't realize they're demanding the impossible.

I understand how fears are renewed when something like this happens. But even in light of all the uproar about how much more needs to be done to step up security, I disagree. I argue that less needs to be done- not more.

The people on board the flight were the ones who foiled the terror plot. This happened not because of safety regulations, but in spite of them. If similar plots are going to be foiled, it will be the people acting to defend themselves from terrorism who will get the job done, not any government stepping up airport screening. To those on flight 253, the fear of being blown up turned out to be more useful than the TSA.

There is a lesson in this. Everybody (not just Americans) needs to understand the best we can do to counter terrorism (among other things) is to recognize that our safety is ultimately our own responsibility. It's not an exaggeration to say that when we rely on the TSA to keep us safe, we put our lives in the hands of the same people who run the motor vehicle inspection stations.

Whoever said eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom knew what he was talking about. The greatest deterrent to a possible terrorist will be knowing that, upon boarding a plane, there will be a hundred wide-eyed people all too ready to get up and put a stop to any suspicious activity that might jeopardize their lives. After all, as a terrorist, which cabin would you rather attempt to blow up? The one where everyone takes his safety for granted after getting through airport screening, or the one filled with people alert enough to be on the lookout for guys like you?

The demands for tighter airline security from the government is a symptom of a much deeper issue. That issue is the attitude towards the role of government and, moreover, its duty and capacity to protect us. The best the government can do to curb terrorism is to strike at the root of the problem, namely to dramatically reduce its role in foreign affairs. Such is not only a legitimate function of government, but also something we as citizens haven't the power to do for ourselves. Notice once again that the solution is less government, not more.

I would even go so far as to say that if there were an airline that actually boasted it "lacked security" beyond the basics like metal detectors and sober pilots (which I expect from any airline), it would be more safe to fly than the airlines with the tightest of TSA security regulations (not to mention cheaper and more convenient). What kind of people would ever fly such an airline? Not the foolhardy and the suicidal so much as the watchful and the free. Knowing what kinds of people are really out there and being mindful of the risks involved when getting on an airplane are much more effective than having to remove our shoes.

I want safety as much as anyone else. The difference is that I know what it means to truly be safe. An ongoing tragedy that still goes largely unnoticed is our failure to understand that like so much else, safety without responsibility is an illusion. It's a reckless mistake to give the government carte blanche to "do whatever it takes" with any issue at all (our safety included). Because it doesn't have what it takes. The truth is that only a free society has what it takes- something our founding generation knew, but which we have perilously forgotten. All the government has is a growing list of responsibilities we are learning to surrender to it. And with each one it gets, we march one more step in the direction of not only a less free, but a less safe, America.