Friday, May 25, 2007

But I do know what "unconstitutionally vague" is.

As if we needed more proof that Democrats don't understand economics, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to combat so-called "price gouging" at the gas pump.

Laws prohibiting taking undue advantage of lifeboat situations, e.g. charging someone about to die of thirst a million dollars for water, are something virtually everyone except Walter Block (famed defender of the undefendable) could see as acceptable were such practices to become a problem. Their absence from the books is a sign that inherent rarity, market forces, common decency, charity, and the protection bankruptcy gives against debt slavery combine to make the one case that even a liberal like myself would restrict more of an academic question than a real-world concern.

Outside of the lifeboat context, however, I don't know what price gouging is. But I do know that this new law is either toothless or unconstituionally vague. (Never mind, ad argumentum whether a gas station's sale to someone at the pump is an act of interstate commerce.) Let's take a closer look.

HR 1252 makes it unlawful to sell gasoline, during a declared emergency, at a price that is "unconscionably excessive" and "indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage of the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably." Whether a price falls into this category will be determined by some unspecified mix of factors, necessarily including, "among other factors", four listed criteria:

(A) whether the amount charged by such person for the applicable gasoline or other petroleum distillate at a particular location in an area covered by a proclamation issued under paragraph (2) during the period such proclamation is in effect--

(i) grossly exceeds the average price at which the applicable gasoline or other petroleum distillate was offered for sale by that person←→ during preceding the 30 days prior to such proclamation;

(ii) grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar gasoline or other petroleum distillate was readily by other purchasers obtainable in the same area from other competing sellers during the same period;

(iii) reasonably reflected additional costs, not within the control of that person, that were paid, incurred, or reasonably anticipated by that person, or reflected additional risks taken by that person to produce, distribute, obtain, or sell such product under the circumstances; and

(iv) was substantially attributable to local, regional, national, or international market conditions; and

If the "other factors" provision doesn't do this one in, Constitutionally, all by itself, (i-iv) in conjunction kill it. (i) says the price must be high due to the disaster. Big deal. Why the bill's sponsors didn't realize that implicit in (ii) is the reason--near absence of true geographic monopoly in the retail gas market is beyond me, although (iii) provides a clue. It's a leftist's understanding of the proper circumstances under which to raise prices. Forget supply and demand--forget that, especially for commodities such as gasoline, replacement costs set the price--cost-plus is the justification for social democrats baffled by the prestidigitation of the invisible hand.

It is (iv) which unravels all of this, as whether or not the price was increased due to market conditions must also be taken into account. Assuming that gas retailers and wholesalers will act reasonably in their own interest in the market, it's hard to imagine prices going up above a level justified by market conditions. That is, assuming that mainstream economic science is used to determine whether or not the price level is attributable to market conditions.

If physics were treated with as much disregard as economics, we'd see headlines in CNN Money saying, about some bill, that "critics say the Department of Energy's plan violates conservation laws." As Jeff Jacoby patiently explained to the readers of the Boston Globe, prices go up during a disaster for the same reasons as they would in normal circumstances. The supply chain gets constricted or broken, demand subsequently increases, merchants see their wares get scarce, and raise the price as a result, so they don't run out of things to sell. The result is in the public interest, as it means people think twice before buying--cutting down on hoarding and frivolous use and inducing hoarders to sell--and sends a signal to outsiders that profit is to be made by delivering more. The same laws of economic science apply to shortages of gasoline and microchips.

If (iv) is not determined by mainstream economics, or if in practice the four criteria above aren't treated as each being necessary, then the law does have some teeth, in that it will provide a few gas stations or oil companies a headache until, much taxpayer money spent on legal defense later, it's proven unconstitutionally vague. Given precedent, that result is the one certainty that applies to HR 1252.

Millions in defense of clearly unconstitutional law is too high a price to pay for mere political posturing. Let's hope the Senate kills this one. And would that Congress went (prudently) after the real market-manipulating culprits instead!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's easy to be an Internet gadfly:

Just write something spontaneously for someone else's website and hope for the best.

It's what I did, making the case for a Paul-Giuliani policy debate over at Rational Review.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Understanding Libertarian Party reform and the Libertarian Reform Caucus

Back in 1974 (a long time ago; way before my time and long enough ago that it looked as though the political party founded in Dave Nolan's living room might actually gain some traction) the Libertarian Party in convention formally welcomed anarchists into its ranks in what became known, bombastically, as the "Dallas Accord".

The Dallas Accord was an agreement that the Libertarian Party not take any official stance on whether or not government ought to exist. (I used to be able to find the associated declaration on the Web; if you know where it's at, send me an e-mail.) In principle, it was entirely sensible; political gains are won through coalition-building, not attrition and group polarization. Anarchists, who believe that civil society ought to and could, given time and inducement, totally take over the functions of the State, share, by definition, so long as the State exists, political goals with liberal minarchists who believe that the role of the State should be diminished and that of civil society increased.

Similarly, the character of liberal minarchists is such that they believe that the State should exist only in such a capacity that it liberates; they do not value government as an end in itself. Thus the two groups, treated as hypotheticals, not only share common goals, but also have compatible values.

If matters were that simple, there'd be no need for a Libertarian Reform Caucus. History, however, conspired to do away with both the common values and the common cause. Perhaps most damningly, failure to make significant gains in over three decades of election cycles, and resulting attrition, rendered the LP vulnerable to subversion by those who'd rather evangelize for pop "philosophy" than move public policy in a more liberal direction.

Murray Rothbard's destructive romp through the Party, didn't help. If nothing else, Rothbard had a Leninist conception of politics, believing that the best way to effect change was to maintain a vanguard party adhering to an ideological plumb line defined by--no surprise here--Rothbard himself. (Rothbard also seemed to belive that revolution is morally necessary, even if it brings one back to square one.) What Rothbard didn't understand is that vanguards become effective by attracting thugs to their side in a state of social chaos, and that they tend to achieve little in a representative system of government.

Exacerbated by the Randist/Objectivist influence on the libertarian movement, which brought with it a poisonous mix of the Continental obsession with consistency and the dubious sin of "sanction", Rothbard's vanguardism didn't achieve anything in the political sphere, but it did bring a thugishness to the LP. The "nonaggression principle", "zero aggression principle", or "non-initiation of force principle" preciptated a moralistic nihilism. The sort of anarchism-of-the-possible that is compatible with the Dallas Accord was ovewhelmed by an anarchism driven by the belief that the State was evil. For example: to those who, like Rothbard, retained a folk belief in preinstitutional property rights (a concept on the ash heap of serious philosophy), taxation is theft! Not a possible means to theft, and not something that deserves much contemplation due to its coercive nature, but an absolute moral wrong.

Not only, then, were the minarchists, regardless of how well-read or well-grounded in serious political philosophy, adding noise to the vanguard's evangelical efforts, but they were advocates of evil, too, subject to obnoxious "internal education" efforts, exclusion where possible from positions of leadership in the Party, and, worse still, backstabbing. The Party's nihilists do their best to persuade others than minarchist candidates, or even anarchist candidates running on incrementalist Platforms, aren't worthy of support, because they advocate evil or the continuation of evil. By 1996, the year I joined the Party as a wide-eyed teenager, the Party's official documents, with the exception of the LP News, were explicitly anarchist, and efforts to bring them into line with the Dallas Accord were and are treated like advocacy of rape and robbery. Forget what Tullock had to say in The Politics of Persuasion; one must not advocate for anything less than the utopian ideal!

Honesty demands that I note that this was not true everywhere, and that some local Libertarian Parties avoided this tendency and even achieved moderate electoral success, albeit with the national Platform and reputation as twin anchors tied to the neck. I merely describe the general climate of the LP, and it was is in this climate that, fed up with the miserable failure of vanguardism to so much as move the Overton Window in a libertarian direction, let alone get libertarians elected to public office, that calls for radical reform of the Libertarian Party began springing up, starting, most notably, with Gene Trosper's Libertarian Mainstream Caucus, and terminating solidly in the Libertarian Reform Caucus.

Libertarians tend to fancy themselves as being smarter than the general population and ahead of the curve on many issues, but the general response to reform, nearly impossible to separate from the dishonest caricatures of the vanguardists, has revealed that they tend to be confused about the nature of politics and hence of the reformers' goals.

Jacob Hornberger infamously described calls for candidates to run on realistic platforms and advocate real-world solutions as compromise and concealment and declared such efforts the "road to defeat." (Hornberger may also have been writing in response to Michael Emerling Cloud's "Essence of Political Pesuasion" tapes, which called for responsible but perhaps slick communication of libertarian policies and values, but I digress...) Hornberger's errors, characteristic of the common misconceptions, were twofold. Compromise is not pre-concession of defeat; compromise is something one does to achieve gains when actually at the decision-makers' table. It does not properly describe acting intelligently to get a seat at that table. Running for office on a platform of real-world solutions and not utopian speculations, thinking about how to get from point A to point B in a socially responsible fashion, and not leading the voter to think you care more about your ideas than the general welfare, none of that is compromise and none of that is defeatist.

Likewise, Hornberger accuses reformers of calling for dishonest "concealment". Asking that candidates not talk about irrelevancies is not the same as asking that they hide something like a skeleton in the closet. When the total end to taxation isn't even within the Overton Window, it's about as relevant as the color of the candidate's underwear. That a candidate doesn't discuss the shade of his skivvies doesn't render him a liar, and neither does his choice to discuss policies, not fantasies. Hornberger goes on, in a strange inversion, to accuse incrementalists of dealing solely in vague generalities. The last time I checked, "there should be no government" is vague with respect to what a candidate will do in his term of office, whereas incrementalism requires a plan: privatize this, cut the budget of that, pass X law and repeal Y and Z. If anything, the former could be honestly mistook for concealment, albeit of the blundering kind.

Carl Milsted, the LRC's organizer and de facto spokesperson, recently published an essay, calling, provocatively, for an end to the "Party of Principle", thus feeding the same old misconception that drove Hornberger. Contrary to the common confusion, Milsted is not advocating that libertarians wrap their principles in tin-foil and stick them in the freezer for use at a later date. He is advocating an end to vanguardism, adoption of a big tent policy, to wit, a Party that is "a diverse coalition of somewhat similar interests".

This is not too different, albeit more explicitly broad, than what anarchist T.L. Knapp called for back in 2003: a new Dallas Accord. Granted, Milsted launches a salvo against anarchism, but reading carefully it's only against the anarcho-nihilism of the vanguardists. By pointing out the moral failings of the smash-the-state, government-is-evil crowd, Milsted dispels the illusion that they hold the ethical and philosohpical high ground, and that incrementalists and pragmatists believe the same as they do. There are times when regard for human welfare and liberty demands incrementalism.

There's room in Milsted's tent for anarchists-of-the-possible, like Knapp (and Dave Bergland and Harry Browne!) who recognize the common goal. There's even room, I would guess, for the previously linked Mike Renzulli, if he rejects smash-the-state zero-aggression dualism for a more principled and nuanced view. As a reformer, the Libertarian tent as I see it is open to all who support using the political process to effect liberalization, regardless of their position on the ultimate compatibility of real human freedom and a stateless society. For those whose beliefs prohibit the use of the political process, including those who make the perfect the enemy of the good, and for the old vanguardists, who view most other libertarians as advocates of evil, the door is closed. There's room in my tent for Milsted and I suspect room for me in his despite differing opinions on use of military force.

Milsted is damn right: a tiny Party with a history of being effete makes it look as though only a few people want liberty. I'll add to that: the LP's dominance by cranks and their followers makes liberty seem nutty! If Milsted goes wrong anywhere in that essay, it's perhaps in his conviction that making over the LP is preferable to starting a new Party. (I stick around, grudgingly, for lack of better options.) Even if the LRC succeeds in 2008, I suspect we'll find that the Libertarian Party is long past its shelf life. Its name is mud and prospects of luring back the silent majority of libertarians, who read Reason or contribute to the Cato Institute but won't touch the LP with a ten foot pole are dim. Better to forget about our sweat equity, cut our losses, leave the thugs, bullies, and dimwits the Party they ruined and to start with a clean slate.

There are legitimate places for disputes between the various flavors of libertarianism: academia, think-tanks, weblogs, and magazines. And discussing philosophy with people met through politics, whether for fun or for persuasion, can be done constructively. There is always a place for introducing a young Objectivist to serious analytic philosohpy before A is A, existence exists, qua qua qua stunts his intellectual development. There is always a place for passing around economics or philosophy tracts to empower candidates and activists in their efforts, and arming one's self against the Rothbardian dualists with Nozick, Epstein, and the like is a virtual necessity. It is only vanguardism, the notion that it is not enough within a Party to share and advocate for common, immediate policy goals, that must go.

In Milsted's words:

"I am not a libertarian in order to promote a simplistic, impractical and inhumane philosophy. I am a libertarian because I love liberty...building the party around one narrow principle results in a tiny party...a party of principle is a joke, and it's the statists who are doing the laughing."

Yes, let's have a new Dallas Accord: Lovers of liberty, unite!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

So, Ron Paul's supporters aren't stuffing boxes...

...they're merely participating at a high rate in unscientifc polls. Thanks go to Dan Fitzgerald of the Libertarian Freedom Council for setting me straight on this one.

To quote:

Well, on the charge that we "stuffed polls"...

Prior to the May 3 debate, Dr. Paul's numbers were:

Neutral :44%
Approve : 9%
total votes for all candidates: 73,180

Afterwards, he went from 9th to 1st:

Neutral :34%
Approve :42%
total votes for all candidates: 90,100

Now, we're just not that sophisticated or organized. If we could've pumped him up that much, we would have done so in both the "before" and after. I voted in both, once each.

In the SC debate, he started out better: to be expected, if he gained some traction from the first debate:

Neutral :32%
Approve :27%
total votes for all candidates: 4,894

After (12:41 am EST)

Neutral :17%
Approve :65%
total votes for all candidates: 6,224

So, this time his negatives dropped by 23 points, and his positives went up by 38 points.

The mechanism MSNBC used was only one vote per IP address. This is certainly defeatable, but to get the numbers to break this way would have taken a lot of foresight, and either massive collaboration or a single hacker with the ability to send votes from thousands of different IP addresses - tens of thousands in the first set of votes.

I noticed that early in the post-debate voting on the second night, at 10:48, the numbers were:

total votes for all candidates: 991

With a slow, slight deterioration through the night.

So, Dr. Paul's spammers are technologically superior to the supporters for all of the other campaigns, and are also just incredibly patient. Instead of flooding the poll, they kept it at a trickle throughout the night, keeping pace throughout.

Also, we saw Dr. Paul winning the "text message" poll until a late surge by Romney, who won by a % or two. Simply, we couldn't have hacked that one, unless we were out there mugging people and stealing their cell phones, which would undoubtedly, unlike Dr. Paul's successes, been widely reported.

So, no, not a "scientific" poll, but Zogby still isn't including Dr. Paul in their polls, and Rasmussen is reporting that Dr. Paul hasn't gained any traction since the first debate, based upon their polling from April 10-12.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Giuliani's Pyrrhic victory

I'm no Ron Paul fan. He's a conspiracist crank, an economic Austrian, the most ineffectual multi-term Congressman in recent memory, and perhaps a racist, too. Add to that his supporters' obnoxious tendency to infer victory from stuffed Internet polls, and we have a man who this dyed-in-the-wool, Nozick-reading, third-party-voting, ACLU card-carrying classical liberal considers more of a shame than a credit to his end of the political spectrum.

But reports that he handed victory in the second "debate" among the contenders for the Republican nomination for President to Rudy Giuliani are premature. Giuliani may have gotten the best possible knee-jerk response, but on reflection he's being taken more and more for, well, an idiot, an empty-headed reactionary.

Credit goes to Paul for staying on message, for stuffing the nuttery in the closet, and for making it obvious to us all that having been Mayor of New York City on 11 Sept 2001 is no substitute for having read the 9/11 commission report. And the credit is coming in. CNN commentator and former Chicago Defender editor Roland Martin took it on himself to flesh out Paul's argument and nail Giuliani with a haymaker. To quote: "First, Giuliani must be an idiot to not have heard Paul's rationale before. That issue has been raised countless times in the last six years by any number of experts."

Now Pat Buchanan has entered the fray, too, taking the Republican Party to task over rejecting Paul's message. Republican dissent is now in the open and mainstream. Thanks to Paul, the problem can't be ignored, and Rudy for his part made it clear just how stupid the hawks' reasoning has been.

Worst case: The Republicans lose because of this and we end up with a social-democratic disaster under Obama or Edwards.

Mediocre case: The Republicans nominate a "moderate" and beat the Democrats, giving us gridlock and maybe some domestic policy reform.

Best case: The Republican mix gets shaken up, with America's favorite authoritarian and seething hawk McCain off the table as well as Giuliani. Romney gets some book learnin' about the conflict. The Democrats get fed up with slogans and waffling and push the knowledgeable and nuanced Bill Richardson to the fore. We end up with two acceptable choices plus perhaps a reasonable, respectable Libertarian for a change.

A man can dream, right? It's clear that Giuliani opened Pandora's box. What's inside remains to be seen.

Friday, May 4, 2007

America's least compelling platform.

Somehow I've ended up on the contact list of an organization--or individual--billing itself as Americans for a Free Republic, dedicated to, well, read it for yourself:

Like a modern day Cyclops with one eye and a stunted brain, our Federal Government in America grows fatter and fatter every decade as it corrupts the forces of freedom and the soundness of our money. Grunting and belching, regimenting and taxing, spending and consuming with the abandon of a drunken Caesar, this gargantuan beast has, in the span of 90 years, transformed a once productive marvel and manufacturing leader of the world into a decadent debtor nation hell-bent to follow Rome into the dustbin of history.

The two levers of power that have allowed Gargantua to grow into such a beast were given to it in 1913 with the enactment of the Federal Reserve banking system and the progressive income tax. These two institutions ushered in the two evils of modern day politics: 1) fiat money, and 2) confiscatory taxation. In doing so, they destroyed the idea of "limited government" that the Founders had given us in 1787. This was the death knell of our free republic. With the ability to indiscriminately print money and to confiscate our personal incomes, the Federal Government has been able to grow exponentially over the past century -- well beyond the strictly constrained power that the Founding Fathers intended it to be.

I think all libertarians and free-market conservatives agree that if we are to stop this travesty of tyrannization over our lives, we must challenge the two institutions that give Gargantua its power to grow unabated. We must mount a powerful political attack upon the policies of FIAT MONEY and PROGRESSIVE TAXATION.

Educating the populace about fiat money and the income tax through conventional means, however, is an extremely laborious process, and our problem today is that America is running out of time. A serious crash of our economy is looming up ahead as three major crises descend upon us: 1) the massive build up of government and private debt, 2) the bankruptcy of the social security and medicare systems, and 3) peak oil. Within the next 10 years, these crises are going to be plowing through our society like mack trucks tearing through a flower garden...

In other words, it's a party for types who fancy themselves "libertarian" but always want to talk about money and taxes.

"Executive Director" Hultberg's idea is that a third party formed around a two-plank platform of flat taxation and commodity money will succeed where the Reform Party and the Libertarian Party (with which I'm affiliated, perhaps grudgingly) failed. He goes on to provide an argument for that, based more on fancy than on observation of either group's failure modes, a prime example of what Mencken would call "simple, elegant, and wrong."

What Hultberg misses, as a matter of course, is that it is very difficult, and perhaps practically impossible, to build a grassroots third party at the Federal level, given the "wasted vote" fallacy and the first-past-the-post voting system. The mechanism is, of course, apparent: elect candidates to local and regional office (something to which many LP libertarians are outright averse...), but Hultberg's platform doesn't even apply to local issues!

Accepting, argumentum, the thesis that a two-plank party would fare better, we should ask whether these are well-chosen planks. The answer is a firm "no".

Not only does nobody care, there's no real reason for them to do so. The Social Security demographic crisis is real, but neither flat tax rates nor commodity money fix the problem. At best, the latter prevents the government from inflating its debts away. "Peak oil" is not a crisis, and those who talk of it as such are usually either dolts, cranks, or charlatans. (Justifying radicalism with economic hypochondria is, by the way, both not uncommon and usually wrongheaded.) Hultberg seems to understand a little something about economics, even if his views are unorthodox, so I'd put him in one of the latter categories.

His take on progressive taxation lands him firmly in "crank" territory. Adoption of a flat tax would surely simplify our overly complicated tax code, but it wouldn't necessitate or even provide any strong incentive for reduction of the Federal government's size or scope. The claim that such a tax is unconstitutional is absurd. (I challenge anyone to prove me wrong by winning in court.) Far from taxing different people at different rates, it instead taxes the first fraction of one's income at one rate, the second fraction at another, and so on. As this applies equally to everyone, it's far from the class legislation Hultberg claims it to be; one would expect someone who cares so much about the issue to understand that and to refrain from such wild statements!

The fallacies of pseudolibertarian cranks are almost predictible. Going on about "rights" and "privileges" is a common pastime of that crowd, and in a similar vein one hears talk about (e.g.) property not "really being yours" if it is taxed. Hultberg provides us what should be a classic example:

America is based upon each citizen's equal and inalienable right to life, liberty and property. How else does one preserve his life, enjoy his liberty and maintain his property than through the production and the consumption of his own income? If the State can take an arbitrary and unequal percentage of our income because 51% of the people deem it desirable, then we don't have much of a right to the use and disposal of our property, do we? We have only the permission for that use and disposal, and then only so long as we dutifully serve the reigning mobocracy in the manner it deems desirable.

Yep, you read it right: Progressive taxation is servitude. Again letting the stupidity slide for the sake of argument, how would a flat tax be better?

With absurd views of what constitutes both problems and their respective solutions, it's doubtful that Hultberg/AFR will gain traction. The cynic in me considers them a valuable addition to the political landscape; the Libertarian Party could use a honey trap for tax protestors!