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Wrong Term for the Welfare State

It’s a small thing, perhaps, but indicative of the wrong attitude held by supporters of big, nanny government, that Alisha Pina, of the Providence Journal, used the word that I’ve italicized in the following quotation in her article today, about a conference at which Rhode Island’s Department of Human Services touted its efforts to make it easier to hand out taxpayer money:

The department plans to roll out the changes in its five other offices over the next few months.

A new customer-focused system, says Powell, will also debut in September. Applicants will then have a unique PIN and password with which to look at their benefits information and change phone numbers or addresses without having to contact a caseworker.

There are 176,146 individuals getting SNAP assistance and 13,586 residents getting cash assistance — previously referred to as welfare — from the state as of July, said Michael Jolin, Department of Human Services spokesman.

A quick check of Merriam-Webster confirms that the word, “customer,” means “one that purchases a commodity or service.”  Beneficiaries of government hand-outs are not purchasing anything in that transaction.  If anybody is a “customer” of this system, it’s the taxpayer who buys his or her way out of personal responsibility for helping people in the community who are facing tough times.

There’s no shame in using what means are available to support one’s family (if that’s the intention), and it’s understandable, at least, that activists in this day and age would find it appropriate to confiscate money from other people (whose problems they can’t see) in order to give it to people in need (whose problems they can see).  Be empathy what it may, however, we shouldn’t lose the distinction between purchasing and collecting.

Unless, that is, the bureaucrats and journalists intend to suggest that the beneficiaries have purchased the hand-outs with their votes.

When the Future Can Pay for Your Business Model

The federal government’s deus ex machina act with HealthSource RI is as good an example as any of how government shouldn’t (but inevitably will) behave.  There was a little bit less than the preferred 100% certainty that the state would allocate money for its experiment in health broker entreneurialism during the last session of the state General Assembly, and the administration of big brother Obama swooped in with the cash to keep the Web site going for another year.

It wasn’t supposed to do so, under the written word of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), and the state wasn’t supposed to accept it, under the written word of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s executive order creating the health benefits exchange.  But what’s the rule of law and twenty-something million dollars compared with giving government agents the opportunity to experiment with a new business model?

If the U.S. Congress and the governor have to say one thing in order to get their big-government policies implemented and then ignore the specifics when they become inconvenient, and if more imaginary money has to be pushed to the resulting agencies, that’s just the price of trying to solve all of our problems via the political system.

The combined activities of Americas local, state, and federal governments now cost more per American household than the median American household brings home in income.  The federal debt is now higher than the national GDP.  In Rhode Island, the state government is suffering the consequences of its need to fill budget gap with one-time fixes and a ratcheting squeeze on residents, who are choosing to leave.

Last week, I checked in with HealthSource RI.  After the open enrollment period ended in March, the agency had 27,961 enrolled individuals, with 21,097 having paid.  By the end of April, 25,767 had paid.  As of August 2, HealthSource counted 26,686 enrollees and 25,892 people paid up.

The federal government, in other words, gave nearly $1,000 per enrollee just for the exchange’s operating costs.  That doesn’t include the subsidies that 85-90% of the enrollees are receiving.

It takes a little bit of education and imagination to see the consequences of this behavior.  All that money comes from somewhere, and by the looks of the recent trends, it isn’t the much-vilified One Percent.  Not being able to trust that the deal that politicians make actually means what they say it means when they first say it has consequences, too.

It may be the perfect crime, though.  As the machine works its destruction, those whom it kills and those from whom it steals can’t easily see who’s to blame.

Judicial Objectivity When Politics Is a Job

Honestly, I’m torn about this one, although it brings me back around to the same place as much political news:

A federal magistrate judge has granted the city’s bid to delay Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ questioning under oath in a lawsuit involving changes to the retirement system until after the upcoming primary election for candidates for governor.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Lincoln D. Almond late Tuesday granted the city’s emergency motion for a protective order to postpone Taveras’ deposition in the city’s lawsuit against its former actuarial firm, Buck Consultants LLC, until after the Sept. 9 primary. Almond found, without further explanation, that the city had shown good cause to delay Taveras’ questioning and to limit it to three hours.

On its surface, this looks like further evidence supporting the common wisdom that, if you’ve got a lawsuit involving political insiders in Rhode Island, you’re best off getting  it in a federal court.  On the other hand, if the mayor weren’t the mayor, but something else, and was requesting a brief delay of judicial proceedings to the other side of a major work project on which his career hinged, that would seem reasonable in a case with no major urgency.

Of course, the mayor is the mayor, and it’s difficult not to conclude that he’s worried about the ways in which his testimony (and the opposition lawyers’ spin of it, amplified by other candidates for the office he’s seeking).  In that regard, it’s a question of transparency.  After all, his administration brought the lawsuit.

And if it’s a matter of the time preparation for the deposition will require, we shouldn’t accept the notion that government must stop operating because people in office are bucking for a promotion.

At the end of the analysis, put this one on the stack of arguments against fostering a government environment in which politics is a career.  If public office were in fact — as politicians like to claim — a question of service, then the argument for delaying the deposition pretty much evaporates.

Reevaluating the Wisdom of a Constitutional Convention

I don’t know if I’ve written about it anywhere, but privately, I’ve expressed wariness of a constitutional convention.  It has seemed to me that opening up the constitution at a time when the power of opposition voices has managed to fade beyond what seemed an impossible whisper is to risk a final roll.  Partly by virtue of working on the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s initial analysis of the convention, and partly owing to the growing vehemence with which people are advising each other to leave the state, I’m starting to reevaluate.

As the conclusion of the Center’s analysis says:

Although it often depends whether or not they have the advantage in a given circumstance, activists on both the left and the right see the risk of direct democracy as a general principle on which to base government.  However, for some issues, and at some points in history, letting the people make final decisions is appropriate, the best available option, or even absolutely necessary.

The Ocean State is at such a point in history, with many Rhode Islanders feeling that the solutions are as obvious as the problems are intractable.  A constitutional convention would present an opportunity to settle some of the relevant questions.

Maybe a constitutional convention could motivate the people who understand the direction in which the state needs to head before there are just too few of us left in the state to make a difference.  Maybe working around the normal, corrupted, rigged electoral system will prove that there are more of us than insiders in government and the media would have us believe.

And maybe if all of that is so much misplaced optimism, it’d be better to let the inevitable happen sooner than later.  It would be clarifying, anyway, for Rhode Islanders currently agonizing over decisions about what to do with their lives and where to live.

Making a Stand Far from the Cliff

Why stand our ground in Rhode Island? Because somewhere in the world, the easier decision is to throw your children to their merciful death.

Feeling the Tightening of the Special Interest Manacles

Providence Firefighter Tom Kenney may hold the key to the antidote to save Rhode Island and the United States.

The World the West is Creating with Vladimir Putin

Is there a better way than political authoritarianism and stunted economic growth that Vladimir Putin’s subjects (including high-ranking oligarchs) might want to consider? Western elites might not like to admit this, but ratcheting up an “uncivilized” tribal strategy may be an effective way for Putin and current Russian leadership to answer this question in the negative, by boosting the morale (at least in the short term) of his Russian followers, and by frightening an “internationalist” coalition away from being willing to take the steps necessary to slow his expansion.

The ultimate effectiveness of this strategy depends on the strength and the nature of the coherence of the adversary that Russia faces.

The Death of the Constitution (Why Stay in Rhode Island)

A description of the United States’s Constitutional crisis provides relief from discouragement about the decline of Rhode Island.

Americans in Different Worlds

Peggy Noonan gets it right with the general sentiment of her latest column:

My fear is that the issues mount, increase and are experienced as a daily harassment by more and more people who, public education being the spotty thing it’s been, are less held together than in the past by a unified patriotic theory of America, and consequently less keen on—and protective of—our political traditions. And things begin to fray very badly, even, down the road, to breaking points.

I think she misidentifies the cause, though, or at least stops too short, with the effect amounting to the same thing:

… I had always assumed that America was uniquely able to tolerate division. Shared patriotic feeling and respect for our political traditions left us, as a nation, with a lot of give. We could tug this way or that, correct and overcorrect, and do fine.

My concern the past few decades has been that we’ve lost or are losing some of that give, that divisions are sharper and deeper now in part because many of the issues that separate us are so piercing and personal. Vietnam and Watergate were outer issues. Many questions now speak of our essence as human beings.

The implication is that the slot machine of socio-politics has spun and given us a challenging collection of issues.  To the contrary, the underlying problem is one that virtually ensures that such issues will come to the fore:  Government’s growth and centralization is what’s made “our essence as human beings” a matter that must be settled at the federal level.

Our “tug” as a nation was allowed by the fact that knotty questions weren’t considered the purview of government, and to the extent that they were, we pushed them down locally.  Over the past century-plus, progressives and other statists have been erasing that critical feature of our civic system.

One thing on which I think Noonan’s absolutely correct is this, which might be the defining hubris of our era:

… people grow up in a certain environment and tend to think that environment, and its assumptions, are continuing and will always continue.

This applies not just to the ability of America’s “financial strength” to “absorb any blow,” but to culture, too.  People assume the principles supporting and reinforced by marriage will simply remain in place if we change the nature of the institution.  People assume entrepreneurs will simply continue to work and produce no matter how much disincentive we layer on top of them, as if the fancy name indicates a genetic driver.

In a nutshell, our social system used to leave space for people to accommodate their own beliefs about life and reality.  In the name of equality, we’ve moved to implement one worldview as truth, and calling it “objective,” we treat it as natural to impose it on everybody else.

Progressive Policies Hurt Working People

Kevin Williamson is on a roll, lately:

Progressives argue that we need deeper government involvement in the economy in order to assuage the ill effects of economic inequality. But, as Joel Kotkin points out, inequality is the most pronounced in places where progressives dominate: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago. The more egalitarian cities are embedded in considerably more conservative metropolitan areas in conservative states. “Part of the difference,” Mr. Kotkin writes, “is the strong growth of higher-paid, blue-collar jobs in places like Houston, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake, and Dallas compared to rapidly de-industrializing locales such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Even Richard Florida, the guru of the ‘creative class,’ has admitted that the strongest growth in mid-income jobs has been concentrated in red-state metros such as Salt Lake City, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Nashville. Some of this reflects a history of later industrialization but other policies — often mandated by the state — encourage mid-income growth, for example, by not imposing high energy prices with subsidies for renewables, or restricting housing growth in the periphery. Cities like Houston may seem blue in many ways but follow local policies largely indistinguishable from mainstream Republicans elsewhere.” In Detroit, Chicago, and Philadelphia, African Americans earn barely half of what whites earn —  and in San Francisco, African Americans earn less than half of what whites earn. Hispanics in Boston earn 50 percent of what whites make; but it is 84 percent in Riverside County, Calif., a traditional Republican stronghold (it holds the distinction of being one of only two West Coast counties to have gone for Hoover over FDR and is Duncan Hunter’s turf), and the figures are comparable in places such as Phoenix and Miami.

As in many other recent political arguments, Rhode Island offers an excellent test case.  As I’ve long been pointing out, the group that is struggling and leaving Rhode Island is the “productive class,” those people who are striving to transform their labor into money and comfort.  The rich are insulated and the disadvantaged are well served, relative to other places.  Meanwhile, the insider culture (which includes government unions) creates a path to the middle and upper-middle classes for people willing to play along, but at the expense of the working and lower-middle classes.

United Nations Calls for Total School Choice

Commenting on my “education is a right” post, SGH points to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 26:

  1. Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  2. Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  3. Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

While it may be the case that the typical “education is a right” activist would point to this Declaration as the authority for his or her claims, it seems to me they’d be incorrect to do so.  If parents’ right to choose the manner of their children’s education comes before any implied requirement for government to provide for education, and yet elementary and (maybe) secondary education must be cost-free to the family, the only option is total, voucher-driven school choice.  

Progressives and other statists like statement number 1, which justifies their confiscation of money in order to pay for the education that they’d like to provide. They’re also apt to like statement number 2, which gives them license to indoctrinate children into their own moral and ideological framework, on the grounds that their worldview objectively benefits students’ “full development” and respect for rights.

Perhaps the progressives’ copy of the UN’s declaration has a typographical error that leaves out statement number 3.  More likely, though, they gloss over it by stuffing “parents” into a collectivist box and claiming that they collectively choose their government and therefore the type of education that the government wishes to impose on them.

Rule of Law as Guarantor of Freedom

The other day, I noted Dinesh D’Souza’s suggestion that freedom is a mechanism to guarantee justice.  Admittedly, the text of the post drifted a bit from the intention for which I crafted the title.  The bottom-line point that might have gotten lost was that a free nation, in which the government’s role is constrained, limits the opportunity of the government to manipulate the public.  (It also limits the incentive, since gaining control of government doesn’t gain one as much.)  It’s furthermore incompatible with a free nation for the government to be spying on its people or for the chief executive’s campaign to be setting up secretive organizations to manipulate the electorate.

Kevin Williamson brings in a consideration that is interwoven with the topic.  Writing about the Supreme Court’s Halbig decision, “that the law says what the law says” when it comes to ObamaCare subsidies, Williamson goes on:

The Hammurabic Code, along with its presumptive predecessors, represented something radical and new in human history. With the law written down — with the law fixed — a man who had committed no transgression no longer had reason to tremble before princes and potentates. If the driver of oxen had been paid his statutory wage, if a man’s contractual obligations had been satisfied, and if his life was unsullied by violations of the law, handily carved upon slabs of igneous rock for all to see and ingest, then that man was, within the limits of his law, free. …

… We write laws down in order that citizens may know what is permissible under the generally promulgated rules of the polity. The writing down of laws was the first step on the road from subject to citizen, and to reverse that is to do violence to more than grammatical propriety …

As I noted imperfectly the other day, freedom from tyranny is a guarantor of justice, and we cannot have freedom if the tyrant is able to change the rules and laws on a whim.  If the ground might dissolve beneath you once you’ve stepped off the tyrant’s path, you aren’t actually free to step from the path.  In other words, the rule of law is a guarantor of freedom and a prerequisite if freedom is to guarantee justice.

That’s why Americans must insist on the rules, and that the language of the law means what it says.  Rhode Island is an excellent example of the insider-dominated wasteland to which a failure to do so inevitably leads, and even we in the Ocean State have much farther to fall.

What They Should Mean by “Education Is a Right”

This photograph, which appeared in the Providence Journal in the July 20th Sunday edition has been bugging me.  In case you don’t feel like clicking the link, it’s of a group of college-age-looking folks marching down the street.  Four of them are holding a sign that reads:

education is a right!


It was apparently taken from a documentary movie called Ivory Tower, about the state of higher education.  Without looking into the movie (or the insinuation behind the letters “USSA”), the meaning of the assertion necessitates the question, What do they mean?  If I assent to the proposition that “education is a right,” what, exactly am I agreeing to?

In terms of the founding documents of the United States, a right is something that cannot be taken away.  It isn’t something that others must provide to an individual.  A right to life doesn’t mean that every American must have free access to the most innovative technology that can preserve even a moment of life.  A right to speech doesn’t mean that every American is entitled to a national podium for anything they might want to say.  Rather, these are things that the government cannot actively prevent citizens from acquiring.  If you’re alive or if you have a national podium, the government cannot act to take it away from you.

So what does it mean for education to be a right?  Progressive activists mean that government schools have a right to confiscate money away in order to provide whatever educational opportunities they declare necessary.

Some activists seem to believe students have a right to absorb a certain amount of baseline information.  This view is typically targeted at the institution of public schools, to force them to prove that they’re providing a baseline education and to invalidate practices (like teacher tenure) that prioritize something else at the expense of students.  But a right to be imbued with knowledge would also imply a right to be forced to become educated, which doesn’t sound like what most people think of as “rights.”

It makes more sense — and will produce a better result, I’d argue — to understand education in the same way as life, speech, and the pursuit of happiness.  We have a right not to have the government thwart us in our pursuit of education.

As a society, we also have a strong incentive to ensure individuals achieve their potential, so we should allocate public resources to the cause.  However, the way we’ve been doing it, by setting up government school systems that have proven to be ineffective and unresponsive, can stand as a barrier to actual education, which is against students’ rights.

Steve Ahlquist, the Oppressors’ Heir

In attacking Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, Steve Ahlquist gives reason to believe he’d have been a different kind of oppressor in a different time.

Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 6 of 6

Ultimately (part 6 of 6) Aaron Renn has to explain why a small group of decision makers have a better chance of success than Rhode Islanders acting on their own initiative.

Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 5 of 6

Part 5 of a response to Aaron Renn: What kills the entrepreneurial spirit in Rhode Island?

Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 4 of 6

Aaron Renn’s prescriptions for RI. Part 4: Who is the “you” who puts us to use?

Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 3 of 6

Countering Aaron Renn’s central planning in Rhode Island. Part 3: What’s unemployment insurance have to do with the price of gasoline in Seekonk?

Rhode Island Fix a Philosophical Shift; Contra Renn, Part 2 of 6

Skepticism about Aaron Renn’s suggestions for Rhode Island. Part 2: shedding pounds by changing location or voting differently.