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Archive for the ‘Property Rights’ Category

Two years ago, I shared a video about the Environmental Protection Agency’s brutal and thuggish tactics against an Idaho family.

Constitution Limits Government PowerThat story had a very happy ending because the Supreme Court struck a blow for property rights and unanimously ruled against the EPA (too bad that similarly sound analysis was absent when the Justices decided the Kelo case).

Now we have a new example of the EPA running amok

Let’s look at a horrifying report about another family in the cross hairs of a rogue bureaucracy.

All Andy Johnson wanted to do was build a stock pond on his sprawling eight-acre Wyoming farm. He and his wife Katie spent hours constructing it, filling it with crystal-clear water, and bringing in brook and brown trout, ducks and geese. It was a place where his horses could drink and graze, and a private playground for his three children.

Sounds like the American dream, but also responsible stewardship since ponds usually have a positive role in limiting erosion.

Unfortunately, the EPA’s pinhead bureaucrats saw an opportunity for pointless and destructive intervention.

But instead of enjoying the fruits of his labor, the Wyoming welder says he was harangued by the federal government, stuck in what he calls a petty power play by the Environmental Protection Agency. He claims the agency is now threatening him with civil and criminal penalties – including the threat of a $75,000-a-day fine. …The government says he violated the Clean Water Act by building a dam on a creek without a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. Further, the EPA claims that material from his pond is being discharged into other waterways. Johnson says he built a stock pond — a man-made pond meant to attract wildlife — which is exempt from Clean Water Act regulations.  The property owner says he followed the state rules for a stock pond when he built it in 2012 and has an April 4-dated letter from the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office to prove it. …But the EPA isn’t backing down and argues they have final say over the issue. They also say Johnson needs to restore the land or face the fines.

As you can imagine, this was not exactly good news for the property owner.

Johnson says he was “bombarded by hopelessness” when he first received the administrative order from the EPA. …The EPA order on Jan. 30 gave Johnson 30 days to hire a consultant and have him or her assess the impact of the supposed unauthorized discharges. The report was also supposed to include a restoration proposal to be approved by the EPA as well as contain a schedule requiring all work be completed within 60 days of the plan’s approval. If Johnson doesn’t comply — and he hasn’t so far — he’s subject to $37,500 per day in civil penalties as well as another $37,500 per day in fines for statutory violations.

But kudos to Mr. Johnson. Unlike so many others, he’s not going to roll over and acquiesce to EPA brutishness.

Johnson plans to fight. “This goes a lot further than a pond,” he said. “It’s about a person’s rights. I have three little kids. I am not going to roll over and let [the government] tell me what I can do on my land. I followed the rules.”  …Johnson says his legal fight with the government agency is a teachable moment for his kids. “This is showing them that they shouldn’t back down,” Johnson said. “If you need to stand up and fight, you do it.”

Needless to say, the EPA is not the only out-of-control bureaucracy in Washington.

Let’s now read about the thuggish actions against blueberry growers by the Department of Labor.

Bureaucrats from that entity decided to launch a legal jihad against some growers and they relied on bad numbers and grotesque strategy.

Another example of big government run amok.

In late July 2012, officials from the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division visited Pan-American Berry Growers, B&G Ditchen and E&S Farms for spot inspections. …the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division district director, Jeff Genkos, accused the growers of minimum-wage violations and declared the blueberries “hot goods” under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. This charge is usually reserved for, say, T-shirts sewn by child laborers. The effect was to stop the fruit from being shipped to customers. He then ordered the growers to pay back wages and penalties and asked them to sign away any right to appeal the deal.

What was most shocking about the DOL’s actions is that they engaged in Mafia-type tactics and “made an offer they couldn’t refuse.”

This put the growers in an impossible spot. Either they could collectively pay $240,435 or let millions of dollars’ worth of berries rot. And they only had a day or two to make a decision. They did what any prudent employer would do: They paid the money, and the hot goods order was lifted.

And you won’t be surprised that the bureaucracy cooked the numbers in the first place.

It turns out that Labor’s bureaucrats had divined that the average worker could only pick around 60 pounds of blueberries an hour, some 30 pounds below what workers usually pick. They then counted the number of workers employed and concluded the growers must have had workers employed off the books. …In January, Oregon magistrate judge Thomas M. Coffin ruled for the growers. “In essence, to avoid the potential loss of millions of dollars worth of berries, defendants had to agree to the DOL’s allegations without an opportunity to present a defense or confront the DOL’s evidence in an administrative or court hearing,” he wrote.

I’m glad at least one court has ruled against the Department of Labor. Let’s hope that the final result is positive when all the appeals have been exhausted.

Both of these stories belong in my collection of “Government Thuggery in Action.”

Previous examples include:

If you peruse those examples without getting angry at big government, you probably need a lengthy bit of soul-searching.

If you’re a normal person, you’ll want this t-shirt (and don’t be a perv, just the t-shirt!).

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If you look at measures (such as the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index) of what makes a nation competitive and prosperous, you’ll find some obvious variables such as fiscal policy, trade openness, regulatory burden, and monetary policy.

But in addition to those policy levers, you’ll find that it’s equally important that a nation does a good job of protecting and maintaining the rule of law.

This is not something easy to define or measure. It includes all sorts of characteristics such as protection of property rights, absence of corruption, honest courts, government transparency, and non-discriminatory application of laws.

But one thing is clear. Nations that don’t have good rule of law are not going to enjoy much prosperity, even if they have ostensibly good policies.

So it was with considerable interest that I saw that a Rule of Law Index has been released by the World Justice Project.

This is the first I’ve heard of the WJP, and I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, but the Index is interesting and impressive.

And I’m a bit dismayed – but not surprised – to see that the United States only ranks #19 in their comprehensive measure of the rule of law. Here are the top 52 nations.

Rule of Law Rankings

If you look at the detailed data for the 8 major categories in the Index, you’ll see that the United States was fairly consistent, with a high score of 17 and low scores of 27.

To use a classroom analogy, America is akin to a decent student, with grades of B+ in some classes and B- in other classes.

Other nations display more variety. They may have a higher overall GPA (like #10 Singapore) or lower overall GPA (like #50 Belarus), but their grades for specific categories may deviate substantially.

Looking at the places with the strongest rule of law, the good performance of the Nordic nations is not surprising. Countries such as Denmark and Sweden may have big welfare states, but they have very laissez-faire policies in other areas.

And let’s give a special shout-out to the nation that produced the PotL. Lebanon made it into the top 50.

Interestingly, the WJP must have previous editions, or at least historical data, because they also show whether countries are getting better or worse.

The good news is that America apparently has more order and security. The bad news is that we’re moving in the wrong direction with regards to constraints on government power.

Rule of Law US Trend

I don’t know why the U.S. score deteriorated, but the Obama Administration’s abuse of the IRS and its lawless behavior on Obamacare might be good guesses.

Let’s now look at the slow students in the class.

Is anybody surprised to learn that Venezuela is in last place of the 99 nations in the Index?

Rule of Law Rankings 2

And if you’re interested in other nations that are in the news, the low rankings for Ukraine and Russia help to explain why these countries are under-performing (even though they both have a flat tax, which is one of my favorite policies).

Now that I’ve shared this data, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s no obvious way to improve the rule of law.

In my humble opinion, the rule of law is a form of social capital. And like other examples of social capital (work ethic, honesty, etc), it’s part of a nation’s culture.

That being said, let’s look at some polling data from Europe that captures one aspect of the rule of law. These numbers show the extent of corruption.

The moral of the story is that it would be a good thing to reduce the burden of government in countries such as Germany and Denmark, but that it’s absolutely critical to reduce the size and scope of the state in nations such as Greece, Italy, and Spain.

Simply stated, a smaller public sector would reduce opportunities to abuse the rule of law.

P.S. Since we just showed some data on Europe, let’s share some European humor. I don’t know if this is an example of someone from Europe mocking America, or someone from Europe engaging in some self-mockery of European stereotypes about America. In either case, this image is amusing.

American Breakfast

Well done, though maybe the carbs should be excluded.

And also long overdue.

I’ve shared some cartoons about Europe (here and here), and this Dave Barry satire about Europe is very funny, but I don’t often see political humor produced by Europeans.

The Brits occasionally step forward, as you can see from this terror alert humor and this jab at France and Germany. And this comedian definitely seems to be Greek, but that’s about it.

Though it’s possible someone from Europe put together these maps about European stereotypes. Or perhaps this video about a German-Greek romantic breakup.

P.P.S. There is a global ranking that puts Venezuela ahead of the United States. I’ll let you decide whether it has any merit.

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The genius of capitalism is that there is a link between effort and reward. In a genuine market economy (as opposed to cronyism), people can only make themselves rich by working harder and smarter to satisfy the needs and wants of others.

The blunder of statism is that the link between effort and reward is damaged. Punitive tax rates, for instance, punish people for producing. Redistribution programs, meanwhile, create incentives for dependency. And regulation throws lots of sand in the gears of the economy, while also creating big opportunities for corrupt cronyism.

I sometimes try to make this clear by citing the failure of communism. And by failure, I’m not talking about the brutality of Soviet-style dictatorships. Instead, I’m referring to the basic failure of state-controlled economies. Heck, places such as Cuba and Venezuela can’t even produce enough toilet paper!

And North Korea is such a basket case that it reduced physical requirements for military service after pervasive famine led to a stunted generation.

But I don’t want anyone to accuse me of red-baiting, so let’s pretend communism never existed and look at an unfortunate episode from American history.

When the colonists created the Plymouth Colony, they used a socialist model. This video from Reason TV explains how that system foundered.

Gee, what a surprise. Socialism was the problem and capitalism was the solution. When you give people property rights and establish a clear link between effort and reward, good things happen.

As Bono now understands. More remarkable, even Obama once said we should “let the market work.” So maybe there’s hope.

In honor of the season, let’s share a few more Thanksgiving cartoons, all of which – as you might expect – make fun of Obamacare.

Continuing a theme from some of yesterday’s cartoons, we have the Turkey of the Year.

TG II Cartoon 1

And an observation on how well the law is working.

TG II Cartoon 2

This Lisa Benson cartoon is very appropriate since the Mayflower carried the first colonists to Plymouth.

TG II Cartoon 3

P.S. I don’t want to pass up this opportunity for some well-deserved mockery of the evil philosophy of communism,. You can see some great Reagan jokes in the fourth video of this link and the first video in this link. And this doctored image makes a very powerful point in an amusing fashion.

P.P.S. Back in 2010, I also debunked the leftist counter-argument in a post that included the Reason video and a John Stossel column on the topic of the Pilgrims and property rights.

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A couple of weeks ago, before leaving for Europe, I stopped by the High Lonesome Ranch in De Beque, Colorado.

City slicker in the CO mountains

Controlling about 300 square miles, the High Lonesome is a remarkable spread. And if you like wildlife, you’re in Heaven.

It’s sort of akin to a private national park. And it shows how free markets are an excellent steward of natural resources.

The folks at the ranch brag about having the heaviest concentration of elk, deer, bear, and mountain lion in the country. That’s probably not easy to verify, but deer and elk are ubiquitous and I saw two bear on the trip (I also saw a badger on a previous visit).

The mountain lions are largely invisible, though the ranch has a project – as part of its education and conservation work – with some academics to monitor the range, feeding habits, and behavior of these impressive animals.

Another noteworthy feature of the ranch is the way hydrologists are protecting and restoring streams and ponds. They have an incentive to do this because people from around the country come to the High Lonesome for fly fishing.

Obviously not a very bright trout

I very much doubt that all this valuable work would take place if a bunch of bureaucrats were in charge of the property.

Or, if it did take place, it would take three times as long and cost five times as much thanks to the nightmarish incompetency and misaligned incentives of the government procurement process.

Hunting is another source of revenue that enables the ranch to preserve natural resources. It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow in case some leftists read this) that this means the owners have a big incentive to protect wildlife and ensure a sustainable harvest.

Heck, there are now so many bear that they are almost at the point of being a nuisance animal.

I did a bit of fishing, as you can see from the photo with the remedial trout. Maybe I should try some hunting at some point.

The 2nd Amendment in action

But probably not bird hunting. The ranch is filled with pheasants, quail, chuckers, and other game birds, but I haven’t been overly impressive when I’ve tried the sporting clays. The clay that shoots straight in the air was particularly vexing. Fortunately, I doubt burglars would have that ability, so I’ll still be okay with home defense.

The Chi-coms better avoid Fairfax

While I wasn’t overly proficient with the shotgun, I think I did okay with the rifle. I was a bit high and to the left on the target range, but one of the guides said anything within the bigger orange square is a kill shot.

Then again, part of their job may be to stroke the egos of visitors from the cities and suburbs.

In any event, a bear hunt might be a good idea. I have a fireplace at home, and it might look nice with a bearskin rug in front of it. All I’d be missing, then, is a lovely lass to pose on it.

But I’m digressing. The point of this post is to simply note that this piece of property is something every environmentalist should applaud. And it’s all made possible by the free market and private property rights.

One final point: In the interests of full disclosure, I’m an officer in a company, created by a foreign investor, that owns about 50 percent of property. But that doesn’t influence my views. It’s my pre-existing belief in private property and the environment that made it very easy for me to say yes to the this opportunity.

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I’m getting sick of the debt downgrade issue, so let’s shift to another topic.

The title to this post may seem like a joke, but Europe’s bizarre courts have decided to trample the property rights of landlords by ruling that tenants have a “right” to satellite TV and therefore cannot be barred from installing dishes.

Here are some excerpts from the Daily Mail’s report.

It is regarded as a luxury that allows people to watch top sport and blockbuster movies from the comfort of their armchairs. But owning a satellite dish is actually a human right, according to unelected European judges. In an extraordinary ruling, lawmakers in Strasbourg have warned that banning dishes on listed buildings, social housing and even private homes could breach the right to freedom of expression… The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Britain’s discrimination watchdog, has now published new guidance warning that landlords could be at risk of being sued if they try to stop their tenants putting up a satellite dish.

We should not be surprised by this odd decision. European courts already have ruled that free soccer broadcasts are a human right, so there’s obviously a pattern of inventing rights that require the violation of other people’s property rights.

To be fair, other government entities can be equally stupid when it comes to fabricating human rights. The Finish government, for instance, decided that there’s now a human right to broadband access.

And the Bolivian government has decided that there’s a human right to stolen property.

I wonder if the politicians and judges might rethink some of these decisions if people decided that they had a “human right” to rob the homes of the political elite?

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There’s an odd debate in the blogosphere. As happens every Thanksgiving, libertarians and conservatives take joy in pointing out that there was mass starvation and suffering during the early years of the Plymouth Colony because of a socialist economic model. Here’s what John Stossel recently wrote.

Long before the failure of modern socialism, the earliest European settlers gave us a dramatic demonstration of the fatal flaws of collectivism. Unfortunately, few Americans today know it. The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony organized their farm economy along communal lines. The goal was to share the work and produce equally. That’s why they nearly all starved. When people can get the same return with less effort, most people make less effort. Plymouth settlers faked illness rather than working the common property. Some even stole, despite their Puritan convictions. Total production was too meager to support the population, and famine resulted. This went on for two years. “So as it well appeared that famine must still ensue the next year also, if not some way prevented,” wrote Gov. William Bradford in his diary. The colonists, he said, “began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length after much debate of things, (I) (with the advice of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land.” In other words, the people of Plymouth moved from socialism to private farming. The results were dramatic. “This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been. By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plenty, and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many.”

My colleague Dan Griswold has a blog post making the same point. And here’s a new video from the prolific folks at Reason TV.

This story must bother the statists. For the first time I can remember, they tried to push back this year. A blogger called Liberal Curmudgeon attempted to puncture the supposed myth, blaming the Colony’s woes on lazy Englishmen.

The real problem, though, was that the men recruited for Jamestown and Plymouth were expecting quick and easy riches without having to work at all.

That’s an interesting theory, and Andrew Sullivan swallows it, hook, line, and sinker (apparently any criticism of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck must be true).

But this argument suffers from a couple of flaws. Don Boudreaux deals with one of the problems in his post, but I have a much simpler criticism for Andrew Sullivan, the Liberal Curmudgeon, et al.

If the Plymouth Colony initially was failing because of the wrong type of people, why did those wrong people suddenly succeed once communalism was replaced with private property?

Maybe statists have a good answer to this question, but I won’t be holding my breath.

So the real lesson of Thanksgiving (at least from an economics perspective), is that incentives matter. The Pilgrims figured this out and changed course. Nearly four hundred years later, the question for today is whether Obama is similarly capable of learning from his mistakes.

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I don’t know what will happen when the Senate Judiciary Committee grills Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, but I hope at least one member reads George Will’s column and uses some of his suggested questions. They are all worth reading, but here are my three favorites: 
The government having decided that Chrysler’s survival is an urgent national necessity, could it decide that “Cash for Clunkers” is too indirect a subsidy and instead mandate that people buy Chrysler products? …Can you name a human endeavor that Congress cannot regulate on the pretense that the endeavor affects interstate commerce? …Should proper respect for precedent prevent the court from reversing Kelo? If so, was the court wrong to undo the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregating the races with “separate but equal” facilities is constitutional?

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This new video from the Institute for Justice celebrates the backlash against the Supreme Court’s reprehensible Kelo decision that allowed politicians to seize private property for the benefit of commercial developers and other campaign contributors.

The best part of the video comes shortly before the three-minute mark, when the narrator notes that the corrupt politicians of New London, CT, have not received any additional tax revenue as a result of stealing Susette Kelo’s house. Sometimes, as I noted in an earlier blog entry, there is poetic justice.

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