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Posts Tagged ‘Leviathan’

I spoke last week about the “Economic Consequences of the Crisis” for a webinar organized by the Estonian Business School.

My remarks focused on the severity of the downturn, the likelihood of a new fiscal crisis in Europe, and how to balance the costs and benefits of re-opening the economy.

The full program, which was part of the Digital Free Market Road Show, can be viewed by clicking here.

For today’s column, I want to focus on my final slide, which asks whether politicians will use the crisis to permanently expand the size and scope of government.

I didn’t make any sweeping predictions when discussing this slide, though my tone was somewhat pessimistic. Simply stated, I fear we’ll have a bigger burden of government when the coronavirus crisis abates.

This doesn’t necessarily have to be the outcome. As I wrote two years ago, it’s possible for a crisis to produce either more statism or more liberalization.

Robert Higgs and Don Boudreaux, writing about this topic for Reason, fear that politicians will succeed in using the crisis to move the needle in the wrong direction.

Although everyone seems to agree that these measures are to be employed only in the short run, until the incidence of the disease has been reduced either by herd immunity or by new medical treatments, no one at the start put together an exit strategy from these extraordinary increases in governments’ size, scope, and power. Everything was done on a piecemeal basis from day to day, on the assumption that when an endgame came into view the governments would terminate their crisis actions. This assumption runs counter to how crisis-borne increases in government’s size, scope, and power have played out in the past. …the growth of government that attends national emergencies is not surrendered fully when the crisis ends. Instead, a ratchet effect operates whereby much of the crisis-borne growth of government becomes institutionalized in agencies and practices and, more important, in the dominant ideology of political elites and the general public.

Higgs and Boudreaux use insights from “public choice” to describe the process that produces ever-larger government.

As crisis followed crisis—World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the multifaceted turmoil of the Johnson-Nixon years, the 9/11 attacks, the Great Recession that began in 2008—the ratchet effect ensured that government’s growth trajectory was displaced upward, time after time. …People sometimes regretted actions taken hastily during a crisis but found that reversing them was diabolically difficult. …The ratchet effect operates because of incentives and constraints built into the political and economic structure. …To disable the ratchet effect, people must rouse themselves to think more seriously about the long-run consequences of actions taken hastily in response to national emergencies—and about whether they want to keep their remaining economic freedoms and civil liberties or be content to surrender them one crisis at a time.

It’s hard to argue with their analysis, but I’ll close with a bit of optimism.

Here’s a chart based on data from Economic Freedom of the World, including research extending estimates back to 1950. It shows that – notwithstanding various crises – there has not been a decline in liberty for the United States since World War II.

This suggests that Higgs and Boudreaux are too gloomy.

I wonder, however, when going as far back as the 1950s-1970s, if the data is good enough to produce reliable estimates of economic liberty.

How can it be true, for instance, that overall economic liberty increased during the 1970s, when we had Nixon’s awful statism?

Though maybe I have tunnel vision because of my focus on fiscal policy. A Spanish scholar who put together long-run data on non-fiscal policy (going all the way back to 1850) found that economic liberty has been increasing.

In any event, let’s hope that economic liberty doesn’t shrink in the future. Assuming, of course, we care about national prosperity and poverty reduction.

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Some types of theft are legal in America.

But there’s a catch. You can only legally steal if you work for the government. It’s a process called “civil asset forfeiture” and it enables government officials to confiscate your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime.

I’m not joking. This isn’t a snarky reference to the tax system. Nor am I implying that bureaucrats can figuratively steal your property. We’re talking about literal theft by the state.

And it can happen if some government official decides – without any legal proceeding – that the property somehow may have been involved in criminal activity. Or maybe just because you have the wrong skin color.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains this grotesque injustice.

…thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms. Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. …A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.

These abuses happen in large part because cops are given bad incentives.

Any property they steal from citizens can be used to pad the budgets of police bureaucracies.

Today more than 40 states and the federal government permit law-enforcement agencies to retain anywhere from 45% to 100% of forfeiture proceeds. As a result, forfeiture has practically become an industry.

And real money is involved.

…data on asset forfeiture across 14 states, including California, Texas and New York. Between 2002 and 2013, the revenue from forfeiture more than doubled, from $107 million to $250 million. Federal confiscations have risen even faster. In 1986 the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund collected $93.7 million. In 2014 the number was $4.5 billion.

In other words, there’s a huge incentive for cops to misbehave. It’s called “policing for profit.”

Fortunately, there is a move for reform at the state level.

Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation. …lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas have sponsored legislation that would send confiscated proceeds directly to the general fund of the state or county. Similar measures in Arizona and Hawaii would restrict forfeiture proceeds to being used to compensate crime victims and their families. …Last fall California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that, in most cases, requires a criminal conviction before any California agency can receive equitable-sharing proceeds. In January Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved legislation to ban his state’s police and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal agencies unless its value is more than $100,000. Similar reforms have been introduced in Colorado, New Hampshire and a handful of other states.

Legislative reforms are good, though judicial action would be even better.

And, sooner or later, that may happen.

America’s best (but not quite perfect) Supreme Court Justice is justly outraged by these examples of legalized theft. First, some background.

…the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman who says that her due process rights were violated when the police seized over $200,000 in cash from her family despite the fact that no one has been convicted of any underlying crime associated with the money. Unfortunately, thanks to the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws, the authorities were permitted to take the money of this innocent woman. The Supreme Court offered no explanation today for its refusal to hear the case.

But Justice Thomas is not happy that government officials are allowed to randomly steal property.

Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he believes the current state of civil asset forfeiture law is fundamentally unconstitutional. “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas declared. Furthermore, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter are starkly at odds with the Constitution, which “presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation.” Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards for the rights of person or property.

The article continues to explain that Thomas could be signalling that the Supreme Court will address these issues in the future, even though it didn’t choose to address the case filed by the Texas woman.

Let’s hope so. It’s heartening that there’s been a bit of good news at the state level (I even wrote that reform of asset forfeiture was one of the best developments of 2015), but it would be nice if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to prohibit civil asset forfeiture altogether.

But that might be years in the future, so let’s close with a very fresh example of a good state-based reform.

The Wall Street Journal favorably opined yesterday about reforms that have been enacted in Mississippi.

…it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

The editorial reminds us why asset forfeiture is wrong.

…civil forfeiture laws…allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets. …Perverse incentives…create a huge potential for abuse.

Here’s what Mississippi did.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database. …the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer.

It’s nice that there’s been reform at the state level, and the Mississippi example is quite encouraging. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that there may not be much reason to expect progress from the White House since both President Trump and his Attorney General support these arbitrary and unfair confiscations of property.

Which is a shame since they both took oaths to protect Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

However, if the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office can change their minds and urge repeal of these unfair laws, maybe there’s hope for Trump and Sessions.

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I’ve sometimes asserted, only half-jokingly, that statists believe all of our income belongs to the government and that we should be grateful if we’re allowed to keep any slice of what we earn.

This is, at least in part, the mentality behind the “tax expenditure” concept, which creates a false equivalence between spending programs and provisions of the tax code that allow people to keep greater amounts of their own income.

Here’s how I characterized this moral blindness when criticizing a Washington Post columnist back in 2013.

Hiatt presumably thinks that the government’s decision not to impose double taxation is somehow akin to a giveaway. But that only makes sense if you assume that government has a preemptive claim to all private income. …Hiatt wants us the think that there’s no moral, ethical, or economic difference between giving person A $5,000 of other people’s money and person B being allowed to keep $5,000 of his or her own money.

Today, I have a particularly absurd real-world illustration of this statist mindset.

Two writers for the Wonkblog section of the Washington Post recently wrote an article entitled, “The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.”

Did their list of 10 “handouts” include the Export-Import Bank, which lines the pockets of big corporations? Nope.

Did it include agriculture subsidies, which provide unearned goodies for big agribusiness firms? Nope.

Did it the TARP bailout, which shielded Wall Street fatcats from capitalism? Nope.

And how about subsidized terrorism insurance, ethanol goodies, and green energy subsidies? Nope, nope, and nope.

Or the handouts in Obamacare for major pharmaceutical companies and big insurance companies? Nope and nope.

Instead, every single “handout” that the rich “get” from government is nothing more than a provision of the tax code that lets people keep more of their own money.

I’m not joking. Here’s the list, followed by my two cents.

1. The mortgage interest deduction for big houses and second homes.

As I’ve previously explained, I don’t think the tax code should be tilted in favor of residential real estate. But a handout is when the government takes money from Person A and gives it to Person B.

2. The yacht tax deduction.

There actually isn’t a yacht tax deduction, but if you can live in something, it can be eligible for a mortgage interest deduction. I don’t think that’s wise tax policy, but it’s not an example of government taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

3. Rental property.

The authors appear to be upset that people running a business get to subtract costs from gross income when calculating net income. But that’s exactly how businesses are supposed to be taxed. And even if one thought, for some odd reason, that gross income was the right tax base, this still isn’t an example of government taking from Person A to give to Person B.

4. Fancy business meals.

As just noted, businesses should be taxed on profits rather than gross receipts. Well, profits are the difference between total income and total costs, including the cost of business-related meals. And even if one thinks that folks in business are lying and mischaracterizing personal meals, they’re not spending other people’s money. No funds are being taken from Person A and being given to Person B.

5. The capital gains tax rate.

In a good tax system, there’s no double taxation of income that is saved and invested, so the capital gains tax should be abolished. As such, the “preferential” rate in the current system is more accurately characterized as a mitigation of a penalty. But even if one believes that saving and investment should be double taxed, a lower capital gains tax rate doesn’t take money from Person A to give to Person B.

6. The estate tax.

The death tax is triple taxation, so it also should be abolished. Regardless, letting a family hold onto its own money is not the same as taking from Person A to give to Person B.

7. Gambling loss deductions.

The government taxes gamblers on their net winnings (if any), which is the proper approach. And even if the government gave a deduction for net losses (which isn’t the case), this wouldn’t be an example of taking from Person A and giving to Person B.

8. The Social Security earnings limit.

The Social Security system is supposed to be social insurance, and one of the implications of this approach is that there’s a limit on the benefits one can receive and the payments one has to make. As such, it’s silly to assert that the “wage base cap” is somehow improper. But even if one believed in turning Social Security into a pure redistribution scheme, the existing earnings limit simply means a cap on what the government takes. There’s no coerced handout from Person A to Person B.

9. Retirement plans.

The bad news is that we have pervasive double taxation in the internal revenue code. The good news is that some forms of retirement savings, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, are protected from double taxation. That protection does not require any money being taken from Person A and given to Person B.

10. Tax prep.

I’m not a fan of companies like H&R Block that benefit from an unfair and convoluted tax code. Under a simple and fair system like the flat tax, they would go out of business. But a deduction for tax preparation costs simply allows a taxpayer to keep more of his or her income. There’s no handout from Person A to Person B.

In case you didn’t notice, there’s a strong moral component to my argument. The leftists think you’re getting a handout if you get to keep more of your own money.

I think that’s absurd.

And it’s also economically illiterate when applied to provisions of the tax code that make sense, such as companies getting to subtract expenses when calculating taxable income.

Or individuals not being subjected to double taxation.

P.S. Here’s some pro-Second Amendment humor, which cleverly uses the left’s “undocumented” terminology for illegal aliens and applies it in a much better fashion.

And if you like pro-gun humor, you can find lots of good links by clicking here.

P.P.S. Since I mentioned immigration, here’s a fascinating graphic that shows immigration trends over the past two centuries.

There’s no policy lesson of philosophical point. I just think this graphic is very informative and well designed.

But if you want my two cents, I like immigration but want to make sure we attract people who want to work and assimilate rather than scroungers (and worse) who want welfare and handouts.

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Even though I fret about a growing burden of government and have little faith in the ability (or desire) of politicians to make wise decisions, I somehow convince myself that good things will happen.

Here’s some of what I wrote two years ago, when asked whether I thought America could be saved from a Greek-style fiscal collapse.

I think there’s a genuine opportunity to save the country. …we can at least hold the line and prevent government from becoming bigger than it is today. Sort of a watered-down version of Mitchell’s Golden Rule. The key is the right kind of entitlement reform.

But in that same article, I also issued this warning.

I may decide to give up if something really horrible happens, such as adoption of a value-added tax. Giving politicians a big new source of revenue, after all, would cripple any incentive for fiscal restraint.

To be blunt, imposing a big national sales tax – in addition to the income tax – would be a horrible defeat for advocates of limited government. A VAT would lead to more spending and more debt.

And that’s when folks might consider looking for escape options because America’s future will be very grim.

Here’s a video I narrated on why the value-added tax is awful public policy.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one raising the alarm.

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal wisely opined on the huge downside risk of a value-added tax.

It’s the hottest trend among tax collectors, raising a gusher of revenue for spendthrift governments worldwide. …a new report from accounting firm Ernst & Young says that VAT “systems are spreading” around the world and “rates are rising.”

By the way, the comment about “rates are rising” is an understatement, as illustrated by the table prepared by the Heritage Foundation.

Politicians love VATs both because they generate huge amounts of revenue and because the tax is hidden in the price of products and thus can be increased surreptitiously.

The WSJ explains.

The VAT is a sort of turbo-charged national sales tax on goods and services… Politicians love it because it is the most efficient revenue-raiser known to man, and its rates can be raised gradually to finance new entitlements or fill budget holes. The VAT is typically introduced with a low rate but then moves up over time until it swallows huge chunks of national economies. …Because VATs are embedded in the price of products, they can often rise unnoticed by the consumer, which is why liberals love them as a vehicle for periodic stealth tax hikes.

And in this case, “periodic” is just another way of saying “whenever politician want more money.”

And if recent history is any indication, “whenever” is “all the time.”

E&Y says standard VAT rates now average a knee-buckling 21.6% in the European Union, up from 19.4% in 2008. Average standard rates in the industrial countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have climbed to 19.2% from 17.8% in 2009. Japan is another example of the VAT upward ratchet. The Liberal Democratic Party tried to introduce the tax for years and finally succeeded with a 3% rate in 1989. Eight years later the shoguns raised it to 5%. Last year it climbed to 8%, whacking consumption and sending the economy back to negative growth.

The Japanese experience is especially educational since the VAT is a relatively new tax in that nation.

And here’s a chart showing what’s happened in the past few years to the average VAT rate in the European Union.

Now let’s look at another chart that is far more worrisome.

It shows that the burden of government spending in Europe, before VATs were adopted, wasn’t that much different than the fiscal burden of the public sector in the United States.

But once the VAT gave politicians a new source of revenue, spending exploded.

By the way, you won’t be surprised to learn that politicians increased spending even more  than they increased taxes.

So not only did VATs lead to more spending, they also led to more debt. I guess that’s a win-win from the perspective of statists.

Let’s now return to the WSJ editorial. Proponents sometimes claim that VATs are neutral and efficient. That may be somewhat true in theory (just as an income tax, in theory, might be clean and simple), but in the real world, VATs simply make it possible for politicians to auction off a new source of loopholes.

…while VAT systems are often presented as models of simplicity that theoretically treat all goods and services alike, politicians can’t resist picking winners and losers, creating higher or lower rates for industries at their whim. “The politicians always start running with exemptions,” says E&Y’s Gijsbert Bulk.

Here’s the bottom line.

Americans, be warned. …don’t think it can’t happen here. Liberals campaign on soaking the rich, but they know there’s only so many rich to soak. To finance the growing entitlement state, they need a new broad-based tax that hits the middle class, where the big money is. That means either a VAT or a new energy tax, like the BTU tax Bill and Hillary Clinton proposed in 1993 or the cap-and-tax scheme that President Obama wanted.

The WSJ is correct. We need to be vigilant in the fight against the VAT.

But what makes this battle difficult is that some putative allies are on the wrong side.

Tom Dolan, Greg Mankiw, and Paul Ryan have all expressed pro-VAT sympathies. The same is true of Kevin Williamson, Josh Barro, and Andrew Stuttaford.

And I’ve written that Mitch Daniels, Herman Cain, and Mitt Romney were not overly attractive presidential candidates because they expressed openness to the VAT.

P.S. Some of you may be asking why leftists are so anxious for a VAT since they traditionally prefer class-warfare based tax hikes that extract revenue from the rich.

But here’s one of the dirty secrets of Washington. They may not admit it in public, but sensible leftists understand that there are Laffer-Curve constraints on extracting more revenue from upper-income taxpayers.

They’re familiar with the evidence from the 1980s about the sometimes-inverse link between tax rates and tax revenue and they are aware that “rich” people have substantial control over the timing, level, and composition of their income.

So if you want to collect more money, you have to go over lower-income and middle-income taxpayer.

Which is exactly what the IMF inadvertently revealed in a study showing that VATs are the “effective” way of financing bigger government.

P.P.S. I should have written that leftists generally don’t admit that they want higher taxes on the general population. Because every so often, some of them confess that their goal is to rape and pillage the middle class.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some good VAT cartoons by clicking here, here, and here.

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A few years ago, I shared a satirical divorce decree that would allow conservatives and liberals to amicably separate into two different countries.

This seemed like a good idea, particularly since another piece of satire suggested that Canada was being overrun by statists who were upset by the Tea Party election of 2010.

And don’t forget that I wrote a serious column in 2012 speculating whether advocates of limited government should be the ones moving north instead.

But rather than divorce or mass emigration, what if we could resolve our differences and live together in peace and tranquility?

Y’all may be thinking I’m smoking some of that stuff that libertarians want to legalize, but I want to make a serious point.

Or, to be more specific, I want to test whether our statist friends are serious.

I’m motivated by this presumably legitimate Facebook message. It’s designed, I’m guessing, to poke fun at conservatives who utilize government while simultaneously complaining about government.

Having read this diatribe, I want to make two points, and then end with a proposal.

My first point is that many of the supposed benefits of government would exist even if the public sector disappeared tomorrow.

There are some government-owned utilities, but I think we all recognize that most electricity is generated by the private sector.

Private satellite companies and private news companies would provide weather forecasts in the absence of NOAA and NASA.

Private food companies and private drug companies would have big incentives to provide safe products in the absence of government inspections.

People would know how to tell time without the government.

Auto companies would have every reason to produce safe cars even if there was no regulation.

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my second point. The person who put together this screed conveniently left out the programs that account for the lion’s share of government spending.

Why doesn’t the author include agriculture programs?

Why doesn’t the author include the Ponzi Scheme otherwise known as Social Security?

Why doesn’t the author include all the money spent to subsidize other nations’ defenses?

Why doesn’t the author include bankrupt and counterproductive health care entitlements such as Obamacare, Medicare, and Medicaid?

Why doesn’t the author include the Department of Housing and Urban Development?

Why doesn’t the author include the corporate welfare at the Department of Commerce?

Why doesn’t the author include the welfare programs that trap people in dependency?

Why doesn’t the author include unemployment insurance payments that subsidize joblessness?

I could continue, but you get the point.

Which brings me to my proposal.

I’m guessing that the person who put together the diatribe wanted to make the point that there are some activities of government that produce value. And even though I think he is generally wrong to imply that these things wouldn’t happen without government, I’m willing to bend over backwards in the interests of reaching a deal.

So here’s a challenge for our friends on the left: If the author agrees to get rid of the programs he doesn’t include, I’ll agree to keep all the programs he does mention.

In other words, let’s have a compromise, which is what they recommend in all the articles about relationships. Both sides meet in the middle.

Yes, I know that means too much government, but it also means that the public sector would be a far smaller burden than it is today. Indeed, I would be surprised if the total burden of government spending exceeded 10 percent of our economic output under this proposed agreement. Which would put us somewhat close to the growth-maximizing size of government.

And don’t forget that this compromise also means that the already-legislated expansions in the burden of government spending presumably wouldn’t happen.

So my proposal doesn’t mean libertarian utopia. But it also means we don’t suffer welfare state dystopia.

Now we just have to see whether our statist friends will accept this proposed peace agreement.

Or will we find out that they’re the hypocrites, not the folks who post comments on Fox News and Free Republic?

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When I give speeches around the country, I often get asked whether it’s time to give up.

More specifically, has America reached a tipping point, with too many people riding in the wagon of government dependency and too few people creating wealth and pulling the wagon in the right direction?

These questions don’t surprise me, particularly since my speeches frequently include very grim BIS, OECD, and IMF data showing that the long-run fiscal problem in the United States is larger than it is in some nations that already are facing fiscal crisis.

But that doesn’t mean I have a good answer. I think there is a tipping point, to be sure, but I’m not sure whether there’s a single variable that tells us when we’ve reached the point of no return.

Is it when government spending consumes 50 percent of economic output? That would be a very bad development if the burden of government spending reached that level, but it’s not necessarily fatal. Back in the early 1990s, the public sector was that big in Canada, yet policy makers in that country were able to restrain budgetary growth and put the country on a positive path. Sweden is another nation that has turned the corner. Government spending peaked at 67 percent of GDP in the early 1990s, but is now down to 47 percent of GDP after years of free-market reforms.

Is it when a majority of households are getting government handouts? That’s also a worrisome development, especially if those folks see the state as a means of living off their fellow citizens. But taking a check from Uncle Sam doesn’t automatically mean a statist mindset. As one of my favorite people opined, “some government beneficiaries – such as Social Security recipients – spent their lives in the private sector and are taking benefits simply because they had no choice but to participate in the system.”

Is it when a majority of people no longer pay income taxes, leaving a shrinking minority to bear all the burden of financing government? It’s not healthy for society when most people think government is “free,” particularly if they perceive an incentive to impose even higher burdens on those who do pay. And there’s no question that the overwhelming majority of the tax burden is borne by the top 10 percent. There’s little evidence, though, that the rest of the population thinks there’s no cost to government – perhaps because many of them pay heavy payroll taxes.

I explore these issues in this interview with Charles Payne.

The main takeaway from the interview is that the tipping point is not a number, but a state of mind. It’s the health of the nation’s “social capital.”

So for what it’s worth, the country will be in deep trouble if and when the spirit of self-reliance becomes a minority viewpoint. And the bad news is that we’re heading in that direction.

The good news is that we’re not close to the point of no return. There is some polling data, for instance, showing that Americans still have a much stronger belief in liberty than their European counterparts.

And we’ve even made a small bit of progress against big government in the past few years.

I speculated in the interview that we probably have a couple of decades to save the country, but it will become increasingly difficult to make the necessary changes – such as entitlement reform and welfare decentralization – as we get closer to 2020 and 2030.

Welfare State Wagon CartoonsAnd if those changes don’t occur…?

That’s a very grim subject. I fully understand why some Americans are thinking about the steps they should take to protect their families if reforms don’t occur and a crisis occurs.

Indeed, this to me is one of the most compelling arguments against gun control. If America begins to suffer the chaos and disarray that we’ve seen in nations such as Greece, it’s better to be well-armed.

Though maybe there will be some nations that remain stable as the world’s welfare states collapse. And if emigration is your preferred option, I’d bet on Australia.

But wouldn’t it be better to fix what’s wrong and stay in America?

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If you don’t like the NSA collecting and monitoring all your communications, you probably won’t be thrilled about new technologies that will give government power to monitor where you drive and control how you drive.

Let’s look at a couple of options and then ponder which is more offensive.

We’ll start with government monitoring of where you drive. Here’s part of what Holman Jenkins wrote for the Wall Street Journal.

…the real threat to our autonomy gathers speed. “Autonomous” vehicles are part of the threat—because they won’t be autonomous at all. This column has warned for years about plate-recognition cameras, increasingly armed with face-recognition capabilities, that will make it impossible to go anywhere or do anything in public without being monitored. …The population is aging. An older, more timid society is likely to be in favor of penning up fellow citizens in a mesh of monitoring to regulate routine behavior. The authoritarianism of the weak, always a problem in society, will find an ally in the bureaucracy’s craving for resources.

Holman cites a few examples.

Traffic cameras…overwhelmingly ring up drivers for offenses that wouldn’t trouble a cop. New Jersey is just the latest state scandalized by discovery that yellow lights are set below the state minimum in order to yield more red-light camera tickets. …In some future discrimination or hate-crime lawsuit, will vehicle records be called up to show you locked your doors in a minority neighborhood but not in a white neighborhood? Will the state decide to raise your ObamaCare copays because a face-recognition camera also recognized a cigarette dangling from your lip? When our every action in space and cyberspace can be monitored and policed, we no longer police ourselves to any meaningful extent. We become not citizens but children. The state is our parent. The real threat is that many of our fellow citizens will like it this way.

This sounds very Orwellian and very bad, but there are other ways for government to make driving an unpleasant experience.

Let’s see what the UK-based Daily Mail is reporting about an obnoxious European proposal to give government control over your gas pedal.

Drivers face having their cars  fitted with devices that slam on the brakes if they go over the speed limit, under draconian new road safety measures being drawn up by  officials in Brussels. All new cars would have to include camera systems that ‘read’ the limits displayed on road signs and automatically apply the brakes. And vehicles already on the road could even be sent back to garages to be fitted with the ‘Big Brother’ technology… The EC’s Mobility and Transport Department hopes to roll out the ‘Intelligent Speed Adaptation’ technology (ISA) as part of a new road safety programme.

And how will this big-brother system work?

The ISA technology works in one of two ways – either through satellites, which communicate limits automatically to cars from databases, or by using cameras to read road signs. It then deploys one of three controls to slow drivers: ‘advice’, in which the motorist is simply notified of the speed limit by an alarm, giving them the opportunity to slow down; ‘driver select’, which arrests the car’s speed but gives the driver the option of disabling the device; or ‘mandatory’, which would not let a driver breach the speed limit under any circumstances. …A spokesman for the AA said at lower speeds the new technology could actually create dangers. He said: ‘If you were overtaking a tractor and suddenly needed to accelerate to avoid a head-on collision, you would not be able to.’

I’m glad people from the Automobile Association are warning that the system poses risks, but opposition should be based on more than utilitarian arguments. How about the freedom to be left alone and not monitored and pestered while you travel?

But let’s set that issue aside and contemplate whether it’s worse to have the government track where you drive or worse to have the government control how you drive.

Maybe this makes me a bad libertarian, but I’m not overly worried about the first option. Perhaps this is because I have a relatively staid life. I drive to work and I drive to softball. Every so often, I drive to the grocery store or to an airport. The bureaucrats tracking me would go crazy with boredom. Heck, I’d probably feel some pressure to spice up my social life simply because I’d feel sympathy for them.

Maybe they’ll force us to drive green cars?

By contrast, I would be very irritated if the government got control over my accelerator. It’s already annoying that revenue-hungry local governments and anti-automobile greenies conspire to set speed limits considerably below safe and efficient levels. But at least there’s very little risk if you drive within 10 miles of the limit and you always have the choice to drive even faster if you’re willing to take a chance that some random cop will pull you over. But if the government imposes some system that forces my car to stay within the speed limit, I won’t be a happy camper.

I’ll be very curious to read the comments for this post. In the meantime, I’m going to close with a few optimistic words.

Simply stated, government may have the technology to spy on us, but that doesn’t mean they have the brains, ability, or manpower to make much use of this power.

Money laundering laws are a good example. It’s rather offensive that the government has set up a system that forces banks and other financial institutions to spy on all of our financial transactions.

But other than imposing high costs on the financial sector, this system doesn’t have much impact on the average person. To be sure, some poor people lose access to the financial system. And, yes, there are horror stories about people who have their accounts frozen because they’ve engaged in an unusual transaction, but most of us will live our lives without ever noticing that the government has created this Orwellian regime.

Likewise, I don’t think the monitoring and collection of traffic data will impact our lives. At least not until the point the government uses its power in some of the ways described by Holman Jenkins. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

I’m also somewhat hopeful that car-control technologies won’t get abused. At least not right away. Local governments, for instance, would probably oppose a system to control travel speeds for the simple reason that they want to maintain the revenue from speeding tickets.

Moreover, I bet many Americans would rise up in revolt if the government tried to take control of our gas pedals. Politicians who pushed for such a scheme would lose election and bureaucrats who tried to impose such a system via regulation would get slapped down.

We’ve lost some of our freedoms and fighting spirit, but there are some lines the government still can’t cross. Driving faster than the government allows is as American as apple pie.

P.S. Speaking of American traditions, what about the young (and not-so-young) people who sometimes do a bit of romancing while in their cars? Maybe the bureaucrats (motivated by this Obama-NSA joke) will insist that we also install internal cameras in our vehicles.

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I’m not sure I could pick out a significant victory for human freedom in 2012.

Maybe I’m missing something, but the only good policy that’s even worth mentioning was the decision in Wisconsin to rein in the special privileges and excessive compensation for government workers.

But there definitely have been lots of sad developments.

The hard part is picking the most disappointing story.

1. Was it the craven decision by John Roberts to put politics before the Constitution and cast the deciding vote for Obamacare? This certainly could be the most disappointing event of the year, but technically it didn’t represent a step in the wrong direction since the Supreme Court basically gave a green light to unlimited federal power back in the 1930s and 1940s. The Obamacare case is best characterized as a failure to do the right thing. A very tragic decision, to be sure, but it maintained the status quo.

2. Was it the lawless decision by the Internal Revenue Service to impose a horrible regulation that forces American banks to put foreign law above U.S. law? This was a very bad development in the battle for tax competition, financial privacy, and fiscal sovereignty. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another in a long line of policies (such as FATCA) designed to increase the power of governments to impose and enforce bad tax policy.

3. Was it the Japanese government’s decision to double the value-added tax? I’m definitely not a fan of adding a VAT on top of the income tax, but Japan made that mistake years ago. The choice to increase the tax rate just shows why it’s dangerous to give politicians any new source of revenue. So this isn’t the worst policy development of 2012, particularly since the new Japanese government may suspend the tax hike.

4. Was it the delusional decision by 54 percent of California voters to impose a big, class-warfare tax hike? I thought the vote for Prop 30 was a very troubling development since it signaled that voters could be tricked into enacting class-warfare tax policy, even though they should have realized that more revenue for the state’s politicians would simply exacerbate the eventual fiscal collapse. But since I think this will be a learning experience on what not to do, I can’t put this at the top of my list.

5. Was it the French government’s punitive decision to impose a 75-percent top tax rate? This is a spectacularly misguided policy, and it’s already resulting in an exodus of entrepreneurs and other successful people. But just as I enjoy have California as a negative role model, I like using France as an example of bad policy. So it would be a bit hypocritical for me to list this as the worst policy of 2012.

6. Or was it the envy-motivated decisions by politicians in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic to replace flat tax systems with so-called progressive tax regimes? This is a strong candidate for the worst policy of the year. It’s very rare to see governments do the right thing, so it’s really tragic when politicians implement good reforms and later decide to reinstate class-warfare policies.

All things considered, I think this last option is the worst policy development of 2012. To be sure, I’m a bit biased since my work focuses on public finance issues and I’ve spent 20 years advocating for tax reform.

But I think there’s a strong case to be made, by anyone who believes in freedom, that politicians from Slovakia and the Czech Republic deserve the booby prize for worst public policy development of 2012.

Alvin Rabushka, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Flat Tax , summarizes the grim news.

On December 4, 2013, the center-left parliament of Slovakia modified the country’s historic 19% flat-rate tax…  Effective January 1, 2013, the income tax rate for corporations was raised from 19% to 23%, while that on individuals earning more than €39,600 (€1=$1.30) a year was raised to 25%, thereby creating two brackets of 19% and 25%. …On November 7, 2012, the lower house (Chamber of Deputies) of the national parliament approved a proposal to impose a second higher rate of 22% on annual income exceeding Czech Koruna (CZK) 100,000 ($5,200) per month.  President Vaclav Klaus signed the bill on December 22, 2012, which will take effect on January 1, 2013.

What’s especially depressing about these two defeats is that the supposedly right-wing parties deserve the blame.

Two nations filled with brain-dead conservative politicians

In Slovakia, all but one of the right-leaning parties in the old government decided to support the Greek bailout, leading to the collapse of the government and the election of a new socialist government that then sabotaged tax reform.

And in the Czech Republic, the current right-of-center government decided to scrap the flat tax for “fairness” reasons. I’m sure that will really be comforting to the Czech people as the economy suffers from less growth.

To understand what the people of those nations are losing, here’s my video on the flat tax.

Now for a bit of good news. There are still more than 25 flat tax jurisdictions in the world, including two of my favorite places – Hong Kong and Estonia.

So there are still some pockets of rationality. It’s just very unfortunate that the scope of human liberty is getting smaller every year.

P.S. The absolute worst thing that happened in 2012, if we look beyond public policy, was Georgia falling 4 yards short of beating Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Championship.

P.P.S. Speaking of sports, the best thing about 2012 occurred in Virginia Beach back in October.

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Over the past few years, I’ve shared a handful of images that capture the essence of government.

Now I have something new to add to the list – an image showing the evolution of government.

Evolution of Government

I’m not quite sure what the next-to-last image is supposed to specifically convey, but the clear message throughout is that government means coercion.

And that coercion doesn’t become legitimate merely because 51 percent of the population decides to plunder 49 percent of the population.

Which is perfectly shown by the final image, which accurately portrays today’s system of government and the IRS.

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I’ve written, ad nauseum, about the economic impact of excessive government spending.

But I’ve also acknowledged that Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution grants specific powers to the federal government.

What I’ve neglected to explore, though, is the key issue of how today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities.

Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people.

In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

I’m mostly thinking about reducing the inefficiency and incompetence of Washington, but the same principle applies to other levels of government.

Using lots of humor and sarcasm, Mark Steyn elaborates on this issue.

In political terms, Hurricane Sandy and the Benghazi consulate debacle exemplify at home and abroad the fundamental unseriousness of the United States in the Obama era. …John Brennan, the Counterterrorism guy, and Tony Blinken, the National Security honcho, briefed the president on the stiff breeze, but on Sept. 11, 2012, when a little counterterrorism was called for, nobody bothered calling the Counterterrorism Security Group, the senior U.S. counterterrorism bureaucracy. …our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it. …one Obama bill spent a little shy of a trillion dollars, and no one can point to a single thing it built. “A big storm requires Big Government,” pronounced The New York Times. But Washington is so big-hearted with Big Government it spends $188 million an hour that it doesn’t have – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Ramadan. And yet, mysteriously, multitrillion-dollar Big Government Obama-style can’t doanything except sluice food stamps to the dependent class, lavish benefits and early retirement packages to the bureaucrats that service them, and so-called government “investment” to approved Obama cronies. …Last week, Nanny Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, rivaled his own personal best for worst mayoral performance since that snowstorm a couple of years back. This is a man who spends his days micromanaging the amount of soda New Yorkers are allowed to have in their beverage containers rather than, say, the amount of ocean New Yorkers are allowed to have in their subway system – just as, in the previous crisis, the municipal titan who can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger proved utterly incapable of regulating any salt on to Sixth Avenue. Imagine if this preening buffoon had expended as much executive energy on flood protection for the electrical grid and transit system as he does on approved quantities of carbonated beverages. But that’s leadership 21st-century style: When the going gets tough, the tough ban trans fats. Back in Benghazi, the president who looks so cool in a bomber jacket declined to answer his beleaguered diplomats’ calls for help – even though he had aircraft and Special Forces in the region. Too bad. He’s all jacket and no bombers. This, too, is an example of America’s uniquely profligate impotence. When something goes screwy at a ramshackle consulate halfway round the globe, very few governments have the technological capacity to watch it unfold in real time. Even fewer have deployable military assets only a couple of hours away. What is the point of unmanned drones, of military bases around the planet, of elite Special Forces trained to the peak of perfection if the president and the vast bloated federal bureaucracy cannot rouse themselves to action? What is the point of outspending Russia, Britain, France, China, Germany and every middle-rank military power combined if, when it matters, America cannot urge into the air one plane with a couple of dozen commandoes? In Iraq, al-Qaida is running training camps in the western desert. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are all but certain to return most of the country to its pre-9/11 glories. But in Washington the head of the world’s biggest “counterterrorism” bureaucracy briefs the president on flood damage and downed trees.

Amen. Four Americans are dead in part because the idiots in Washington are focused on things that are not the proper responsibility of the federal government.

I don’t know if this was his intent, but Steyn just made a very compelling argument for the libertarian vision.

Here are a few of my favorite examples of Steyn’s writings.

This post is about the link between effective government and small government, with the obvious implication that the current federal behemoth is largely incapable of handling its legitimate responsibilities. Well, the flip side is that doesn’t do a good job in areas where it shouldn’t be involved, as cleverly illustrated by this cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of libertarianism, here’s some self-mocking humor. We’ll start with a video portraying Somalia as a libertarian paradise, followed by cartoons on libertarian ice fishing and libertarian lifeguards, then an info-graphic showing 24 types of libertarians, and close with a poster showing how the world sees libertarians.

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I’ve already written about the despicable practice of “civil forfeiture,” which allows governments to confiscate the property of innocent people who have not been convicted of any crime.

And I’ve cited great columns on the issue from George Will and John Stossel., as well a sobering report on the topic from the Wall Street Journal.

Now the Institute for Justice has a video that should outrage any decent person.

It’s examples of government thuggery like this that make me a libertarian. You should be one as well.

If you need more convincing, check out these horror stories of statist abuse.

But let’s end on a happy note, with a few jokes about cops, one sympathetic, one mocking, and one political.

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If you can read the following and not get upset, you are not a good person. Please move to France (where higher taxes are “patriotic”) and don’t come back.

I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, but you’ll hopefully understand after reading this excerpt from a very disturbing report posted on Zero Hedge.

Jacques Wajsfelner of Weston, Massachusetts is a criminal mastermind. Big time. Like Lex Luthor. But rest easy, ladies and gentlemen, for this nefarious villain is about to face some serious jail time thanks to the courageous work of US government agents. You see, Mr. Wajsfelner was finally caught and convicted of a most heinous crime: failing to disclose his foreign bank account to the US government. Note– he was not convicted of tax evasion. He was not convicted of failing to file or pay taxes. His crime was not filing the annual Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR). Because of his failure to disclose his foreign bank account, Wajsfelner is now looking at FIVE YEARS behind bars in a Day-Glo orange jumpsuit. Oh, one more thing– Wajsfelner is 83 years old. He was born in Germany during the global depression and rise of Adolf Hitler. The Wajsfelner family soon fled the Nazi regime and made its way to the United States.

Please note that Mr. Wajsfelner didn’t get convicted of not paying tax. He got convicted for the utterly trivial and victimless “crime” of not reporting a foreign bank account.

So the government is sending a completely harmless old man to jail for something that shouldn’t be illegal (and if we had a flat tax, there would be no double taxation of saving and investment, so it wouldn’t matter for tax purposes if your bank account was in Georgetown, Kentucky, or Georgetown, Cayman Islands).

Now let’s compare the treatment of Mr. Wajsfelner with the way some real criminals are treated.

Then there’s Eric Higgins of Port Huron, Michigan, who was recently busted for major possession of child pornography and engaging in sexually explicit conversations with juveniles online. He was given 20 months. Oh… and Mr. Higgins was a US Customs & Border Patrol agent. …Or Ricardo Cordero, another US Customs & Border Patrol officer who was given 27-months for personally smuggling 30 Mexican nationals into the United States, and assisting another smuggler to bring 15 Mexican nationals across the border. This genius even had the smuggler testify as a character witness at his divorce proceeding! Or Jon Corzine, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and member of the political elite, who presided over one of the largest plunders in the financial system ever seen during the recent MF Global collapse. He walks the streets freely to this day.

The article closes with a very accurate – but understated – assessment of the federal government.

It seems pretty clear where the US government stands: the victimless crime of failing to report a foreign bank account is far more egregious than, say, possession of child pornography, engaging with minors in online sex chat, bribery, extortion, fraud, and abuse of official power.

This horrifying example of government abuse is a good example of why I’m a libertarian. Yes, I get upset about bloated and counterproductive government spending. And I also get irked by our punitive and destructive class-warfare tax system.

But what gets me most upset is unfair tyranny against powerless people. If your stomach can stand it, here are some more examples.

Every one of the government officials involved in these episodes should be fired. And they should consider themselves lucky that tar and feathers are no longer a method of dealing with despicable bureaucrats.

P.S. The Zero Hedge website is also the source of the extremely funny and clever ethnic analysis of Europe.

P.P.S. While I utterly despise bureaucrats who engage in thuggish behavior, I’m not a big fan of bureaucrats in general.

P.P.P.S. The government’s grotesque treatment of Mr. Wajsfelner is part of the overall attack on tax competition. Heaven forbid people have the freedom to benefit from better tax policy in other jurisdictions!

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I’ve written posts revealing horror stories of government abuse and argued that people should become libertarian.

I’ve commented on research ostensibly showing that conservatives and libertarians don’t necessarily share moral premises.

And I’ve even speculated on whether libertarianism and patriotism are somehow inconsistent (this Penn & Teller video gives the right answer).

But I’ve never done a poll to gauge libertarian sentiment, so let’s do an experiment. Here’s an excerpt from a BBC report.

A farmer in the US state of Vermont who was facing a minor drugs charge is now in more serious trouble after driving a tractor over seven police cars. Roger Pion crushed the county sheriff’s cruisers on Thursday before making his getaway on the farm vehicle. The 34-year-old was stopped by police in Newport city, northern Vermont, not far from the crime scene. Sheriff’s deputies were unaware of the destruction in their department car park until a resident called 911. Orleans County Sheriff Kirk Martin said they were initially unable to give chase as their cars had been wrecked.

Now share your anonymous reaction.

If you’re so disposed, feel free to augment your vote in the comments section.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I’m torn between the third and fourth options.

When I think about it logically and dispassionately, I know I should pick the third choice. But my rebellious inner child wants to cheer for somebody who fights back, so I’m tempted to take the last option. That same inner child, by the way, was quite amused that the cops couldn’t even give chase because their cars were totaled.

Maybe this makes me a libertarian chicken hawk. I cheer for people who fight back even though I wouldn’t do the same thing.

Sort of like my attitude toward tax evasion. I applaud people who take that risk (assuming they live in nations with unjust governments), but am too cowed by the IRS to do it myself.

But I’m not a complete coward. I almost got thrown in a Mexican jail for opposing the tax-hungry bureaucrats at the OECD. That has to count for something.

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I periodically provide mind-blowing examples of individuals who have their lives turned upside down by evil bureaucrats.

You may think “evil” is too strong a word, but it sticks in my mind after perusing these examples of abusive actions by the federal government.

Now we have a George Will column that will get you very angry. At least if you’re a good person.

Will starts by describing the federal bureaucracy’s attack on an innocent woman for a non-crime.

…our unhinged government, with an obsession like that of Melville’s Ahab, has crippled Nancy Black’s scientific career, cost her more than $100,000 in legal fees — so far — and might sentence her to 20 years in prison. This Kafkaesque burlesque of law enforcement began when someone whistled. Black, 50, a marine biologist who also captains a whale-watching ship, was with some watchers in Monterey Bay in 2005 when a member of her crew whistled at the humpback that had approached her boat, hoping to entice the whale to linger. Back on land, another of her employees called the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to ask if the whistling constituted “harassment” of a marine mammal, which is an “environmental crime.” NOAA requested a video of the episode, which Black sent after editing it slightly to highlight the whistling. NOAA found no harassment — but got her indicted for editing the tape, calling this a “material false statement” to federal investigators, which is a felony under the 1863 False Claims Act, intended to punish suppliers defrauding the government during the Civil War.

But it gets worse, because the federal jack-boots then raided her office (I don’t even know what “jack-boots” are, but they signify government thuggery, and that’s definitely a good description of what happened).

…after this bizarre charge — that she lied about the interaction with the humpback that produced no charges — more than a dozen federal agents, led by one from NOAA, raided her home. They removed her scientific photos, business files and computers.

This unfortunate woman has also been charged with another non-crime.

She has also been charged with the crime of feeding killer whales when she and two aides were in a dinghy observing them feeding on strips of blubber torn from their prey — a gray whale. To facilitate photographing the killers’ feeding habits, she cut a hole in one of the floating slabs of blubber and, through the hole, attached a rope to stabilize the slab while a camera on a pole recorded the whales’ underwater eating. So she is charged with “feeding” killer whales that were already feeding on a gray whale they had killed. She could more plausibly be accused of interfering with the feeding.

As an aside, Will notes that the NOAA bureaucrats have little regard for the Constitution.

Six years ago, NOAA agents, who evidently consider the First Amendment a dispensable nuisance, told Black’s scientific colleagues not to talk to her and to inform them if they were contacted by her or her lawyers. Since then she has not spoken with one of her best friends.

Most important, he concludes with the key point about how all of us are threatened by Leviathan.

In 1980, federal statutes specified 3,000 criminal offenses; by 2007, 4,450. They continue to multiply. Often, as in Black’s case, they are untethered from the common-law tradition ofmens rea, which holds that a crime must involve a criminal intent — a guilty mind. Legions of government lawyers inundate targets like Black with discovery demands, producing financial burdens that compel the innocent to surrender in order to survive. The protracted and pointless tormenting of Black illustrates the thesis of Harvey Silverglate’s invaluable 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent.” Silverglate, a civil liberties lawyer in Boston, chillingly demonstrates how the mad proliferation of federal criminal laws — which often are too vague to give fair notice of what behavior is proscribed or prescribed — means that “our normal daily activities expose us to potential prosecution at the whim of a government official.” Such laws, which enable government zealots to accuse almost anyone of committing three felonies in a day, do not just enable government misconduct, they incite prosecutors to intimidate decent people who never had culpable intentions. And to inflict punishments without crimes. …The more Americans learn about their government’s abuse of criminal law for capricious bullying, the more likely they are to recoil in a libertarian direction and put Leviathan on a short leash.

Utterly disgusting. As Glenn Reynolds periodically suggests, “tar, feathers” would be an appropriate way of dealing with these hyenas.

By the way, government thuggery is not limited to the crowd in Washington.

P.S. For the second time, I feel compelled to apologize to Hyenas. They’re part of the natural ecosystem. Thuggish bureaucrats, by contrast, are a malignant and artificial force.

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Our fiscal policy goal should be smaller government, but here’s a video for folks who think that balancing the budget should be the main objective.

The main message is that restraining the growth of government is the right way to get rid of red ink, so there is no conflict between advocates of limited government and supporters of fiscal balance.

More specifically, the video shows that it is possible to quickly balance the budget while also making all the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent and protecting taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax. All these good things can happen if politicians simply limit annual spending growth to 2 percent each year. And they’ll happen even faster if spending grows at an even slower rate.

This debunks the statist argument that there is no choice but to raise taxes.

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Our tax system in America is an absurd nightmare, but at least we have some ability to monitor what is happening. We can’t get too aggressive (nobody wants the ogres at the IRS breathing down their necks), but at least we can adjust our withholding levels and control what gets put on our annual tax returns. The serfs in the United Kingdom are in much worse shape. To a large degree, the tax authority (Inland Revenue) decides everyone’s tax liability, and taxpayers have no role other than to meekly acquiesce. But now the statists over in London have decided to go one step farther and have proposed to require employers to send all paychecks directly to the government. The politicians and bureaucrats that comprise the ruling class then would decide how much to pass along to the people actually earning the money. Here’s a CNBC report on the issue.
The UK’s tax collection agency is putting forth a proposal that all employers send employee paychecks to the government, after which the government would deduct what it deems as the appropriate tax and pay the employees by bank transfer. The proposal by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) stresses the need for employers to provide real-time information to the government so that it can monitor all payments and make a better assessment of whether the correct tax is being paid. …George Bull, head of Tax at Baker Tilly, told CNBC.com. “If HMRC has direct access to employees’ bank accounts and makes a mistake, people are going to feel very exposed and vulnerable,” Bull said. And the chance of widespread mistakes could be high, according to Bull. HMRC does not have a good track record of handling large computer systems and has suffered high-profile errors with data, he said. …the cost of implementing the new system would be “phenomenal,” Bull pointed out.  …The Institute of Directors (IoD), a UK organization created to promote the business agenda of directors and entreprenuers, said in a press release it had major concerns about the proposal to allow employees’ pay to be paid directly to HMRC. 
This is withholding on steroids. Politicians love pay-as-you-earn (as it’s called on the other side of the ocean), largely because it disguises the burden of government. Many workers never realize how much of their paychecks are confiscated by politicians. Indeed, they probably think greedy companies are to blame when higher tax burdens result in less take-home pay. This new system could have an even more corrosive effect. It presumably would become more difficult for taxpayers to know how much government is costing them, and some people might even begin to think that their pay is the result of political kindness. After all, zoo animals often feel gratitude to the keepers that feed (and enslave) them.

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Jeff Jacoby righteously – and rightfully – condemns the moral perversion that allows people to overlook the barbaric cruelty and oppression of communism.

If Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died on Friday at 87, had been an unrepentant Nazi for the last four decades, he would never have won international acclaim or received the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. Leading publishers would never have brought out his books, his works would not have been translated into more than 20 languages, and the head of Portugal’s government would never have said on his death — as Prime Minister José Sócrates did say last week — that he was “one of our great cultural figures and his disappearance has left our culture poorer.” But Saramago wasn’t a Nazi, he was a communist. And not just a nominal communist, as his obituaries pointed out, but an “unabashed” (Washington Post), “unflinching’’ (AP), “unfaltering’’ (New York Times) true believer. A member since 1969 of Portugal’s hardline Communist Party, Saramago called himself a “hormonal communist’’ who in all the years since had “found nothing better.” …the idea that good people can be devoted communists is grotesque. The two categories are mutually exclusive. There was a time, perhaps, when dedication to communism could be absolved as misplaced idealism or naiveté, but that day is long past. After Auschwitz and Babi Yar, only a moral cripple could be a committed Nazi. By the same token, there are no good and decent communists — not after the Gulag Archipelago and the Cambodian killing fields and Mao’s “Great Leap Forward.’’ Not after the testimonies of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Armando Valladares and Dith Pran. In the decades since 1917, communism has led to more slaughter and suffering than any other cause in human history. Communist regimes on four continents sent an estimated 100 million men, women, and children to their deaths — not out of misplaced zeal in pursuit of a fundamentally beautiful theory, but out of utopian fanaticism and an unquenchable lust for power. Mass murder and terror have always been intrinsic to communism. “Many archives and witnesses prove conclusively,’’ wrote Stéphane Courtois in his introduction to “The Black Book of Communism,’’ a magisterial compendium of communist crimes first published in France in 1997, “that terror has always been one of the basic ingredients of modern communism.’’ The uniqueness of the Holocaust notwithstanding, the savageries of communism and of Nazism are morally interchangeable — except that the former began much earlier than the latter, lasted much longer, and shed far more blood.

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I don’t often agree with the statist president of the European Commission, but Mr. Barroso may be right when he warns that some nations are at risk of descending back into dictatorship. But while he may be correct in his diagnosis, his proposed solution is more of the policies – redistribution, handounts, bailouts, and subsidies – that have caused nations to get in trouble in the first place. At best, this approach postpones the day of reckoning – but it also causes a much bigger collapse.

During my recent visits to Europe, I was surprised by the level of pessimism from all segments of the population. The general assessment is that Europe is heading downhill and that there is little hope of changing direction because too many people have been convinced by politicians that they are entitled to mooch. But, as Margaret Thatcher famously warned, the problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money. That is what is happening in Europe. But rather than sober up, the Greeks and others are rioting in hopes of finding new victims to consume. Many people I talked to expressed concern that this attitude eventually would cause economic collapse and lead to some sort of anti-democratic rule. The optimists (if you can call them that) think the result may be some sort of soft despotism dictated by Brussels and enforced by bribes from (mostly) German taxpayers. Others are more dour and fear the rise of more malignant forms of dictatorship.

Here’s a blurb from the U.K.-based Daily Mail:

Democracy could ‘collapse’ in Greece, Spain and Portugal unless urgent action is taken to tackle the debt crisis, the head of the European Commission has warned. In an extraordinary briefing to trade union chiefs last week, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso set out an ‘apocalyptic’ vision in which crisis-hit countries in southern Europe could fall victim to military coups or popular uprisings as interest rates soar and public services collapse because their governments run out of money. The stark warning came as it emerged that EU chiefs have begun work on an emergency bailout package for Spain which is likely to run into hundreds of billions of pounds. …Leaders are expected to thrash out a rescue package for Spain’s teetering economy. Spain is expected to ask for an initial guarantee of at least £100 billion, although this figure could rise sharply if the crisis deepens. News of the behind-the-scenes scramble in Brussels spells bad news for the British economy as many of our major banks have loaned Spain vast sums of money in recent years. Germany’s authoritative Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper reported that Spain is poised to ask for multi-billion pound credits. Mr Barroso and Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank are united on the need for a rescue plan. The looming bankruptcy of Spain, one of the foremost economies in Europe, poses far more of a threat to European unity and the euro project than Greece. Greece contributes 2.5 percent of GDP to Europe, Spain nearly 12 percent.

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Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute explains in the Wall Street Journal that Americans protest to restrain government while European riot to expand the burden of the state. But this American spirit of self reliance may not last if government seduces more and more people into dependency – and I think fighting against this grim possibility is the chief motivating force of the tea party movement.

Many Europeans also expect others to work so they can live. The International Social Survey Programme asked Americans and Europeans whether they believe “It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income between people with high incomes and those with low incomes.” In virtually all of Western Europe more than 50% agree, and in many countries it is much higher—77% in Spain, whose redistributive economy is in shambles. Meanwhile, only 33% of Americans agree with income redistribution.  Simply put, Europeans have a much stronger taste for other people’s money than we do. This is vividly illustrated by the recent protests in the U.S. and Greece. Why are citizens rioting and striking in Greece? Despite the worst economic crisis in decades, labor unions and state functionaries demand that others pay for the early retirements, lifetime benefits and state pensions to which they feel entitled. In America, however, the tea partiers demonstrate not to get more from others, but rather against government growth, public debt, bailouts and a budget-busting government overhaul of the health-care industry. In other words, the tea partiers are protesting against exactly what the Greeks are demanding. It is an example of American exceptionalism if there ever was one.

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David Ranson had a good column earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal explaining that federal tax revenues historically have hovered around 19 percent of gross domestic product, regardless whether tax rates are high or low. One reason for this relationship, as he explains, is that the Laffer Curve is a real-world constraint on class warfare tax policy. When politicians boost tax rates, that motivates taxpayers to earn and/or report less income to the IRS:

The feds assume a relationship between the economy and tax revenue that is divorced from reality. Six decades of history have established one far-reaching fact that needs to be built into fiscal calculations: Increases in federal tax rates, particularly if targeted at the higher brackets, produce no additional revenue. For politicians this is truly an inconvenient truth. …tax revenue has grown over the past eight decades along with the size of the economy. It illustrates the empirical relationship first introduced on this page 20 years ago by the Hoover Institution’s W. Kurt Hauser—a close proportionality between revenue and GDP since World War II, despite big changes in marginal tax rates in both directions. “Hauser’s Law,” as I call this formula, reveals a kind of capacity ceiling for federal tax receipts at about 19% of GDP. …he tax base is not something that the government can kick around at will. It represents a living economic system that makes its own collective choices. In a tax code of 70,000 pages there are innumerable ways for high-income earners to seek out and use ambiguities and loopholes. The more they are incentivized to make an effort to game the system, the less the federal government will get to collect.

Several people have asked my opinion about the piece. I like the column, of course, but I’m not nearly so optimistic that 19 percent of GDP represents some sort of limit on the federal government’s taxing power. There are many nations in Europe with tax burdens closer to 50 percent, for instance, so governments obviously have figured how to extract much higher shares of national output. Part of the difference is because America has a federal system, and state and local governments collect taxes of about 10 percent of GDP. That still leaves a significant gap in total tax collections, though, so the real question is why American politicians are not as proficient as their European cousins at confiscating money from the private sector?

One reason is that European countries have value-added taxes, which are a disturbingly efficient way of generating more revenue. So does this mean that “Hauser’s Law” will protect us if politicians are too scared to impose a nationwide sales tax? That’s certainly a necessary condition for restraining government, but probably not a sufficient condition. If you look at the table, which is excerpted from the OECD’s annual Revenue Statistics publication, you can see that nations such as New Zealand and Denmark have figured out how to extract huge amounts of money using the personal and corporate income tax.

In some cases, tax rates are higher in other nations, but the main factor seems to be that the top tax rates in other nations are imposed at much lower levels of income. Americans don’t get hit with the maximum tax rate until our incomes are nine times the national average. In other nations, by contrast, the top tax rates take effect much faster, in some cases when taxpayers have just average incomes. In other words, European nations collect a lot more money because they impose much higher tax rates on ordinary people. Here’s a chart I put together a few years ago for a paper I wrote for Heritage (you can find updated numbers in Table 1.7 of this OECD website, but the chart will still look the same).

Europeans also sometimes impose high tax rates on rich people, but this is not the reason that tax receipts consume nearly 50 percent of GDP in some nations. Rich people in Europe, like their counterparts in America, have much greater ability to control the amount of taxable income that is earned and/or reported. These “Laffer Curve” responses limit the degree to which politicians can finance big government on the backs of a small minority.

But class-warfare tax rates on the rich do serve a very important political goal. Politicians understand that ordinary people will be less likely to resist oppressive tax rates if they think that those with larger incomes are being treated even worse. Simply stated, higher tax rates on the rich are a necessary precondition for higher tax rates on average taxpayers.

For “Hauser’s Law” to be effective, this means proponents of limited government need to fight two battles. First, they need to stop a VAT. Second, they need to block higher tax rates on the so-called rich in order to prevent higher tax rates on the middle class.

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A new study from the University of Michigan Law School’s Empirical Legal Studies Center finds that it is more difficult today for politicians to impose excessive financial regulation because firms can migrate to jurisdictions with more pro-market policy. The author notes tht this is less true for institutions, such as big banks, that want government protection, but laissez-faire entities such as hedge funds have substantial ability to flee bad government policy:

Jurisdictional competition spread from corporate law to its close cousin, securities law. Historically, issuers listed their stock for trading on one of the exchanges in the country where they principally did business. Improvements in communication and related technologies, however, have made possible an international market for stock exchange listings that resembles in many respects the long‐standing federal market for corporate charters in the United States. Now companies can list their shares for trading on exchanges in any number of countries; there is no longer a logical nexus between the site of a company’s headquarters and where its shares are traded. …Does that free movement of capital limit the ability of the Obama administration to reform financial regulation in the United States? …After the United States effectively raised listing standards by enacting the Sarbanes‐Oxley Act in 2002, foreign companies headed for the door. London seized the opportunity; fourteen of the top twenty initial public offerings (“IPOs”) listed on the London Stock Exchange (“LSE”) came from outside the United Kingdom in 2005 to 2008. By contrast, only four of the top twenty IPOs in New York came from outside the United States. Further, it was not only foreign companies that were leaving; United States companies left the public market in droves, headed for the greener (or at less regulated) fields of private equity, and they were not being replaced. A Grant Thornton study documented a staggering thirty‐nine percent decline in United States listings from a peak of 8,823 in 1997 to only 5,401 in 2008. …hedge funds can go elsewhere if a country tries to enmesh them in red tape. Running a hedge fund only requires an office and an Internet connection. …Debates over hedge fund regulation take place against the shadow of the threat of the flight of these financial intermediaries. And that flight has already begun. The United Kingdom raised its top tax rate to fifty percent in April. That move, along with EU restrictions on borrowing by hedge funds, already prompted a number of hedge funds to emigrate to greener pastures. …Hedge fund bankers are not happy about being treated like bankers. Unlike bankers, however, they do not have to stick around and take it. “About [twenty] percent of the hedge‐fund community could leave the [United Kingdom] in the next two or three years. The feeling among the hedge‐community is there is a better place to be.” Where is that better place? Asia. Places like Singapore are attracting hedge funds… Of course, the fact that Singapore does not tax capital gains may have had something to do with its attractiveness. …So what does global competition mean for populist retribution against the money changers? Apparently it depends on the mobility of the money changes you are talking about. Big banks need government backing to be credible with depositors and counterparties, so the bankers at those institutions are going to have to stick around and take it. Smaller institutions, like hedge funds, are much more portable, and if Western governments attempt to impose banker‐like restrictions on them, they will head elsewhere. …The forces of financial capitalism can no longer be confined within the boundaries of a single nation, so regulation is not simply a matter of mustering the requisite political will. There is no shortage of anger against the bankers in the current environment, but it can only be deployed against financial intermediaries who cannot flee the regulatory wrath. …International competition in financial services regulation now serves as a check on populist retribution, but only a partial one.

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