Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conditional offers of money do not coerce

I have sent the following letter to the editor to the Wall Street Journal, commenting on an article, ObamaCare's Next Constitutional Challenge, which can be read here.

To the editor:

Challenging the constitutionality of recent Medicaid legislation, Richard Epstein and Mario Loyola claim that it is coercive for “the federal government … [to] use its power to tax and spend to bludgeon all states into conformity.”

Their basic mistake is to lump together the very separate powers to tax and to spend and refer to them as a “power” in the singular. Taxes are always collected at the point of the sword; they are always based on coercion. If the coercive nature of the way the government gets it money is considered to render its expenditures coercive, all government expenditures would be coercive.

There is a fundamental difference between a conscripted army and an all volunteer army. A drafted army recruits by applying coercion (threats of fine, imprisonment, or—in some countries—execution) to the individuals being recruited. An all volunteer army offers inducements to serve, and those who do not serve do not receive these inducements. The inducements are financed with tax money extracted coercively from everybody, but this does not mean that the volunteer soldiers were coerced into serving.

Epstein and Loyola correctly note that “it is fundamentally wrong to think of coercion as a matter of degree.” Later courts have correctly ignored the Supreme Court’s unwise suggestions to the contrary in South Dakota v. Dole (1987), and District Court Judge Roger Vinson was correct to uphold the Medicaid provisions of the recent legislation.

Paul F. deLespinasse, Ph.D.
Corvallis, Oregon

Monday, June 6, 2011

Presidential disaster visits overdone

A disadvantage of the American form of government is that it combines in one person the ceremonial role of head of state plus the decision-making role of the head of government. In constitutional monarchies like England the monarch and other members of the royal family handle the ceremonial-symbolic duties while the prime minister takes care of running the government.

There is a danger in the United States that a leader will overdo on ceremonial duties, which leaves less time and energy for studying policy issues, making important decisions, and negotiating with legislators and with foreign governments.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has been catching a lot of flak because, unlike his predecessor, he has not been attending all the funerals for Oregon soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. But by staying away from funerals he may be serving Oregonians better than Ted Kulongoski did.

We have had many weather-related national disasters lately, and President Obama has been spending considerable time flying out to promise federal assistance, commiserate with victims, and generally represent the concerns of the nation about them. One wonders, however, if he should consider emulating Governor Kitzhaber instead.

The federal assistance the President promises would arrive anyhow, whether Obama came or not. Concerns could be expressed just as well from the White House as they could from Joplin, Missouri. Presidential visits present logistical problems wherever they occur, but these can be especially troublesome for areas where the problems of daily life have been exasperated by flooding, tornadoes, or earthquakes.

And then there is the matter of financial and ecological costs. The estimated costs of operating Air Force One vary all over the place, from a low of about $40,000 per hour of flight to a high of $180,000 per hour. At current aviation fuel prices of $5.47 per gallon of Jet-A, Air Force One costs about $23,000 per hour just for fuel , and burning this fuel puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It might be better for the government to donate this money to the Red Cross and let the President stay in the White House and concentrate on governing the country.

Or if this seems too cold-blooded, such ceremonial visits could at least be delegated to the Vice President, whose time is under less pressure and whose smaller airplane would burn less fuel, cost less money, and make a smaller contribution to global warming.


This article has run in the Daily Telegram (Adrian, Michigan). A shortened version has appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the (Corvallis, Oregon) Gazette-Times.

The curse of the golden egg

Some months ago I sent a letter to the editor of the Johns Hopkins Magazine, but apparently they have not published it, at least not in the most recent issue. So I thought I would post it here.


To the editor:

Re Dale Krieger’s fascinating article “The Curse of the Golden Egg”:

The article quotes Thomas Friedman about how oil-backed regimes “do not have to listen to their people,” can “buy off potential opposition,” and “can afford repressive security measures for those who won’t be bought.”

None of this would be possible in a world where all natural resources, including oil, were considered to be owned by the public, not by any government. Indeed, government claims to own such resources are inherently illegitimate, as are private claims to ownership. Assuming that at one time all resources were unowned, there is no mechanism by which any particular individual, group, or government could originally acquire ownership aside from (shades of Proudhon!) . . . theft. And of course no one who does not have ownership could legitimately transfer ownership to someone else.

The only non-arbitrary way to determine the ownership of natural resources is to deem them owned by the public (again, not to be confused with any government), defined as every man, woman, and child subject to the jurisdiction of a given government. Government could then act as a trustee for the public, auctioning time-limited rights to exploit particular resources to the highest bidder, and distributing the resulting income to the public in periodic social dividends, with equal amounts paid to every man, woman, and child in that public.

Financing the government would then have to be arranged on the basis of taxes, exactly as is the case in countries which are not resource rich.

The Alaskan oil dividend to all state residents is an approximate example of how such a system could work.

Ideally, the public in question would not be a parochial, national, public, but the world public, everybody on the planet. But it would be a step forward for such systems to be instituted at the national level.

This is unlikely, since the establishments in curse-of-the-golden-egg countries have strong personal interests in keeping things the way they are, and if they are overthrown their successors would have equally strong interests to maintain the current kleptocracies.

I have no idea how to get from “here” to “there,” but in theory it is crystal clear that “there” is where we need to get to.

For further analysis see my on-line discussion, The Metaconstitutional Manifesto: A Bourgeois Vision of the Classless Society at .

Paul F. deLespinasse, Ph.D. 1966