Three simple rules to live by

Do not take what does not belong to you.

Keep your promises.

If you fail to abide by the first two, then you must make just compensation for what you took or what you failed to deliver.

Try to do some good in life.

Within two separate Free Thoughts podcasts on the topic of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution, Dr. Roger Pilon does as remarkable and scholarly of a job as anyone I have ever heard on the topic. He discusses in great depth the intellectual traditions embodied in the Constitution as well as how that has evolved from its originalist and natural law construct over time to something much more expansive and interpretative that has moved significantly away from the original guiding principles of a federal government that is a necessary evil that should be deliberately kept small. It was so small in fact, that in the move from Philadelphia to the new White House in Washington D.C. in 1800, all of the federal government files could be transferred in just 12 boxes. Imagine that! The most salient moment for me is when Dr. Pilon distills all of the Constitution and the philosophy behind it into four simple rules for us to live by, which are quoted above.

The first rule is the concept of property rights and rights to be free from physical harm and is embodied most visibly in the opening words to the Declaration of Independence. The second rule is the concept of rights of contract and enforceability of contracts that are freely entered into by citizens. The third rule is based upon the concept of remedies and justice and is essential in upholding the first two as general principles, allowing us to retain trust in the good of fellow man and of just redress if they happen not to be good. The fourth rule is something that Dr. Pilon indicates is entirely optional. If we are to retain our essential freedom and a true good and virtuous nature, we can’t be compelled to do good. However, a preponderance of people doing good seems to be the most secure way in which to uphold a free society and thus ensuring that government does not grow in scope inexorably. As Benjamin Franklin indicated – we have a Republic, if we can keep it. It increasingly seems to be appropriate, given how large and arbitrary our federal government has become, to say that we had a Republic, and we have the blueprint for how to get it back, if we want it bad enough.

 

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Trump versus Clinton – a diabolical choice

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I am reminded of this Far Side cartoon every time I think of the Trump versus Clinton election circus we are doomed to endure for the next few months, followed by 4 years of whatever we get on the back-end of it.

On principle, I believe that voting for the Presidency should never have become, nor is it currently, a binary choice between lacklustre candidates put forward by two parties. I say this only to make the point that the Far Side cartoon, while humorous and somewhat appropriate, isn’t entirely accurate given that we can freely vote for other options or choose not to vote at all. Much of my actual lament today is that the office is as powerful as it currently is in the first place. If the executive office was relegated to its proper constitutional role, this would be far less consequential of an exercise.  It is the legislature, through reasoned and deliberative process, that was established with the preponderance of governmental powers and placed in the pre-eminent Article I of the U.S. Constitution. This was a wise decision by the founders, who intended to promote the durability of individual liberty through due process of deliberative and participatory government, as I indicate in another post. This legislative responsibility has been eroded greatly through various executive branch usurpations (i.e the vast proliferation of unaccountable executive agencies) as well as a judiciary that has strayed beyond its boundaries of interpreting law as devised in the Constitution and through laws promulgated through the legislature to a modern-day role in actively creating their own laws out of the judge’s’ own political and personal preferences.

All that being said, my ideological principles don’t matter much when the reality is that one of these individuals will become President of the United States, a fact that I can only find comic relief in the Monty Python scene in which the “Constitutionalist” peasant indicates to King Arthur, “well, I didn’t vote for you…”  I picture myself in the next four years as an increasing malcontent who mutters throughout the day, “well, I didn’t vote for you…” every time a poor decision is made or every time something else surfaces that demonstrates their unsavory characters. Actually, upon re-watching the entire scene, I think there is a good deal one could use out of the clip as a parody of modern American government.

And while I don’t agree with the enthusiasm in which the author takes in not ever voting, as I still believe that it is an important right to cherish, there is much in a recent commentary in which he quotes David Boaz posted on the Cafe Hayek blog  that I think is spot on. I quote the main points that I agree with below:

I’ve heard libertarians say, “We know how bad Hillary is, so the mysterious Trump is a better bet.”  But we do know much about Trump.  He’s been clear and consistent on a few issues: banning and deporting Mexicans, building a wall around America, banning Muslims, and taking a sledgehammer to the world’s most important trading relationship (between the United States and China).  He’s indifferent to federal spending and against entitlement reform.  He thinks he doesn’t need advisers or policies or principles.  He has no earthly idea what he thinks about taxes, abortion, minimum wages, debt, health care, or most other issues.  Most disturbingly, he shows disdain for Congress and the Constitution.

A few libertarians have said that war is the greatest threat to life and liberty, and Trump is less hawkish than Clinton and most of the other Republican candidates.  True, he has criticized the Iraq war and nation building and even read a speech proclaiming that “unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct.”  But he has also promised to “bomb the s– out of” ISIS and “take out their families.”  And his ignorance, anger, and impulsiveness about trade and immigration would surely make for rocky international relations.

 

 

Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism

My dear friend Adam Goldman, who is an active member of many conservative and Republican organizations (you can see his impressive credentials below the article), has contributed the following article that I believe readers of The Gymnasium will appreciate. Adam is an astute political observer and defender of the Republican Party and its historic big-tent compromising approach that he defends as a natural and necessary component of Federalism and American values. While the libertarian-leaning purist in me personally wants to push the party into one of much more limited government and classical liberal directions, Adam makes excellent observations on the value of the party that exists today, of the two-party system, and illustrates that even the hero Reagan compromised and performed actions inimical to populists on the right. Further, he draws a remarkable contrast between the optimistic and moral approach of Reagan to the brash authoritarianism of Trump. I hope my readers will enjoy this article and comment on it and I hope you value and look forward to contributions from Adam and others for diverse viewpoints in the days to come.

Trump’s Erosion of the Legacy of Reagan and the Roots of Modern Authoritarianism 

Splinter movements from our twin political parties are nothing new in American history. While it is of utmost concern, considerable examination into Donald Trump’s highly questionable personal and business backgrounds have been undertaken elsewhere and need no further recitation herein. I examine and compare, rather, the rise of the Trump phenomenon to that of the Reagan revolution, through the lens of America’s late 20th century history political culture as well as its Constitutional and partisan framework.

The Republican and Democratic parties are by nature very large businesses that encompass a very diverse range of both the religious and the secular, including both labor and business, and other movements, spread across a continent.  For America to enjoy relative benefit of the stability of a two-party system, it must out of necessity subordinate the purist impulses of certain factions within these diverse coalitions. This simple logic of 2 + 0, and not 2+1 or 2+2, is not embraced by many who revile their “establishment” leadership within their respective parties. These rejectionists are imbued with an authoritarian impulse, and when its spokesman meets with a base of support that crescendos in a positive feedback loop, the results can be inherently destabilizing, as the GOP is witnessing this year with the rise of Trump.

Trump has very successfully redirected the Tea Party angst of 2010 from Obama against the Republican party as a whole. By comparison, in 1968 violent counter-cultural and student movements joined to force their way into Eugene McCarthy’s coronation, a moderate Democrat. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy earlier unglued the Democratic party, temporarily. It became unstable and dysfunctional. The result was the election of their arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon, a flight to stability and a symbol of strength for most voters. The uprising on the furthest flank from the center of the party led to a result in direct contradiction to its stated goals.

In 1996, Pat Buchanan led a similar, but much more orderly, rejectionist insurrection within the GOP. Frustrated with the dilution of Reagan’s supposedly pure vision of conservatism, millions flocked to his side. Memories fade quickly though: Reagan made numerous compromises with Tip O’Neill, his famous “six o’clock” friend, and Democratic Speaker of the House, in order to secure broad tax cuts and increased defense spending. Reagan in turn agreed to raise gas taxes, eliminated the IRS deduction for auto loan interest, raised the Social Security eligibility age, incurred massive deficits, barely made a dent to social welfare spending, lost 200 Marines in a terrorist bombing during a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, and signed the 1986 law granting amnesty to illegal aliens without guarantees regarding promised enhanced border security. Republicans under Newt Gingrich made corrective progress over the course of the decade following Reagan’s tenure by reforming welfare and reducing deficits dramatically. This is the essence of the process of America’s constitutional process, which always defies quick solutions, but if permitted its arc always bends toward limiting the Federal power. Nevertheless, President Clinton quickly dispatched his GOP rival Senator Bob Dole, whose campaign emerged gravely wounded from the purist Buchanan-led primary uprising.

The GOP benefited dramatically in 2010 from the Tea Party’s grassroots coalition, which turned out millions of voters only four years following the GOP’s huge losses in the 2006 Congressional elections. For all of the Tea Party’s purity of purpose toward resurrecting a second Reagan Revolution, it forgot its own history: the necessary compromises that Reagan strategically agreed to, and the failed insurgence of Buchanan, who prevailed in a tactical victory but lost the war. It is of no surprise that Pat Buchanan several years ago touted the effectiveness of the “Christian” Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin in turn, stated his recent admiration for Trump, whom the latter has not yet disavowed.

The roots of authoritarianism are neither peculiar to the right or the left. Trump may be its spokesman on the right today, however tomorrow it is all but certain that the tides of unwritten history will give rise to another on the left. The result is always certain in a two-party political environment, which is that the results of its efforts are always self-defeating.

The banality of Trump is a reflection of the temperament of his supporters, who have neither the disposition nor inclination to consider the long-arc of Constitutional lawmaking. In fact, the very words “Constitutional lawmaking” provoke disdain and anti-“establishment” mockery from his supporters. They view compromise as not only unnecessary but anathematic, despite all mathematical proofs regarding veto overrides, a bicameral legislature, and an independently elected executive (unlike European parliamentarian systems). Comparisons to the rise of Hitler in 1930s Germany are exaggerated, but the impulse to authoritarianism is by no means to be conveniently ignored, despite America being the oldest democracy. The renown historical philosopher Hanna Arendt examined the rise of the Third Reich closely and concluded that in spite of Germany’s position as the most highly technical and educated society in continental Europe, a motivated and large plurality of its citizens were drawn to Hitler’s crudity and demagoguery. How did this occur?

Hitler exploited four themes that motivated ordinary Germans: the loss of the German middle class’ purchasing power due to hyperinflation from post-war debt, the loss of international prestige and status (due to the Versailles Treaty’s disarmament clauses), and impatience with the new, inexperienced fledgling democracy in Berlin which could not produce a consensus regarding which policies ought to address these crises.  The fourth theme tied together the previous three, which blamed these crises squarely upon the “establishment”. Hitler further stoked fears of an establishment “conspiracy” against ordinary Germans by gradually amplifying xenophobic rhetoric of a Jewish fifth-column, which reflected old mythologies from the Middle Ages which still resonated.

The goodwill of the majority of America’s people and the strength of its community organizations, whose Protestant and Catholic spokesman have weighed in recently against Trump, all but guarantee that the horrors of the Reich will never be repeated here. However, for the Tea Party to successfully overcome its impulse to authoritarianism and regain its focus on continuing the Reagan revolution, it must re-embrace the Constitutional process, and unequivocally denounce demagoguery. It begins with an honest self-assessment of its own disregard for Reagan’s principles, which follow.

Reagan’s speech, manners, and civility always shamed his occasionally crude, low-minded opponents with a forceful appeal to moral reasoning. For Reagan, the goal was never “winning” at the expense of anyone. For Reagan, winning was a tide that lifted all boats, including those of the left. For Trump, personal wealth is the goal for not only himself but for his supporters. Reagan, on the other hand, felt the tide of rising wealth that lifted all boats was merely a means to an end. The end was not wealth, but security and a realization that God desires to bless those that are His. That financial security can then be used to bless the world and lift millions out of poverty and oppression. Reagan believed that America should lead in that effort. Trump has cast his vision for America as merely one of acquiring more goods and personal wealth and self-satisfaction, a shallow appeal at best to consumerism. By contrast, Jesus taught an entirely different paradigm of the reason for wealth, as a means to a different end altogether. At the risk of hyperbole, we can conclude that Reagan’s economic vision is consistent with that of Jesus of Nazareth, although I’m sure Reagan’s humility would most certainly preclude his agreement to such notions.

For the foregoing reasons, we can safely conclude that the character and values of Reaganism stand in diametric opposition to that of Trump. What is more, we can rest assured that Ronald Reagan himself would very likely have absolutely nothing to do with someone of the persona of Donald Trump.

Adam Goldman is current Board Member and former Vice President of Florida Right to Life, a founding member of the Center-Right Coalition of Central Florida,  serves on the Central Board of James Madison Institute, and served on the statewide Florida steering committee of the Mitt Romney campaign.

In praise of Scalia

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The announcement of Scalia’s death at a West Texas ranch had scarcely reached the collective ear before ugly politics reared its head. Both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of rushing to their respective barricades without scarcely taking a moment to honor and venerate the dead. Republicans immediately jumped to the tactic of admonishing Obama not to nominate a successor while many on the left seemed to relish in the death of a longtime adversary without taking the cue of his longtime friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg to mourn the loss of someone who had convictions and consistency that at the very least could be understood, if not loved from a progressive worldview. Indeed,  the view of Scalia that I anecdotally see from more than a few social media pronouncements is one of puerile hatred. According to these views, Scalia was everything wrong in America to those with a progressive worldview – bigoted, intolerant, and rooted in a backwards and and anachronistic Originalist Constitutionalism view of jurisprudence that held this nation back from decades of societal progress and harmony.

The ultimate question is whether we desire our jurists in the judicial system to adhere consistently to our original government charter or whether judges should be expected and allowed to enter their own value and moral judgments into the equation. If you personally believe the latter, then what you desire the judicial branch to be is really nothing more than an extension of the legislative branch that is results driven and with one gigantic problem: in most cases and certainly in the case of the Supreme Court they are completely unaccountable to the popular electorate. The framers of our Constitution never intended the judicial branch to make value decisions arbitrarily, rather the judicial branch was wisely crafted with a purpose of adjudication of disputes and conflicts in interpreting the law and with striking down laws that are blatant abuses of the Constitution. On value and moral arguments, the Constitution is largely silent, leaving it firmly within the legislative branch to craft laws that are signs of the times and the will of the people in a democratic process.

Thus, my veneration and respect for Scalia as a jurist rests primarily on the consistent and principled way in which he performed his function as a Supreme Court judge, which was rooted in a predictable and formulaic approach to the laws and historic context as written in the legal codes. If Scalia’s career on the Supreme Court could be summarized into a couple of easy sentences it would be this: ‘Americans, if you want better or different laws, write your local Congressman or vote for someone else. Don’t take the easy way out by putting your hopes in the Supreme Court. Moving the moral current of society is not the Court’s responsibility and vesting that power in the Court is a grave danger to and severely undermines democracy.’ Indeed, the major downside of reliance on the judicial branch to make sweeping decisions: it fails to quell the dissent of the opposition in the same way that resounding defeat at the hands of the electorate driving the legislative process would. Defeat at the hands of the judge is analogous to a referee throwing the game. That leaves the opposition far more bitter and recalcitrant than if they had simply been trounced by a better team. Scalia adhered to the view that the Constitution and the law should determine judicial decisions and that a judge should not artfully construct law to fit their value judgments so as to promulgate de facto legislation from the judicial bench. As such, it is of my opinion that he was a critical bulwark against the judicial branch possessing more power than it was intended in America’s carefully crafted separation of powers. It was not really Scalia’s, or any other Supreme Court Justice’s call to make on bending legislative actions into what they believed was just or unjust. The results of such a process are completely unprincipled and chaotic. In Scalia’s view, it was the legislature that was supposed to handle the crafting of law. Critically, this is the government branch vested with these powers in the U.S. Constitution and concomitantly is the branch directly elected by the people to represent their interests.

Scalia is most reviled these days for his vote and dissent on the issue of gay marriage. I will not carry on about that specific issue here since out of my more libertarian principles I hardly think the state should have been involved in determining what marriage was in the first place. I don’t need a government license to sanctify my marriage nor to deem it appropriate in the eyes of the state, nor by extension do I believe it should it have meddled in anyone else’s private relationships.  Government has its role here in adjudicating the inevitable conflicts that will arise in suits and settlements (divorce, separation and division of assets), but I firmly believe that these issues could be handled much like any other contractual issue and in the judicial rather than the legislative branch of government. The real reason for such heavy-handed government involvement is  enacting social policy and through tax codes manipulated in vain attempts to spur on marriage that induced all of this mess in the first place. That is all I will say on the matter in this post, but in turning to the hatred spewed out on Scalia for his dissent on this case, I think people got tremendously confused between someone with legal principles and bigotry. One only need to turn to his written dissent on the  to understand his motivations, which is essentially that American democracy keeps getting unlawfully sidestepped by 9 Supreme Court Justices. As a result, one can clearly see that the dissent was completely in line with his typical approach to jurisprudence and a preservation of the democratic and legislative process. I have copied the gist of his dissent below below, but in my opinion, the full dissent is worth a read:

“The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever sexual attachments and living arrangements it wishes, and can accord them favorable civil consequences, from tax treatment to rights of inheritance.

Those civil consequences—and the public approval that conferring the name of marriage evidences—can perhaps have adverse social effects, but no more adverse than the effects of many other controversial laws. So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact— and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.

Until the courts put a stop to it, public debate over same-sex marriage displayed American democracy at its best. Individuals on both sides of the issue passionately, but respectfully, attempted to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views. Americans considered the arguments and put the question to a vote. The electorates of 11 States, either directly or through their representatives, chose to expand the traditional definition of marriage. Many more decided not to.1 Win or lose, advocates for both sides continued pressing their cases, secure in the knowledge that an electoral loss can be negated by a later electoral win. That is exactly how our system of government is supposed to work.”

“There Are No Heroes Inside the Bundy Standoff in Oregon”

 

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There are times when two idiots get into a fistfight that it is impossible to choose sides. You only hope they don’t succeed in creating damage to anyone but each other. Alas, that is the seeming case in the Bundy standoff in Oregon, where in great theater a small group of hotheads are taking refuge in a bird sanctuary in their words, in defense of the constitution. The irony of a group breaking the law to defend the constitution seems to be lost on the group of malcontents.

But a review of the history of the Hammond case that is a component of the “militia” list of complaints (it should be noted that the Hammond family has not vocalized support for the militia) also reveals a heavy-handed and hamfisted government and Department of Justice, as the author of this Cato Institute Commentary quickly documents.

The best outcome would be for the government to avoid another Ruby Ridge militarized storming of the compound and for those holed up on a remote federally owned sanctuary to get bored, face their charges, and then get on with life while. At the same time, perhaps the wrongheaded attempt at fame and martyrdom will at least raise awareness of the abuses of government and the Department of Justice and inspire frank conversations on the role of government ownership of land and the disproportionate use of prosecution using arcane legal frameworks that citizens can’t possibly know in advance of their trials.