Our Natural Rights

Rights are one of those terms that have been so abused that it is generally meaningless without qualification(s). Many people- politicians included- are quite fond of arbitrarily designating something as a right1. Unfortunately, this tends to be based on whimsy wishes rather than a solid and consistent concept of rights.

As principles which define when it is moral to use force, rights leave nothing untouched in the arena of politics. Our views on income taxes, toilet regulations2, pollution, and every other imaginable issue are affected by what we think rights are. Thus, it is crucial for each one of us to give this issue careful thought.

Defining Rights

A right is the sovereignty to act or control. That is, a right is something over which you have absolute jurisdiction; no other person or group of persons have any legitimate grounds to exercise control.

Any interference with this sovereignty, by violence (coercion, force) or the threat of violence, is a violation of right(s).

Natural rights were famously enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Boundary of Your Rights

What is the boundary, or extent, of each person’s rights? Briefly, my rights end where yours begin, and vice versa.

Let’s explore this a bit more carefully. It starts with your body: you are the only one with any legitimate sovereignty over (power to control) your own body. No other human has grounds to make a higher claim to this control than you do. This is sometimes referred to as self-ownership. By ownership we simply mean the right to control.

Scarce physical goods (land, garden tools, pencils, etc) come under your rightful dominion through trade or homesteading.

These rights to your body and justly acquired physical goods are all technically property rights. Because you have these rights, you have legitimate authority to do anything you want with your property, regardless of whether others approve, so long as you do not violate their rights– that is, use their property in a way they disapprove.

The following list is examples of things that you have a natural right to. All of them are based in your right to do what you please with your body or property.

  • Speech
  • Choice of Religion
  • Association
  • Trade
  • Privacy
  • Life
  • Contract
  • Enter a Profession

It is important to note that when you are on other’s property (e.g., a theater), that property is under control of the theater owner. Hence, he can regulate or prohibit you from exercising your natural right to speak, for instance; since you have voluntarily  agreed to enter his property, you must abide by his rules. This solves that “crying fire in a theater” problem. Yes, you do have the absolute natural right to speak, but only on your property can you be unhampered exercising your rights.

Here are some examples of things that are not rights (and why, briefly):

  • Reputation (That is the sum of what others think about you; you do not own their thoughts)
  • Goods and Services – such as Food, Education, Housing, Sports Car, etc (You do not have a right to the property of others)
  • Employment (You cannot force anyone to trade goods for your labor)

Positive and Negative Rights

Your right to control your body or other property does not diminish the same rights of every other individual. These rights are sometimes referred to as negative rights, which simply mean a right to not be subjected to action of others. The sphere of our negative rights does not overlap or conflict with that of others. They are compossible.

Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights obligating others to act on behalf of the right holder. The only way these rights can exist without contradicting our negative rights is through voluntary contract; unlike negative rights, they are not natural rights that we are entitled to simply because we are human.

If I sign a contract agreeing to provide free health care to you for one month, then you have a right to health care from me for that period, as specified in our contract. But without an agreement like this, you don’t have a right to health care from me or anyone else, period.

We can now see why legal or statutory rights to goods or services are not natural rights at all. They are positive rights, provided by forcing others to supply the resources necessary to exercise said rights. This by definition violates other’s natural rights.

Origin of Rights

Natural rights do not come from other people; rather, they are ours by nature of our humanity (whether you view that nature as being created by God, or having come into existence another way).

In particular, rights do not come from governments or constitutions. The former are merely a group of people and the latter is a piece of paper, neither of which grant us sovereignty to control our bodies or property, since those things are ours by the nature of us being human.

Morality and Rights

There are two important points to make regarding rights and morality. Moral actions are actions that are considered right, virtuous, or ethical. A violation of rights is immoral since it requires initiatory (non-defensive) violence.

Secondly, exercise of one’s right does not imply morality. For instance, you have a right to speak; but that does not imply what a person speaks is moral. I refer the reader to James A. Sadowsky:

When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use.3

Implications of Natural Rights

Thus far, we have explored the concept of pure natural rights which are possessed equally by every human being. If you’ve thought this through enough, you’re thinking this is nice on paper, but has radical implications.

After all, if each person has the sovereignty to control his own body and property, that means a group of people widely known as “the government” could not force people to pay taxes or obey any “laws” that were not already (natural) law

This is, of course, contrary to everything we’ve been taught over the years. Governments as we know them are “a vital institution for our survival”; or at worst, a “necessary evil”- as one of the founders described.

This assumption may or may not be true4. Nevertheless, it’s one that nearly all of us will cling to for dear life. I will not contend with it here; rather, let us briefly consider how we might reach a compromise between the beautiful concept of natural rights and the deeply entrenched legitimacy people ascribe to “the government”.

The Compromise

The theory of social contract says that we give up some of our rights to form a government which protects our rights and provide certain services. Only certain, specific rights are given up to the government, and all other rights remain ours. For instance, if we do not delegate our right to freely speak, then the government created by the social contract has absolutely no legitimate authority to interfere with our right to speak.

There are many flaws with this compromise, of course, one being that the individuals living under this framework did not necessarily consent to the social contract. I never signed off my rights, and I doubt you did. Nevertheless, it is a position that proponents of natural law and natural rights usually find easier to acquiesce with.

As with other contracts, a strict enforcement of the social contract’s original meaning is essential. Only those rights expressly ceded to the government should be exercised by the government.

Should due vigilance not be taken to follow the terms of the contract, the contract looses meaning and the government becomes a tool of control and plunder. In that situation none of our natural rights are secure, let alone acknowledged.

A “living contract” is no contract at all. In the United States today, the Constitution would be the ultimate social contract. Despite its flaws, the main problem with it is the prevailing “living constitution” idea which has rendered it meaningless (more on this in a future post). A social contract that has any compatibility with some natural rights must impose clear, precise, and absolute limits on government power.

Did I Break Your Utopian Meter?

Congratulations for making it this far; we’re almost finished. I suppose some readers are experiencing the problem of a broken utopian meter by now, considering the concept of natural rights quixotic. It is not; what is utopian is to claim every person would (perfectly) respect the natural rights of others.

I am under no illusions that violations of rights can or will cease to exist. However, the fact that mankind is incapable of perfection is not grounds for discarding the concept; in the same manner, today, we do not reject the sanctity of life because the problem of murder remains with us.

Conclusion

By nature of your humanity, you have a right to complete control of your person and justly acquired property, and you must respect these same rights which belong to every other person. Unfortunately, while there is a very strong case for natural rights, a complete adoption of it is not compatible with the near universal, religious support for an institution with the monopoly of legitimate force over a given region (a.k.a. “the government”).

Nevertheless, we would all benefit from recognizing that at least some of our rights should be upheld as sacrosanct, untouchable even by governments. The more, the merrier. After all, appealing to our rights are only useful in the present when they are widely recognized. If we would like to see respect for rights increase, we must first commit ourselves to respect the rights of others.

*****

This was a difficult post to write; while I’m a long time supporter of the concept of natural rights, setting out to explain it didn’t come as easily as I wished. Further, a subject like this cannot be comprehensively addressed in a short article. It’s my hope that I presented a fairly accurate snapshot, though. This will lay the foundation for future Striking at the Root articles in which a person’s rights are referenced.

Notes:

  1. An excellent example is the video discussed in this article.
  2. Rand Paul’s awkwardly presented but excellent points about consumer regulations at a Senate Energy Committee hearing demonstrates a belief in natural rights vs. the common view in which the state has a right to arbitrarily demand individuals use their property a certain way.(View Video)
  3. James A. Sadowsky, S.J., “Private Property and Collective Ownership,”
  4. A majority of humans may always consider initiatory violence legitimate in some cases. (Of course, this doesn’t imply the choice to be right/moral).

All images are my creation or public domain.

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Debt Ceiling Hypocrisy, Hysteria & Our Financial Mess

The debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion will only last another two to three months at the current rate of government spending. It has been raised seven times in the past half-decade. The newly elected Republican House has some worried that Congress will fail to immediately raise the debt ceiling, at least without debate or other concessions. Along with all the blatant hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding this topic in establishment media and political circles, there’s little attention paid to the consequences of increasing our debt.

Hypocrisy

“The fact that we are here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can’t pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government’s reckless fiscal policies. … Increasing America’s debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that “the buck stops here.” Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.”

-President Barak Obama

“If my Republican friends believe that increasing our debt by almost $800 billion today and more than $3 trillion over the last five years is the right thing to do, they should be upfront about it. They should explain why they think more debt is good for the economy.

How can the Republican majority in this Congress explain to their constituents that trillions of dollars in new debt is good for our economy? How can they explain that they think it’s fair to force our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren to finance this debt through higher taxes. That’s what it will have to be. Why is it right to increase our nation’s dependence on foreign creditors?

They should explain this. Maybe they can convince the public they’re right. I doubt it. Because most Americans know that increasing debt is the last thing we should be doing. After all, I repeat, the Baby Boomers are about to retire. Under the circumstances, any credible economist would tell you we should be reducing debt, not increasing it. Democrats won’t be making argument to supper this legalization, which will weaken our country. Weaken our county.”

-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

“But as the rest of the world copes with the waves of U.S. debt, we are now all in the same leaky boat. There is just so much of our debt other nations want to hold. The more of it they accumulate, the closer we are to the day when they will not want any more. When that happens, slowly or rapidly, our interest rates will go up, the value of their U.S. bonds will drop, and we will all have big problems. We need both more awareness, and more understanding, of this fundamental threat to our economic well being and the global economy. … The President’s budget plans will bring that number to $11.8 trillion at the end of the next 5 years. This is a record of utter disregard for our Nation’s financial future. It is a record of indifference to the price our children and grandchildren will pay to redeem our debt when it comes due. History will not judge this record kindly. My vote against the debt limit increase cannot change the fact that we have incurred this debt already, and will no doubt incur more. It is a statement that I refuse to be associated with the policies that brought us to this point.”

-Vice President Joe Biden

Woops! That’s all from 2006, when the evil George W. Bush was in the White House. The national debt stood at “just” $8 trillion. Democrats were right, but only for partisan reasons. It doesn’t fare much better for the rest of the Senate, either. All the votes for raising the debt ceiling that year were Republican, many of whom recently campaigned as fiscal conservatives against reckless spending. Top that off with all the Democrats voting against raising the ceiling. Count on this year’s vote being an about face for each of those Senators still in office.

Propaganda Minister… um, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about this hypocrisy and wasn’t able to come up with a compelling excuse. “Raising the debt limit was not in question in the outcome” he said several times, only to be reminded that it was barley approved, at 52 to 48. Nevertheless, the media has given Obama and the rest a pass, with almost no mention of this at all on the major networks. Will they be equally kind to Republicans if they vote against raising the debt ceiling?

This hypocrisy is plain and undeniable. The mainstream media isn’t doing its job, again. Politicians, nearly all of them, are more about partisanship than principle. And Americans keep supporting them.

The Size of Our Debt

The national debt just crossed $14 trillion, more than doubling in the last decade. While that’s a frightening number, it’s just a portion of the money government has obligated itself to pay. A visit to the usdebtclock.org website shows the national debt and unfunded liabilities to total in the excess of $126 trillion. Top that off with Fannie and Freddie debt the government has guaranteed, which is several trillion more.

Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff calculated the fiscal gap, which is money the government has obligated itself to pay yet doesn’t have (projected) revenues to cover, to be $202 trillion (yes, that is two hundred and two trillion dollars).

It is in the interest of the government to minimize the appearance of its debt as much as possible, hence these obligations it has incurred are not portrayed clearly to the average American. When discussed at all, the smaller official national debt is mentioned. The rest is ignored.

No matter which way we look at it, the federal government has promised to pay well over $100 trillion dollars which projected revenues will not cover. The magnitude of these numbers is nearly impossible to comprehend. This video attempts to visualize “just” $1 trillion.

Hysteria

We’re told it would be catastrophic if the debt ceiling isn’t raised. Government would shut down. The sky will fall. Comments from Timothy Geithner, MSMBC host Laurence O’Donnell, and White House Economic Advisor Austan Goolsbee (respectively) are a sufficient sample:

“Never in our history has Congress failed to increase the debt limit when necessary. Failure to raise the limit would precipitate a default by the United States.”

not doing so [passing an increase in the debt ceiling] is the end of the world as we know it, a world financial calamity that would plunge us into a depression like we’ve never seen”

“I don’t see why anybody’s playing chicken with the debt ceiling… If we get to the point where we damage the full faith and credit of the United States, that would be the first default in history caused purely by insanity.”

Some of this is inaccurate or an exaggeration. It’s also a false choice; there’s a third option.

Failure to raise our debt ceiling means the Treasury can’t borrow more money, forcing the government to limit expenditure levels to revenues. All of the sacrosanct spending projects (that’s just about everything) would probably face cuts.

But defaulting on our creditors, including refusal to pay interest on our debt, is NOT caused by a failure to raise the debt ceiling. The federal government collects over $2 trillion in annual tax revenue, which is far higher than what we pay in interest.

What politicians are saying is they would rather default on our creditors than cut their precious spending and upset special interest groups. They are saying that votes are more important than the “full faith and credit of the United States”.

In reality it is just a threat to avoid making hard decisions. No one wants to face reality, just like the drug addict who can’t stop. Our drug is spending.

Let’s Just Keep Borrowing

Except for the hollow trinity of Waste, Fraud, & Abuse™, we can’t cut spending, we just can’t, can’t, can’t. Fine. Your only responsible choice, then, is raising taxes on everyone by a large margin, possibly doubling taxation for a time. No, we can’t, can’t, can’t do that either. We want to live in Utopia: something for nothing, or at least something at no cost to us (tax the rich!). Darn the law of scarcity!

Many people can’t imagine life in which government lived within its means. Yes you can, and you will. We will either act responsible, and change the way we think about government, or be forced to by collapse of the current system.

The danger is greater than one would think. Recall what happened in the housing bubble, or how quickly Greece got in trouble last year. Interest rates rose. Everything seemed fine until reality hit. The same will happen here. Rates are being suppressed at historic lows and have nowhere to go but up. As we increase our debt and/or inflation, creditors will see us as a greater risk and will demand higher rates, refuse to buy more debt, or even sell it. They will choose to use currencies that hold value.

The loss of our world reserve currency status would be catastrophic from our point of view. We would no longer be able to indirectly tax the world by printing money. Nearly the whole world uses the dollar for one purpose or another. It has been the currency that backed up other currencies. China’s self-inflicted dollar peg forces them to inflate when we inflate. They won’t follow us down that path much longer; the inflation rate there is already getting out of hand. The world has already given plenty of hints and taken some baby steps to moving away from the dollar1. The threat is real, and will catch most people by surprise. When they pull the plug, we’ll have to start pulling our own wagon instead of riding in it while others pull.

Taxation is limited by the people’s willingness to pay; borrowing is limited by the creditors. The third option, printing money, reduces your purchasing power (like a tax) and makes our currency and debt even less attractive to creditors. There’s no way around the law of scarcity. Spending must be cut to levels that we can pay for.

We can’t wait for an economic recovery that’s not coming. Unemployment will remain high for years- the mainstream economists already admit this. America must step out of fantasy land and into the real world: decades living beyond our means is about to come to an end. Most reasonable people have known this will eventually come to pass but will nevertheless have a hard time accepting the fact that it is us, not our grandkids, that will begin reaping the consequences.

It will be futile to look for an easy way out. Prosperity is the product of freedom and hard work, not monetary policy tricks, legislation, or squeezing more money from the wealthy. Our worldviews will need to adjust accordingly.

What Congress Must Do

While the details are certainly up for debate, the general solution isn’t. Congress must immediately begin significant spending cuts and live on the $2+ trillion in taxes it collects. $2 trillion is a lot of money, enough to fund a very big government with lots of handouts. At minimum, the new spending-fighters in Congress must wring out significant concessions from the leadership in the form of large spending cuts and a balanced budget rule (with no exceptions for “emergencies”) before considering one final and smaller raising of the debt ceiling. These cuts will be painful but the sting will only intensify the longer we wait.

Beyond that, we must cut spending further so we can get real tax cuts and allow our economy to grow. We’ll fall far behind the rest of the world if we think an excessive regulatory and taxation burden can exist alongside a flourishing economy. Once upon a time it was the other way around, with the US being one of the freest nations in both an economical and social sense; let’s reclaim that heritage.

Instead of defaulting on our debt, we’ll show creditors that we can stop borrowing, and perhaps someday make good on our debts. With no need to inflate, our currency will stabilize and consumer prices will slowly fall, which will ease the pain during recovery.

What we will Probably Do

Congress is almost certain to go ahead with raising the debt ceiling. They are cowards, too afraid slow down the handout machine- despite the fact that everything will fall apart if they don’t. Congress and the President have more important things to worry about. Petty debt problems wait till later. But later never comes- elections occur every 2 years.

The victory of one like Rand Paul in a state wide office is unusual, indicating it’s possible that voters can see long-term consequences to electing another Santa. Unfortunately, this potential trend might be developing too late.

Factoring all of the above, I am left with no choice but to predict a currency collapse2 and depression within the next ten years. It could happen anytime, this year included; it’s all dependent upon interest rates, which I will not attempt to time. Methinks they will be going up sooner rather than later. If Washington had a real desire to solve these problems, they probably would not have waited till it was this difficult to take corrective action.

Extremely difficult economic times will lead us down a scary path of unrest and a litany of government “solutions”, which will come at a great cost to our liberty and wallet. I can only hope the people will reject that instead of allowing a tyrannical3 government to “save” us. I don’t yet see a reason to be very optimistic.

I can hear the laughter and scorn. “You’ve gone off the deep end, Matthew. Seriously, it could never happen here.” That’s an eerily familiar noise to one of the few men to predict the housing crisis on television well in advance of the bubble bursting. He agrees with my outlook today. It’s realistic- unlike the common spend-spend-spend mentality.

Conclusion

Hypocrisy and propaganda are dominant in Washington since no one wants to make hard and unpopular choices. Yet our massive debt and other economic factors have placed us in a grave situation. By maintaining the status quo and raising the debt ceiling, we heighten the risk for near-future problems including a worst case scenario currency collapse. By not raising the debt ceiling, politicians must embark on the political suicide of massive spending cuts. There is no third option.

It may still be possible to deal with the problems before the problems deal with us, but we are running out of time very quickly. The longer we delay hard choices, the harder they will become.

On a personal level, it would be prudent to ready oneself for these coming problems. It will hit hard and be agonizing for all, especially those who are caught unprepared. The two most important tips are 1).Don’t store your purchasing power in a colander (that’s the dollar) and 2). don’t position yourself where you depend on government checks paying your living expenses.

Cutting spending is not the Grinch’s idea. It’s called utopian-bubble-busting, responsible, long term thinking. We should embrace while we still can.

 

Notes:

1. China and Russia have called for a new world reserve currency; They are also no longer using the dollar to trade goods; moves to stop pricing oil in dollars.

2. A currency collapse does not necessarily mean there will be hyperinflation, though it is of course a possibility. At the very least, though, it will mean a loss in world reserve currency status and high inflation.

3. Historically, a severe economic crisis creates an environment favorable for the formation of tyrannical governments. Tyranny is defined as unrestrained and oppressive power. More extreme examples are what we might normally associate with tyranny: Hitler, Stalin, or Saddam Hussein; however, absolute tyranny is just that, an extreme. There are lesser forms of tyranny, which are still entirely offensive and dangerous. Thomas Jefferson stated: “To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.” I do not believe my use of that term is hyperbolic in any sense- in fact, we have already become accustomed to acquiescing to tyranny from our present government.

Photo Credit:

$100 bills: by tobym

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Airline Security, Privacy, and Common Sense vs. the TSA

A lot of noise has been made over the new airport security measures being implemented across the nation by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Full body scanners (officially called AIT, or Advanced Imaging Technology) are appearing across the country, with invasive pat-downs offered as an alternative.

It’s what we need to prevent another terrorist attack, supporters say. But opponents insist it is ineffective, and a violation of our rights. I’m squarely in the latter camp, but before we discuss the problems and solutions, we will take a quick look at the facts and the pro-TSA arguments.

—The Facts—

Rationale Behind TSA Policy

TSA Administrator John Pistole defended the new procedures in a op-ed for the Washington Post:

More and more travelers now have the option of going through the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machine, which can detect both metallic items and non-metallic substances such as powders, liquids and gels that can be used in explosive devices as we saw in the attempted attack last Christmas. These machines are the very latest in technological advancement and will eventually replace metal detectors, which have been in place since the 1960s. These machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which have all affirmed their safety. And the weapons and other dangerous and prohibited items we’ve found during screening have illustrated their security value time and again.

Regarding passenger privacy, Pistole says:

Rigorous privacy safeguards are in place to protect the traveling public. All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public. The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print, or transmit images.

His op-ed is an excellent summary of the pro-TSA arguments. Most supporters argue it’s inconvenient, but they would rather be safe than sorry. Supporter David Castelveter, a spokesman for Air Transport Association (ATA), stated,

“At the end of the day, what’s important to me is flying safe… I want to get on the airplane and know I’m as safe as possible flying, so if that means going through the AIT machines or getting the pat-downs – if I’ve chosen to fly, those are the choices I’ve made.”

Reactions to the New Procedures

Polls indicate the country is divided on this issue, with a recent Zogby poll saying a majority (61%) is against the full body scans and pat downs. Perhaps more significantly, 48% of Americans will seek an alternative to flying.

Opt-Out Protest: Success or Failure? 

 

The widely anticipated protests planned for Thanksgiving Eve did not create any spectacular delays in air travel. Mark that off as a complete failure, right? To the contrary, it was wildly successful. 

First off, it was extensively reported, sparking discussion on the topic- which was the whole point of such a protest to begin with. The media ran with the story- and pretty much did all the work for the protesters.

Second, it seems that the opt-out results were cleverly mitigated by the TSA, according to informal reports. By allowing more people to skip the AIT’s, there was little to opt out of.


An earlier CBS poll claimed four out of five Americans approve the body scanners. However, the 1137 respondents were not asked about the pat downs. It seems there was some change of public opinion between the polls, perhaps due to the attention the topic garnered amid media speculation about the opt out protest that was planned for the day before Thanksgiving.

Congress has responded with letters and proposed legislation. The new leaders for the House Transportation Committee called the new procedures “overly intrusive” and said “The entire focus of TSA’s efforts… needs to be revisited”. Meanwhile, the President says he “sympathizes with passenger complaints” but supports the TSA.

The TSA resisted calls for change but has given into some of the pressure. After being told nothing would change, we hear that airline pilots are now exempt, Congress is exempt (surprise!), Children under 12 are exempt from pat-downs, “stick-figure” scanners are being tested, etc. These are small concessions overall, as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano insists the body scanners and pat-downs are here to stay.

Special Interests

A look under the hood will reveal the engine of corportism at work, with many special interest groups involved with the body scanners. Former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff may be the highest profile character in the revolving door , having given dozens of media interviews promoting the body scanners, without mentioning the connections he has with Rapiscan, one of the two companies that are involved producing the body scanners.

Tim Carney has detailed some of the other political connections and scanner lobby information here.

—What’s Wrong with the TSA Policies—

Our Rights Are Violated

How can these new rules violate our rights? “There are other options, you don’t have to fly”, we’re told. “Besides, if we don’t have a right to healthcare, surely we can’t have a right to a flight.”

The problem with this argument is that government is (forcefully) inserting itself between two private entities (individuals & businesses) and their right to make voluntary exchanges and contracts. Our right to trade is violated when a third party forces itself into the transaction, as the TSA does.

That is quite different from a “right to healthcare” as some TSA supporters have mentioned. We don’t have a right to goods and services from others; but we do have a right to trade. In a future Striking at the Root series, we will look more closely at our natural, inalienable rights- which arguably is one of the most critical but misunderstood issues of all time.

Freedom, Security, and Privacy

There appears to be a trade-off between liberty and security; indeed, the TSA’s reduction of our liberties are supposedly making us safer. But as Ben Franklin’s tired but timeless quote reminds us, there is no long term trade-off.

The gross assault on basic human dignity and privacy should be self-evident and revolting. If you’re not convinced, read stories on what has actually happened1. The horror stories may be uncommon; but just the body scanner (which is a virtual strip search) and the pat-downs (which are really more like a custody search2) are an unprecedented reach by the government into our privacy. It’s truly amazing how hot the water is getting in America, and many people don’t even realize it.

Constitutional Issues

The Constitution doesn’t empower the federal government to nationalize security of air transportation. As per the federalist nature of the document, such powers are off-limits to the federal government, being retained by the people and their respective states.

However, that “piece of paper” hasn’t stopped Washington from usurping such powers for a long time. In the current political climate, where Social Security, the Patriot Act, or the Federal Reserve are considered constitutional, the TSA must also be. We’ll save this deeper discussion on federalism for a future Striking at the Root post; but in the interim, there is another constitutional issue to address: the 4th amendment.

The new security procedures are a violation of the 4th amendment, as an unreasonable, unwarranted search. It certainly seems unreasonable to (forcefully) search someone- in the manner the TSA now does- simply because they want to fly; that by itself doesn’t amount to probable cause. Would government scanning or groping everyone driving down a road or walking down a sidewalk amount to violation of the 4th amendment? Obviously. Yet that’s what the TSA basically does.

Some lawsuits against the TSA are citing the 4th Amendment, including that filed by pilot Michael Roberts and another by Arkansas resident, Robert Dean. Outrageously, though, a former TSA assistant Administrator has blatantly said

“Nobody likes to have their 4th Amendment violated going through a security line, but truth of the matter is, we’re gonna have to do it.”

The Constitution and amendments are NOT optional. They are the highest laws in the government, trumping everything beneath them. Any law or judicial opinion that says otherwise would be void- at least, if we had the rule of law; but evidently, we have the perilous rule of man.

Health and Safety Issues

The safety of the body scanners are “routinely and thoroughly” tested by several institutions, the TSA says. Rest easy, right? Of course not. To begin with, as AOL News has reported, these organizations are not responsible for testing for the AIT’s continuing safety.

Worry about the AIT’s working properly might be dismissed as paranoia by those who have unshaken confidence in the government. But the TSA’s spectacular failure to find up to 70% of guns, knives, and mock explosives from government testers should make the most ardent statist uneasy. The TSA simply doesn’t have a reputation worthy of such trust3.

Four experts from the University of California sent a letter to the White House in April 2010 seeking information on the scanners so they could verify safety. From the AOL Report:

“We found that essentially none of this information was known or made public, and more interestingly, it looked like this technology had not been independently vetted by the scientific community, published, peer-reviewed or even discussed openly,” Sedat told AOL News.

“Essentially, all the information was coming from companies that were making the devices, and it looked like it was being parroted by the FDA and the TSA, which didn’t seem reasonable,” he said.

In April, Sedat and his colleagues sent a lengthy letter outlining their safety concerns to the White House science adviser, John Holdren, asking that several specific areas — especially an impartial review — be considered. It was November, seven months later, before the White House replied.

Sedat says he and his colleagues have “some heavily redacted reports which basically just raise more [danger] flags, because it’s very far from an independent, outside review.”

The bottom line is that the the University of California at San Francisco group isn’t any closer to assessing whether there are health hazards from the scanners.

“I would say we don’t know,” Sedat says. “We just don’t have access to the needed information. We’ve got 5 percent of the population that might be sensitive to X-rays. Are older people, myself included, at greater risk? What about pregnant women and children? These issues need to be addressed.”

From a health perspective, the ideal exposure to radiation is zero. Obviously this is unattainable, since we are exposed to some radiation naturally. But the potential health danger resultant from increased exposure tetrahertz waves, which are emitted by the body scanners, could be problematic. It seems (at minimum) that they could do some genetic harm4.

A greater understanding of the real health risks is needed before anyone boasts of the safety of the body scanners. Additionally, much more transparency from the TSA regarding the AIT’s is imperative so that independent experts can review the information. For me, as well as many others, the AIT’s are not a risk I would take right now- especially since it is unnecessary.

Security Theater and Strategic Problems

Whether it was requiring us to remove our shoes or banning printer cartridges, the TSA’s response has been quite reactionary and mostly security theater. This show makes politicians look good, but doesn’t actually protect us from terrorism.

Reactionary policies don’t throw much of a roadblock in front of a serious terrorist- (not to mention the TSA’s despicable track record enforcing existing roadblocks5). When there’s countless tactics and targets, reactionary measures only force terrorists to modify their tactics and targets to avoid the few we have specifically reacted to.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet 

If the trend of the past decade is any guide, the TSA will continue to pile on more security measures in the future. But there is no need to guess: the TSA has made clear their intention to expand their “safety” procedures to buses, trains, and other mass transportation.


Phony Privitization
 

 

The media says airports are toying with the idea of using private screeners instead of the TSA; but it is not real privatization. The TSA rules and procedures are still mandatory, no matter who executes them. Contracting out the TSA’s folly does nothing worthwhile to fix our problems.

Security measures should be about preventing future attacks, not just looking back to previous attacks. But that won’t be enough. We must ask why terrorism happens. Politicians are loathe to consider the side effects of their warfare state. Yet, it is untenable to think any nation can meddle in the affairs of other nations, prop up dictators, kill Muslims at a > 30:1 ratio, set up hundreds of bases in over 130 countries, lock up innocent persons, torture, etc.; and not simultaneously anger some people- so much that the only way they think they can effectively fight back such a superpower is through attacks by smaller groups of individuals using the tactic of terrorism. It’s called blowback.

Washington never discusses this, though; the warfare state, along with the welfare state, is the essence of today’s bloated government. As long as the people allow it and Washington is able to pay for the empire, we shouldn’t expect the terrorist threat to subside.

Current Policies Result in More Deaths

Since airliners and airports are not able to compete and offer different security measures suitable for those who find the TSA measures unacceptable, the current situation results in more people reverting to driving, which is statistically deadlier than flying. Steven Horwitz, a professor of economics at St. Lawrence University, agrees:

“Driving is much more dangerous than flying, as you are far more likely to be killed in an automobile accident mile-for-mile than you are in an airplane… The result will be that the new TSA procedures will kill more Americans on the highway”

A study [PDF]by researchers from the Cornell Univerity found that following new TSA procedures implemented in late 2002, resulted in 129 additional traffic fatalities in the fourth quarter of that year. This, as Nate Silver pointed out, is a rate equivalent to four fully loaded Boeing 737’s crashing each year.

It’s hard to measure this kind of statistic precisely, but it is certain that the TSA’s security policies- however many lives they do manage to protect- also result in some unnecessary deaths. Current policies result in more deaths than there would be if the the TSA faced real competition.

—The Solution—

It seems many people support the TSA because they are not aware of any alternatives. Either more TSA tyranny or more terrorist mayhem. Fortunately, that is a false dichotomy. There is a solution (well, two- sort of) that doesn’t violate our rights; and provides efficient, effective security: the free market. How would that work?

The Economics of Airline Security

What are the appropriate form(s) of security for airlines? Full body scanners, bomb sniffing dogs, profiling, metal detectors, pat downs, or something else? How should it be implemented- perhaps there should be a quicker process for frequent fliers? The answer is not one that can be determined by a group of experts or government officials. The only group that can determine the proper answer are the consumers (passengers) and property owners (airports and airlines).

In the same manner that one group of people cannot arbitrarily determine which flavors of toaster pastries, which types of cars, or what size of houses are appropriate for everyone, no group can determine the proper form airline security. There is no one size fits all solution; some people will desire more security than others and will be willing to pay extra for it.

The structure of a free market offers numerous incentives that compel airlines to deliver the benefit of high quality security with the lowest possible cost. It is in the airline’s interest to take necessary measures to protect its property from terrorists that would destroy it; not only can terrorist attacks result in the loss of extremely expensive aircraft, but they will also result in damages for which the airline could be liable for. Additionally, customers demand security; it is unprofitable to offer insecure flights.

Airlines that offer insufficient, invasive, or otherwise poor quality security will lose business to those who deliver what consumers want.

Market Airline Security in Action

How could people and businesses secure their own property? Specifically, how could airlines secure their property? Despite screening passengers, designing safe airplanes and enacting company policies that help fight terrorism, there is still a minimal risk of terrorism, which cannot be eliminated. This is where insurance would likely play a major role.

It would be in the interest of both airports and airliners to require that planes be insured. From the airliner’s viewpoint, it would be a foolish gamble to own planes costing millions of dollars without insuring them; it would also be very risky should they incur liabilities through an accident. Likewise, airports would probably not take the risk of allowing uninsured planes to land on their property.

Insurance companies, seeking to minimize the number of claims made, would have their own minimum security requirements for airliners. Instead of security theater or handing out pork to special interest groups, insurance companies and airlines would only be interested in procedures that truly improved safety.

There are an infinite number of ways airlines, airports, insurance companies, customers, and other participants in the industry could work together and innovate better security methods and reduce costs. It’s impossible to predict how it will play out, but it’s certain to work better than socialized airline security.

Why the Market is Always Superior

Free markets always deliver vastly superior products and services because of the price system which gives constant feedback to businesses on the success and failure of their actions. Scarce resources are allocated where and how consumers want them since that is where the maximum profits are.

Government institutions cannot replicate this because they are not subjected to the profit-loss regulation. Instead their income is taken involuntarily from society through some form of taxation. This results in what is known as the calculation problem.

Under the TSA, there is no voluntary customer relationship. Instead, it has a coercively enforced monopoly in which potential passengers cannot opt-out of. As with all government programs, the TSA cannot determine if it’s policies are effective and efficient, because they face that economic calculation problem.

Stop Overreacting to Terrorism

Free market airline security should be coupled with a more sensible reaction to terrorism in general. The news will always focus on what’s rare- that’s why it’s news to begin with. Unfortunately, we humans tend to conflate these stories and the frequency they are discussed with the actual threat level. That is, till we decide to think rationally about terrorism and stop panicking.

The truth is terrorism has almost no chance of directly affecting you. Lightning, car crashes, disease, et cetera are far more likely to bring an early end to your life. By partaking in public hysteria- and overreacting- we are making it harder for others to stay calm, handing victory to terrorists and more power to politicians, who are always happy to ‘help’.

Security expert Bruce Schneier eloquently stated:

By not overreacting, by not responding to movie-plot threats, and by not becoming defensive, we demonstrate the resilience of our society, in our laws, our culture, our freedoms. There is a difference between indomitability and arrogant “bring ’em on” rhetoric. There’s a difference between accepting the inherent risk that comes with a free and open society, and hyping the threats.

—Conclusion—

The current TSA policies are not only ineffective, unconstitutional, and potentially unhealthy, they are downright immoral and tyrannical. The proper balance of airline security, privacy, and common sense is up to the peaceful, voluntary actions of individuals, not the arbitrary reactions of politicians and bureacrats. We must decide for ourselves what we want and then patronize that business that best satisfies our demand. The incentives of a free market approach encourages efficient, effective security instead of costly and invasive security theatre.

Refuse to overreact to the threat of terrorism. Make the TSA an issue both now and in the next election. Use it to test how much tyranny and sheer absurdity political candidates are willing to support. Tell airlines that you can’t fly until the TSA is gone. Opt out if you must fly- or find another way to protest. If enough of us are willing to fight, we will win.

Notes:

1- TSA Stories: Detailed descriptions of less frequent abuses (here, here, here, here, here, here) and brief, common stories (here, here and here)
2- Worse than a Pat-Down: The TSA “pat-downs” would be more appropriately labeled as a custody search, as a former cop has pointed out:

“A ‘pat-down’ search by definition is ‘a frisk or external feeling of the outer garments of an individual for weapons only. … anyone who watches cop shows knows what a pat-down search is. The words are part of the American lexicon, and the public’s image of a pat-down search by police is something that isn’t all that bad… In police work, [the TSA’s current method is] called a custody search [and] includes everything short of a cavity search. The TSA needs to be honest about what they’re doing. It’s not nice to lie to the American people”


3- TSA Lies and failures: Could not secure their own personnel files and records; At least some AIT’s can store images (the TSA denied this). Aside from the failures in government tests, Jeffery Goldberg and Bruce Schneier were able to get quite a bit past the TSA’s lame enforcement of roadblocks.See other issues here.
4- Tetrahertz waves harmful? See here and here.
5-
Failure rate during government tests as high as 70%

Photo credit:

Constitution: kjd
Cartoon: Found here.
Airplane:Viewology.net

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Welcome to Striking at the Root!

Note: The following article was originally written for Gather.com in November 2010. This blog has been subsequently created to host the series, which was originally going to be exclusive to Gather.com.

The election is finally over. As expected, voters- already tired of the Democrats’ rule- have begun to toss the ball back to Republicans. It is yet to be seen whether they will finish that toss in the 2012 elections, and I think it is premature to call the shots.

For our confused Democrat supporting friends- who legitimately ask¹ why voters favor the Republican party who just a few years ago trampled the Constitution and supposedly crashed the economy on their own- here’s a partial explanation: Some ballots were not cast for Republicans, but rather against the Democrats. The Democratic party’s record of the past two (and four) years has been rejected. With no perceived alternative, they have desperately looked back to their former abusers, considering them a better bet than their present abusers.

At some point, you would think, we would tire of this back and forth game, and search out alternatives; whether that be actual third parties or Republican and Democratic candidates that hold a fundamentally different ideology aside from the statist quo (yes, that is possible). Republicans have faced numerous warnings that this is their last chance with some voters². If they fail to deliver the ever elusive change this time, standing up for the principles they claim to support, they will lose another segment of voters to third parties. The lesser of the two evils argument is becoming less convincing, and for good reasons. With this in mind, I suspect Republicans will do something good, if only for self-preservation.

Personally, I remain skeptical that the next two years will be much better. Sure, if we get it, gridlock will slow things up a bit, but nowadays unelected bureaucrats are so busy writing new rules we hardly enjoy that safety Benjamin Franklin referred to when the legislature is out of session³. It seems the best case scenario is walking down the path of destruction at a slightly slower pace. That is hardly victory at all.

What really means something is the reversal of our trot down the road to serfdom. And Republicans haven’t had the guts to do that for decades, instead taking delight in trying to outdo the other party. Now I’ll concede that this year is bringing us a couple of solid Republicans that are willing and ready to do the right thing. But overall- the average Republican victor from Tuesday can’t even bring himself to seriously discuss or question some of the main pillars of socialism (and fascism, corporatism, etc): the central bank, the warfare state, or the welfare state. In other words, they are not willing to implement much change.

My observations of the past few months- on Gather and elsewhere, continuously point to the need for serious, grown up discussion of the ideas that are beneath our political cloaks. Ideas, not politicians or parties, is what matters most. Ideas have not changed significantly in the past two years. It usually takes longer than that for such to happen. I know it took me over a year of intensive political thinking and reading to transform from a more party-line, obedient Republican to a principled supporter of liberty.

It’s my intention, going forward, to spend a little more time making posts with more emphasis on the why and how of ideas; and a little less time posting on and commenting on tabloid news, copy and paste articles, left and right bickering, etc. Not that I’m going to stop it all, but I do need a change in strategy, especially since time is becoming a more scarce commodity for me these days.

Henry David Thoreau condensed one of the prevalent problems people repeat into one sentence:

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil, to one who is striking at the root.”4

I think that is very applicable to what I’m doing here. We hack at the branches of evil: politicians, political parties, legislation. But we never strike at the root of the problems: the ideas hiding beneath all of that.

Hence, I’ve created a new group, Striking at the Root, exclusively for this series of refreshingly infrequent but more substantial posts. I’ll email group members when I make a new post. Topics will primarily be on politics and economics, but may stray into other interesting subjects once in a while. Everyone is invited to join- I’ve already sent out invites to those on my friends list.

I’ll also be including an RSS feed in the Striking at the Root series to make it easier for members and non-members alike to keep up with every post:

Notes
1- See here, here and here for examples.
2- http://dailycaller.com/2010/11/04/the-last-chance-for-the-gop/
3- “No man’s life, liberty or fortune is safe while our legislature is in session.” –Benjamin Franklin
4- Credit to Mr. Bachman for acquainting me with this quote.

Photo credit: Light bulb animation, Brendan Berman

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