Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Money, Politics, and the First Amendment

“The sad truth is that weary and wary candidates all over America are on the phone every day to their affluent supporters, pleading for more money. However reluctantly, it's a game that all save the wealthiest candidates must play, if only to protect themselves from the big money their opponents might raise.

"Ever since 1976, when the Supreme Court ruled in Buckley vs. Valeo that mandatory limits on personal spending violate a candidate's First Amendment rights, the cost of campaigns has skyrocketed. Any candidate who is not wealthy must spend huge blocks of time raising money, much of it from people who live outside his district or state. Some argue, in fact, that fundraising makes it impossible for officeholders to meet their constitutional obligations to represent the needs of the vast majority of their constituents.”

A Corrosive effect on Democracy by Richard C. Leone, the New Jersey Star Ledger, 10/24/07.

Richard C. Leone of the Century Foundation laments the plight of American politicians whom he obviously sees as victims of big money in politics. But he has it exactly backwards, reversing cause and effect.

Having accrued to itself massive power to regulate and control the economic and personal affairs of the American people, the political class is now reaping what it has sown. The relentless growth of lobbying and campaign money has paralleled the growth of government power (at all levels). But make no mistake, the increasing need of private citizens to pour money into politics is the effect. State power is the cause.

Leone and many others don’t see it this way, of course. They simply believe that a way must be found to get the special interest money out of politics without ever addressing the cause. They apparently believe that the politicians should be able to go merrily on their way using the coercive power of the state to regulate peoples lives without being “corrupted” and “brutalized”; i.e., without having to answer to the very people, as represented by campaign contributors and lobbyists, whose lives they are effecting.

But the attempt to roll back the peoples’ ability to be involved in the workings of our government is a threat to the crucial first amendment of our constitution, which guarantees in part “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” A lobby is a peaceable assembly. To gain “access” to a politician (through campaign contributions) in order to “influence” legislation that effects one’s interests is to “petition the Government”.

Admittedly, this is a less-than-desirable process that opens the door to outright bribery and corruption. But the money-in-politics problem is a direct result of our mixed economy (a mixture of freedom and government controls). To now take steps to protect politicians from the people they govern is perverse and makes a mockery of the uniquely American principle embodied in the phrase “a government of the people, for the people, and by the people”.

What’s to be done? For starters, repeal all campaign finance laws that restrict political contributions and replace them with strict “sunshine” laws that require the publication of all such contributions large and small. They should be published in such a way that all voters have easy and “user-friendly” ways of checking on who is supporting what politician. This “full and immediate disclosure” policy can then enable voters to factor political contribution patterns into their voting decisions. While certain rules concerning lobbyists may be appropriate and consistent with the first amendment, generally I oppose any restrictions on the right of lobbyists (who represent the interests of private citizens) to gain access to politicians to make their case on issues that effect them.

In the end, though, there is only one way to get money out of politics. Get politics out of money; i.e., roll back the regulatory and taxing power the state holds over industry and commerce as well as other areas of government control, such as education.

Leone ends his piece with another sneak attack on the first amendment, with the following statements:

“Does democracy work best when everyone is entitled to all the speech he can afford to buy? Or are the interests of democracy served best with a level playing field on which we all agree to "limits" on speech as a trade-off for reducing the influence that money has in the process of campaigning and governing?

"Finally, how can we call speech "free" and then place a price on it -- and an ever more expensive price at that?”

Equating free speech with the right to impose financial (or other) costs on others , which is what Leone is saying, is a complete perversion of the meaning of the term “free speech”. The first amendment states “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” Ayn Rand, in her usual succinct manner, explains it best:

Freedom of speech means freedom from interference, suppression or punitive action by the government- and nothing else. It does not mean the right to demand the financial support or the material means to express your views at the expense of other men who may not wish to support you. Freedom of speech includes the freedom not to agree, not to listen and not to support one’s own antagonists. A “right” does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one’s own effort.

Private citizens have any number of ways to express their opinions, including letters to the editor, conversations with other people, financially supporting organizations that publish material advocating one’s viewpoints and, of course, the internet. Indeed, this blog post is an expression of my freedom of speech, and it’s not costing me a cent.

Yet dangerous ideas like the above get serious consideration. It is hard for me to write Leone’s position on free speech off as an innocent misunderstanding of the first amendment. The idea of imposing an obligation on some people to support the “free” speech rights of others is at the heart of an incidious bill currently making its way through Congress called, in typical Orwellian fashion, the Fairness Doctrine (which I will address in some detail in a future post).

The alleged “problem” of money in politics is here to stay as long as we accept the principle that governmental force is an appropriate method for people (or groups of people) to deal with one another. Rolling back our precious first amendment rights is no “solution”.

Post Reference 13

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Anti-Tax Dems?

The House voted 405-2 to extend the tax ban on internet access for another four years. The ban was originally passed in 1998 and renewed in 2004. "The moratorium bans taxes on internet access, double taxation- by two or more states or other entities- of a product or service bought over the internet, and discriminatory taxes that treat Internet purchaces differently from other types of sales"(New Jersey Star-Ledger, 10/17/07).

"By voting to continue the tax moratorium, the House will help promote innovation, affordable Internet access, and broadband services for American consumers and businesses," said:

Rudy Giuliani?

Steve Forbes?


The Ghost of Ronald Reagan?

Nope. That was Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi! The same Nancy Pelosi who, along with her party, is itching to raise income, dividend, and capital gains taxes, thus stifling innovation and raising the cost of goods and services "for American consumers and businesses".

Added Rep. Mel Watt, another Democrat, "This bill is pro-consumer, pro-innovation and pro-technology."

What's going on here? Democrats talking about zero taxes on something? Embracing "supply-side economics"? Recognizing the harmful affects of taxes on economic incentives?

Well, maybe not quite. They did shoot down a Republican bill to permanently block internet taxes. And silicon valley is in California and is a major contributor to the Dems. And next year is the election.

But, hey, we'll take it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Golden Anniversary of an Inspiration

Upon completion, after some 12 years, of her novel ATLAS SHRUGGED, Ayn Rand remarked to some friends; “I know that I am challenging the cultural tradition of two and a half thousand years”.

Later, in searching for a publisher, a primary consideration for Rand was to find someone who understood fully the intellectual and philosophical implications of her book and who would be willing to face the storm of hostility she expected it to touch off. In a meeting with Random House, vice-president Donald Klopfer stated; “If you propose to offer a moral defense of capitalism, wouldn’t you have to clash with the entire tradition of Judeo-Christian ethics?” Rand chose Random House.

Atlas Shrugged was published on October 10, 1957, 50 years ago today. As Rand predicted, and following the pattern of her previous novel THE FOUNTAINHEAD but on a much wider and more intense scale, ATLAS SHRUGGED touched off a firestorm of criticism and almost universally negative reviews. And again as in the case of her previous novel, ATLAS became an instant and huge commercial success, powered mainly through the grassroots by word-of-mouth. On the success of AS, Random House’s Bennett Cerf told Ayn Rand: “It’s remarkable! In all my years of publishing, I’ve never seen anything like it. To break through against such enormous opposition!”

Today ATLAS SHRUGGED (as well as all of Ayn Rand’s books, both fiction and non-fiction), continues to sell briskly and in fact its sales are accelerating. AS and its philosophy Objectivism, laid out by Rand in a series of non-fiction books, lectures, and essays have generated world-wide interest and influence that has steadily grown stronger as the years pass. The movie version of the novel, with Angelina Joli contracted to play the heroine Dagney Taggart (which she says has been a life-long ambition of hers) is tentatively slated for release in 2008.

The moral revolution in AS, demonstrated in the form of a breathtaking action story that makes the book hard to put down, is that rational, enlightened self-interest rather than altruistic self-sacrificial service to others is the proper moral code for man to live by. Thus, Ayn Rand has broken the monopoly on morality held by altruism (both religious and secular). Based on neither the commands of a supernatural being (religion) nor on the commands of “society” (secular), the Objectivist ethics is based on man’s life on earth and the objectively provable requirements for his survival as an individual human being.

Under Rand's code of ethics, both altruism and the conventional view of selfishness are rejected as two sides of the same coin, both requiring human sacrifice. Thus, rational selfishness means living one's life by one's own effort and for one's own long term happiness, neither sacrificing oneself to others (altruism), nor sacrificing others to oneself (conventional selfishness). Needless to say, this non-sacrificial code of morality is the most widely misunderstood aspect of Ayn Rand's Objectivism and a full understanding of it requires much thought and study. Fortunately, Rand has presented a great (and entertaining) place to start; with her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

While the widespread and growing influence of the ideas presented in AS both in America and around the world and among both ordinary people and prominent persons are beyond question, how deeply rooted that influence is in the culture is not easily gauged. Undoubtedly, the number of people who call themselves Objectivists is still very small. What is certain is that parts of Rand’s philosophy are scattered widely among many millions of people who might not agree with it in its entirety. I also believe that there are many “closet” Rand admirers, even in the religious community, who find much to agree with her on but who, nonetheless, may not want to identify with an atheist, or who perhaps do not feel comfortable having to defend a philosophy they do not fully understand (which was me until very recently). Still others may be inspired by the heroic view of man presented through the novel’s characters while finding very little agreement with the political/social ideals they represent. Hillary Clinton, for example, claims to have been influenced by Ayn Rand but one would hardly call her a believer in limited government.

On peoples' personal lives is likely where ATLAS's strongest influence has occurred thus far. In an essay (see link below), Dr. Yaron Brook describes this phenomena: "As executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, I see the impact of Atlas Shrugged on a daily basis. I'm continually amazed by how many people, from every walk of life and every part of the planet, from high school students to political activists in countries from Hong Kong to Belarus to Ghana, eagerly tell me: ' Atlas Shrugged changed my life.'Scores of business leaders, from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, say they have derived great spiritual fuel from Atlas Shrugged. Many tell me that the novel has motivated them to make the most of their lives, inspiring them to be more ambitious, more productive, and more successful in their work. And many of America's politicians and intellectuals who claim to fight for economic freedom name Atlas Shrugged as the book that has most inspired them."

ATLAS SHRUGGED (as well as THE FOUNTAINHEAD) has definitely been a source of inspiration to me over the years. Since discovering ATLAS some 40 years ago, I have read both novels twice in their entirety and have turned to them enumerable times to re-read particular scenes. "Re-living" the way the novel's heros dealt with, struggled and won against impossible odds without sacrificing their principles has given me fuel and optimism, especially during times when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed in my life.

One good barometer of Rand’s and her novel’s influence can be measured by the level of criticism and outright hostility toward her ideas. By this measure, her influence is certainly growing. This is not surprising, considering the growing number of trained Objectivist intellectuals who regularly appear on the major news outlets such as CNBC, Fox News, CNN, etc., as well as by the number of their letters and op-eds published in major newspapers around the country. In addition, the academic barriers to serious study of Objectivism are steadily breaking down with more than 30 major universities now offering courses by Objectivist professors, and Objectivist study clubs operating on campuses around the country.

Criticism of AS and of Rand has usually been of the ad hominem variety. In fact, every attack I have ever seen has involved use of snide, unsubstantiated, anti-intellectual insults, or else was based on honest misunderstanding, willful misrepresentations, or outright lies. I have yet to see a solid refutation based on an accurate representation of any of her fundamental ideas or viewpoints. But, with the still limited but growing number of Objectivist scholars, thanks in large part to the educational programs of the Ayn Rand Institute, it will become increasingly difficult for critics to avoid confronting Objectivism head-on on the intellectual level.

So, 50 years after publication, ATLAS SHRUGGED and its radical new philosophy of reason/rational egoism/ individual rights/capitalism has become a force to be reckoned with. In the future, Ayn Rand’s ideas promise to add a whole new, and badly needed, dimension to the cultural/political battles.

Happy Anniversary, ATLAS SHRUGGED

P.S.- See also the essays "The influence of Atlas Shrugged", "Ayn Rands Legacy of Reason and Freedom" and "Good press for Objectivism and Atlas Shrugged" at Principles in Practice, the blog of The Objective Standard. Also on Forbes there is an interesting piece describing the surging interest in Ayn Rand.

See Post Reference 12

Sunday, October 7, 2007

A Hollow Victory

President Bush's veto of SCHIP is far from the tough stand against the incremental advance toward socialized medicine that Bush himself warned about. In fact, he and the GOP leadership are doing more to advance the Democrats' agenda than the Dems could hope to do on their own.

In vetoing this bill, Bush simultaneously declared his support for the original SCHIP program, while throwing up the white flag of surrender by signaling his intention to compromise with congress on an SCHIP expansion bill which would cost less. Bush has proposed a $30 billion dollar 5-year SCHIP bill. The vetoed bill was for $60 billion.

Thus, the war is over, declared Bush. The Left has won. The only fight left will be over where between $30 and $60 billion the final cost will be.

The Dems' response was swift and brutal. "Heartless veto", cried Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, "Bush is denying health care to millions of low-income kids in America." This is said about a man whose disagreement over the program is only a matter of degree, not on principled opposition.

"We're not going to compromise",declared Reid.

Thus the Democrats appear confidant, consistent, and morally certain; while the Republicans look cowardly and unprincipled (which most of them are, today). Worse still, the GOP will now have to endure the vicious attacks of the left-wing smear merchants for opposing SCHIP, without even having opposed it!

Had the GOP put up a united and principled fight to not only kill SCHIP, but to offer instead a plan of their own to correct the major flaws in government policies that are driving up the cost of health care and health care insurance, they at least would have accomplished something in return for having to withstand the assault from the Left. They would have at least offered America a strong alternative while laying the foundation for a principled election strategy on health care for 2008.

Instead, they are withering and handing the Dems a gift by not forcing them to acknowledge and defend their blatantly socialist agenda.

What is sickenly frustrating to me is that the Republicans do have the makings of a comprehensive health care reform plan. Ideas such as restoring competition to the insurance market by ending the ban on inter-state sales of insurance products; rolling back and ending government mandates on what must be included in insurance policies, thus allowing individuals to tailor their policies to their own interests (age, income, marital status, chosing deductables, etc.); and attacking the ridiculous government-imposed third-party-payer system of health care financing, through HSAs and individual tax write-offs as generous as those offered to employers, have all been floating around Congress in GOP-sponsored bills.

Our health care financing system is in deep trouble, becoming steadily less affordable even to middle class families. The cause is massive government intrusion into almost every facet of health care. Most segments of our economy, being comparatively free from state regulation, are marked by falling prices relative to income, thus bringing the benefits of industrial production of goods and services to lower and lower income levels. Look around and you will see that nearly everything we take for granted, from cars to telephones to appliances to indoor plumbing to television to jet travel to cable to all manner of electronics etc., etc., etc. started out as luxury items for the rich but steadily became affordable to even those classified as "poor" as producers sought to expand their markets through relentless cost-cutting. The same degree of freedom, with Americans paying directly for the medical products amd services they need and desire, would do the same for health care.

The above-described ideas are a start toward what could be a comprehensive plan for radical reform along free market lines that would offer Americans "A choice, not an echo" (to borrow a phrase from the 1964 Goldwater campaign). Such a plan, centered around the concept of individual rights, would require a degree of political courage that is not now evident among the GOP leadership, with the possible exception of Rudy Guiliani (stay tuned).

First, the Republican party must unite behind a single comprehensive proposal, rejecting the Mitt Romney approach (which served as a model for the Hillary Clinton scheme).

Second, the party must break with President Bush and his neo-conservative backers, who suckered the Reagan/Goldwater conservatives (including me) and thus destroyed that coalition. Bush on 9/25 told the U.N. that "everyone 'has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food and clothing and housing and medical care' and that the American government has a duty to privide for those needs" (David Holcberg letter in the New York Sun 10/1/07). As N.J. Star-Ledger conservative columnist Paul Mulshine recently pointed out, the neo-cons' roots stem from the liberal-left and their stripes have never changed.

Third, the GOP must declare explicitly that it is not the government's job to guarantee health insurance to everyone. It is, however, the government's job to establish the conditions necessary for health insurance that is affordable to all income levels (i.e., a fully functioning free market where individuals, doctors, and providers are free to make their own health care decisions).

As of this writing, the GOP is in big trouble for the 2008 election. What better time to boldly go where the current leadership fears to tread?

See Post Reference 11

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


News Flash: Bush vetoes SCHIP legislation.

Socialists have apparently penetrated much deeper into America’s health care establishment than I would have thought possible. In my post of 9/8/07 I reported that the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics where supporting a huge expansion of the State Childrens’ Health Insurance Program, which would greatly advance the cause of socialized medicine in this country. Now comes this report by the Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner that “[t]he American Cancer Society announced recently that it will spend its entire advertising budget next year… campaigning for a government takeover of the U.S. health-care system.”

This development is particularly shocking because the Cancer Society’s primary function is to foster cutting edge scientific research on cancer. Nothing could do more to cripple that research than to shackle the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, university research departments, and other private scientific cancer research efforts than to put them under the thumb of a government-run health care dictatorship, where state health bureaucrats would have sole decision-making authority over the medications, surgical techniques, and procedures for treating cancer.

Scientific advances are driven by one, and only one, process…the thinking of individual minds. And there is but one requirement for the thinking mind…freedom.

Yet freedom is precisely what the American Cancer Society proposes to banish from American Health Care. Thus the life’s work of cancer (and other medical) researchers and their investors will be subject, not to their own judgements and market risk assessments, but to the arbitrary whims of government bureaucrats. This would have a crippling effect on medical innovation. Ayn Rand explains:

“The progress of theoretical science and technology…is moved by such a complex and interconnected sum of the work of individual minds that no computer or committee [or bureaucrat] could predict and prescribe its course. The discoveries in one branch of knowledge lead to unexpected discoveries in another: the achievements in one field open countless roads in all the others…Who can predict when, where or how a given bit of information will strike an active mind and what it will produce?
[But] the mind is an attribute of the individual and it does not work under orders, controls and compulsion, as centuries of stagnation [prior to the industrial revolution] have demonstrated. Progress cannot be planned by government, and it cannot be restricted or retarded: it can only be stopped, as every statist government [and system of socialized medicine] has demonstrated.” (Return of the Primitive, pages 285-86, 281)

In the mid 1980s, Dr Napoleone Ferrara began research on finding a way to stop a process which he believed existed and needed to be discovered. The process, called angeogenesis, is the ability of cancer cells to grow their own blood vessels and thus feed their own growth. Financed by his far-sighted employer, Genentech Corporation, Dr. Ferrara worked through years marked by hints of success followed by devastating failures and dead ends. Driven by his vision, neither he nor Genentech gave up. Once having discovered and proved his original hypothesis, Dr. Ferrara and his team commenced work on a bio-engineered drug to stop angeogenesis and thus kill the cancer cells. The result was Avastin.

Avastin was approved first for treating colon cancer (2004), then lung cancer (2006). Today Avastin is in clinical trials for treatment of at least 20 other types of cancer. All of this progress was made possible by the vision and determination of Dr. Ferrara, his team of researchers, and a patient, far-sighted company willing to risk huge amounts of capital.

Indeed, today over 80% of all new drugs originate in the United States. And America remains a magnet for people the world over seeking cutting edge medical treatment. It is products like Avastin, which require a commitment of decades and untold millions of dollars, that would be impossible under the sufficating bureaucracy and tyranny of socialized medicine. Researchers and investors must be free to follow their visions, take their risks, offer their products for sale on the free market, and make their fortunes if we are to expect future Avastins to emerge.

My Son-in-law is a cancer survivor, and I can't help but wonder how many future sons and daughters-in-law won't beat their cancers once the entrepreneurial endeavers such as the one sighted above are replaced by research-by-political-pull/favoritism/connections which is a necessary result of state-run medicine. I wonder how many of today's children will one day suffer and die prematurely because of visionary research not pursued, risky investments not made, and fortunes not earned.

The support of the AMA and the AAP for the SCHIP legislation can, perhaps, be rationalized (though not justified) as an attempt by those two organizations to head off more draconian legislation by making a deal with the devil. But one can give no such leeway to the Cancer Society. As an organization geared specifically to advancing scientific knowledge in the cancer arena, the American Cancer Society cannot possibly fail to understand the social, economic, and political conditions necessary to the success of its cause. Therefore, one can only conclude that the leadership of this venerable American institution has been hijacked by people with a socialist political agenda. But whether by design or by some misplaced belief that they are somehow advancing the cause of fighting cancer, this is, I submit, a betrayal of the scientists, the charitable donors, the future cancer victims, and of any American who values his freedom.

Health care promises to be the domestic issue of the 2008 election campaign. The advocates of socialized medicine are energized, organized and ready for battle, with their representatives planted among some of America’s premier and influential institutions and corporations. They are announcing openly and boldly their plans. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, for example, announced his scheme for national health care which forces everyone to abide by the state’s “healthy living” mandates or be denied care, despite being forced into the government’s plan. (see Be Healthy or Else).

The opponents of government-run health care are by-and-large disorganized, demoralized, and missing the real issue here. People such as Tanner and Dr. David Gratzer (and many others) have done an invaluable job of demonstrating the failures and impracticality of socialized medicine. While this is an important starting point, it is not and never has been enough. Some new socialist gang will always come along and say “Yes, but my gang can make it work, this time.” And that is exactly what is happening today.

The defenders of health care freedom must recognize, and soon, that the socialists can only be stopped by a principled campaign based on the supremacy of individual rights. What all Objectivists know, and others must learn, is that this is a moral battle that can only be fought on the philosophical battlefield. Compromises and me-too-ism won’t do. They never have.

In the age-old battle of the individual against the state, the Democrats have come down squarely on the side of the state. If the Republicans are going to have any chance to prevail next year, they will have to put forth a bold and comprehensive health care proposal that would include massive deregulation that puts the individual American firmly in control of his own health care, free from governmental coercion. The Democrats have left no doubt about their collectivist intentions and thus have opened the door wide to a radically different counter proposal. Sadly, however, most of the Republican leadership is moving in the opposite direction, competing with the Democrats on how, not whether, to expand government’s control of health care. In the end, a grassroots movement may be our only chance to stop the socialist juggernaut.

And our time is running out!

See Post Reference 10