Friday, February 28, 2014

You’re Equal. Got it? The legal service gap in civil law

By Dillon Corey (Equality under law) - As Stephanie sat in the lobby of Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau, she was visibly distressed. Her mother had been living in an assisted care facility just miles from Stephanie’s home, but Stephanie alleges that her mother had been abused through neglect. Without the funds to pursue legal action, she desperately looked for legal assistance.

Stephanie’s story is representative of a struggle for millions of low income Americans who seek justice. In theory, we are all treated equally under the law, the result of a long-standing legal precedent and Constitutional protection. But this equality is an illusion.

The fact is, the poor in our society are disadvantaged before the law. While a defendant is provided a lawyer if they are unable to afford one in criminal trials, in civil cases, representation is up to the litigants. This creates barriers for low-income citizens, forced to navigate the civil legal system alone and suffer the consequences of confusion. We need sweeping reforms to provide civil legal services for all citizens.

Poverty impedes access to legal representation, preventing proper protections and undermining the equality that all citizens are supposed to share. And this doesn’t just hurt “the poor.” It hurts millions of low-income veterans, disaster victims, urban workers, and rural workers. Our neighbors. They face a lack of knowledge about their rights, legal services in their area, and trust in the legal system, on top of not having lawyers. These barriers not only damage the most fragile among us, but put an increased burden on society.

When the poor are unable to access legal services, they turn to more costly types of government aid and cease to fully participate in the economy. This happens when the government has to pay for emergency shelter for wrongfully evicted families, when victims of domestic abuse are treated in emergency rooms because they don’t know the legal steps to distance their partner, or when social services must make increased child support recoveries. Instead of having a legal system that mediates and prevents civil disputes, society is left to pick up the costs.

Better legal services are not just beneficial to the public good but to the economy. In Washington D.C., the DC Access to Justice Commission shows that for every one dollar of public funds invested in legal services, it provides four dollars in benefits. This follows a similar study in Texas that saw a $7.48 increase in consumer spending and a $3.59 increase in production of goods and services for every dollar spent on legal aid. Similar findings have been seen in other states as legal resources support strained social service networks.
But most important to the foundations of our society, having a class of citizens who are disadvantaged in the legal system makes our American claim to equal treatment under the law a platitude. When people participate in a legal system but do not understand their rights, equal treatment struggles to find just outcomes.

Fixing our broken legal system is a pragmatic cause on which both the left and the right can agree. For conservatives, civil legal reform provides spending reductions by easing a financial burden on expanding social services. For liberals, reform gives a way for the government to provide efficient services that will make a meaningful impact on the lives of millions of Americans. While addressing the legal service gap only combats the symptoms of underlying poverty, it is an important project for our society.

The most direct step to close the legal gap is an increase in government funding to legal services for civil cases. Public funds are currently available in some major cities, but are needed on a national scale, as private groups struggle to meet demand. Other avenues must also be explored; support for legal service non-profits, greater legal outreach into poor communities, and promotion of pro-bono work at law schools and firms.

Without reform, the civil legal system will continue to be unequal for America’s poor. Private sector solutions are currently unable to correct the systemic problems, and it is time for the government to act. In the current system, the poor become accustomed to accepting adversity and unfairness. We need to give them a reason to believe in the complete integrity of our legal system, for it is the foundation of our democracy. If even the weakest among us lack full access to a legitimate legal system, none can be truly equal.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corporations Living on Welfare

By Brendan Jordan (Minimum Wage) - President Obama in his State of the Union address several weeks ago announced that he would issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because "if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn't have to live in poverty." This announcement came after a debate over raising the minimum wage serendipitously started in this country several months ago amongst political talking heads and media elites. This debate is a tired one that now seems like a quinquennial ritual in which democrats call for a minimum raise increase, some on right claim job losses will ensue, and the raise gets passed anyways.

As a libertarian and person who broadly believes in assumptions of neoclassical economics the traditional argument against raising the minimum wage or not even having one at all made sense to me. Raising the marginal cost of labor would decrease the quantity demanded by employers and more people with low skill sets would be out of work or the added cost would be passed onto consumers resulting in an effective wage cut for all.

However, empirical studies have cast doubt on this ostensible economic truism in recent years. One study by David Card and Alan Krueger commonly cited by higher-minimum wage advocates found that New Jersey's increased minimum wage had no affect on fast food restaurants when compared to lower-waged Pennsylvania restaurants across the Delaware River.  Although studies like this one certainly cast some doubt on the neoclassical position, I find place to place comparisons troubling when trying to advocate for policy positions. We are all too familiar with this phenomenon during debates over gun control. These discussions resemble verbal games of Sporkle where gun control advocates and proponents yell out low-crime places with either strict or loose gun laws to prove the superiority of their policy preferences.

However,  Ron Unz, a California conservative activist and businessman, offers a more convincing criticism of a lower minimum wage than the standard liberal arguments. Unz argues that because of a low minimum wage, low wage workers need to rely on welfare and subsidies in addition to their income. This is effectively a form of corporate welfare since the safety net covers employees' wages that would presumably have been paid for by the employer in the absence of such a net. If there was no safety net, workers would be a lot less willing to work at McDonalds for $7.25 and the resulting competition amongst employers for low skilled workers would drive up wages to their true equilibrium.

Although this is a clever and attractive argument for raising the minimum wage on libertarian or conservative grounds, it does not address the true problem, which is not a low minimum wage, but the modern progressive welfare system in this country. Companies could not get away with relying on welfare to pick up the tab to support their employees if employees had to rely on their wage as their main source of income. The savings from the elimination of the welfare programs would also result in an effective pay increase for all tax payers, allowing people to demand more of the goods and services low-skilled workers provide.
I am not heartless so a negative-income tax or charity vouchers for the disabled maybe appropriate to prevent people from 'starving in the street.' Nevertheless, for ready, willing, and able workers eliminating welfare might actually provide the best solution for their problems.

However, given that this country has shown a strong dedication to a robust welfare state, the most libertarian solution in practice could involve supporting a higher minimum wage for those workers who rely on welfare to supplement their income. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Saving Lives: Why We Should Opt-In to Opt-Out

By JC (Property Rights) - In the US, 18 people die every day while waiting for available organs.  The organ transplant waitlist is over 100,000.  We are facing a medical crisis in this country.

It’s easier than ever to sign up to become an organ donor: many states only require an additional signature while processing your new or renewed driver’s license.  Two check boxes pop up on the screen; you get to choose one.  Could it get any easier?

However, a recent survey found that most Americans are willing to donate their organs after death but only 38% of registered drivers are registered to do so.  What drives this disparity?  Research suggests that misconceptions about the donation and registration processes are two of the primary factors that create this difference.  Some people fear they are not healthy enough or are too old to donate viable organs.  Others believe doctors will not work as hard to save their lives if they are organ donors.  Some even fear having their organs sold on a black market after donation.

Even I suffer from these misconceptions.  I’m open to the idea of organ donation—who wouldn’t want to save a life if it’s within his or her power?  Yet, I’m not a registered organ donor and don’t go out of my way to register.  Whenever I’m renewing my driver’s license, I usually breeze through the organ donation screen with a quick check in the “NO” box.  Why?  This is usually after over an hour of wait time; I don’t know if there are additional screens after the first organ donation one if I check “YES.”  All I know is that I want to get out of the MVA as fast as possible—and I do not feel strongly about organ donation so any extra time spent on the process creates negative utility for me.

This is why the US should have an opt-out organ donation policy.  An opt-out policy will have great gains in donation rates amongst currently unregistered people who are either willing to donate or are indifferent about organ donation.  Changing the program from opt-in to opt-out eliminates some structural and bureaucratic inefficiencies, thereby increasing the availability of organs anywhere from an estimated 16% to 50%.  When organ donation is the default assumption, it will take extra effort to remove oneself from the program and only those who are strongly against organ donation will take the time to do so.

Furthermore, the current US organ donation policy is inconsistent with its other property destruction policies: the US has historically denied individuals the right to destroy.  Courts are concerned with the waste of resources available to society as a whole; they generally try and prevent the negative externalities that would result from the destruction of one’s physical or financial property.  A physical house might be worth $1,000,000.  Yet, the average estimate of the value of a statistical life for a middle aged worker is $7,000,000.  Why should someone be stopped from destroying his or her house but be not only allowed, but systemically encouraged by government policy, in destroying his or her kidney that could save someone’s life?

US policy regarding organ donation boils down to the societal norms.  Our society treats the human body as sacred and is not educated on the realities of organ donation.  Mass media and hippie yoga teachers hand us whey kale shakes and whisper seductively in our ears: “Our bodies are sacred.  Let us worship at their shrines.”  It would be different to become an organ donor—it’s not the norm.  Consequently, there is not a widespread push to change the current policy and policymakers are reluctant to even approach the subject.  
Yet, can a dead person’s kidney really be more sacred than a living human’s life?

The US would not be the first country to adopt an opt-out organ donation policy; France, Spain, Australia, Belgium, and Portugal all have varying forms of presumed consent policies, along with significantly higher organ donation rates.  If the US follows their progressive lead, we can fight our medical crisis and save more lives, one kidney at a time.    

Thursday, February 20, 2014

One Size Fits All

By Jeffrey Tyburski (Religious Freedom) - 
With the Affordable Care Act, government expands further into healthcare. Its one size fits all policy disregards individual conscience.If government provides your health insurance, then it gets to decide what exactly it should cover. It also decides how to pay for it. Essentially, government is forcing people to buy health insurance and dictating what the details are.

Within ObamaCare, there is an ‘employer mandate’. What this ‘employer mandate’ means is that employers must provide health insurance for their employees or face a fine collected by the IRS. The Affordable Care Act specifies goods and services to be included in the employer mandate insurance.

One of these specified goods is abortifacients. Abortifacients prevent the planting of a recently conceived embryo into the embryonic wall. For one who believes life begins at conception, this is murder.

Many employers find the employer mandate offensive to their religious-moral beliefs.Amongst these employers is the Green family, owners of ‘Hobby Lobby’, a Denver based chain of arts and crafts stores. The Green family is devoutly Christian. Hobby Lobby has not complied with ObamaCare mandate and is taking its case to the Supreme Court. By fighting the law, Hobby Lobby risks facing up to $1.3 million in fines per day.

This law is egregious. It forces employers, such as the Green family, to purchase something which is against their religious-moral beliefs. It does not even give them the option to provide employee insurance without contraceptive drugs. Nor does it consider that employees could use their wages to buy contraceptive drugs.

But that wouldn’t fit the paternalist vision of ObamaCare. God forbid if people took responsibility for themselves, or if employers and employees worked out their own agreements.It is necessary that the government make people pay for some things which they may object too. For example: An army and a police force are necessary functions of government. One cannot be made exempt from a portion of the income tax simply because they object to police protection.

The real question then becomes “What is government necessary for?”.

If one considers universal access to abortifacients to be a necessity, and government coercion the only way to provide it, then the Green family should be forced to provide this service to their employees. But if one thinks government should micromanage us all the way down to details such as abortifacients, then what does one think the government should not manage?The more the government manages our lives, the more likely it is to trample individual conscience. When government plans things on a massive scale, it is unable to account for individual preferences. It is nearly impossible to know what diverse and numerous individuals desire. If the 100 smartest people in the world gathered together in Washington D.C., they could not know what you specifically desire. Simply put: no one knows what you want better than you do. Obama does not know what you want better than you do, nor does any member of congress, nor any bureaucrat planner.

And for that matter, neither does your boss. Why should one be paid with health insurance? It’s a different question, but it illuminates why health care is such a politicized issue. Is it because health care is a necessity? So are food and shelter. Should one be paid in the form of meals or mortgages? This unusual position of healthcare is the result of government intervention. Health insurance, as a form of pay, receives special tax incentives. Like the Affordable Care Act, this older policy has unintended consequences, such as higher health care costs nationwide.The debate on health care is often framed in skewed terms. One could say “The Greens do not want to pay their employees in the form of coverage for abortifacients.” However, I often see the same idea presented as “The Greens threaten the reproductive rights of their female employees”. There is a perverse logic. Someone else not paying for your healthcare is equated with ‘taking’ your healthcare. Obviously the Greens are not trying to take anything from their employees. No one forces their employees to work for them; this is not serfdom.

ObamaCare has created a one-size-fits-all plan. This is bound to run over individual conscience. It has created an insane debate which portrays the religious sentiments of business owners as exclusive to the reproductive rights of employees. That is absurd. This conflict exists because ObamaCare has presented the Greens with a binary choice: yield on their faith or destroy their livelihood. Without ObamaCare, the Greens could continue to work and live as they see fit, while their employees could still use their wages to purchase healthcare as they desire.

One may counter that business owners such as the Greens are required by The Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance for their employees at no cost to those employees. Such expectations are fantasy. The cost for the health insurance must come from somewhere; it cannot be created from thin air simply because the government mandates it. It must come from lower wages for workers or higher prices for consumer goods.

I guess in this country two people are incapable of working out an employer-employee contract. We need the government, which obviously knows best, to dictate workplace arrangements for us. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Chinese are stealing from Americans

By Jeffrey Tyburski (Property Rights) -  Intellectual property theft by China is estimated to cost U.S. companies 300 billion dollars annually.­1

Offenders in many countries threaten American Intellectual property, but China-based offenders are the greatest.2

Experts believe that over 90% of the consumer goods sold in the city of Yiwu, regarded as the counterfeit capital of China, are counterfeit. Each of the 300 private showrooms in Yu Bao Lu, a facility in Yiwu, represents a factory that specializes in fake goods. Even the capital city of Beijing is host to an outdoor counterfeit market called “Treasure Street.” Places like Yiwu and Treasure Street provide counterfeit items ranging from car inspection stickers and college diplomas to designer clothing, computer software and even pharmaceutical products. Literary counterfeiters even produce Harry Potter books in Chinese that do not exist in English.3

This is truly unfortunate. The current value of United States rights holders‘ IP is estimated to be in the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars.4 Intangible ideas have tangible value. Chinese counterfeiters are stealing value from American innovators.

When I write ‘innovation’, I mean a mental process which creates value by finding better ways to do things. Economic growth right now does not come from ever increasing economies of scale. It comes from new knowledge and original ideas. Things like Information tech and financial engineering are intangible, yet they are vital sources of growth for the last few decades. The value of the internet does not stem from an investment of manual labor, like clearing a field or building a factory. It comes from an original and useful idea.

What is egregious is that IP theft hampers economic growth; we are losing future prosperity to counterfeiters. IP rights are what make innovation financially feasible and desirable. Not only does IP theft take from the current earnings of U.S. citizens, it also disincentivizes them to invest time and capital into innovation and invention. IP theft steals the rewards of creative endeavor. Take away the reward, and the behavior goes away.

Recent examples of IP include the I-Phone, Google’s search engine, and FaceBook. IP rights helped motivate many of the appliances we take for granted: microwaves, refrigerators, coffeemakers, etc. IP rights also make it financially feasible for artists, musicians, and writers to devote themselves to producing our entertainment.

One of the things that incentivize people to make things is an exclusive right on their idea for some time after its creation. If the idea is useful, then this monopoly right is profitable. Thus, monopoly rights in the form of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets, incentivize creativity and grow the economy. Violate this monopoly right, and you violate the motive to invent.

One may point out that there is plenty of IP violation among Americans regarding music and video entertainment, yet these industries still produce the things we want. Though these industries exist, they are cut short of their potential. Here are some facts about the music industry: Recorded music revenue is down 64 percent since 1999. Per capita spending on music is 47 percent lower than it was in 1973. The number of professional musicians has fallen 25 percent since 2000.5 There is less incentive to produce music, so there is less music for us to enjoy and less jobs in the music industry. 

One may object that monopoly rights are bad for consumers. After all, the data above indicates less profit for the producers; perhaps some of this surplus is going to consumers. In the short-term, patents and other forms of IP are not ideal for consumers. But patents, copyrights, etc. are only temporary monopolies, so eventually IP enters a competitive market and remains there for posterity. If these monopoly rights didn’t exist, then no one would create these useful ideas nearly as much. It is better to have a new idea with a temporary monopoly, than not have a new idea. In the long-term, IP rights are beneficial. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Back to why we should be upset about Chinese IP violations. It is unjust: it steals hard earned value from creative Americans. It is detrimental to the public wellbeing: after patents expire, they become public information available to anyone. IP creates value for everybody. If the 
Chinese steal from creative minds, we lose this value.

The U.S. government should re-evaluate its trade relationship with China. One of the foremost jobs of government is protecting the property of citizens. By tolerating Chinese IP theft, our government is failing in one of its key functions.


1. IPR Center, Threat Report and Survey, National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, November 2011
2. IPR Center, Threat Report and Survey, National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, November 2011
Credit to wongfleming for this paragraph.
4. IPR Center, Threat Report and Survey, National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, November 2011


Friday, February 14, 2014

Immigration Reform, or the New McCarthyism

By Chelsea Vail, 2012 (Liberty) - Senator Joe McCarthy has nothing on the Arizona state legislature. 

In April 2010, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070 and House Bill 2162, the now notorious immigration reform laws. They require state officers to “make a reasonable attempt” to determine an individual’s immigration status during lawful stops. They allow state officers to arrest individuals under reasonable suspicion of immigration fraud during lawful stops without probable cause of another violation and without a warrant. And they expect state officers to do it all without relying on racial profiling. Yeah, right.

What does an illegal immigrant look like, anyway? In Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico and has a 30.8 percent Hispanic population, illegal immigrants look an awful lot like legal immigrants and American citizens. Nationwide, 10.7 percent of Americans use Spanish as their primary language. So how does a state officer “make a reasonable attempt” at discovering an illegal immigrant without relying on visual and aural indications of “race, color or national origin?” Spontaneous confessions seem unlikely.

With a few exceptions, Americans have a constitutional right to travel without being stopped, questioned, or detained. This much was defined at the Supreme Court level in the case of Kent v. Dulles (1957). Rockwell Kent was denied a passport to visit England because of his affiliation with the Communist Party. He was told he would have to attend a hearing and sign an affidavit regarding his Communist affiliation in order to get a passport. This happened to be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that “the right to travel is an inherent element of “liberty” that cannot be denied to American citizens,” and Kent was granted certiorari.

A lawful stop that turns into an immigration investigation is no longer a lawful stop. The Arizona immigration bills legislate beyond the bounds of travel regulation and impose rules that “abridge basic constitutional notions of liberty, assembly, association, and personal autonomy,” just like in Kent v. Dulles.

Never mind that SB 1070 and HB 2162 also violate the Supremacy Clause, which provides for federal sovereignty over immigration issues; the Equal Protection Clause, which provides for the equal protection under the law of all citizens without regard to race, color, or national origin; the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure; and the First Amendment, which provides for the freedom of speech, because individuals should not be brought under scrutiny for their language or accent.

Never mind all of that. The Arizona immigration bills would be unconstitutional even if every immigration investigation returned an illegal immigrant. They compromise the personal liberty of American citizens to travel freely. They cannot be tolerated.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Plight of the College Conservative: The need for greater speech protections for the collegiate political minority

By: Jonathan Godoy (Free Speech) -  Back in November 2013, the Students for Life chapter at the University of Chicago, a student-led organization that works to advance the pro-life causes and engage students on discussions surrounding the topic, found itself a victim of alleged acts of political intolerance.

The club, in an effort to expand its on-campus presence and highlight the perspectives of those in the pro-life movement, had placed various posters around campus bearing statistics on public views on abortion. However, many of the posters had erroneously cited that a majority of women personally disapproved of abortion.

As members began the task of collecting the posters, they found that many of them had been vandalized and torn down. No culprits were caught and it remains unclear if this was a targeted attack or a series of unrelated episodes.

Yet, the matter was met with little outrage from the student community. Barring a small article featured in the Chicago Maroon and the occasional post and commentary on social media by students, few seemed truly perturbed by the incident.

This occurrence serves as a prime example of the student-led political intolerance and bigotry sometimes inflicted on conservatives across college campuses.

It is no secret that the university, and many of the premier collegiate institutions in the nation, holds a fairly large liberal majority, arguably both institutionally and in the student body. At the University of Chicago, for instance, many of the polls conducted of the incoming classes showed that conservatives only represented 7-10 percent of the student body, while those self-identified as liberals or openly socialist were triple or quadruple their size.

Whether by way of the collective actions and rhetoric of the political majority on campus or the implicit pressures that holding such a minority position induces, conservatives have often felt marginalized and isolated on these campuses. Those bearing traditionally socially conservative views, such as pro-lifers, have arguably felt even more pressure and bias, as this generation’s political swing turns heavily liberal on these matters.

Whatever the fundamental problem may be, the fact remains that incidents like this one, while not systemic, are a persistent and disconcerting phenomena. Academic institutions have prided themselves on being beacons for open civil discourse and rigorous, substantive debate, and such an approach should apply equally to those of a conservative persuasion as it does to those on the left.

While such a stance is officially an administrative one, the desires for tolerance and respectful discourse should be held and upheld with vigor and vitality by the student body as a whole. As such, incidents of political bias against conservatives should be met with severe and righteous indignation from all in the campus community.

Promoting a community of open discourse necessarily means that protests and demonstrations are legitimate and a protected right. However, students, especially those in the majority, should be particularly sensitive to the fact that such a position does not justify political oppression or acts that openly advocate one perspective at the expense of silencing another.

Acts of political intolerance, which seek to create a hostile environment for those in the minority, do not represent proper decorum or a form of speech protected by the university.

Unfortunately, this is not the only recent example of student-led bias against causes perceived as conservative. In October, then New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was slated to give a speech to a crowd of Brown University students on policing policies.

Many students protested the commissioner’s visit, objecting to the city’s so-called “stop and frisk” policy and alleged surveillance of Muslim-Americans. While campus protests are far from rare, participants took this demonstration to a new level.

As Commissioner Kelly began to speak, many of the protesters, who were sitting in the audience, began to heckle him and rudely interrupt his speech, many shouting him down as a racist. University officials, failing to quell the protesters and maintain order, were forced to cancel the event and Commissioner Kelly was escorted out of the room as the demonstrators claimed victory.

One student protester would later note, perhaps not fully self-aware of her statement’s irony, that the protest’s success was “a powerful demonstration of free speech.”

Again, this incident presents another example in which students, blinded by the apparent superiority of their positions and their disdain for all views contrary, took proactive measures to ensure that other’s voices were quelled and silenced. While these two examples should not be used to characterize these schools’ respective student bodies as intolerant and bigoted, they do nonetheless highlight a major issue college conservatives face today: the presence of small, but vocal and targeted, attacks by those of contrarian views.

The goal of any university should be to foster and maintain a healthy and open environment that welcomes students of all perspectives to engage in lively debate, promote their views and actively organize for any cause. That responsibility, while held by the school’s administration, is ultimately contingent upon compliance by the student body.

If some members of the student body actively seek to malign the views and opinions of the political minority and those in the majority refuse to protect their basic rights to free speech, then the university will have failed in its endeavor to provide an environment open to civil discourse and lively discussion.  

The explicit or implicit pressures that liberal majorities have placed on conservative minorities stifle debate and drive those who would otherwise be interested in engaging in thoughtful and civil dialogue into hiding. These targeted attempts at muzzling conservative views must stop and all students should find it in their civic duty to protect their fundamental right to free speech.

This generation, whose crusades against biases based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, have been, at times, laudable and noble, should, in the name of righteousness and free speech, extend its mission to protecting the rights of the political minority and ensure that universities can ultimately realize their goal of becoming the bastions of open debate and dialogue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Post-Mortem Selfie

To whom it may concern:
                        When I die, please make sure my profile picture is me wearing a bowtie.

Facebook profiles after death
By Eric Wessan (Property Rights) - When a friend dies, it can be extraordinarily difficult to deal with.  In addition to all of the emotions that build up, comforting the bereaved can be tough on a personal level.  But now it seems almost as important for acquaintances of the dead to post thoughtful messages about their time together, or lack thereof, on the Facebook wall of the recently deceased.

Just a few years ago, it was unclear what happened to a Facebook profile, its pictures and the information contained within, upon someone’s death.  The question did not come up until both larger numbers of people started to die and Facebook became central enough to online identity that people cared about what happened to the profile. Could it be willed to someone else? Was it the property of the corporation? As the number of older people using this resource increased, and more importantly the number of dying people, it became apparent that there were questions around digital property after death that must be resolved.

These questions about digital property rights do not end at the Facebook profile page.  Tens of millions of Americans have an ITunes account, millions more an account on Amazon and Google Play.  People buy songs, videos, book, games and all sorts of digital property on these accounts.  While they are alive it seems fairly clear that these purchased possessions belong to their owner.  But what happens to this digital property when the owner dies?

Unfortunately, the surprising answer is that for the most part the digital rights do not transfer.  When I die, the hundreds of books on my kindle may stay on my kindle, but the ownership of the books does not transfer.  I cannot leave ‘Catch-22’ to a friend nor can I will my collection of ‘Twilight’ books to my sister.  Digital property bought through these tech giants never truly belongs to the purchaser, it is just theirs for the duration of their life.  In a fitting but entirely unsatisfying sort-of-way, the content cannot be transferred post-mortem.  Reminiscent of the ancient Pharaohs or the Emperor in Xi’an, your digital property will be buried with you to serve in the afterlife.
            When I first heard that this was the case, that my carefully curated collections that I have spent close to a decade completing would effectively die with me, if I were to die today, I was aghast.  This seems contrary to the American way! When something is mine it should belong to me and no company, government or group should be able to take that away.  But as I have had time to grow used to the idea, the initial anger has receded. 
Now, when one dies on Facebook a loved one with proof can make their page a memorial.  While it seems a touch macabre to allow a representation of a dead man to grin out of his profile picture into eternity, hopefully it provides support to those still alive.
Perhaps given enough time, these companies will continue to adjust to the ever-shifting digital world. But I will not be waiting.  Resigned to the current reality, I understand that when it comes to the intellectual property and the copyrighted material these companies produce they are trying to grasp on to whatever vestige of control they have.  My distaste for such grasping remains, but my ire has faded.  I can just give the password on my Amazon account to my sister. Just don’t forget to write something on my wall.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Speak Easy

By Eric Wessan (Free Speech) - Taking a strong stand against the forces of oppression, a group of writers at the online magazines Jezebel and Slate have decided to join forces.  After the outcry lasting the whole year, some writers at sports news websites ESPN and Grantland have decided to follow suit, with the Washington Post Editorial Board joining soon after.  What is this issue that has raised the ire of so many and such disparate forces of journalists?  It is none other than the current name of Washington, D.C.’s football team, the Redskins.

Redskins is a term with origins of questionable pejorative character.  What is not questionable is that the term is not for use in polite company today.  It is for this reason that people have been calling for the team’s owner Dan Snyder to change the name.

It is my firm belief that they have every right to make such calls, to organize, and to try to rally people to get behind their cause.  That is one aspect of the beauty of the United States’ dedication to freedom of speech.  No one can stop this group of like-minded civic leaders from calling for change.

Just as importantly though, as long as Mr. Snyder is not calling for or inciting violence, he has every right to keep the name the same.  No matter how angry the protesters get, they cannot legally force him to change the name.  And they should not be able to. Both sides on this issue have their view, are passionate about it, and they have to respect the right of their opponents to continue acting.

Even liberal democracies in Western Europe have lower standards for what can be protected as speech.  Congressmen in Belgium were arrested for spreading pamphlets that called for reduced immigration.  Germany does not allow certain political parties to organize.  Greece prevents the press from insulting the President. The United Kingdom, a country with many similar values to the United States, actually barred the democratically elected Member of Parliament and party leader of nearby Netherlands from entering the country because he made remarks that the British Home Minister found offensive. 

All of these countries have embarked on a path away from freedom and towards censorship.  The more limits on speech that are allowed or acceptable, the more power censors have to limit those that oppose them.

While groups in the USA like the ACLU may call for Snyder to change the name of the Redskins, they also advocate on behalf of his right to decide not to.  People may be offended by the name; it seems apparent that  some people at the very least clearly are.  But the understanding of free speech as a fundamental right in the United States does not offer freedom from offense. 

The acceptance of that fact, or rejection of it, is a great cause of tension, leading to ideas including political correctness.  Placing social limits on acceptable speech is a perfectly valid goal, it is only when the coercive force of government starts to back these relatively arbitrary lines that issues start to arise.

Believing offensive and hateful words to be the cause of greater social ills, the well meaning have tried to seek to place more limits than already exist on speech.  I would hope that these sorts of limits and policies are well considered.  Unintended consequences are often only admitted after the fact, when a policy has been put in place and the damage has been done.  Oftentimes, a little common-sense can be the difference between those consequences and their avoidance. 

The status quo tends to protect the speaker at the expense of those who are listening and unhappy about what they hear. Placing stringent limits on speech will definitely shift the calculus of winners and losers on the issue.  A shift towards Europe or even further towards censorship will definitely make those who fear free speech happy.

The current system may very well not be perfect but the only reason that the current policies can be challenged is because of the right to freedom of speech that guarantees it.  Perhaps those who seek to limit some speech now should think deeply about that before they work to pass laws that could hamstring their successors.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Eminently Wrong: On the Supreme Court’s dangerous precedent from Kelo v. New London

By Jonathan Godoy - (Property Rights) - Travel to New London, Connecticut and one will find, along the city’s shore with the Thames River, a large 70-plus acre plot of unkempt, largely abandoned land. Now frequented by feral cats and covered by untamed weeds and grasses, the lot stands as an odd and out-of-place blot in a otherwise generally developed area.

Yet, this was not the fate once ascribed to this land. Back in the late 1990s, the city approved a plan that would have converted this unassuming lot into a $300 million plus office and retail complex, complete with a theatre, restaurant, park and new offices for the pharmaceutical company spearheading the proposal Pfizer, Inc. The plan, as presented, was largely benign and, given the potential economic benefits that it would afford the area, should have garnered general approval and little controversy.

That would have been the scenario that played out had there not been one complicating factor: the lot, contrary to its current state, was once developed, privately-held land.

At the time of the approval of the plan, this land was dotted with single and multi-family homes, not unlike the one’s found in the surrounding area today. As Pfizer, Inc. began planning its development, it started buying up land from the residents in that area.

Many of the residents willingly and voluntarily accepted the payments for their property and moved out. However, a few “stubborn” residents refused to accept the offers. The project, as proposed, could not proceed without control of the entire land and the company was not in a position to forcibly take the land itself or coercively demand that these few residents accept their offers.

But where the private company lacked power, the city government found a policy loophole by which it can justify such land grabs: eminent domain. While the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution protects citizens against unlawful and arbitrary seizures of property, it does allow for the government to take privately held property for public use with “just compensation.” 

The practice is a controversial and rarely used one in the United States. Questions surrounding the government’s definition of “public use” and what constitutes “just compensation” have plagued previous uses of this power and made for numerous court battles.

In this case, the city government of New London took a broad and liberal view of “public use,” justifying the land grab on the basis of the economic and fiscal benefits that such a project would have for the city. As planned, the estimates called for the creation of over 3,100 new jobs and would have generated $1.2 million in new tax revenue. The argument, taken to its furthest extent, claimed that such benefits vastly outweighed the costs incurred by the few residents who were forced out of their property and would help the city of New London as a whole.

One of the stubborn residents, Susette Kelo, took the case to court, which ultimately found itself in the highest court of the land. In Kelo v. New London, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in favor of New London, stating that the economic benefits presented a legitimate form of “public use.”

This view is patently wrong.

Foremost among the problems latent in this argument is that it conflates the difference in meanings between “public use” and “public purpose” or “benefits.”

The phrase “public use,” as it should so narrowly be defined, includes only those products and services for which the public has open access to. “Public purpose,” on the other hand, is a necessarily more vague term and is taken to include broader social implications and considerations – i.e. large-scale economic benefits. Such a consideration, while perhaps noble, was not the original intention of this law and should be restricted.

Under the conception of the phrase given by the Supreme Court, the government would be allowed to confiscate private property on behalf of another private citizen or organization.  The problems with this are twofold.

First, taken to its most extreme interpretation, this definition of “public use” would allow for any government to justify the confiscation of property purely on an economic basis. Such a policy would theoretically allow for a city government to tear down an entire residential area to make way for a venture that is more economically productive and prosperous, the likes of which may include a factory, theme park or mall.

Secondly, it allows for the government to play a redistributionist role, but not in the progressive sense. It is unlikely that economic considerations would incentivize a government to take control of a corporate office or retail center to make way for a series of low-cost, middle-class family homes. Such a project would likely produce a net loss of jobs and tax revenues and create an environment hostile to businesses.

The Kelo case is a perfect example of this potential problem in action. The city government of New London, presumptuously asserting its own more “holistic” view as superior to the private considerations of a few isolated residents, disregarded their personal rights and privileges in the name of a perceived “social benefit.”

And yet, despite their successful efforts to arbitrarily amass power and impose their centralized economic plans, the project proved ultimately futile. A casualty of the 2008 recession, the multi-million project was cancelled and the lot left deserted.

The Supreme Court’s far-reaching and irresponsible decision has left a dangerous precedence with respect to the government’s powers over private property. If nothing more, the ultimate fate of the New London lot should be proof enough that such a power grab is unnecessarily expansive and inefficient.

Covering-up Paternalism

By Eric Wessan - (Religious Freedom) - Every morning before they leave the home, millions of women around the world cover their hair or face out of respect for their religious beliefs and the social conventions that entails.  Many of the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam have sects that require modesty, and one particularly visible aspect of this is head coverings.  

Despite the prevalence throughout a variety of religions, it seems to be significant that most of the Western countries that have sought to ban or limit the headscarf seem to be doing so in reaction to a growing muslim minority population.  The state of Pennsylvania is not seeking to limit the bonnets of the Mennonites, and the five-towns on Long Island are not looking to restrict the right of Jewish wives to cover their hair.  While the United States has not had major push for a head-scarf ban, the idea is in the mainstream in some parts of Europe.

In many cities and countries around the world, this show of modesty and piety is appreciated and throughout much of the muslim world, this sort of head covering is less noticeable than in the occasions where it is lacking. Without these coverings, women in some places are believed to be immodest, and in these societies there is often immense social, and rarely legal, pressure for women to conform with this dress code.

Currently, there are no European countries that allow for the headscarf to be made a mandatory part of a woman’s attire against her will, there has been evidence of groups in cities applying large amounts of social pressure in a way that makes those who seek gender equality uncomfortable. The very idea of a mandated dress code rankles many in contemporary Western society.

While religious freedom is often thought of as an unquestionable necessity, it becomes apparent very quickly how uneasy many are with any sort of religious uniform.  The headscarf has a strong religious affiliation and countries that pride themselves on acceptance and secularity have often begun to find themselves in a strange intellectual position.  At what point does this attempt to restrict undue external and societal influences on someone’s life begin to be an unacceptable imposition on their religious freedom? While drawing an exact line is difficult, I believe that a ban on headscarves is misguided and wrong.

One of the first arguments proffered by those who wish to ban the scarf is that it is a paternalistic relic. Believing the headscarf to be a style imposed by external pressures, these supposed activists on behalf of women’s rights do their best to ensure that they cannot be forced into wearing a headscarf by not allowing them to wear a headscarf. 

At first glance, this may seem like a reasonable trade off.  If in fact many women object to wearing this piece of clothing, then not allowing those who compel the women to wear the covering to exert that force would seem to be a simple solution.  Problem solved.  Any more than cursory glance at this issue, however, will reveal the problems with this line of thinking.  For instance, the entire premise of this sort of ban is that women do not want to wear a headscarf. 

This reductionist idea and mass-classification of an entire gender group should immediately set off alarm bells.  Upon actually investigating the issue, it turns out that many women, and more than a majority or supermajority in some countries, believe that women who do not wear some form of covering to be dressed immodestly.  By passing a ban on the headscarf, a ban supposedly meant to help women, a country is actually massively disenfranchising a large group of people.  Their freedom to celebrate the religion in which they find solace is limited, and in a way that could be perceived as humiliating.

Banning the headscarves in public places and universities is a particularly perfidious rule.  While even more attractive sounding than a blanket ban, the illusory choices that result pit religion against education or employment. If a woman is unwilling to compromise on her learning, such a ban would preclude her from attaining higher education, achieving equality of opportunity or applying for government work.  One of the positive effects of the overturning of the hijab ban in Turkey was an immediate uptick in applications by women to work in public institutions or the civil service.  While secularists cringed at the feared supposed imminent oppression, many women embraced being able to both gainfully employed and comfortable in their attire.

The allure of preserving freedoms and rights is omnipresent in Western societies.  With inequality and unequal treatment rife throughout history, sensitivity to such rules may be at an all time high.  However, this sensitivity should not work to unveil efforts to reduce religious freedom and toleration. A culture and fashion different from the norm in Europe may not be seen as fashionable, although that is a different problem in itself, but it should also not be seen as oppression.