Chelsea Manning: No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Again

One of the 21st century’s greatest heroines is behind bars again, held in contempt by federal judge Claude M. Hilton for refusing to help prosecutors trump up charges against the journalists who published information she paid dearly for giving them.

Chelsea Manning spent more than six years in prison —  854 days of it in pretrial confinement, violating the military’s “speedy trial” maximum of 120 days — for the fake “crime” of showing the American people evidence of actual crimes committed in our name by the US government.

President Barack Obama commuted her sentence three days before he left the White House. That, however, turned out not to be the end of her mistreatment at official hands.

Manning, who testified about  her interactions with WikiLeaks during her illegal 2013 court-martial, refuses to do so again before a grand jury targeting WikiLeaks and its founder/leader, Julian Assange, for their work in bringing hidden truth to light. Under Hilton’s order, she may be held for up to 18 months, or until the grand jury’s term ends, or until she gives in. Her history says she won’t do that.

Grand juries usually function in harness to the wishes of prosecutors. A defense lawyer famously told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1979 that “the district attorney could get the grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he wanted to.”

But in actuality, grand juries enjoy sweeping powers to look beyond what prosecutors show them. Should that ham sandwich — or that prosecutor — happen to attract their negative notice, they can indict the sandwich, or the prosecutor, whether the prosecutor likes it or not.

Federal prosecutors and judges are weaponizing the grand jury system to attack freedom of the press and freedom of information in support of a fortunately dying ethic of government secrecy. This particular grand jury should punish that behavior instead of rewarding it.

The grand jury should indict federal prosecutors Tracy Doherty-McCormick (who represented the government at the contempt hearing) and Gordon D. Kromberg (who requested the Manning subpoena) as well as their bosses for, among other crimes, conspiracy against rights (US Code 18, Section 241) and deprivation of rights under color of law (US Code 19, Section 242).

In the meantime, those who value truth, justice, and the American way owe Chelsea Manning a massive debt. One way to partially repay that debt is to contribute to her legal fund at https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/chelsea-manning-needs-legal-funds-to-resist-a-grand-jury-subpoena. I hope you’ll join me in doing so.

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Hypocrisy and Hyperbole

I teach at a public university.  Am I a hypocrite?  Bernie Sanders’ net worth is about $2M.  Is he a hypocrite?  How about vegetarians who regularly eat meat?

The right answer: It depends on the details of the speakers’ moral position!  Consider the following cases.

1. You say, “It is always morally wrong to eat meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Of course, because you break your own absolute rule.

2. You say, “We have a duty not to eat meat, except in extreme circumstances,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Almost certainly, because we’re rarely in extreme circumstances.

3. You say, “Eating meat is very bad,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably.  Yes, you could believe there are important offsetting moral factors that justify your meat consumption despite its badness.  But if you thought these offsetting factors were important, you probably would have discussed them.  And if you think these offsetting factors are unimportant, what are the odds that they just-so-happen to excuse your meat consumption?

4. You say, “We should eat less meat,” but you still eat meat.  Are you a hypocrite?  Perhaps.  If your meat consumption is low or at least falling, your behavior is plausibly consistent with your principle.  Otherwise, not.

5. You say, “Government should discourage meat consumption,” but still eat meat.  You don’t say anything resembling #1-#4.  Are you a hypocrite?  Probably not – unless you’re a powerful politician who ignores the issue.

So how hypocritical are people, really?  Exceedingly so.  Why?  Because humans love hyperbole.  When they moralize, they gravitate toward strong versions of their moral positions.  They don’t like to say, “Well, government should raise taxes on the rich; but until that day, the rich are doing nothing morally wrong.”  Neither do they like to say, “The rich should give 13% more money to charity.”  These positions aren’t fun.

Instead, people like to say things like, “It’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger” or “The rich are nothing but a bunch of bloodsucking parasites.”  And when you make such extreme statements, you routinely end up condemning yourself as well – at least by extension.  After all, if it’s a crime for billionaires to exist in a world with hunger, why isn’t it also a crime for millionaires?  For single adults who make $30k a year?  Moralizing with hyperbole is like a detonating a massive moral bomb; unless you’re careful, you end up in your own blast radius.

Which brings us back to my initial questions.

1. Am I a hypocrite?  No, because I avoid hyperbole.  I don’t claim that anyone who teaches at a public university is a wrongdoer, evil, etc.  What I do claim is that (a) taxpayer support for education is extremely wasteful, and (b) politicians and their subordinates who forcibly extract that support have a moral duty to stop.

2. Is Sanders a hypocrite?  Of course.  Virtually every politician is a hypocrite, because hyperbole is their livelihood.  This is no surprise, because politicians are an evil bunch.  And that’s no hyperbole.

3. Are vegetarians who eat meat hypocrites?  Usually.  The modest vegetarians who eat meat once a month and say, “I’m just trying to help reduce animal suffering a little bit” are in the clear.  But any vegetarian who eats meat after claiming that “Meat is murder” – or even “Animal pain is just as morally important as human pain” is indeed a hypocrite.

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Liberty is Not An “Ideology”

I saw a headline recently, which read in part, “Ideologies clash…”

It turns out one side simply wants to exercise liberty (open a brewery), while the opponents want to violate the first side’s liberty for “reasons”. The reasons include religion, fear of negative consequences of letting people control their own lives, and prohibitionism.

One side is an ideology, the other isn’t.

Liberty isn’t an ideology. It is the acceptance of the reality of self-ownership. From this acceptance flows certain principles. It doesn’t matter to the existence of liberty whether people accept it or not– it just is, to be respected or violated.

Yes, there will be consequences for exercising liberty. Everything has consequences. But slavery’s consequences are worse than liberty’s. And you’re the bad guy when you choose slavery over liberty, no matter what “reasons” you come up with.

This is why governing others is never a valid form of interpersonal interaction. It allows people to violate the liberty of others too easily, and without the risk which should come along with such anti-social behavior.

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Reflections on the Balan-Caplan Poverty Debate

I really enjoyed my Tuesday debate on “The Philosophy of Poverty?” with my friend David Balan.  Many thanks to GMU’s Economics Society for setting it up.  While we had a great discussion, here are a few thoughts I’d like to add.

1. In my closing statement, I claimed that we should worry about the accuracy of our moral judgments because (a) moral issues are complex, and (b) human beings throughout history have generally considered their societies to be just no matter how awful they actually were.  Rather than retreat to agnosticism, however, I argued that the right reaction is to focus on simple moral hypotheticals.  Suppose, for example, we want to decide if “I had a disadvantaged background” significantly reduces moral culpability.  The best approach is to imagine a situation where your spouse cheats on you, then pleads, “It’s not my fault, my dad cheated on my mom so I didn’t have a good role model.”  Or better yet, imagine you’re advising a friend in this situation.  To me, the answer’s pretty clear: Excuses like this carry near-zero moral weight.

2. In his closing statement, David objected that he doesn’t believe in credulously accepting such excuses for bad behavior.  As long as David is talking about specific incidents of bad behavior, I believe him.  My point, however, is that if his moral theory were true, he should accept such excuses.  Since he doesn’t, he should abandon his moral theory.

3. David also insisted that he doesn’t accept his society as just.  My point, though, was simply that humans’ judgment about big moral questions is poor, since most people throughout history have accepted their societies as just.

4. David repeatedly referenced the “privilege” of the audience, so this seems like a good time to explain my general views on this matter.  He begins with some truisms.  Have I had many advantages in life for which I cannot reasonably claim credit?  Of course.  For example, I was born into an upper-middle class home in Los Angeles, not a slum in Tijuana.  But David, like most people who appeal to “privilege,” seems to see important implications.  I struggle to figure out what these implications are supposed to be.  Some possibilities:

a. My background partially clouds my judgment due to self-serving bias.  True enough, but the same holds for everyone, including the very least “privileged” people.  Furthermore, since almost no one who shares my background shares my views, it’s hard to see how my background could cause my views.  Indeed, some of my main views – most obviously, the wastefulness of education – are precisely the opposite of what you’d expect from a tenured professor with self-serving bias.

b. Much of my success is unearned, so I shouldn’t resist too hard when politicians propose redistribution.  But this runs afoul of simple moral hypotheticals.  E.g., if your friend stole $100 from your wallet, would you consider, “Unlike you, I came from a poor family,” to be a morally plausibly excuse?

c. Much of my success is unearned, so I shouldn’t feel too proud of my accomplishments.  Well, I would definitely feel even prouder if I grew up homeless in Haiti.  But that hardly shows that I’m wrong to feel very proud indeed.

d. I should avoid hurting the feelings of people who have had a harder life than mine.  A reasonable point, but it’s only a special case of a more general – and widely shared – principle: Avoid hurting people’s feelings.  However, this comes with a complementary principle: Avoid taking offense when none is intended.  From what I’ve seen, most people who talk about “privilege” routinely and grossly violate this latter principle.

Perhaps I’ve missed something, but I doubt it.  What’s really going on, I fear, is that “privilege” is a morally vacuous concept people deploy to demoralize and dehumanize people who disagree with them.

5. David repeatedly said that I overestimated the extent of “predatory” behavior among the poor.  The main thing on my mind, however, is not calculated wrong-doing, but impulsivity.  For example, I doubt many alcoholics ever consciously planned to destroy their families for beverages.  Instead, I think they just fail to control their impulsive thirst – even when they know that acting on this thirst has dire consequences.  Still, that’s more than enough to merit Puritanical condemnation.  The same goes for the full range of irresponsible behavior: unprotected sex, laziness, child neglect, infidelity, violence, and so on.

6. David was incredulous when I suggested that we could significantly alleviate child poverty by holding irresponsible parents more financially accountable.  So let me offer this modest proposal: When a child receives government assistance, we should deduct the cost from his parents’ future Social Security benefits.  If one parent fails to provide child support, we should deduct the cost from his Social Security benefits alone; otherwise, the parents split the cost.  Administratively, this seems quite manageable.  Of course, this modest proposal means that many deadbeat dads will have to endure late retirement, but that seems a lot fairer than burdening taxpayers.

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The Philosophy of Poverty?: My Opening Statement

Here’s my opening statement for yesterday’s poverty debate with David Balan.  Enjoy!


The world is rich, but billions of people are still poor.  What’s the morally right response?

The default view is that the government should dramatically expand redistribution programs, forcing the well-endowed – especially business and the rich – to provide a decent standard of living for everyone.  I strongly reject this default view.

Why?  Most glaringly, because the default view overlooks the fact that governments willfully cause an enormous amount of poverty.  The most effective way for human beings to escape extreme poverty is to move from the Third World to the First World and get a job.  Yet the governments of every First World country on Earth make it almost impossible for the global poor to come.  Economically, immigration is a fantastic deal for both sides, because labor – especially low-skilled labor – is many times more productive in rich countries than it is in poor countries.  A standard estimate says that if anyone could legally work anywhere, this would ultimately double the production of the world.

But First World governments don’t merely prevent the global poor from moving to opportunity.  They covertly do the same to the domestic poor by strictly regulating construction in high-wage parts of the country.  Right now, workers in places like New York and the Bay Area earn far more than identical workers in other parts of the U.S.  However, governments in these areas also keep their housing prices astronomically high by blocking construction.  As a result, most workers – especially low-income workers – can’t profitably move to high-paid areas because housing costs eat up all the gains.  Standard estimates, again, say the harm is enormous; one influential paper estimates that housing regulation has cut total U.S. growth by at least half for decades.

Economists often fret about markets’ “equity-efficiency tradeoff,” but what the evidence really shows is that free markets are ready, willing, and able to give us far more equity and far more efficiency.  Unfortunately, it’s against the law.

Given the situation, governments’ primary moral responsibility is to stop impoverishing people.  If a man habitually attacks strangers, is the sensible response, “That guy should give his victims more money”?  No; the sensible response is, “That guy should keep his hands to himself.”  When people look at poverty and call for redistribution, I say they’re making the same mistake.  If, in the absence of government interference, people are able to solve their own poverty problem, the best government policy is no government policy.  Serious thinkers should loudly proclaim this fact before they breathe another word about poverty.

Since my opponent is a serious thinker, I know that he actually agrees with much of what I’ve just told you.  So where does he go wrong?  Emphasis.  Yes, David favors allowing a lot more immigration and a lot more construction.  He grants that these policies will enrich society in general, and the poor in particular.  But none of this excites him.  Why not?  I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that David idolizes Big Government, and resents free markets.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to get out of the way and let the free market work its magic.  He wants government to heroically solve it with redistribution.  Even when he knows that government viciously victimizes the poor, he wants to hastily concede the point, then talk about redistribution at length.

Aside: I will happily withdraw this criticism if David spends at least half of his allotted time on the evils of government.

Now David could reply: Sure, government does a lot of bad stuff to the poor.  However, government also greatly helps the poor with massive redistribution programs – and these programs could easily be expanded.  He could even flip my psychoanalysis around: “I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that Bryan idolizes free markets, and resents Big Government.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to step in and ask the free market to pay its fair share.  He wants free markets to heroically solve it with economic opportunity.”

How would I respond to this?  I’d begin by pointing out that most government redistribution doesn’t even go to the poor.  Most obviously, almost all extreme poverty exists outside the First World, but almost all redistribution happens within the First World.  Less obviously, when you examine the budget, the welfare state focuses on helping the old – and most old people are not poor.  The upshot: Governments could do vastly more for the truly poor without raising taxes by a penny.  Just take the money they fritter away on elderly Americans, and give it to desperately poor foreigners.

To my mind, this would be a big improvement, but still a bad idea.  I don’t just oppose the expansion of government poverty programs.  I oppose the programs themselves.

Why?  In my view, there’s a strong moral presumption against taking people’s stuff without their consent.  This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to steal a penny to save the Earth.  But it does mean that no one should take people’s stuff without their consent unless they have a really good reason.  And taking people’s stuff without their consent is the foundation of all government redistribution.  Wishful thinking notwithstanding, there is no “social contract.”  Real contracts require unanimous consent – and no government has that.  What about “Love it or leave it”?  It’s silly.  Refusing to move to another country does not remotely indicate consent to anything.

So what counts as a “really good reason” to use redistribution to help fight poverty?  Here are the main moral hurdles to clear.

Hurdle #1. Do we have strong evidence that the social benefits of redistribution far exceed the costs?  It’s OK to steal a car to save your life, but not to steal a car because you’d enjoy it more than the current owner.  The same moral principle holds for government – and due to the complex effects of economic policy, it is especially hard for government to comply.  Redistribution plausibly has big effects on incentives and economic growth, so government has no business doing redistribution until it can credibly rule out major negative side effects.

Hurdle #2. Is government trying to solve absolute poverty – hunger, homelessness, and the like?  Or merely relative poverty – lack of a smart phone or cable t.v?  Using coercion to alleviate absolute poverty is morally plausible, but using coercion to alleviate relative poverty is not.  If you’ve seen Les Miserables, you may remember the part where Jean Valjean sings, “He stole some bread to save his sister’s son.”  It would laughable, though, if he sang, “He stole an iPad to play Halo.”  Since there is little absolute poverty in First World countries, there is simply little moral room for domestic redistribution.  International redistribution is another matter, of course.

Hurdle #3. Can voluntary charity take care of the problem?  If you can handle morally objectionable poverty by asking for donations, there is no good reason to force anyone to help.  And to repeat, you shouldn’t take people’s stuff without their consent unless you have a really good reason.

Hurdle #4. The last, and most controversial hurdle: Are the potential recipients of government help poor through no fault of their own?  Or were they negligent?  Yes, I know this is a touchy subject; morally, however, we must address it.  If a friend asks to sleep on your couch for a few weeks, you normally want to know why he needs your helps – and his answer matters.  “I’m fleeing a war zone” is more morally compelling than, “My wife kicked me out because I drink away all our money.”

Why raise this touchy subject?  Because there is an enormous body of evidence showing that a major cause of severe poverty is irresponsible behavior of the poor themselves: unprotected impulsive sex, poor work ethic, substance abuse, violent crime, and much more.  Just ask yourself: If you engaged in such behavior, how long would it take before you, too, lived in poverty?

When I make this point, people have two radically different objections.

The first is to deny the facts.  I can’t do much to answer this objection during a debate; all I can do is give you a reading list later on.

The second objection, though, is to excuse irresponsible behavior – or even morally condemn anyone who calls behavior “irresponsible.”  I say this second objection is absurd.  If you had a spouse who cheated on you, or was drunk half the time, or kept losing jobs, you would run out of patience for his excuses.  Why should you be more forgiving of total strangers?  While irresponsible people often say, “I can’t help it,” this is just a misleading figure of speech.  Think of all the times you said, “I can’t come to your party,” when what you really meant was, “I don’t feel like it.”  That’s the real story of irresponsibility.

I am well-aware that blameless people do occasionally end up poor.  My point is that the advocates of merit-blind redistribution are morally blind to the possibility that they are mistreating people who have compelling reasons not to help others.  Suppose you have an alcoholic brother.  He’s repeatedly made your life miserable for the sake of his favorite beverages.  Your brother has lied to you and stolen from you.  One night he shows up at your house, begging for help.  You turn him away.  Question: What would you think if a neighbor called you up and berated you for your “selfish attitude”?  I say you should hang up on him, because your neighbor is way out of line.

To recap: I’ve offered no absolute objection to redistribution.  Instead, I’ve pointed to four moral hurdles to clear before we even consider it.  If we take these hurdles seriously, maybe you could salvage a tiny welfare state for indigent kids, the severely handicapped, refugees, and so on.  Before you make even this small exception, though, consider this: When someone has made awful decisions in the past, ironclad rules are often best even though a judicious decision-maker would make minor exceptions.  Given how badly all existing welfare states deviate from defensible moral principles, there’s a strong argument for keeping government out of poverty alleviation altogether.

Last point: If you summarize my position as, “We should do nothing about poverty,” you have totally misunderstand me.  I earnestly favor a radical new War on Poverty.  This War on Poverty, however, will target governments’ horrific policies that deprive the poor of vital opportunities.  Instead of scapegoating people who understandably don’t like paying taxes to support strangers, this War on Poverty will deregulate labor and housing markets so the poor can solve their own problems with dignity.  I am sadly aware that my War on Poverty lacks popular support.  Few progressives want to solve poverty with deregulation – and most conservatives want to regulate immigration even more strictly than we already do.  My War on Poverty, however, is the War on Poverty we ought to be fighting.

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Canada’s Universal Child Care Program Suggests Elizabeth Warren’s Plan Would Be Disastrous for Children

The state does such a stellar job of nurturing and educating children from preschool through high school, we should expand its role from birth onward. That’s the new proposition unveiled this week by US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Tuesday, the Democratic presidential candidate outlined a vast federal program of free and subsidized child care for children from birth until school-entry, including creating a network of government child care centers modeled after the federal Head Start early childhood program. Warren states: “Child care is one of those things we’ve got to do for working parents and we’ve got to do for our children.”

The popular idea that the state should do things for parents, rather than allowing parents to do things for themselves and their own children, illustrates the pervasiveness of the welfare state mentality. What is framed as helping families instead strips them of their individual power and autonomy, making them more reliant on, and influenced by, government programs.

Defying Economic Laws Has Consequences

Warren’s program is to be financed through a “wealth tax” on the most asset-rich American households and reportedly assures that all child care workers will earn wages that are on par with those of local public school teachers. Like other attempts at government price-setting, however, the economic impact of such a program would inevitably be to drive up prices, reduce variety and competition, and lead to more widespread shortages.

The intentions of universal, government-funded child care may be good. Supporting children and families is a worthy ambition. But as Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman warned: “One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” We should reject Warren’s proposal both on principle and on consequence.

The results of similar universal, government child care programs are dismal. In 2005, economists with the National Bureau of Economic Research, including Michael Baker of the University of Toronto, Jonathan Gruber of MIT, and Kevin Milligan of the University of British Columbia, analyzed the effects of Canada’s government-subsidized, universal child care program. Similar to Warren’s proposed child care plan, the Canadian program is available to all families—not just those who are disadvantaged. The researchers discovered that demand for child care increased significantly under the government plan, as more parents abandoned informal child care arrangements with family and friends in favor of regulated child care programs.

While demand increased, the researchers found that children’s emotional and physical health outcomes declined dramatically with the introduction of government-subsidized, universal child care. Children in the Quebec program experienced increased rates of anxiety and decreased social and motor skills compared to children elsewhere in Canada where this program was not offered. The researchers write:

We uncover striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioral and health dimensions, ranging from aggression to motor-social skills to illness. Our analysis also suggests that the new childcare program led to more hostile, less consistent parenting, worse parental health, and lower-quality parental relationships.

Last fall, these economists published updated findings on their analysis of Canada’s universal child care program. Their recent research revealed similarly alarming results of government-funded child care, including a long-term negative impact of the program. They assert: “We find that the negative effects on non cognitive outcomes persisted to school ages, and also that cohorts with increased child care access had worse health, lower life satisfaction, and higher crime rates later in life.” This early institutionalization of children may have enduring, undesirable consequences.

While it’s not clear exactly what is causing the negative outcomes of Canada’s universal, government child care program, the research hints at some possibilities. A primary explanation is that the program funneled more children into government-regulated, center-based child care facilities and away from more informal child care arrangements. There was also a drop in parental care, as the opportunity cost of stay-at-home parenthood rose.

Centralizing Child Care Is Not the Solution

Proponents of universal, government child care programs often tout the expansion of allegedly “high-quality” child care options, suggesting that parental care or other unregulated child care arrangements are subpar. But who determines quality? If Canada’s program is any indication, the government’s definition of “high-quality” child care may, in fact, be harming children.

In his recent article on the economic causes of current child care shortages and correspondingly high prices, Jeffrey Tucker explains that the key to affordable, accessible daycare for all is to reduce government regulation of child care programs and providers and allow parents to choose the child care setting that best suits them and their child. Let parent preferences drive the market for child care options, not government interventions that squeeze supply, devalue informal caretaking arrangements, and unnecessarily raise the cost of stay-at-home parenthood.

We should all heed Tucker’s conclusion: “Daycare for all is a great idea. A new government program is the worst possible way to get there.”

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