The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC

Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins”  — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).

Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense.

Her real offense was  publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.

AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.

By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”

One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.”

But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why.

If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

For decades, howling “antisemitism” any time the matter came up proved an effective tactic for shutting down public discussion of the “special relationship” under which Israel receives lavish foreign aid subsidies, effective control of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and lately even state (and pending federal) legislation requiring government contractors to sign loyalty oaths to Israel’s government.

The Israeli lobby’s power to prevent that discussion seems to be slipping, however. Why? In part because the lobby’s money and political support, which used to be spent buying both sides of the partisan aisle, has begun tilting heavily Republican in recent years, freeing some Democrats to not “stay bought.” And in part because the newest generation of politicians includes some like Ilhan Omar who aren’t for sale (to Israel, anyway).

Decades of unquestioning obedience to the Israel lobby has drawn the US into needless and costly conflicts  not even remotely related to the defense of the United States. We’ll be better off when the “special relationship,” and the corruption underlying it, ends.

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Who Owns You?

The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.

Virtually everything the Founding Fathers sought to achieve by separating church and state has been undone by the apostles of modern medicine, whose zeal for creating a therapeutic state has remained unopposed by politicians, priests, professionals, journalists, civil libertarians, and the public.

–Thomas Szasz

Many people have legitimate complaints against the Food and Drug Administration. For example, during its long history, the FDA has delayed the marketing of badly needed drugs and medical devices, leading to unnecessary pain and death. Excessive bureaucratic requirements for testing have made drugs more expensive than they would have been otherwise. And, as I’ve detailed elsewhere, its regulation of tobacco and nicotine interferes with people’s enjoyment of those products.

I want to suggest, however, such isolated complaints fail to go to the heart of the matter. The problem is not this or that regulation. Nor is the problem even the FDA itself. The root problem is the government’s claim to jurisdiction over so-called “public health.” In the United States, once Congress assumed this power and created myriad regulatory agencies to exercise it, the door was opened to the kinds of mischief that Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) placed under the label “the Therapeutic State.” All manner of interference with individual freedom can be and has been presented in the name of safeguarding public health. It’s a Pandora’s box.

The ultimate question is: who owns you? The answer will determine who is to be in charge of health.

The courts have routinely affirmed that the government has a “substantial interest” in the “health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.” In other words, citizens are public property. It’s time that this currently uncontroversial premise was questioned.

The modern state’s “substantial interest” in the physical and mental welfare of its citizens is an echo of the pre-liberal era, when the sovereign was seen in part as the father and custodian of the physical and spiritual welfare of his subjects. Paternalism served the interests of the sovereign, of course: he needed healthy taxpayers and soldiers. But the relationship was bigger than that.

The liberal revolutions of the 18th century did not fully push aside that model of governance, and many vestiges of the old regime have remained. Whatever the rationalization, whatever the ostensible basis of authority, the state was (and is) about taboos and social control. Of course, the form changed — church and state have been more or less separated — but in many ways the substance has been unchanged. The power of state-related clergymen was succeeded by the power of state-related medical men (including psychiatrists) and putative scientists. As the theological state receded, the therapeutic state advanced. Illness (including so-called mental illness) came to play the role in public policy that sin once played. Health stands in public life where salvation once stood. Treatment is the modern way of redemption. The burning of witches was succeeded by, for example, the confinement in madhouses of people who had committed no crimes. Electroshock and lobotomy replaced the rack and thumbscrew. The pattern repeated itself in the United States; state governments involved themselves in public health from an early date, followed by the federal government. Drug dealers and users became the modern scapegoats who had to be cast out (imprisoned) to protect the public’s health, although drugs entered people’s bodies by volitional acts. (On the resemblance between the theological and therapeutic states, see the works of Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist who made a career demonstrating the unappreciated parallels. Links to many articles are here.)

In the modern age, Szasz wrote, “To resolve human problems [e.g., “bad habits”], all we need to do is define them as the symptoms of diseases and, presto, they become maladies remediable by medical measures” — more precisely, political-medical measures. Doctors, having been deputized by the state, wield power they could have not obtained otherwise. (The head of the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, is a physician.) Thus we have (to use another phrase from Szasz, “the medicalization of everyday life.” For example, any disapproved behavior that anyone engages in repeatedly is branded an “addiction,” which is in turn defined as a disease, as though calling behavior, which has reasons not causes, a disease were not a category mistake. Never mind that metaphorical, or mythical, diseases are not real diseases. (Are substances or people habit-forming?) To say that an ascribed disease is a myth is not to deny the behavior or even to deny that the behavior may a problem for either the actor or the people around him. As the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, “A myth is, of course, not a fairy story. It is the presentation of facts belonging to one category in the idioms belonging to another. To explode a myth is accordingly not to deny the facts but to re-allocate them.”)

It is in this light that we should view the FDA and other government medical and scientific entities. They are part of a massive apparatus of social control, making their personnel agents of social control, not truth-seeking. Whether the FDA, for example, is a friend of industry or an adversary (at different times it’s been both), the public is ill-served precisely because the right of individual self-determination in a free market, including tort- and fraud-redress procedures, is undermined by prohibitions and restrictions. It is also ill-served by the monopolistic effects of centralized political authority over science and medicine. (On the FDA’s growth, see this.) Free competition is the universal solvent because facts emerge through rivalrous activity, both economic and intellectual.

Many people don’t see things that way, of course, and so government has increasingly controlled people’s choices with respect to health and science. On the basis of the fiction that the free market has failed in these realms — when has it actually been tried? — politicians, bureaucrats, and deputized practitioners have gained power. A gain in political power, Albert Jay Nock taught us, necessarily means a loss in “social power,” that is, self-control by individuals and their voluntary associations (including families). If self-control is denied in one area of life, we should not be surprised to see it fade from other areas of life. Today, the battle cry is “Medicare for all!” But if “the public” (the state) is to pay for everyone’s medical care collectively, won’t the public’s putative representatives want to impose restrictions on individuals’ risky behavior if for no other reason than to minimize the hit to the government’s budget? What then becomes of what’s left of individual freedom?

The coercion exercised by the government-medical complex is routinely defended as being for people’s own good: in this view, they are compelled to do only what they really wish to do but cannot because of addiction, mental illness, etc. To Szasz, this is “the authoritarian, religious-paternalistic outlook on life,” to which he responded: “I maintain that the only means we possess for ascertaining that a man wants to [for example] stop smoking more than he wants to enjoy smoking is by observing whether he stops or continues to smoke. Moreover, it is irresponsible for moral theorists to ignore that coercive sanctions aimed at protecting people from themselves are not only unenforceable but create black markets and horrifying legal abuse.”

Szasz added: “The issue comes down to whether the individual is viewed as a private person or as public property: the former has no obligation to the community to be or stay healthy; the latter does.”

We know how the “public health” lobby views the matter. When it panics over how much smokers “cost the economy” in lost productivity (through sick days and shorter lives), the lobby is proclaiming that Americans are indeed public property. How dare they enjoy themselves and risk their health at the expense of the economy, the people, the nation? (The Nazis and Bolsheviks followed this idea all the way.) In contrast, quaint classical liberals believe “the economy” — that is, the institutional framework for free exchange — exists to serve people. When the “public health” lobby advocates coercion for a person’s own good, in reality it does not speak of treatment and cure but of assault and battery — and perhaps torture. A medical relationship without consent is like a sexual relationship without consent. But few people understand that.

Perhaps sensing the flaw in the case for coercion based on preventing harm to self, much medical coercion is offered in the name of protecting others. There is a grain of truth here, of course. People can carry deadly communicable diseases. (Whether the state’s centralized bureaucracy is needed or competent to deal with this is another question.) But as the public-choice thinkers point out, state officials won’t be satisfied with such a narrow mission as protecting people from such diseases. Public-health jobs will tend to attract people dedicated to reforming other people’s “vices.” Inevitably, they will push the boundaries to acquire more power, money, staff, and prestige — all dedicated to breaking our “bad habits.” The alleged threat from second-hand smoke is in no way analogous to the immediate threat from a communicable disease. The former can easily be dealt with through contract and other voluntary arrangements but that doesn’t stop the public-health zealots from working to outlaw smoking in bars, restaurants, and even tobacco shops.

But what about the children? In a free society, families are responsible for raising children to be autonomous adults. Of course, this does not always happen, part of the reason being the government’s own obstacles, such as rotten schools for low-income kids. At any rate, history makes clear that government crusades, say to keep adolescents from doing “adult” things — such as drinking, smoking, and now vaping — only adds to their allure and has horrendous unintended consequences. Fruit is harder to resist when it is forbidden. Meanwhile, adults find themselves harassed — in the name of protecting the children — as they go about enjoying themselves.

Would life be perfect if “public health” were left to free and consenting adults in the free market? No, of course not. But a real-world free society should not be compared to an unreal and unrealizable utopia of all-wise, all-knowing, and all-good “public servants” who have only your health and welfare in mind. Rather, it should be compared to the real world of fallible, morally flawed, egotistical, self-serving, and centralized politicians and bureaucrats whose worldview is one where they give orders and you obey. Markets — which is to say, people in both profit-seeking and non-profit capacities — are capable of producing reliable consumer information and guidance, not to mention certifying the quality of products. They do it every day. Governments, after all, are comprised of nothing but human beings.

“Those who would give up essential liberty,” Benjamin Franklin might have said, “to purchase a little temporary health, deserve neither liberty nor health.”

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The Fired Next Time: A “Shutdown” Proposal

The longest partial “government shutdown” in US history ended on January 25. To get Leviathan’s gears turning at full speed again, President Donald Trump said uncle on funding for his pet border wall project in return for a three-week “return to normalcy.”

More interesting than the (quite possibly temporary) end of the “shutdown” is the direction things were taking right before the wall funding came tumbling down.

Transportation Security Administration employees called in sick en masse, creating long delays at major airports. IRS employees called back (without pay) to process tax returns followed suit.

At the other end of the spectrum, self-organizing volunteers, as well as employees/contractors sent by tourism-reliant businesses, turned out to clean toilets and so forth at national parks. The parks were “closed,” but visitors showed up anyway and enjoyed their time with nature.

A few days before the temporary truce, Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson asked AFL-CIO leaders to call a general strike: A walkout by workers (especially union workers) across all industries, all over the country, in support of getting federal employees back on the job and back on regular paychecks.

Had the matter dragged on for a few more weeks, or even a few more days, Nelson’s call might have fallen on more supportive ears. And if the curtain goes up on “Shutdown Theater Part II: This Time It’s Personal” at the end of the three-week timeout, there’s a distinct possibility of something resembling just such a general strike.

But I’ve got a better idea. Instead of taking off work in support of furloughed federal employees, why not seize the jobs those employees are doing and free the employees, and the customers, from the competing manipulations of Donald Trump, Charles Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi?

The air transport sector is the most obvious place to start.

Airline and airport operators should get together during this three-week ceasefire and put together a plan to provide airport security, airplane safety inspection, and air traffic control whether the government is on the job or not.

Such a plan would work like this: The instant the federal government “shut down,” airport/airline representatives would inform Washington that flights will continue, and that they will continue on time and without undue passenger delays for security screening, period.

If TSA shuts down security screening points for lack of personnel, the airports will either re-open those lines with their own screeners (perhaps hired from the ranks of unpaid TSA employees), or simply wave passengers through.

If the FAA inspectors aren’t available to inspect planes, the airlines will use their own mechanics.

If federally employed air traffic controllers aren’t willing to work without pay, the airlines will hire and pay them.

But either way the flights happen, unless armed troops are sent in to stop them. And if  the airlines/airports take over those jobs, no backsies. Once they go private, they stay private. Washington, you’re FIRED.

Time for a gut check to see if politicians really want to keep playing the “shutdown” game.

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The FDA’s Assault on Tobacco Consumers

We’ve all heard horror stories about the run-amok regulatory state. Enabled by open-ended statutes passed by Congress and signed by presidents, regulatory agencies have acquired virtual carte blanche to write rules governing peaceful behavior. Even when a seemingly narrow purpose has been set out, regulatory rule-making has engaged in mission-creep with alarming frequency.

Here’s an example that gets little attention because it directly impinges on the freedom of only a small number of Americans. For the last 10 years the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been writing draconian rules governing the makers and sellers of cigars, smokeless tobacco, pipe tobacco, and even the pipes themselves (which of course are not made from tobacco) in what appears to be part of an effort aimed indirectly at eradicating these products from the marketplace. The fanatical campaign, reminiscent of America’s earlier campaign to prohibit alcoholic beverages, ought to concern everyone, including nonsmokers, because if it succeeds, other products could well be targeted on the grounds of public health. It is not just tobacco users who need to worry about the regulatory state’s tactics.

The assault on all forms of tobacco use, as well as the use of vaping devices, or e-cigarettes, which don’t use tobacco, is defended on public-health grounds, but we must not be fooled by this appeal. As Thomas Szasz showed throughout his career as the top critic of what he dubbed the “therapeutic state,” this assault is moral, cultural, and political, not scientific or medical. The anti-tobacco campaigners are not content merely with providing useful information, leaving people free to use it and the products as they wish. Instead, they support the use of state force to achieve their objectives; their advocacy of force is aimed not only at ostensibly protecting other people from smokers (which could be accomplished through contract and other consensual practices), but ostensibly at protecting smokers from themselves. (I should say “ourselves” because I’ve been a devout pipe smoker for over half a century.) Medical science can tell you what may happen to your body if you ingest a substance, but it cannot reasonably assert that in light of that information the state ought to prohibit or penalize the use of that substance. A physician qua physician has no special qualification to counsel when the use of force by the state or anyone else is justifiable.

Before describing the insidious campaign now underway (which will span a few of these columns), I want to establish a badly overlooked fact. The anti-smoking, or more generally, anti-tobacco, or more generally still, anti-nicotine campaign assumes that use of the relevant products entails costs but no benefits to “society.” Of course, that cannot be correct. How do we know? We know this because individuals choose to consume the products; what’s more, they pay money (that is, they give up something of value) to do so. If consumers received no subjective benefit from the products, they would not buy or consume them. Lots of people have quit consuming them after deciding that the benefits outweighed the costs to them.

Among the benefits, which people of many cultures have enjoyed for centuries, are the well-known pleasant and useful effects of nicotine (as an aid to relaxation and concentration) and the palate-pleasing nature of the tobacco leaf. That those benefits can’t be quantified is no good reason to pretend that they do not exist. If tobacco products could effectively be banished (which they can’t be because of the robustness of black markets), the people who now enjoy them would be less well off in their own eyes; that is, the quality of their lives would be diminished. Why don’t those individuals count in the public-policy discussion? Are they lesser persons?

The campaign against tobacco and its consumers goes back several decades, but in 2009 it took a giant leap. In that year Congress and President Barack Obama enacted the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the statute empowering the FDA to regulate whatever it deems “tobacco products.” Later, we will see why the word deems is so important. That authority would be given to the FDA should seem odd since tobacco is neither a food nor a drug in the pharmaceutical sense; people don’t eat it or treat (real or imagined) illnesses with it. (Recreational drugs are under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency — unfortunately.) If the issue were consumer welfare, establishment types might have wanted the authority given to the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. So why should the FDA have anything to do with tobacco? The answer lies in Szasz’s term the therapeutic state. The government can claim plenary power over virtually any peaceful behavior simply by claiming that the public’s health is at stake.

At any rate, the word family in the name of the legislation is meant to suggest that the goal of the legislation is to keep children from becoming cigarette smokers, a worthy goal if pursued without the help of government. The first “finding” listed in the act is this: “The use of tobacco products by the Nation’s children is a pediatric disease of considerable proportions that results in new generations of tobacco-dependent children and adults.” (We’ll leave aside the Szaszian question of how the use of a product can be a disease. Behavior may lead to a disease, but it is not in itself a disease.)

While we can stipulate that smoking cigarettes constitutes a personal health risk (as many other legal things do), we may reasonably doubt that children are all that the bill’s supporters have in mind. Children are unlikely customers for premium cigars, tobacco pipes, and premium pipe tobacco, which are not within a typical child’s means. (Government campaigns to keep children from doing something will likely be undercut by the forbidden-fruit phenomenon: if the government thinks an activity or substance is that much fun, then it must be tried. Better leave such matters to families and voluntary associations.) Thus, it is hard not to see the act as part of the larger campaign to rid America of tobacco and non-tobacco nicotine products. Through this lens, the FDA’s actions since 2009 have a certain logic, but it is a logic that is inimical to individual liberty and responsibility. We’ll explore other features of the anti-tobacco campaign in future columns.

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Syria: In the History of Bad Excuses, This One’s Top-Tier

US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) thinks — I’m using the term “thinks” very loosely here — that Americans dying in Syria is a compelling reason to continue exposing Americans to the danger of dying in Syria. So do Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Jack Reed (D-RI).

Ever since US president Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw US troops from Syria in December, “hawks” in Congress have been looking for an argument against the withdrawal.

And this is the best they can come up with? If the troops don’t stay in Syria, they can’t keep getting killed in Syria? Wow, that really shows Trump, doesn’t it?

At issue:  The single deadliest Islamic State attack on US forces in their nearly four-year US invasion and occupation of Syria, on January 16 in Manbij, in which four Americans (two members of the armed forces, a contractor, and a civilian Pentagon employee) died.

When former president Barack Obama authorized the invasion and occupation of Syria in 2015, he did so in complete defiance of both US and international law. Congress had not then declared war on Syria and has not since then offered any formal legal basis for Obama’s actions. And since Syria is a United Nations member state which has never attacked the US nor indicated any intent to do so, the invasion/occupation constitutes a war of aggression — “the supreme international crime,” as Nuremberg Tribunal judge Norman Birkett called it.

Despite the complete absence of any compelling military or political reason for invading and occupying Syria, and despite the complete illegality of that invasion and occupation, these Senators believe that Trump should reverse his decision and keep US troops at risk in a land whether they’re neither needed nor welcome.

After all, if US troops aren’t there, US troops can’t be killed there, and US troops need to be killed there every once in a while to justify keeping them there in perpetuity. The Senators’ campaign donors in the “defense” industry need them kept there. Government contracts and stock dividends depend on it!

That’s the caliber of mind and morality the voters of South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island send to Washington, DC.  Can’t say I blame the voters for wanting those guys to go somewhere, anywhere other than South Carolina, Florida, Oklahoma, or Rhode Island. If nothing else it probably raises those states’ average IQs and reduces their petty crime rates.

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No Government Employee is “Essential”

With regards to the fake news about a “government shutdown”, where they give the “non-essential government employees” an unscheduled paid vacation (because it will be paid sooner or later)…

All government employees are non-essential. Every single last one of them, from the president on up to the contract janitor who scrubs Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s office toilet.

If they were essential the market would be doing their job and the government “job” would have never existed in the first place.

Or, the market would be doing the job if the government didn’t artificially step in with “laws” or other ways to prevent the market from filling the need. Which it often does.

Government is a net negative in everything.

Send them all home forever. No back pay. No retirement. No paid medical care. Nothing. Burn all the records– I’ll do it if they just get out of the way. Just go away forever and ever.

That would be a real government shutdown. One I support without the slightest reservation.

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