Has America Lost Her Way? The 22nd Anniversary of the Velvet Revolution

Velvet Revolution

December 16, 2011

Allan Stevo

Twenty-two years ago Czechs and Slovaks shook off the chains of a regime and a system that had failed them.  Today America seems to be “trying on” similar, oppressive chains.  The deeper America gets into this process of trying those chains on, the more unfamiliar she looks to me.

Maybe some readers will be angry with me for saying so, but I would be remiss if I did not say these things that 1. I so clearly see and 2. that many others must either not recognize or not consider important enough to discuss.  This is when “if you see something, say something” must most importantly be applied.

Slovak schools and many businesses close on November 17 in commemoration of the Velvet Revolution.  It’s  probably the Slovak holiday that fascinates me the most and something I wrote about at length a year ago.  November 17, 1989, when you look at it, wasn’t all that special as an isolated day, but some historians point to it as the day that Czechoslovakia began its rebellion against its communist government.

The social experiments that Slovakia has undergone in the last 100 years are not experiments in need of repeating, because their results can be gathered even today from Slovak culture.  Oppression, whether that be oppression of property rights, or of freedom of speech and assembly or other civil liberties, is destructive to an individual.  As if summing up the oppressive experiments of the region, Fredrick Hayek, after fleeing his home in Central Europe ahead of the Nazi advance penned the book The Road to Serfdom in which he denounces oppression as oppressive whether it comes from the right or left of the political spectrum.  Segments of America, looking at an increasingly forceful government are starting to break out of the idea that right and left matter in the face of oppression.  This would put them on course with what Hayek was saying roughly 70 years ago.

Ironically, Abraham Lincoln, a man criticized by his contemporaries and historians as America’s first dictator is credited with saying “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  Some considered the 16th president a benevolent dictator. Others, such as the man who assassinated him, according to legend, referred to him as a tyrant as he hobbled away on a broken leg by calling out “Sic semper tyrannis.” Lord Acton wrote in an oft quoted letter “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Looking at Lincoln’s and Acton’s quotes, it seems likely that the mere act of concentrating power is enough to bring unappealing results.  Today, America faces increasingly centralized power in the hands of the government and the closest friends of politicians.

You can argue that some countries do better than others when power is concentrated in the hands of the government.  I’ve heard it said “Thank God France/Germany/Russia/Slovakia was never allowed to get as powerful as America.  Who knows what they would have done.”  I’m not sure how to respond either for or against that hypothetical comment, so I generally just keep quiet.  I don’t know if a hypothetical French hegemony in this century would be better or worse for the world than American hegemony.

You may argue that some people do not want freedom.  That too may be true; perhaps freedom is not a universal value.  What I know today is that so many Slovaks desire freedom.  While I never stepped foot in communist Czechoslovakia, something tells me that Slovaks were quite free in their souls then just as they are today.  Perhaps, about that, I am wrong.  Despite knowing many people, I don’t know even a single person who can be a reliable source on that question.  I base this statement instead on what I see today.  So many Slovaks are too free in their souls for me to imagine that it could ever have been otherwise.  It’s a lesson I hope I’ve begun to at least learn a little from Slovaks – how to ignore the world around you and still feel freedom inside.  Along with that one, the country has many other lessons to teach me, including – Allan, don’t repeat the mistakes of our past.

Sometimes it’s good to listen to the advice of others, since, as one Slovak once said to me “Svoje vlastné chyby sú najdrahšie.”  In one sense, it means – your own mistakes are the most costly, so you must avoid them by learning from others.  If it were that easy, children would not stumble for many long years before their parents finally are able to call them adults capable of a little responsibility.  A second side of that same Slovak statement is – “Your own mistakes are most valuable to you.” They both cost you the most and they end up being most valuable to you because you remember them the best.  Sometimes we just need to stumble a little, or a lot, on our own.  Realizing that experiencing a mistake makes it most memorable, doesn’t make those mistakes any more comfortable for me when I’m caught in the middle of a stumbling nation trying to find itself.  I think the land of my birth, the United States, is now in the middle of such an identity crisis.

This winter I’ll go home to Chicago to see my family and the most regrettable moment for me each time I do that is when I step off of a plane and feel the atmosphere in the air.  Because for each year of the last nine, I’ve felt something that most Americans don’t seem to feel.  Gradual changes can be hard to notice.  When you only visit the U.S. once a year, the changes aren’t gradual.  They are clear.

I hope that I’m wrong.  I hope that for the first time in nine years that it will feel more free when I enter my homeland than it did a year prior.  Something tells me, this will be the most drastic return for me yet. It starts in the airport, but it continues through the rest of society on my trips home as I feel America growing less free.  I think this is imposed by the government, but I also think some people voluntarily accept a diminished respect of freedom.

With my initial shock, whatever the violation of freedom is, a good reason is always presented.  Always. Without a good reason, I believe that Americans would entirely reject an intrusion on freedom.  It’s all done in our best interest and it’s all done for safety we are assured.  Airports are only the tip of the iceberg, but can be so glaring because the welcoming committee carries guns, batons, tazers, and acts like a bunch of gorillas.  Even authoritarian Israeli security experts point fingers at us and laugh because Americans are treated like chattel in airports with no appreciable improvement in security.

Examples of people being treated like chattel and criticism that our procedures don’t actually improve security can be seen hereherehereherehereherehere (pdf), hereherehereherehere,



hereherehere, and here.

Older Slovaks who lived in Czechoslovakia after 1948 and after 1968 and who saw some of the worst times, and who have traveled to the U.S. have a particularly negative response to this behavior.  They say the words “policajný štát” to me about MY COUNTRY.  About America, a Slovak can look me in the eyes and say “policajný štát” – “police state.”  It’s a sorrowful look, but the statement is a sincere one.  I hear it regularly enough to make me take note.  The last time I sat down for a drink with a group of older Slovaks professionals and business owners (which happens pretty regularly) is the last time I heard that.

There’s something wrong in the course of human events when a Slovak can say that about America. That Slovak looks at his own state, he looks at America, and he sees America less free than he expected.  America’s good at a lot of things, but what it’s the best at is being an unobtrusive beacon of freedom, an unobtrusive example to others. It’s sad when America doesn’t realize that about herself.

Slovaks have freedom in their souls and will allow themselves to be pushed around while protecting their own souls.  I think Slovaks are generally humble and just want a little internal happiness and solitude.  We Americans tend to have more of an ego and are more willing to speak out at the idea of injustice even when that injustice is committed against a total stranger.  In contrast with the first sentence of this paragraph, I’d say about America – Americans have freedom inside and out and will never be pushed around.  But that sentence, something I long believed to be a “rule” of American culture, is something I see myself challenging every year with my annual return to America.

Ignorant government thugs push people around on the streets and in the airports and unless I want to get pushed around as well, I had better button my lip.  Is that America 2012 that I’m describing or Czechoslovakia 1989?

You can always ask the question “which country is more free?”  A more important question for me for this essay, however, is “Over the last nine years has the U.S. become less free or more free?”  The answer is less free.  In my nine years of travelling back and forth, America has grown uncomfortably less free.  The great sadness I feel over this issue is practically too embarrassing for me to admit.  Once I actually even got choked up in the airport, seeing what was happening, not in some third world country that I need immunizations to travel to, but in America.  As I have come of age in the world, the generation before left me a country that was less free than the one that they inherited.  As my generation comes of age and finds ourselves in more established positions in the world around us, I increasingly see people my age shaking their heads and asking themselves and each other how the baby boomers could have left us the mess that they left us.

Here’s one example of several dozen that I have come across over the last few months.  Thomas L. Day, author of that article, and I disagree on some details, we agree on the bigger picture – it’s up to people like he and I to debate the future that our generation has already inherited.  As Day points out: “I speak not specifically of our parents — I have two loving ones — but of the public leaders our parents’ generation has produced.”

My generation has the choice of either reversing that trend of diminishing freedom or giving up on the American notion of freedom.  Playfully playing it lip service is of little value to anyone as it takes so much effort and accomplishes so little.  I still don’t know what the rest of my generation will decide.  I know where my feeling are on this topic.  Until the day I die, I believe I will have an inextinguishable burning of freedom in my soul.

Twenty-two years ago the chains of an evil empire were thrown off in Czechoslovakia.  Twenty-two years is not a long enough time for educated Americans to risk forgetting what recent history was like when the Czechoslovak state took to treating its people like chattel.  My only conclusion is that America either never understood or America has forgotten.  Which is it?

I am curious how your American friends looked at Czechoslovakia or Russia or any other communist country during communism – let’s say from after WWII until before autumn 1989. Were Czechoslovakia or Russia considered less free than the U.S. or the rest of the West?  What concretely were things that were considered by Americans (or others Westerners) as less free about those places?  I don’t really want to hear what historians have said on the matter, I want to know what you remember people saying about those places in everyday conversation. You are a unique resource that no historian can duplicate. Were they just considered ‘evil communists’ with people generally having no in depth knowledge of what that word meant?  My high school aged Slovak students eight years ago could not explain communism to me, could Americans in the 1950’s also not explain the hated communism?  For me, this all boils down to this – Was the USSR an enemy in the eyes of many Americans because of its policies?  Or Was the USSR considered an enemy just because it was some other big guy on the block?  That question helps to address the distinction between “never having understood” and “having forgotten.” To my Slovak readers, or readers from any other part of the world, I also welcome you to chime in on this topic – but the article that I posted a few days before this might be of more interest – 11 Things I Didn’t Expect in America.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Steve Millies

    Dec 16th, 2011

    Allan, I read here, you know, because I’m interested and I respect your point of view. But I wonder if you’d mind my pointing out that your analysis, at least here, is a bit shallow. Your examples do not go much farther than the TSA and, I suppose, surveillance cameras on top of utility poles. In the former case, while I agree what the TSA does is as repugnant as it is incompetent, the truth is that it’s a Keystone Kops operation, and we all know it. It’s difficult to take seriously, as a threat to liberty, something that succeeds only as an irritant. It is more symbolically dangerous to liberty than substantively dangerous, and there are good reasons to doubt it will ever grow to be a greater threat. As for the omnipresence of surveillance, the plain fact is that the monitoring occurs in places where there is no expectation of privacy in any constitutional sense: public streets, etc. Cameras inside the home (see: Orwell) would be much different, and we’re not even near that. I think our American sense of privacy and civil liberties still is a long way from cheerfully enduring anything like that. Add to that the fact that the amount of data captured through such surveillance actually is the friend of liberty, since it only can overwhelm those who have it. Its use is greatest retroactively, not pro-actively, because it is not possible to monitor the images coming from every camera all the time. Recordings can be viewed later, of course. But that is generally only because there is some reason to do so, in which case the surveillance is mainly a sort of high-tech reply to the oft-heard complaint, “There’s never a cop around when you need one.”

    You quote Lincoln. Most good histories would identify Lincoln as the author of a view of national identity that came out of the Civil War, suppressed the old antifederalist and Jeffersonian view of state-centered federalism, and gave birth, eventually, to the Progressive movement that was premised on a much more muscular use of federal power. (Certainly, the Progressives thought of him that way.) There came the regulatory state and the expansion of implied powers, the New Deal, and the model of government today that you appear to equate with a creeping tyranny. If all that be true, then there is an important way in which your arguments do not add up.

    But, finally, I would say that I agree with your premise more generally. I don’t place the blame at the feet of government, though. The loss of privacy is not, I would say, rooted in anything government is doing. It is the cookies in my browser cache now capturing every character I’m typing and saving it on someone else’s database. It is the way my buying patterns in bookstores and grocery stores are captured, in a similar way, by online vendors and my bank. To sum it up, I worry less that Big Brother is sneaking into my home than that, more and more willingly, our consumerism breeds an indifference to privacy in the name of getting the right coupons in the mail, adopting the right brand identity that expresses my ‘unique individuality,’ or putting my whole life where it can be seen on Facebook so as to ‘express myself.’ It is in these ways that running with the herd and giving up privacy has become, in some alchemical way, an expression of personal identity that I have real concerns. But that’s culture and corporate marketing doing those things, not Uncle Sam. In other words, we’re dealing with something far more subtle and insidious than a tyrannical government, and a thing Hayek and the Austrians are uniquely ill-equipped to defend us against precisely because it is private actors, unfettered by effective government regulation, who are stealing our privacy from us. Better still, they are utilizing market-based incentives to cow us into giving up our privacy and feel rewarded for it.

    I would be grateful for your reply.

  • Dear Steve,

    Thank you for your comment. The reply is going to be lengthy.

    I agree that my analysis is shallow in that it does not go beyond TSA. Perhaps I was too cowardly to speak any more daringly. I think that Americans are losing their sense of freedom. As soon as I enter the U.S., I see that problem most clearly because it is so dramatic and concrete. TSA is but a small part of a greater problem. I am going to point out a few more concerns that have been on my mind lately. My criticism left you with the idea that TSA or CCTV is all that I worry about, which is a failure on my part. In fact, there are some aspects of CCTV that I do not like, but it is not a bothersome enough topic for me to want to address in this forum.

    I agree with you that the TSA is a Keystone Kop operation (I never knew Kop in Keystone Kop was spelled with a “K,” thank you for the insight). However, if everyone is so certain of its status as a Keystone Kop operation, why does it continue to exist? You and I may agree that it is a joke, but for the time being, enough Americans appreciate the work of the federal government in the role of airport security through the agency known as TSA to let things remain as they are. America is a target of terrorism, but the TSA continues to bumble through its responsibilities with America in some ways little more prepared for a future attack than it was on September 10, 2001. I do not think that utility trumps rights, but even from the perspective of utility TSA seems to fail.

    Essentially, Steve, I would like you to take this opportunity to cajole me into feeling more comfortable with the existence of TSA, please. I’d love it if someone could effectively cajole me on this topic and it sounds like you might be a good candidate for that. For now I’m going to continue my argument with the hope that you will cajole me so effectively that I will forget that any of this ever bothered me.

    TSA as a Microcosm

    TSA is easy to overlook as a silly idea, but what we allow this silly group of people to do to us says much about us. If it were truly silly, one would imagine we would do away with it instead of allowing it to be such an intrusion. Its intrusion in our lives reinforces and rewards behavior that is not becoming of a free people.

    TSA teaches us that our bodies are not our own. I’ve read often of children, the handicapped, and senior citizens going through illogical and dehumanizing searches. Children are not old enough to know any better, so I most dislike this intrusion on them during such formative years. It’s sick that a child would have to lift his or her shirt for a TSA agent or that a child would get frisked by a TSA agent while a parent watches helplessly. A parent is left with the option of accepting this intrusion or not flying at all. When a TSA agent starts searching a child, a parent is left with the option of saying “yes,” saying and doing nothing, or risking arrest for impeding national security. Privacy begins with the body and thoughts and includes more external items like conversations or personal papers and property. If a person will allow his body to be manhandled by the government, even his own child’s body, then that person will allow violations to himself and others of other items that should also be deemed private.

    TSA teaches us that we may not make decisions for ourselves. In the United States there are constant fights over what a person may put into his or her own body. At least during prohibition this was done with a constitutional amendment. That doesn’t make prohibition any better of an idea for me, but I like that some sort of due process was followed because it helps limit abuse of government’s power. The FDA makes experimental treatments difficult to obtain while skewing results and policy in favor of friendly companies and their sometimes dangerous drugs. To consume raw milk, a person has to go through a whole host of hoops in many states and still risk legal trouble. In those situations, the government acts against an individual’s ability to decide for himself or herself what is best. However, if we choose to fly we can be forced through an x-ray machine so that a TSA agent can literally see what we are hiding under our clothes. Depending on the day of the week and the airport you travel to, the mood of the TSA agent, you might not have a say in whether or not you are put through an x-ray machine. Insisting that a person receive radiation above the natural background radiation is insidious. It intrudes on the idea that a person is solely responsible for making the ultimate decision on what goes into his or her body. Like the above example, controlling issues as personal as food, medicine, or radiation exposure is asserting control over a most personal and fundamental issue of choice that leads into larger areas of choice.

    TSA teaches us to be sheep. I’ve spoken with many TSA agents. They are generally ignorant people. It’s shameful that these very ignorant people are allowed to bully other Americans around, but we are taught through this exercise that might makes right. The one with the gun and the badge is always right, or they might even just have a walkie-talkie so that they can call the guys with the gun and the badge. In response to anything they ask us – take off your shoes and walk on this filthy floor, leave you valuable and important belongings 30 feet away unattended and come for a special screening, open your pants for me to look inside, uncross your arms so that I can lift your breasts and inspect the underwire of your bra, remove your belt, remove your jacket, remove your electronics, stand on your head and count to ten.

    Somewhere in a cave for many years, I think bin Laden laughed at us, because he read the same newspapers I did and heard the same security experts I did – Americans are made to behave like buffoons under the false pretense that it makes us any safer. Americans are told that anything their president wants to do he can do under the false pretense it makes them safer. No outside enemy could have accomplished the dismantling of our sense of liberty that our trustworthy public servants have accomplished in what is touted as an effort to keep us safe from those outside enemies.

    I believe all of this behavior is dishonorable and insulting to a free people. Correspondingly the TSA is a dishonorable and insulting organization that we allow to exist. Its employees steal, they harass decent people, it fails in its basic duties, it even reduces the value of a human life by reducing our own sense of privacy and responsibility. Julius Caesar in his _Civil War_ talks about how he invaded Rome and destroyed a 500 year old republic because the Senate had dishonored him. An American in the year 2011 MIGHT write a letter to a TSA supervisor if he feels dishonored by a TSA agent. Now I do not consider Caesar an unbiased source on his rise to power as dictator, also, its not fair to equate a TSA agent and a Roman Senator, but Caesar’s example is still worth noting in order to contrast the self respect felt by an American in the year 2011 and Julius Caesar. It’s somehow okay for a TSA agent to demean us. Everyone around us seems to think its okay, the government seems to think its okay, the TSA agents themselves seem to think its okay. Do the people getting searched think its okay? I don’t know.

    Regularly Americans stand up to TSA agents and policies, but the attempts are usually futile and result in the incarceration of the person who spoke up. With each encroachment on civil liberties, I do wonder how far Americans can be pushed before they begin to push back.

    Our interaction with the TSA is a microcosm of our interaction with the rest of our government. They do outrageous things and we just sort of shrug our shoulders and yawn.

    If Naomi Wolfe is to be believed, and my experience shows that she is, she once pointed out to me a problem that she regularly had with security. Her and I both spent years on the terrorism watch list. This always made my time through security at airports a few minutes longer and always freaked me out that something unexpected and time consuming would happen because I was on that list. The inconvenience was minimal, the fear that I would be brought into some back room for questioning was minimal, but it was alarming to me that in the United States I could just end up on some kind of list and automatically be considered a bad guy by 85% of Americans if “terrorist watch list” and “Allan Stevo” were ever mentioned in the same sentence.

    If Glenn Greenwald is to be believed, and experience shows me that he is, then President Obama has worked closely toward a bipartisan bill to place into law the notion that the U.S. President, unquestioningly may have the U.S. military arrest a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil with no charge and keep that citizen in custody indefinitely (http://www.salon.com/2011/12/15/obama_to_sign_indefinite_detention_bill_into_law/singleton/). One may say it is ridiculous for us to worry that such power will ever be abused. I must respond with the question then – why the heck does POTUS need that kind of power written into law? If the president will never abuse that power, then why authorize that power in the first place?

    Many things about U.S. politics at present belies logic, but the common equation that all of the problems have is how little anyone seems to care about most issues. That starts with the TSA, but it is visible to me throughout society when I visit. Maybe this time will be different. Elders in my community growing up, who have never spoken a word about politics to me my entire life have taken to complaining to me about President Obama. While I consider myself currently neither among the Tea Party or the OWS movement, I very much respect the fact that they see something wrong in the world and spend their precious time complaining about it. I believe that action benefits the rest of us.

    Earlier this year, President Obama quietly called for the assassination of an American citizen. He did so with no trial – which we generally use as the standard protocol before the government takes a human life. If the president’s rationale for killing the man was so sound, then why not take the time to appear before a judge? He was not indicted, nor was any attempt made at indictment. The reason is that the president does not like having to ask anyone for permission in matters of national security. He actually doesn’t like to ask anyone for permission in any area of policy. We pretend that national security is an area that the president should unquestioningly be allowed free reign, however, so for that reason I mention it on its own. In the justifications for the assassination of that American, writers come uncomfortably close to saying that utilitarian viewpoints should trump rights to due process.

    The man’s father for several years tried to get the U.S. Government to explain why his son was on a list meant for terrorists. This hits close to home with me because I can imagine my own father going through the same futile exercise of asking the government to reconsider his own son’s guilt or innocence. I have no idea if Anwar al Awlaki was innocent or guilty. I know that I do not want the U.S. President assassinating people and especially not American citizens.

    Now I know that some percentage of Americans will see a name like al Awlaki’s and see that it is 1. Arab and 2. Hard to pronounce and therefore conclude that that man’s life is somehow more deserving of termination without due process. Add to that the fact that he was living in the Middle East and many Americans will say “He deserved to be killed, what was he doing in the Middle East anyway?” Once we add to that the fact that he had some pretty dirty friends involved with Al Qaeda, al Awlaki isn’t left with much support. However, none of those are reasons to kill a person in the American legal system. I haven’t even touched on the issues that make him a threat or on the claim he was unable to be captured alive, yet he’s already been deemed strange enough in his behavior to be worthy of being murdered. Two weeks later, al Awlaki’s 16 year old son was also killed by our government.

    We indiscriminately murder civilians abroad through our undeclared wars and bombing sorties. We say its okay because they are not Americans. We now have allowed Americans to be killed by our government abroad indiscriminately. Now we are also saying that Americans can be imprisoned at home with no trial. Are we pretending now that accusation is the same as guilt? Is a hunch the same as a trial that proves guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? What will the next outrageous step made by our U.S. government be?

    Our government is run amuck and few people seem bothered by that. This area that I’m complaining about is just a small segment of policy. There are many more areas where the government feels like its run amuck and where it has grown so out of control that restraining it feels impossible.

    As for our 16th president. I think that I was barking up the wrong tree by mentioning Lincoln in a negative light. While writing the piece I had a feeling that it was a distraction. It was that in deed. I do not want to say that our current problems stem from Lincoln. Some would argue that. I do not feel well-versed enough in the powers of the president from Lincoln to Obama to be able to speak comfortably about that. My reason for bringing up Acton and Lincoln is rather for the point of using their quotes about the nature of power. Please forgive me for the distracting reference to Lincoln.

    I agree with you as well that the free market is being used to “purchase” private information through incentives. I agree with you that this should be of greater concern than it is. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone effectively illustrate the following point, but I would nonetheless like to point to an issue that I think separates private entities encroaching on a person and governmental entities encroaching on a person. Government ultimately has the power to use force. It’s a power we give government. An agent of the government may legally (and some would say also morally and ethically) use force against an unwilling person. An agent of a private institution may not use force. This distinction may appear small, but this is what causes me to be more cautious of government than private enterprise – government is a monopoly entity authorized to use force, in a free market – private enterprises are not monopoly entities and must deal with people on a voluntary basis. You, as a consumer, can stop doing business with AT&T, Google, or Facebook. The consequences of doing so may be unpleasant, but it is still up to you to decide that. You may not stop doing business with the U.S. Government. I recognize that your concern about the collection of information is valid and important.

    Considering the tremendous overlap between government and corporate interest that takes place in the United States (and in many other countries), perhaps I should be more fearful that violations of privacy committed by private corporations will end up feeding information to the government. I still hold the view that if government can be restrained and weakened then I need not worry about a dreaded government/corporate partnership. I think that Americans have entered an age where we need to learn to adopt new strategies for dealing with this new technology in an ethical way. I believe that can be done without government. I might even say that we are better off if we do not expect that we must rely on government to save us.

    Steve, I’m sorry that I have not made more time to correspond lately. I’ve been tied up in an upcoming project. With your well written critique, you definitely got my attention. I am grateful when people point to holes in my logic. It benefits me. Please feel free to respond to any holes you see remaining.

    I like to write with many days of careful analysis followed by lots of rewriting. I hope you will forgive me for this response to your comment not being a more carefully crafted response. I wanted to respond promptly. Please do consider cajoling me on the TSA.

    Thank you again, Mr. Millies, for your comment.


  • Steve Millies

    Dec 17th, 2011

    Allan, I appreciate your reply. Indeed, there is nothing I like better than detached and dispassionate discourse about serious ideas, the sort of thing it’s almost totally impossible to have with most people. I enjoy my interactions with you so much because I think we’re cut from that same cloth.

    In your last post you neglected to mention the case of the Vermont politician jailed for insulting the President of the United States. Literally, that was his only offense. He voiced criticisms of the president, a violation of federal law. Once jailed, his case caused such an outcry he was elected to the House of Representatives from his cell, defeating his opponent 2-1. But the public outcry and even his election to the House was not enough to cut short his sentence and, indeed, the sentencing judge expressed some regret that he was unable to impose a harsher sentence than four months in prison. The president was John Adams, the year was 1798, the congressman was Matthew Lyon, and the law he violated was the Sedition Act. It is difficult for me to imagine something more repugnant that could be a federal law, but it was. And, we survived it. American liberty survived long enough for Lincoln to say nice things about it…before he uconstitutionally suspended habeas corpus and ordered the mail to be opened (a mid-nineteenth century equivalent of Bush’s wiretapping program). You don’t need me to bring up the arrests of Germans during WWI or the internment of Japanese and others during WWII, the abuse of federal power during the Red Scare, or the domestic spying done during the Vietnam era. You know all of that stuff already. I’m not sure, though, that you’ve caught the point yet.

    I’m not trying to make you feel more comfortable with the TSA, and I’ve already said I think they’re repugnant. But this is a very old American story, one that literally goes back to the earliest days of our republic. The common denominator always is some real or perceived external threat which demands from us a serious reflection on how we want to balance security with liberty. That’s not an easy balance to strike, often the process is ugly, and it takes a while to sort itself out. We’re not nearly done figuring out how a free people can manage the terrorist threat we face today, and the TSA today is just a hamhanded manifestation of what that larger struggle to find the balance demands from us. I hate it today, but I have great faith that we’ll work this problem out and eliminate that ugliness in the long-term. That’s the perspective I’d urge you to adopt. In the long view of history this will be a regrettable event, yes, but as much of a blip as the Sedition Act or the internment camps.

    One more thing on the TSA. My experience of them has been different from yours. (Admittedly, maybe because I wasn’t on the list.) Ever since they began demanding my shoes, I began resisting. Rather than take my shoes off, I would opt to be wanded. Today, when they try to put me into the porno-scanner, I opt for the body search. When they ask if I’d prefer a private area, I tell them I think everybody should see what they’re doing. I’m never rude, but I’m exactly as aggressive as their rules permit me to be. Experience teaches me that most of them don’t like doing the searches, find it embarrassing, etc. So I use their rules against them as a weapon, try to force them to do things they don’t want to do and, hopefully, provoke some shame. Often, while they’re digging in my pants, I’ll recite publicly available statistics about luggage thefts, etc. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve left more than one TSA groper averting his eyes from mine, sometimes with shaking hands. A passive resistance can be very powerful, especially if your opponent knows on some deep level how wrong he is. It depends on knowing the rules and keeping your temper in check, but I’ve rarely left the experience not feeling like I was the one in control of the situation, almost feeling bad for the TSA guys. I’ve never found TSA searches humiliating because I know I can win the ‘argument’ we’re having while they’re groping my crotch. I find them silly because I find them to be so easily defeated and, against the backdrop of history, I know they won’t be here forever.

    Your larger argument with the regulatory state—the FDA—leaves me unpersuaded. I feel no meaningful loss of liberty at my inability to drink raw milk. And, given the withdrawals from the market of Celebrex and Vioxx, I’d go so far as to say that the evidence suggests the FDA is not intrusive enough yet. Else, pharmaceuticals so detrimental to health could not be released to the market. If the problem is that the FDA is favoring a few friendly companies, then—again—I say that more regulation, more government authority is the answer. For, surely, those companies will grow no poorer, no less powerful, and no less determined to turn the most massive profits they can so long as the free market system is in place. They must be matched by an FDA that can resist them and stop them.

    It is, finally, for those reasons that I see the question of state power vs. corporate power so totally differently from how you do. Where you see the state primarily as the monopoly on coercion and force, I see a mechanism that still, when everything works the way it’s supposed to, is supposed to be responsive to me. I have no such faith in the market. It might be tempting to say that, for example, without the FDA to monitor them, Merck and Pfizer would respond to market forces, anyway, because their product increases the chances of death. But I’d reply, first, that the goal is to prevent the deaths altogether, not to permit some number of them to occur before consumers catch on and stop buying the product. Second, and far more important, before you conclude too quickly that people will not buy a product because it is deadly and the market can curb this behavior, take note that there still are 58 million smokers in the world despite the mountain of epidemiological evidence attributing 5 million deaths per year globally to tobacco use. The libertarian worldview says each of us has the right to go to hell in his own handbasket. I say no man is an island, and once we understand that social groups are interrelated, interdependent communities, it becomes ever clearer that government plays a vital and necessary role to promote public goods. Of course they’re never 100% right and it’s always easy to point to what they get wrong. Still I feel much better with them than I would feel without them.

    Last point: government has the monopoly on the legitimate use of force and coercion, but force and coercion are used all the time illegitimately. Organized crime everywhere in the world proves that systematic violence is used against people quite freely by non-government entities. Corporations do it, too. Ford made a decision to sell the Pinto, despite knowing its dangers. Asbestos. Thalidomide. And, of course, Vioxx. Historically, only government can curb these dangerous behaviors, whether we’re talking about corporations or organized crime. While government can be dangerous too, I’ll place my bets on the side where I get a vote and a Bill of Rights. In the marketplace I have not even those minimal guarantees of protection.

    The long view of American history tells us that government almost always gets it right, even if it takes a while. The TSA concerns me little and the FDA concerns me only so far as it is not powerful enough. Dark, unregulated derivative markets concern me because no one represents my interests to prevent collapse and contagion unless a regulatory agency like the CFTC gets to examine what they’re doing–and we know today that traders and bankers were doing bad stuff because they could. We all still live with the consequences of that economic violence, violence which could have been prevented by a greater skepticism for the market, a greater esteem for the state.

    “Government everywhere is a blessing and a benefit.” From Edmund Burke’s pen, pray, to God’s ear.

  • Steve,

    I too am grateful for this exchange of ideas that we are having. I envy your greater ability to be concise and to more quickly respond. This one will be longer than the last.

    Today, as I walked about tending to business, I thought to myself that most of my argument could be summed up in the following:

    “My experience seems to indicate I have more to fear from government than you feel you do based on your personal life experiences.”

    The fact that I first had to write my lengthy response before coming up with that is a testament to why I prefer to write instead of presenting myself as an impromptu speaker or a comic ad libbing a performance.

    Before I could come back and make that statement, you go and make that statement for me. As if he’d had that same experience many times, Emerson in Self-Reliance writes:

    “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

    Thank you for the tale of the congressman from Vermont along with the other American horror stories. There are bumps on every road. I want to add one of Abraham Lincoln’s maneuvers to the list of abuses of power because it is so ridiculous. Lincoln didn’t like what a critic of his had to say about him, so he deported that vocal critic, a sitting U.S. Congressman – Clement Vallandigham. It’s hard to imagine an executive so powerful that he could get away with deporting a sitting U.S. Congressman. Whether that president be Bush, Obama, or Lincoln tyrannically imprisoning and killing people is no way for a president to behave. About that we agree. I am comforted by your suggestion that such abuses of power regularly occur. It’s a good reminder. I am more excited by your display of valor in the face of the TSA. I’m going to have to try something similar.

    Your Sense of Empowerment
    You sound very much empowered in your dealings with TSA and I appreciate that. Something has given me the feeling though that you think I am being too sensitive about the issues that I raised in my original post. My time in Central Europe points to stories of people being able to help themselves yet not helping themselves. There are many examples of government oppression in the region and groups of people who constantly exposed themselves to that government oppression.

    The Jews of Central Europe before and during WWII stand most strikingly to me. I’ve repeatedly heard stories orally and in the writing of Jewish authors of how a member of the community was always there to cajole the rest of the community, telling them to play it safe and continue their daily lives, not to worry about alarmist fantasies. This behavior continued from the earliest warnings during early crackdowns in ghettos all the way to the point where they got off trains at Auschwitz. If I remember correctly, in Ellie Wiesel’s Night even when the main character got off the trains at Auschwitz, there were older Jews telling younger Jews not to create a ruckus when they talked about rising up before it was too late. Exposed to this story enough times, I suppose I’ve grown hyper-sensitive about the existence of slippery slopes, especially when it comes to government intrusions on the liberty of its citizens. If I am reading you correctly, and you are telling me that I am being too sensitive, then I would like your advice on where alarmism ends and prudence begins. When do I get to worry? When do I get to be frantic? When do I get to say enough is enough?

    Specifically, you write this:

    “I hate it today, but I have great faith that we’ll work this problem out and eliminate that ugliness in the long-term. That’s the perspective I’d urge you to adopt. In the long view of history this will be a regrettable event, yes, but as much of a blip as the Sedition Act or the internment camps.”

    How would I behave differently if I were able to adopt the same long-term hopeful perspective as you? Please try to be as concrete as possible while also connecting the ideas with overarching theories and to speak to me as if I were totally dense about this concept. I would really like to understand this comforting idea that you are suggesting. It seems to bring you great comfort and would be something I would like to better understand.

    Tyranny of the Majority
    Of course I do not expect you to want to drink raw milk or to use medicinal marijuana or try non-FDA approved experimental cancer treatments. I also am not currently interested in those options. I was not bringing those up in an attempt to appeal to your own base desires. I brought those up because I wanted something more noble from you. I wanted to appeal to your appreciation for the protection of the rights of the minority over the tyranny of the majority, even if you do not count yourself among such a minority.

    Tiny minorities of the U.S. population personally want those things that I mentioned. In our republican form of government, a tyranny of the majority is meant to be avoided in hopes that a minority would not be oppressed by what is momentarily popular. Though we may follow that idea sometimes better than other times, I still do not feel good when one of the uglier times is upon us. I do not think that our nation is harmed by you and I agreeing that two people can engage in a contract with each other and you and I can be left out of it. Person A – lets call him Stephen Chriso producing unpasteurized milk and Person B – Woolly Michael wants to buy it. We are not harmed by this exchange between Steve and Woolly.

    When I ran for public office several years back there were folks who found me and wanted to make sure that I heard them. They just wanted the government to let them drink raw milk in peace. Despite much reading that I’ve done to try and prove why people should not be allowed to drink raw milk, I have not come up with a good reason that these families aren’t allowed to drink their raw milk. They follow clean practices, they have healthy cows, they have responsible farmers – the risk of disease transmission seems very low. It feels tyrannical to me to not let them have their milk, especially when they are of the opinion that it is very beneficial to them and their families. In Slovakia, you can actually buy raw milk out of vending machines. It is often surprising to me when I see the Slovak government behaving less restrictively than the U.S. Government, because usually the opposite is true. And you probably can’t imagine the great displeasure I feel when the over-reaching and bureaucratic European Union governing bodies behave less restrictively than the American government.

    The fact that you entirely do not care about an issue like raw milk (almost no one cares about such an issue) tells me that its probably an issue that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in. No one cares, therefore the default should be non-involvement, instead of “no one cares, therefore the default should be heavy handed involvement until so many people care that we have to change our policies.”

    No Man Is An Island
    No man is an island unto himself. I agree indeed. Several dozen twenty something Slovaks can recite lines of Donne’s “Meditation 17” because their British Literature lecturer (me) liked the ideas contained within so much that he made them all memorize it. Again, I do not think it is part of government’s role to protect a man from himself. I don’t wish hell on anyone, but can’t I allow a person to decide for himself what his path through life should look like? Preventing my neighbor from going to hell inevitably forces me to impose my beliefs on him, essentially saying that my beliefs are not only superior beliefs for me to hold, but they are also superior to whatever beliefs he holds. There are, for example, well educated people who eat numerous eggs each day and do not notice a change in their cholesterol, eat lots and lots of sea salt and don’t see a change in blood pressure, believe that daily intake of fructose (even from fruit) is bad and feeds cancer cells while suppressing the immune system. These are contrary to popular beliefs. Even in science and medicine there is so much that we don’t understand about the body. One may believe that relativistic thinking is dangerous in terms of religion, but relativistic thinking does have a place in sciences. I have found myself in our discussion returning regularly to the issue of the FDA and medicine, because I think that is one example of where orthodoxy in science is used to support orthodoxy in policy and both are ultimately institutionalized around us.

    Sometimes I don’t like discussions about the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” because the way it is interpreted focuses on the idea being sympathetic and not empathetic. “Do unto others as they would have done unto them” might be a twist that I think the Golden Rule ought to have. (Please excuse my attempt at rewriting the Bible – or rather the common paraphrase of Luke 6:31 and Matthew 7:12 – perhaps if I were better in Greek, I would have more textual basis for my reading, however I believe that my reading is consistent with the idea of the original – I want people to treat me the way I want to be treated, therefore I ought to treat people the way they want to be treated). I believe I have a commitment to my fellow man, but with such a variety of opinions in the world, I want my fellow man to feel empowered to follow his own views on what he sees best for himself. As an example, of my commitment to my fellow man, I voluntarily give money and time to charities that do the most effective work in fields that interest me most.

    Many other Americans also feel they have a commitment to their fellow man. I admire this commitment. I admire it most when it is done with a desire to encourage others to voluntarily join them. I admire it least when they try to lobby government to force others to join them in their commitment to help their fellow man. This I think is an important point of contention for me on the force of government versus voluntary association between people. You can’t really say “no” to government, especially when it comes time for the tax man to collect his fair share. Some of the richest people in the world behave as if they believe that the U.S. Government is such an example of an effective charity and believe that they should increase the tax rate on the richest Americans. No one is stopping Warren Buffet from cutting a voluntary check to the U.S. Treasury. Also, no one is stopping Warren Buffet from knocking on my front door and trying to convince me to cut a check for the U.S. Treasury. However, I think he should be prevented from forcing anyone to fund what he considers to be a good non-profit organization. If his choice of non-profit organization were such a good non-profit, I would think it would be very easy to get a person to give to the U.S. Government more generously. I do not consider myself among the 1% of the richest Americans, nor am I funded by someone who has hired me to be a shill for the one percent of the richest Americans, but instead I simply dislike the idea that someone insists that the use of force is a better way to enrich a deserving charity than by voluntary means of giving.

    What I prefer is the work of private charities over the government partly because of the use of force that I mention. You might say voluntary giving to the U.S. Government is a ridiculous idea, but there are plenty of organizations that survive simply from voluntary giving, simply from proving that they provide a needed service at a level of quality along with a compelling argument that causes a person to want to give.

    I think the fact that our alma mater has to compete against other high schools such as Brother Rice, Mother McAuley, Shepherd, Morgan Park, Oak Lawn, trade schools, home schooling programs, and GED programs for students is probably beneficial to all of those schools but is especially beneficial to students and parents. That churches must compete with each other is good for all of them. The moment the government says “this is the official church” or “this is the official school” it brings with it the belief that force and fiat somehow bring improvement. Force and fiat can bring improvement, but competition, risk of failure, and chance of success do it better. The communist government of Czechoslovakia was bad to the Church, but I wonder if it is equally as bad for the Church to be given the government welfare in Slovakia today and the great deal of dependency that “gift” carries with it. I like to help people; I believe I have an obligation to help people; but I do not think that government is the best method for doing so.

    I sense in your response, Steve, a strong sense of compassion for other humans and a desire for a more just society. I believe that I share similarly strong feelings of compassion for other humans and a desire for a more just society. I imagine we can agree that there are times where government assistance does more harm than good. There are probably times where you have used the logic “Give a man to fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” So my guess is that you believe there are limits to government’s assistance. For example, I think that the generous Western governments have brought pain and suffering to Africa with their foreign aid programs.

    Many would say it would take a pretty heartless person to stand in front of the U.S. Congress and say “Don’t give food to the starving children of Ethiopia.” You may think that foreign aid is fantastic, especially to Africa. I think it is inherently more just that we agree on this one in a way that does not involve force. You like giving money to charities that operate in Africa, so you work five extra hours each month and give the proceeds of that work to the charity of your choosing. I on the other hand think that charity actually accomplishes the opposite of what it sets out to do. I therefore do not spend my money aiding that charity. It would cause me to feel immoral in fact to have my money given to that charity. With no government money being given to any charity, you would have a harder argument to make for feeling immoral “I feel immoral because my powerful government does not use its power to take money from me and others by force and give it to my favorite charitable causes.”

    Now, if we defer to the idea that the U.S. Government should be the one to distribute aid to African governments when aid is perceived to be needed, you are left happy, in fact quite satisfied with our government for using your tax receipts in this way. On the other hand, I see my government acting immorally and am left with little option on preventing this immoral behavior and my funding of it.

    Thoreau is a notable example of a man going to jail (for a night) instead of paying a tax he believed would be used immorally. I remember hearing of hippies back in the early 1990s who were so tied up in the idea that the U.S. Government was using their taxes for immoral means that they lived on a commune and intentionally kept their earnings below the poverty line in order to legally avoid paying taxes. I know a man in Slovakia who renounced his U.S. citizenship and lives as a stateless person. In 10 years he will no longer be responsible for paying federal income taxes to the U.S. on money that he earned abroad. I do not want to feel immoral, nor do I want to live on a commune below the poverty line, nor do I want to go to jail for nonpayment of taxes, nor do I want to live as a stateless person. You must respond I feel, with a better option for me, or some argument about how blindly following the social contract is moral. Please.

    Because of the sheer scope and power of perceived federal authority, I am left with little other option. Our government is so ever present in so many areas of life and in my personal opinion, regularly so wrong, that it irks me when I calculate my total tax burden for the year and I think about what “causes” I am funding based on the percentage breakdowns of the publicly stated budgets at various levels of government. A person who was more moral than me and more courageous would figure out ways to not pay those taxes.

    I understand you may not feel the same moral hang-ups, and I do not fault you if that is the case. However, I imagine there must be a better way of organizing society in which a taxpayer is not a funder of all kinds of activism in so many areas of life. There were a series of trials after 9/11 in which fundraisers for Muslim charities were tried essentially as terrorists. The idea behind the trial was that financially supporting an act was almost as bad as committing the act. I agree with that logic. It caused me to ask if I would live up to the same stringent standards. If I see my government behaving immorally, don’t I support that immoral behavior by funding that government? I believe that further limiting the powers of government lets me feel better about that moral hang-up.

    An expansive government ends up being an institutionalizing of an orthodoxy. Like any opinion though, that orthodoxy is merely an opinion. Just because that opinion becomes institutionalized does not make it any more correct than other opinions, but it makes it notably more popular and more influential in many cases.

    Use of Force by Non-Governmental Organizations
    I agree with you that force is used for bad outside of government as well. We both agree that is wrong and illegal. However, we do not agree that it is wrong and illegal for government to use its force to enforce a law. Instead of rationally talking with people and asking them to give more money to a charitable cause, Warren Buffet would like to use the force of government to take more money from people. My moral view of the world compares the Democrats and Republicans to the Gambinos and Genoveses or similar crime families. I do not approve of the use of force of any of these four organizations. May I at least get you to agree that voluntary association is a little better of an idea than always resorting to the force of government?

    Government as Slow and Unresponsive
    Steve, you yourself taught me when I was perhaps 16 or 17 not to fret about the slow reaction time of government – that by design government was intentionally slow. I do not recall what it was that was bugging me at that time, but I do recall the calming answer you offered me. I’ve over the years found comfort in the slow speed of government – as it allows, presumably, for more judicious decision making. (Please note that you were then also encouraging me to adopt a more cautious and historically informed view of the world around me – something I much appreciate.) I do not think this slowness makes government the best entity in being responsive. I believe we demonstrate poor use of creativity when we constantly look to government as the mechanism to handle our troubles. It’s inevitably slow and brutish (to misquote Hobbes).

    Furthermore, there’s a regular pattern government follows. It addresses a problem not from the perspective of the consumer of its services but from the perspective of a variety of special interest groups. It can be compelled by the electorate to look more closely at the desires of the consumers of its services, but that I think is an exception more than a rule. There seems to be some balance usually struck between special interest and consumers of government services and usually the marketing of the service helps mask the fact that the government operates not primarily for the consumers of its services.

    As we both grew up in the Daley clan’s bailiwick, we’ve both probably had a variety of views on how well friends of elected officials are treated. Maybe we’ve both experienced life or heard stories on both sides of that situation. Cronyism can be argued as having a beneficial place in the running of government for the last thousands of years. It’s part of man’s relationship with government. I do not intend to argue that. Instead, I do think greater freedom has utilitarian benefits, some of which include people being able to choose the service provider that best fits his or her needs, as opposed to being stuck with the one service provider who is lining his pockets and the pockets of his three cousins who have won a government contract. I am using an extreme example of the way government operates (anything that is considered the norm in Chicago), but I think that this corruption and lack of focus on the consumer of services is what tends to happen when there is a monopoly – by monopoly, I mean only one provider of a service or product in a market as opposed to the currently popular definition of “a very big company that I do not like and feel vaguely threatened by.”

    Businesses, which I’ll admit seldom work perfectly, go out of business when it fails to address its customers better than its competitors. When we look to government as the solution, we sabotage ourselves by removing the competitor.

    I would like you to express more empathy in the rights of minorities. Should America aspire to protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority? I would like you to address government’s use of force. Is there a time where government should not be permitted to use force? Is there something illegitimate about some displays of force by government?

    Free Markets
    While the most important part of this discussion is on the possibility of free markets, I do not feel capable of effectively elucidating my view point on that matter. I thought about attaching a link here in which I think, to an extent I point to benefits of free markets, but it’s written to an audience that already understands the terminology I’m using in the way I do. I believe there are ways for regulation to happen in the absence of government. I wish I could do a better job beginning that discussion with you, but I feel ill equipped for the task.

    I think that the debate on free markets has been so incredibly skewed that I do not even have a terminology that you and I can agree on. For example, despite what many would say right now, I strongly believe that America does not have a free market economy. It certainly doesn’t have a free market in health care. Nor does it have a free market in the financial sector. When I speak of sectors, I pretend that those sectors are in some way hermetically sealed from other sectors in which government intervenes. They are not, but to simplify I’d like to ask you to allow me to speak of individual sectors independent of other sectors.

    The free market is vaguely blamed for our problems in those areas, but instead what we have is many times worse than a free market. We have heavy regulation that is done in the name of “the people” but is almost exclusively brought forth in the name of large corporations. This leads people inevitably to praise regulation as always good even when it may be detrimental to them. One reason that corporations might appreciate regulation is because the more regulation in a market, the higher the barriers to entry. Instituting lots of rules governing an industry is a way to keep upstarts from coming along and challenging your business.

    Because of all the rules, it’s hard to run a Congressional campaign without a lawyer and an accountant ready to lend a hand. The many barriers to entry serve not the candidate nor the voter, they serve the incumbent who wants less competition. That’s in the area of government and meant to illustrate a point of how regulation acts as a barrier to entry in other areas as well. It was the simplest example I could come up with at this moment.

    In that process, we end up confusing quality for government sanctioned activity. This seems to happen a lot with regulation.

    One of the candidates for U.S. President is a doctor who started practicing medicine about 50 years ago. He claims that there was a professional responsibility in the past for doctors and hospitals to tend to the destitute who were ill. He claims there was a time where doctors understood that they had to take patients who couldn’t afford treatment and had to allow some patients to pay less or to get treatment for free. He claims that it is nearly impossible for individual doctors to fulfill that professional responsibility independent of government today. I have a feeling that hospitals like Little Company of Mary or St. Francis one had charity as an important part of their focus. I don’t know if we can go backwards in time, I tend to think we cannot and fall in agreement with Lewis Caroll when he wrote “I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” But this candidate offers me a few important ideas on this topic – 1. it wasn’t always like it is today, 2. it can be different, 3. non-governmental solutions are plausible, 4. government has played a prominent role in causing the mess.

    As an experiment, I went to a doctor a few years back and was told that it would cost me $150 for a doctor to look at my skin and to evaluate a concern I had. I knew what was wrong with me because it was a problem I’d had some years before, I just needed a prescription. This process would take about 3 minutes (and did end up taking about three minutes). When I asked if there was a way to do this visit for just $75, since money is finite and it was such a simple issue, she sent me out to the nurse/receptionist who told me that it was illegal for her to charge some patients less than others. As long as she agreed to take Medicare, she had to charge all patients the same price. The U.S. Congress prevents a doctor from charging one patient one price and another a lower price. There’s logic to it, it prevents the government from getting stiffed with a big bill for Medicare patients. However, this is exactly the kind of regulation that makes health care less accessible and more expensive. Most doctors are possibly happy with a high amount of regulation, most patients are probably worse off. That is part of the debate. What should also be part of the debate is that when the U.S. Congress tells Allan Stevo and Dr. A.S. Mills that they can’t legally enter into a private contract with each other then there is no way to call that a free market. It is a fundamental human right for one person to be able to talk to another person and make an agreement – ie. a contract. I think it is by twisted logic that we bring the U.S. Congress into that. Not everyone agrees on that, and that’s fine. There’s lots of room for debate on that issue. What we should be able to agree on is that this situation has nothing to do with a free market. All that to illustrate the point that America does not currently have a free market economy in health care. Have I won your agreement on my point of semantics, Dr. Millies?

    An effect of the regulation is that the cost of medicine has increased while not necessarily improving in quality. Plastic surgery and Lasik, largely unregulated by government, have become cheaper over time. That’s what commonly happens with new technologies – prices decrease over time, but for some reason that doesn’t happen with certain areas of medicine. Regularly the complaint about healthcare is that it is too darn expensive in the U.S. This concern would fit what typically happens in a highly regulated industry. Assuring adequate supply of healthcare and to reduce costs of healthcare could be achieved in a free market environment. The obvious effect of increasing government involvement, decreasing competition, decreasing the profit motive in health care will inevitably result in less supply and higher prices and possibly reduced quality. This is exactly the opposite of what government claims to be able to do with greater involvement in healthcare, but the results of this involvement are predictable the opposite of that intent.

    I raise all of these points not to enter into a debate on healthcare – a debate the no one will ever walk away from feeling 100% good because of all of the passionate bad feelings associated with health care and with every person having a pretty sound anecdotal example of how the current system failed them or someone close to them. I raise this to point out layers of meaning that are lost in this discussion when Michael Moore on one side denounces the free market, Barrack Obama on another side does the same, Newt Gingrich on another side does the same, and Ralph Nader on another side does the same along with many others. All the while, none of them agree on exactly what the free market is. One should be wary of Obama and Gingrich since they are politicians and not to be trusted to speak true words on such important matters. Nader and Moore, who are stated enemies of the free market are at least willing to admit that corporate influence is the great problem in the “free market.”

    Here I am perhaps hitting merely on that same point of semantics even further, but I think without the right terminology we loose the ability to have this discussion with the many shades of gray it deserves. A free market takes place where there is zero government involvement in a market. You may argue that that concept is a theoretical idea. I think that Tea Partiers, Occupiers, Steve Millies, and Allan Stevo are all likely to agree on this issue – there is a great deal of government involvement in markets done for the benefit of corporations friendly to powerful politicians, and it is involvement that is not beneficial to the rest of society. Is that point one that we agree on?

    I approach less government from the perspective of social justice, which confuses a lot of people. I do not think utility trumps freedom. However, it is worth noting from my perspective that freedom brings with it much utility. Government is not necessarily better at providing a service, nor is it more responsive. It does carry with it the promise of the Bill of Rights. This is a promise that it constantly breaks. And while local government can be responsive, I fail to see when the federal government is truly operating in my own self-interest. I am not influential enough in D.C. to make government operate in my interest.

    If security were put back in the hands of the airlines, there would be a choice for someone like me. Something tells me the Alec Baldwins of the world would make headlines for having a hissy fit with an American airlines security agent, while I would be happily flying Southwest and would feel good going through Southwest baggage screening. Southwest has a way of making me feel good even when they screw up. They even make me feel good when I screw up. I feel good flying with that airlines, I like their lightheartedness about serious matters.

    There are enough people like me who hate having their business groped by security personnel who would pay extra to go through a different kind of screening. Others don’t care about it and would gladly subject themselves being stripped bare and microwaved for the sake of falsely feeling secure. Government fails us with TSA, but I do believe a market approach would leave the airlines competing with each other for better security. Who the heck is going to fly on an airlines that lets a highjacker on board? It would be very bad for the business of any airline to have lax security. But as of now, any airlines can just turn around and point a finger at TSA for doing a bad job and letting a highjacker on board. The airlines are not expected to be very responsible at present in keeping their airlines secure. At the same time, I am left with no option of avoiding the TSA mess. I feel violated by them and do not feel more secure with them.

    Is it possible that this would be an example where the free market might possibly do a better job than TSA? I’m not asking is a free market better than the TSA, I’m only asking, is it possible that a free market would be better than the TSA in airline security? Might it satisfy travelers needs for comfort and safety better than the TSA currently does?

    I recognize by bringing up the topic of removing TSA from airline security, I open up a can of worms that confuses the issue – a highjacked airplane is dangerous to more people than just the customers of an airline. That’s why it is problematic for me to focus it on the airlines and its customers. At the same time, I believe because an airplane is so incredibly dangerous, TSA performs such an important role that it fails so miserably at. I still believe that there is a better option than TSA and I think that if we allowed the profit motive to work, a few enterprising people would come up with a few good alternatives.

    The Bill of Rights and Business
    Steve, you wrote in your last note: “While government can be dangerous too, I’ll place my bets on the side where I get a vote and a Bill of Rights. In the marketplace I have not even those minimal guarantees of protection.”

    I would like to go through the first Ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and address some concerns you may have based on the above statement. To simplify, I’m going to use corporations as an example of a player in a free market, even though I think there is a valid argument to be made for the fact that the existence of corporations as we know them today are not compatible with a free market.

    Amendment I – freedom of press, speech, religion, assembly, right to redress grievances. My guess is that you do not feel that a free market will impose restrictions on these rights? Am I correct? If AT&T started to censor my discussions with friends on my mobile phone, I would pretty quickly find a new carrier. If UPS started to insist that only Jews and Muslims were welcome to do business with them, well, I would not send packages with them. Regarding redressal of grievances, not only will a company often be receptive to your complaints, they will often be thrilled to hear from you because they are getting free feedback, which will cheaply teach them things about their business model that would otherwise cause them lots of money to learn, and a company will sometimes even give you a free gift in response to your complaint.

    Ammendment II – right to keep and bare arms. While you might not want to go into a facility that does not permit its patrons to carry guns on the premises because of the higher rates of crimes in such places, I would argue that it is the right of a property owner to say if patrons may or may not bring guns onto his property. Government banning the ownership of a gun by a citizen is one thing, but whoever owns Costco saying “don’t bring your handgun into my Costco” doesn’t feel like the same kind of prohibition. One who wants to carry a handgun may simply go elsewhere with his or her business.

    Ammendment III – No forced quartering of troops. I think it is not germane to this discussion.

    Ammendment IV – protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. You have mentioned that you feel unsafe on the internet with all kinds of information being tracked. At least for now (until the U.S. Congress outlaws such things as anonymous web browsing) you may have a fake alias, a false IP address, use a proxy server to hide your location, and prevent cookies, viruses, and trojan horses from being saved on your computer. I do think there are ways to remain anonymous on the internet.

    Ammendment V –self-incrimination, double jeopardy, due process. Anyone who has been wrongly charged for a product or service might have the experience that companies might resort to a “might makes right” sort of policy in this regards. A consumer might have to get burned once before he or she begins to shop online more safely with a credit card. There is no guaranteed due process in a business. You can try your best to avoid business that use shady practices. I recognize your concern about the issue of a business not having to follow due process. It is evident at the same time that government as well can be poor with its following of due process. I agree that it can be incredibly frustrating when a business fails to follow its own policies.

    Ammendment VI – rights related to a trial – these are not always followed by the federal government. I do not think they relate to the business environment.

    Amendment VII – I do not think this would relate to the business environment either.

    Amendment VIII – No cruel and unusual punishment. This does not relate to the business environment. You and I have already agreed that force must not be used by organizations that are not the government. Maybe there are punitive employers that pull these kinds of shady tricks with their employees – being cruel to whistleblowers and the like. I think that cruel and unusual punishment is probably more like pulling out a person’s toenails with pliers or disfiguring their body rather than punitively firing a person who acted justly by turning their boss into the authorities for fraud.

    Amendment IX – just because a right isn’t mentioned here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I think this is not germane to our discussion.

    Amendment X – authority not granted in this document is not authority held by the federal government. This seems to be an amendment clearly made to limit the powers of the federal government. I think this too is not germane to this discussion other than the general question of “If there is not a Bill of Rights to protect a consumer the way a Bill of Rights is there to protect a citizen, then what is a consumer to do?” The Bill of Rights on its own (as we see in this present day) is not there to protect us. “It’s just a goddamn piece of paper” as George W. Bush was once quoted as saying about the Constitution. As much as I dislike the disdain he showed for the Constitution, I do think Bush was right about it merely being a piece of paper. It is a point for us to rally around, not a shield for us to carry to defend us. It has wise ideas, but requires people to stand by them for those ideas to carry any value. Whether airline security would be performed by government or the airlines themselves doesn’t change the fact that someone can walk into a situation with a security guard not willing to be pushed around (Steve Millies) and someone can walk into a situation indignant but cowering (me). You are ultimately responsible for guaranteeing your rights. Of the above 10 statements, what is lost in an environment of reduced government regulation?

    I was hoping to end this with an Edmund Burke quote in response to your Edmund Burke quote, but I learned that a quote which I believed was actually an Edmund Burke quote was in fact not his “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” or something like that. Instead I found a less powerful Burkeian substitute that I opted not to leave you with.

    Steve, I look forward to your reply and envy your ability to quickly distill your thoughts into shorter packets of information.


  • Dr. Millies,
    Contrary to how it may appear, I would like to assure you that I am not trying to win a war of attrition in this comment space. I do genuinely look forward to further hearing your ideas on this topic.

  • Wow… I am going to submit a relatively brief comment here, but I’m glad to stumble on such involved, intelligent discussion (not something you always find in blog comments!)…

    Your essay reminded me of a trip I took as a boy (age 13) through communist Czechoslovakia in 1988. We travelled with a voucher system, which gave us access to certain hotels and cultural programming during our stay. I was never really clear on how optional the programming was, but there were groups from all around the world visiting Prague at that time and travelling in the same system. We also had to register at Soviet offices in each region we visited, so our movements were definitely on the record, if not watched. I recall Soviet police at checkpoints on the roads, but maybe they were CZ police in red and green uniforms?

    Re: “Free markets” and “freedom” — Over the past year, each time I am in eastern SK, I ask as many people as I can whether they are better off now or before the 1989 revolution. The answers are incredibly predictable. Young people don’t seem to have an opinion, but most people over 30 told me they were definitely better off BEFORE communism fell, because then they had work, local economies, security, etc. … and now they aren’t sure they have ANY of that.

  • Steve I can only agree with you 100%. (sorry Alan). I too believe that sometimes the government is the last line of defence when it comes to things like consumer safety. The power wielded by corporations (the financial sector springs to mind) is incredible, its influence on politics out of bounds. How is this power in any way legitimised? why should we believe that the market will ever self regulate? We should all be critical about our governments – it’s our duty as thinking citizens but at least the governnment was elected by the people not by shareholders, it’s decision making happens in public not in a boardroom.
    PS. I think the patriot act would have made for a stronger argument than the TSA clowns.

  • Jan,

    No need to apologize. I’m happy you’re stating your opinion. I’m going to try to quickly draw an example of a market self-regulating. I do not raise this issue to try to convince you that self-regulation of a market is ideal, but I raise the issue because I see that you have probably not read much on the topic and want to try my best to illustrate the idea. I’m sure my presentation will contain some flaws, but I believe that it will be a step in the right direction in illustrating the idea.

    To illustrate the principal of self-regulation of a market, I’d like to use a specific market – Naschmarkt in Vienna. When you go there in search of a Doner Kebab, you have a choice of maybe 7 to 10 stands that will sell you a Doner Kebab. You walk by several of them – the first stand has a man that is too swarthy and dirty looking, another stand you’ve heard sells undercooked meat, another stand uses old meat that it buys from the neighboring restaurants and seasons it to disguise the flavor.

    None of this behavior is prevented by the Vienna Department of Health, because the Vienna Department of Health doesn’t know about this behavior. You know about this behavior because you’ve had a few bad experiences and because you talk to your friends who know that you are always on the lookout for the perfect Doner Kebab. Your friends know that you know all the little secrets about the perfect Doner Kebab. It would be almost ridiculous to expect government to even know the kind of details that an interested expert in the field, such as yourself would know. But also, there are other consumers who have had their own experience and their own friends who know the same kind of information.

    Some of the less desirable stands go out of business, people won’t buy from them. Others lower their prices, some people accept the lower quality for a lower price and those low quality stands stay in business. The best money is made by those people who make good Doner Kebabs though – they wash their hands, they use fresh meat, they cook the meat perfectly, their customers never get stomach aches, they give you extra yogurt for free. They do a good job and attract lots of happy customers. This simple situation is an example of a market regulating itself. I don’t mean to pretend in this situation that it’s a perfect situation, only to illustrate that markets can regulate themselves. You can probably poke holes in this example and I welcome you to.

    In bigger markets, you might end up with someone like you, the market expert providing information for a fee to people who want the expert opinion. Different experts would compete to be the best expert in that industry. When someone makes a mistake, maybe taking a bribe to say that the undercooked meat place has the best Doner Kebabs in Vienna, well, his customers end up feeling betrayed because they get sick and can’t trust him anymore.

    I don’t mean to argue that this way is better or worse than some other way, only that it is a way of regulating that does not involve the government. I don’t know, maybe there is no government regulation of Naschmarkt, but my guess is (esp. since it’s Vienna) that there is plenty of regulation. In the absence of government regulation of Naschmarkt, there could still be some kind of self-regulation of the market and it could end up even better than this example that I am offering. I am only one guy spending 10 minutes thinking up this example, but in a market that is not regulated by the government, you might end up with many people trying to work out a better idea than this one person (me).

    I agree with you that the Patriot Act is a grosser violation of the Bill of Rights, especially since there is no presumption that you will be treated like a human being by TSA, but there is some presumption still that the U.S. Government will treat people like a human being. However, I chose TSA because it is very concrete. It is involved in my first experiences and last experiences in the U.S. each time that I travel to the U.S. and is among the first and last experiences in the U.S. for many other visitors. Also, it is akin to internal checkpoints and border crossing checkpoints that Slovaks and Russians that I have encountered seem to so poignantly recall.

    Finally, Jan, I haven’t put your student’s work up yet, because I had all this Christmas stuff I wanted to put up that I’m still getting around to, but that work will make an appearance. I hope this note finds you well. Thank you for your comment, Jan.


  • hi! ive never been to the us… so cant say much except for what i see and hear on news and such…
    i feel that fundamentally no one in this argument is wrong or right, because this argument exsits maybe as long as governments exsisted…
    anarchy or total government…
    to the last comment … as a slovak… who lived in slovakia i can say: well, its true that life got harder, and the market aint open for everybody. people struggle to find work, which wasnt an issue before… but i also have to point out that this is also because of the fast changes societies are undergoing right now. tech advancements are too fast paced for the people, and more so to the people of USSR,as they were slowed down. just take a look at what kind of difficulties the new reunited germany had! while this progress was fast paced in the western countries, it was instantenous in the east 1989. people were sweapt away by the opportunities they had. even traveling was highly regulated (as pointed out before).
    as a german lecturer pointed out in economics – while the western germans bought mostly german cars (mostly because of pride), the eastern germans saw the opportunity in buying a japanese car, even if it had to be imported (as many other things… ) because it was cheaper, and they could buy themselves some other also imported goods to come closer to the standards of western countries. and it should also be pointed out that the new technology and know how had to be imported and implemented in the east. all these investments couldnt have been done simultaniously. as stated out before: people have to fight for their jobs. they have to get some kind of education, some qualifications, and so on to be “succesful”(in itself… you never seace to requalificate-if thats even a word…). as for slovakia and its education system… well… if you have so many post-graduates in your nation that the only work some can get is as a postman… true storry!… well.. the slovak people have too many universities which they know arent too good… so… they are more likely to invest in foreigners for the highest positions… i could talk about the healthcare issues here too… but it would be too much… lets just say… it needs to be reformed
    as for the life 30 and some years ago:
    my grandpa was a vet so… he didnt have much issues finding work, but he also told me, that he, and many others, were questioned every once in a while… the government knew nearly everything about him. who he talked with, who he was friends with… it seems proposterous! but my grandpa wasnt even an important person. he just lived in a village, had a wife and two children. question is: do we want this kind of government in our lives?
    now… well… lets face it. life got more expensive… but it is just stupid that you can buy 1 flat in bratislava and with the same amount of money, you can buy 2 flats in Wien! (quality of life nearly the same… source: hospodarske noviny 2-3 years ago).
    in a song from irie revoltez it says “if elections could change life, they would be prohibited”. i do think they are right. and thats quite upsetting.
    i will not say that anarchy is the best way(lets just jump to the conclusion that anarchy aint just the end of the world, but would bring the power to the market)… there have to be some regulations… but i do think that we are nearing the point where i dont really want to renew my passport because i dont want to have my fingerprints taken (even if im not a criminal, and dont think i want to become one… its just a privacy thing).
    the only thing i fear more than anything are hackers. so lets stop pushing all our info into computers all the time! your CC numbers can be stolen easily- 1 number … market price 3-5 euros (it makes you see just how “much” worth they are to them XD).. but i drifted away.. .sorry
    so… i do think it is a bit too much. but it will get worse before it gets better… maybe… well .. lets see if mankind still exists after WW3, or we will be succesful in wiping us out altogether .
    as for the fact that the young slovaks didnt really have anything to say bout this… they dont really care. its in the past. now they are preoccupied by the future

  • […] authoritarian government.  The mere fact that I would bother to write in these pages about the tyranny of the TSA tells me that I, instead of laughing at them for the buffoons they are, take seriously the threat […]

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