Category Archives: Op-Eds

Abolitionism Was, and Still Is, No Failure

RGBStock.com Rainbow WorldHistorian Jon Grinspan argues (“Was Abolitionism a Failure?” New York Times, February 1) against modern-day activists, from the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint to MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who view abolitionism as a successful movement worth emulating. Grinspan credits slavery’s end not to abolitionists’ unbending ideals but to “the flexibility of … moderates.” Slavery died because its advocates were even less willing to compromise.

But all new ideas are the work of extremists. There’s no need to preemptively tone them down; that will happen with their implementation anyway. The Libertarian Party’s call for “the cessation of state oppression and harassment of homosexual men and women, that they, at last, be accorded their full rights as individuals” was extremist in 1976.

The unmatched sea change in views on gay rights since then was in spite of the realpolitik of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Voltairine de Cleyre summed up pre-Civil War attempts to impede slavery by political compromise as “one long record of ‘how-not-to-do-it.'” For both issues, the reshaping would, in Yale lawyer Charles Reich’s phrase, “originate with the individual and with culture, and … change the political structure only as its final act.”

Grinspan points out the slaveholders’ many strategic mistakes. But an abolitionist victory by default would have been Pyrrhic in the long run. Instead, they led a permanent shift in the range of acceptable public views.  Only thus could they put an institution granted respectability for millennia into the dustbin of history. To Grinspan, the sheer range of causes likened to abolitionism — DeMint’s Tea Party; Hayes’ climate change — is proof that such invoking is devoid of content. But the impact of abolitionism is visible: All those causes frame themselves as liberation movements. Slavery was unabashedly authoritarian.

The Liberty Party was the most uncompromising abolitionist political party. Grinspan notes its vote-getting was anemic. Yet it became the core around which dissidents from the mainstream Whig and Democratic parties formed the more successful Free Soil Party (whose slogan “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Men” shows the natural interlock of liberations).

Grinspan downplays the main abolitionist publication, William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, because its circulation was less than 3,000. That happens to be the number of copies of the first edition of Karl Marx’s Capital sold in Russia. Garrison’s unyielding advocacy for full abolition forestalled Free Soil’s dissipation. The party in turn formed the basis for the Republican Party of Lincoln.

As Murray Rothbard explained, abolitionism is not just of “antiquarian interest.” Since “there are a great many analogues to slavery today … similar alternatives will have to be faced once more.” And similar tactics remain the most effective way to face them.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org).

Rule by Experts is More Dangerous than Measles

RGBStock.com Vaccine PhotoI’d like to throw two numbers at you, but I can’t. I only have one to throw. That number is zero. It represents the number of deaths attributed to measles in the United States since 2003.

The second number is the number of deaths attributed to measles vaccines in the US since 2003. I don’t have that number because, while the Centers for Disease Control tracks “adverse event reports” for vaccines, it doesn’t make those statistics easy to find or compare.

But here’s a sample: In the first five months of 2011, 118 cases of measles were reported in the US. No one died of measles during that period. During the same period, CDC recorded 698 “adverse event reports” on measles vaccines, including combination vaccines like the Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine. Those reports include four deaths, but we can’t know if the vaccines actually caused the deaths because these reports are not usually thoroughly investigated.

No, I’m not here to regale you with unproven (and probably unprovable) tales of vaccine-related autism, religious arguments against vaccination, and so forth. But the simple fact of the matter is that both vaccination and non-vaccination entails risks.  In each and every case, someone has to weigh those risks and make the decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate. Who should that someone be?

My answer is “the patient or the patient’s guardian.” Not because I reject the efficacy or morality of vaccines or the concept of “herd immunity” (I don’t), nor because I think them generally unsafe (adverse reactions are very much the exception, not the rule), but because I reject one-size-fits-all rule by designated experts on specious “public health” grounds.

Let me offer an analogy:

Some experts say that moderate consumption of alcohol — two to six drinks per week — reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death among men over 50.

I’m approaching 50, and although I’ve not been a big drinker for many years, I’ve begun trying to conform to the suggested booze regime. That’s a decision I am, and should be, free to make.

But suppose I consider drinking more dangerous than not drinking. Or that I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. Suppose I decide not to consume my minimum two drinks per week.

Is it OK for you to come to my house, hold me down on the floor, and pour Old Crow down my throat because I might otherwise someday have a heart attack at the wheel of my car and run down a family of four as they cross the street?

That’s the logic of “rule by public health experts.” It sounds silly  —  it IS silly — when applied to straight Kentucky bourbon. It’s equally silly, and equally dangerous, when applied to vaccinations. Nothing against experts, but their advice should be advisory, not mandatory.

Reality doesn’t offer us the option of eliminating risk. But to the extent that public policy offers us the option of preserving freedom of choice, we should vigorously guard and exercise that option.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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One Cheer for Obama on the Keystone XL Boondoggle

RGBStock.com Oil Refinery PhotoAs I write this, Congress has passed a bill bypassing the US State Department’s endless review process and approving construction of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. President Barack Obama’s vow to veto that bill is the right thing to do, but for the wrong reasons. He’s blowing an opportunity to steal congressional Republicans’ thunder on one of their own banner issues.

Obama’s public justification for the veto is that the State Department should be allowed to complete its review in its own good time. That’s bureaucratic window-dressing. The real constituents for Obama’s regulatory foot-dragging  are environmentalists concerned about the pipeline’s potential for disastrous leaks and spills, aquifer damage, etc.

But any excuse for the Keystone veto will satisfy the environmentalists. They don’t care how Obama justifies it; they’ll happily chalk it up as a victory for Mother Earth, move on, and continue to vote Democrat. So why not address the elephant in the room (pun very much intended) and openly side with libertarians against this GOP boondoggle on property rights grounds?

The Keystone XL pipeline is big-government corporate welfare of the type that can only be carried off through abuse of “eminent domain” — imposition of government force to buy property from owners who don’t want to sell (or who won’t accept the offered price).

Libertarians oppose that kind of thing, and Republicans have spent the last decade — since the US Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London — denouncing and pledging to put a stop to “eminent domain abuse.”

In Kelo, homeowners were forced to sell their homes so that their city’s government could “spur economic development” by handing the land over to developers for a convention center. They sued under the implicit 5th Amendment stricture that eminent domain power is reserved for “public use.”

The homeowners lost their case but won the public debate. It turns out that no, Americans don’t approve of governments stealing homes in the name of “economic development” and handing them over to “private sector” owners as sites for sports stadiums, big-box stores, hotels and convention centers . Or pipelines. And Republican politicians have made joyous hay of that disapproval.

But a funny thing happened on Keystone XL Phase IV’s way from Hardesty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. Republicans rediscovered their abiding love for stealing land and handing it over to the “private sector” for “economic development.”

As Obama and the Republicans savaged each other over whether or not Keystone will create jobs and boost the US economy without harming the environment, nearly 90 landowners in Nebraska went to court versus eminent domain actions undertaken by their own state government in league with TransCanada. Ditto Montana and the Dakotas — and previous phases of Keystone have already been built on stolen land in Oklahoma and Texas. Not to mention land on American Indian reservations which at least theoretically enjoy some measure of sovereignty but now find themselves fighting the same government/industry collusion.

As a practical matter, Obama’s veto accomplishes the goal of stopping Keystone, at least temporarily. But citing the malignant nature of government “takings” for private purposes as an additional reason for whipping out that pen would put him on much higher moral ground. Not to mention pulling a rhetorical rug from beneath the posteriors of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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