politics & governmentthat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Americans regard themselves as citizens, not subjects

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“Liberty is not a means to a higher political end,” Lord Acton wrote. “It is itself the highest political end.”

As a classical liberal, like Acton, I naturally agree with this, and I think most other Americans would also, especially if presented with a clear and present threat to their liberty. I am not sure if most Europeans would, however.

The impression I have from reading what appears about America in various European publications is that Europeans think that the U.S. Constitution confers certain rights on the nation’s citizens. As it happens, it does not. It simply acknowledges what the Declaration of Independence makes eminently clear, that those citizens “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and that government exists “to secure these rights.”

Americans regard themselves as citizens, not subjects. They may respect their government, but few feel servile toward it, and most are wary of it.

And with good reason. The truth is, there is little that government does very well. Take the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. It is the largest purchaser of wine and liquor in the United States, but this in no way benefits its customers, who pay more — $3 to $5 a bottle more — for alcoholic beverages than they would in an adjacent state.

Speaking of Pennsylvania, since the establishment in 1963 of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, those who live in that corner of the state have enjoyed ever more inefficient public transportation at an ever-increasing price. SEPTA, of course, is simply a small-scale equivalent to Amtrak, the national passenger rail line that costs plenty to ride but never manages to turn a profit.

Please note that these enterprises are all monopolies. When government faces competition, the outcome is even worse. I give you the U.S. Postal Service.

Next spring, when you are preparing your tax returns, place a call to the IRS and put a question about some detail to one of its operatives. The following day, place another call and ask another operative the exact same question. Don’t be surprised if you are given two different answers. It happens all the time. Even the IRS doesn’t understand the U.S. tax code, which is more than 8,500 pages of fine print, making it about 5,000 pages longer — and a hell of a lot duller — than the Vintage edition of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. By comparison, the 1,500-page cap-and-trade bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives — and which none of those who voted for it had read — is a mere novella.

You know what I’d like to see some blow-dried buffoon on one of the cable news channels ask one of our legislators? “When you take a deep breath, what do you exhale afterward?” Think any of them would know that they, like most other respirating organisms, produce carbon dioxide all day every day? If they are really so concerned about atmospheric CO2 levels, maybe they should help by cutting back on their own emissions of hot air.

The fact is, laws are effective precisely to the degree that they are clear and simple. “Thou shalt not steal” is a mere four words and has stood the test of time for millennia. A piece of legislation that is more than a thousand pages long isn’t a statute; it’s a make-work project for the nation’s trial lawyers. And a legislature than enacts such laws is functioning not as a government, but as a tyranny.

Small wonder, according to a recent Rasmussen Report, 57 percent of those polled favor replacing the entire Congress of the United States. That’s encouraging news. What Glenn Reynolds has called “the worst political class in American history” has become a clear and present danger to the liberty of America’s citizens. Nice to see that more and more of those citizens are beginning to notice.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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28 Responses to “Americans regard themselves as citizens, not subjects”

  1. I live in Pennsylvania very near the border with New Jersey. Your statement that the PCLB charges $3 to $5 per bottle more for acoholic beverages is hogwash. Most items on sale here are actually cheaper than in most other states.

    Mind you, I hate the PCLB, because it’s an anti-liberal, state-controlled monopoly. But let’s get the facts straight.

    The most practical reason to dislike the PCLB is that they don’t even offer some items one might want. Try picking up a bottle of Bollinger champagne (my favorite). It’s widely available in private liquor stores outside of PA, but it’s a special item here, and there’s nothing much I can do about it.

  2. Here is some information from an article published a year ago today in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
    A 750-milliliter bottle of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Black Label whiskey retails for $20.99 at state liquor stores. With the 7 percent Allegheny County sales tax, consumers pay $22.46 — nearly $10 more than the bottle’s wholesale price of $12.73.
    The high cost of liquor stems from the state’s pricing system, which dictates mandatory fees and taxes. Under rules, most bottles of liquor and wine in Pennsylvania undergo an automatic 30 percent mark-up from the wholesale price.

    Then, the Liquor Control Board adds a charge — typically $1 to $1.50, depending on the size of the bottle. The 18 percent Johnstown flood tax — enacted in 1936 — is factored in next, and the price of each bottle is rounded up to the nearest nine, meaning a price of $16.95 becomes $16.99. A sales tax of 6 percent is charged in most counties; the tax is 7 percent in Allegheny and Philadelphia counties.
    In [New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland] some products, including Grey Goose vodka and Yellow Tail Chardonnay, can be more than $3 cheaper than they are in Pennsylvania.
    BUT:
    Most prices at liquor and wine stores in Ohio and West Virginia are similar to or higher than the cost of the same products in Pennsylvania, according to Trib comparisons. Ohio and West Virginia, like Pennsylvania, have state rules governing liquor pricing, which is why prices in those states are often comparable to prices here.
    Note that last sentence: Thanks to government interference, the customer is screwed.

  3. Frank finally gets into politics! Go, Frank!

  4. Just Some Guy,

    I remember a while back hearing that the PCLB lowered prices in stores that were near Jersey because customers were going across the border to buy alcohol that was cheaper there. I have no sources, just a recollection, but what I remember was that prices were lowered only at stores near the border and do not reflect prices elsewhere in the state. I could be wrong about this, but if I am not, it would explain why you see low prices at your local stores.

  5. By the way, thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking and welcome Instapundit readers. We’re happy to be experiencing our first instalanche. Take a look at some of our regular features:
    People Who Should Be Killed This Week
    Kelly Conaboy Saves the World
    Other regular columns, reviews, and commentary

  6. You are mere amateurs compared to NY, where our taxes total about a third higher than PA. Not only did Albany NOT remove the tolls when the Thruway bonds were paid off, they raised them. Today, surprise, fees on licenses and registrations were raised twenty five percent.

    I haven’t seen a raise in years, and count myself lucky to still have a job. All the industry they drove out of this area sued our school district about their overassessment on the property taxes. I can’t wait for my school tax bill.

    It is way past time all governments lived within their means.

  7. Well, “citizens”, I invite you to browse the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment http://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/html/amdt14toc_user.html

    I defy you to tell me that you are NOT subjects!

  8. “Americans regard themselves as citizens, not subjects”

    How quaint! Still delusional and naive as ever.

  9. I have never worked for any level of government — federal, state or local — save for three years, 1966-69, when the U.S. Army requested my assistance with a little spot of bother in Vietnam. But I do not despise government. It does many necessary things, some extremely well, and some better than the private sector. Let’s take the Postal Service, since you and many others mention it as an example of calamitous government inefficiency. Or, rather, let’s not take it, for it is not a government department and has not been for decades; it is a civilian employer that is expected to run itself on the income it earns and not on government funds. Funny you (and other government-bashers) wouldn’t bother to learn that. But let all that pass. The fact is the Postal Service does a remarkably good job of delivering the mail; a recent poll revealed that 87 percent of the public is satisfied with their postal service. But maybe UPS or FedEx – which have siphoned off much of the lucrative package delivery business from the Postal Service while not being saddled with the far more difficult and costly first-class letter business — will agree to send a letter from Key West, Fla., to Bellingham, Wash., for 44 cents? I don’t think so. But if they did, and later decided that one or the other location wasn’t profitable, then Key West would no longer be able to correspond with Bellingham. Well, let them eat cake, I suppose, and get on the Internet.

  10. The United States Postal Service is “not a government department” – huh??? http://www.uspsoig.gov/history.htm (note the “.gov”).

    Yes, it delivers mail, raising prices almost every year now. It is the only federal agency that is expected to generate revenue, and is still always in the red. Mostly, it does an adequate job of delivering mail – except when it doesn’t and falls back on temps without training them to do basic things like, oh, I don’t know, look at street addresses or actually take the mail to those street addresses rather than dump a whole bag into a trash can. The first-class letter for 44 cents is not bad; the rates on everything else have grown exorbitant in the past few years, and the agency’s liability for losing packages is next to zero, while “investigating” claims for insured mail takes long enough to prove that it is, indeed, a federal government agency.

    This is an amusing collection of links to stories about various dysfunctions of the USPS: http://www.chicagopostalworker.com/newsarchive.html

  11. The dysfunctionality of government should never be underestimated except at the risk of great peril.

    Never, ever underestimate the governments ability to make any bad situation worse. i.e. never say “Well, how much worse could it get?”

    Rack your brains: Name one task the government does better, cheaper, more efficiently with fewer customer complaints than private industry?

    “The government that governs least, governs best”. -John Q. Adams

  12. “The government is there to maintain infrastructure, maintain order, and ensure the stability of the currency. Expecting it to do anything else will at best ensure disappointment and at worst ensure a police state.”

    – Scott Johnson, AMCGLTD

  13. Can anybody explain all this euphoric jumping up and down about how great “public option” of the federal health care plan will be, and how imperative it is that the government provide it, even though nobody really knows what it’s actually supposed to provide?

  14. “Rack your brains: Name one task the government does better, cheaper, more efficiently with fewer customer complaints than private industry?”

    I am on Medicare, have been for three years. It is hands down the best, least costly, and least paper-ridden health-care program I have ever had. It is even better than the health-care program I and my family had when I was in the Army (also government-run, of course), though that was remarkably good, too (and even cheaper). What private industry provided the elderly, aside from the wealthy few, in the way of medical care before Medicare was – well – nothing. You stuck Gramma in a hospital bed in your living room and hoped the money didn’t out, she didn’t suffer too much, and you didn’t go crazy.

  15. Actually the post office subcontracts fedex for some of its mail, due to it not being able to handle it. It also subcontracts some of its mail sorting to Siemens.

  16. Good column by Frank Wilson.

    As one who served in government service (U.S. Navy -Defense Department) for more than 37 years, I’d like to say that I believe the government has a proper role in military, national security, law enforcement and public safety affairs.

    But I’d like see a more limited government role in our free market. I’d like the market to remain free.

    With Obama and the Liberal Democrats in power (for now), we are seeing a bold attempt to increase government control over every aspect of American life.

    Obama, who has never held a managerial job until now, believes he can run all things for us, when in fact he could not properly organize a two-car funeral.

    Hopefully, the congressional elections next year will see a balance of power with the Republicans taking back control of the house.

    Paul Davis
    daviswrite@aol.com

  17. @Parsifal: So that’s been your personal experience. My parents have Medicare and they buy supplemental insurance to cover those of their medical expenses that Medicare does not cover. I have Oxford, and it’s been great to me so far. My friend has Guardian and he grumbles that Guardian doesn’t cover the special socks that he needs for his swollen feet, but otherwise Guardian has been pretty good to him. How do all these personal experiences amount to the urgent need for a public option regardless of how it might change the status quo for people who are satisfied with their coverage? The dismissive assurances that “oh, it won’t change any of that stuff you like” are, quite simply, lies – or complete ignorance.of how economics work, which makes the whole thing even more disturbing.

  18. “So that’s been your personal experience. My parents have Medicare and they buy supplemental insurance to cover those of their medical expenses that Medicare does not cover.”

    That is the personal experience of tens of millions of elderly Americans. Practically all – more than 95 percent – of Medicare recipients sign up for supplement plans, so what your parents did is far from unusual. Medicare applicants know going into it that there are “gaps” in coverage that they can, if they wish, cover with insurance. Thank god they have the coverage. Fifty years ago, as elders, they very likely would not have. All they would have had was a bigger, yawning gap.
    Medicare or something very like it is the only possible solution for universal health care coverage in our country. It is whistling past the graveyard to maintain that the “marketplace” is the answer to citizens’ health care. If it were, it would already have taken care of the problem, but it has not done so since, well, since the time of Hippocrates.

  19. According to President Obama, speaking at a New Hampshire town meeting recently, “Medicare and Medicaid are on an unsustainable path. Medicare is slated to go into the red in about eight to 10 years.”

  20. Not only that, but Medicare is slated to be gutted to make way for the “public option,” whatever it will and won’t include/cover. E.g., my friend with the swollen feets actually expects that the public option will pay $650/year for his elastic socks, which his primary insurance turns down while paying about $24K/year for his meds for a rare blood disorder.

    As far as Medicaid goes, it’s not a model for everything. I worked briefly in social services. Medicaid patients were denied basic things like root canals and told instead to have their achy teeth pulled. If they objected that they were young and didn’t want to lose their teeth, and that they needed their teeth to chew food, they were told to bring letters from gastroenterologists vouching that their gastric conditions demanded that their food be well-chewed. Otherwise, they were advised to swallow solid lumps or make themselves pureed food. We’re talking about patients in their 30s.

    Of course, that’s just my personal experience with how Medicaid works. But it’s enough to freak me out about what models they are using for the “public option.”

  21. “According to President Obama, speaking at a New Hampshire town meeting recently, “Medicare and Medicaid are on an unsustainable path. Medicare is slated to go into the red in about eight to 10 years.” ”

    And, according to Republicans and other reactionaries who have always opposed it, Social Security has been about to go belly-up ever since Franklin Roosevelt blessed us with it 70-some years ago. Hasn’t happened yet, but that hasn’t stopped them from scaring their elderly fellow citizens, just as they are with their health-care-reform lies about “death panels” and “government takeover” and government bureaucrats telling doctors how to practice medicine (as if insurance company bureaucrats haven’t been doing that for a half-century and more).

  22. Ah, so this is a “let’s call anyone who disagrees with me a Republican, and then call Republicans names” conversation…

  23. Parsifal:
    According to the most recent government estimate – issued by the current administration – the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2037. The question is not who makes the estimate, but whether the estimate is true. I presume you would regard this as true, since it has been issued by a Democratic administration. Also, it has already been indicated that there will be no Social Security cost-of-living increases next year.

  24. There’s a crucial difference between denial of services by the private sector and same by the government. You can take your grievances about the actions of a private corporation to the government, and perhaps the government will, through a court decision, take your side. When it is the government itself that denies you services, which may not, by then, be available from the private sector, you’ve got no place to go.

  25. “According to the most recent government estimate — issued by the current administration — the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted by 2037.”

    Were it not for the malign neglect during the Bush administration, Social Security’s problems could have been solved for decades beyond 2037 (or 2041, there are differing estimates) with little difficulty. But Bush embarked on his mad campaign to privatize it, and we lost precious time. Just as we have with Medicare. This is the Republican strategy — ignore it to death. Those who look forward so gleefully to Social Security’s and Medicare’s collapse should ask what we will do when they are gone (if they are). The most likely thing we will do is go back to having tens of millions of elderly Americans living in poverty and ill health as we did before the establishment of those programs by Democratic administrations in the face of fierce and continuing opposition by Republicans. This is “reactionary” with a vengeance.

    “There’s a crucial difference between denial of services by the private sector and same by the government. You can take your grievances about the actions of a private corporation to the government.”

    The difference is not crucial; it is illusory. Forty-seven million Americans have no health-care coverage. Where do they take their complaint? To the “invisible hand?” Nor will they — and likely millions more — have it if we continue to drift they way we have been drifting.

    “Ah, so this is a “let’s call anyone who disagrees with me a Republican, and then call Republicans names” conversation…”

    This is not name calling. This is stating facts. Republicans have historically and continually opposed bettering the lives of ordinary working Americans. But when
    a Democratic program wins the overwhelming approval of the public, as Social Security and Medicare have, they are quick to say they want to “defend” and “protect” it from the Democrats. This, children, is known as hypocrisy — and with a vengeance.

  26. “Forty-seven million Americans have no health-care coverage. Where do they take their complaint?”

    You are presuming that each and every one of them complains about it. These 47 million (less than 15% of the population) include young people who choose to take their chances and spend their money on more fun things than insurance premiums, as well as wealthy people who can afford their medical expenses on their own. The “47 million” reference has become a mantra for pushing the overreaching healthcare bill through, as if every one of these 47 millions needs saving, if only from themselves, if only by the “individual mandate,” which would force them to buy insurance, and which, by the way, will never get past the constitutional courts – and, speaking of hypocrisy, our Constitutional Scholar in Chief knows that very well. The “47 million” that allegedly needs saving has been so blown out of proportion that the concerns of the other 85+% of the population about the effect it may have on their already existing coverage are being shouted down as “reactionary” and, of course, “Republican.”

    Parsifal, you need to calm down, dude. You are quite understandably terrified about what might happen to all the benefits you get from the federal government – which it is at complete liberty to reduce or take away and there’s not a thing you’d be able to do about it. Yelling at those who see a bigger picture is misdirecting your fears. And your defensiveness about your government benefits is a garden-variety manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome: identification with and love for those on whom you rely for meeting your basic needs.

  27. I can understand your displeasure at being called a Republican, dude. I would be insulted too. It is one of the worst insults in the lexicon of abuse. Still, reality must be faced: There are sons-of-bitches and Republicans.

  28. @Jericho: “The “47 million” reference has become a mantra for pushing the overreaching healthcare bill through, as if every one of these 47 millions needs saving, if only from themselves”

    “Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” — T. S. Eliot

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