Checks and balances

Jul 022008

Isn’t that nice? No more partisan rancor for Zimbabwe. There will be a spirit of bipartisan cooperation under the president who is bringing people together to solve the nation’s problems. He’s a uniter, not a divider.

A spokesman for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has welcomed a call by African Union leaders for Zimbabwe to form a unity government.


Jun 082008

After putting down the Pugachev rebellion in 1774, Catherine decided to decentralize administration of the Russian government. But she didn’t set up a federated government with separate powers; rather, she set up a system of administrative units that were altogether creatures of the central government. They served to strengthen her system of centralized control. “Historical and regional considerations were completely disregarded in the drawing of the boundaries.” (I’m just now reading this in A History of Russia, 4th ed., by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, 1984, pp 261-262.)

Autocrats do not like local government that has any separate authority. Local administration, yes. Local authority, no.

For example, New Jersey governor Jon Corzine wants to pressure small towns to merge, according to a Jim Manzi article at The American Scene. Other pretexts are given, but one suspects the real issue is to bring local governments under the thumb of the state.

Jennifer Granholm has been trying to do the same sort of thing here in Michigan. Township government is strong here, so she is trying to get townships to consolidate, as a way of streamlining government. A streamlined government, of course, is the last thing we need.

Apr 212008

I’ve been reading Peter S. Onuf’s, “Statehood and Union : a history of the northwest ordinance” (1987). I’ve also been listening to Andro Linklater’s, “The Fabric of America : how our borders and boundaries shaped the country and forged our national identity” (2007).

The latter is a good listen, but I’m somewhat disappointed that it isn’t living up to its title. The first part of the book does, e.g. the part about settling the boundary between Virginia and Pennsylvania. But boundaries and borders lose their central position (ha!) in the telling of much of the rest of it. In much of the book Linklater conflates boundaries with the frontier. The “frontier” topic allows him to talk about the expansion of the United States without minimal discussion of borders. Then towards the end he points out that the border and the frontier are two different things. I wish he had stuck with boundary/border issues throughout. It’s an interesting book — even when wandering from the main topic it contains a lot of interesting nuggets of history I had not known before. But it’s too bad his publisher put that title on it, because it would be a great one for a book on the topic.

Onuf’s book contains some interesting information about boundaries that ought to have been a topic of Linklater’s book, too. He tells how there was a sensitivity that if Congress could arbitrarily set and changes the boundafies of the new states, the states would be mere creatures of Congress and not have the degree of independence the original states had. The argument came about during the ambiguous period of state formation. What I found interesting was a sensitivity among the people to what I call the “federal aid = federal control” principle that I remember being argued about somewhat during the 60s and 70s.

Onuf also gives serious consideration to the dispute known as the Toledo War. It’s often treated in history books as somewhat of a farce and comedy. But there were some important principles about states’ rights at stake.

I may have more to say about this, and I’m also thinking about the bicycling possibilities for The Spokesrider.

Back to my statement about boundaries and borders losing their central position in Linklater’s book. Well, I see that I haven’t yet posted a photo of the place where there was confusion over whether a boundary line was the edge or the center. I’ll do that later, at The Spokesrider.

Feb 132008

I’m glad Barak Obama opposed lawsuit immunity for telecoms who help the government with its spying.   Obama hasn’t made himself out to be a big civil liberties guy, AFAIK, but if his opposition is rooted in the same source that would oppose re-instituting the Fairness Doctrine, I think we may have found a genuine liberal in the Democratic Party.

Jan 142008

(Also posted to my Spokesrider blog).

I’ve been reading a remarkable little book: “The Whiskey Rebellion” by William Hogeland (2006).

The reading is in preparation for a bicycle tour this summer to some of the sites of the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania.

What got me into this topic was the Hezekiah Wells family. Wells Hall on the campus of Michigan State University is named for him. Hezekiah Wells was important in MSU’s early history, in part for keeping MSU from being merely an adjunct of the University of Michigan. He was also a big supporter of Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency and of the big Unity faction that won out in the early 1860s.

His father, Bezaleel Wells, was a big player in early Ohio history, and happened to intersect with the Black Hawk history I’m doing by making a trip to Michigan in 1832 to visit his sons. He was in the company of Bishop Philander Chase, founder of Kenyon College in Ohio, who had just left that institution under angry circumstances.


This photo is from an October 2005 bike ride. It’s on US-12 a few miles west of Bronson, Michigan (on Black Hawk’s old road). There’s nothing there now but what you see in the photo, but in 1832 there was a little settlement and mill. One of the writers of the county history remembered that Chase and Wells had come through. Chase made inquiries about land to buy. (He then started a seminary in Goshen Gilead Township, which later burned and was abandoned.) Wells continued on to Kalamazoo to visit his sons.

Bezaleel’s father had been a whiskey distiller in western Pennsylvania at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion. I’m not sure how active a participant he was in all the activities–maybe only a reluctant participant–but in any case it’s an interesting transition in three generations from an anti-unity rebellion to war for unity and centralization.

I happened to pick Hogeland’s book (along with a few others) because it was one easily available to me. The guy writes well and gives some points of view I had not considered before. I’m maybe 1/3 of the way into the book. While it has been fun to read, I have been wary, not sure whether he’s a leftwing populist (perhaps a crackpot populist) or a rightwing one. He certainly brings out a lot of points that cannot be comforting to either side.

One thing to learn, btw, is that those people who think a sales tax is a fair tax are the REAL crackpots. And those who think a sales tax (excise tax) is easy to collect need to learn a little history.

I finally decided I couldn’t wait. I’m not nearly finished with the book yet, but I needed to learn more about what others have said about the book. I did find a few things — the Amazon reviews, for example — but I found something even better: the author’s own explanation of his work.

It’s no wonder I wasn’t sure what he was. Here is a quote:

The Whiskey Rebellion does not offer perfect support for anyone’s current agenda; it shakes up much of what is widely assumed across the political spectrum about the founding period. When the dust settles, it offers new clarity. Though libertarians and socialists have long been virtually the only keepers of the Whiskey Rebellion flame, I now believe that living through the Rebellion will challenge not only consensus mainstream historians but also both left and libertarian students of American history.

Here’s where I found his statement:


And here is a closeup photo of that bridge on US-12. It gives a clue as to how the story of federal power and tax authority turned out. (You can click for a larger version of it.)

Dec 212007


This is the old courthouse in Centreville, Michigan, the seat of St. Joseph County. I often use this area, or the sandwich shop across the street, as a place to take a break on my rides through the county.

Kitty-corner across the street, to the northwest, is the location of the very first courthouse, so to speak. It was a multi-purpose building, and was the scene of the court where a judgment against Patrick Marantette had been appealed back in the early 1830s. On the order of territorial Governor George Porter, Marantette had destroyed the whiskey kegs of a farmer who had come on the nearby Nottawasepe reservation during treaty payment negotiations. The farmer had been trying to sell whiskey to the Indians, which was illegal for him to do at that time and place. The farmer then sued Marantette for the destruction of his property. The case dragged on for a few years before a final judgment was rendered against Marantette.

I’ve blogged about it in these two articles (here and here) over at The Spokesrider.

I think about it in connection with the dispute between George Bush and congress over whether telecom companies should be made immune to lawsuits over their actions in assisting the Bush administration with its wiretaps. My own choice of where to draw the line between legal and illegal wiretapping would probably be somewhere between the Bush’s ideas and those of his moonbat opponents.

Well, I don’t for one minute believe the leftwing moonbats are opposed to his wiretaps. What they’re opposed to is George Bush. They have some very good arguments on their side, but as we’ve seen in the past, they’ll throw them out once their own person is in the Oval Office.

Wherever the line is drawn, I don’t think we should be comfortable with the idea of giving the telecom companies a free pass. In a society that relies on checks and balances, not only between branches of government but among private institutions as well, we need the telecom companies to think long and hard before deciding that the government is asking them to do the right thing. They should not be allowed to switch their brains and moral compasses off just because they’re doing what the administration tells them to do.

We don’t allow soldiers to blindly follow orders to commit atrocities. Why should we allow the telecoms to do so?

What does this have to do with Marantette? Not that the outcome was just, but I had thought his case was an old example of where a private citizen was NOT given immunity for work he did against another citizen at the request of government. Well, the journal kept by the court tells us that a judgment of a little over a hundred dollars in damages and court costs was assessed against Marantette in the end. But just a couple of days ago I stumbled upon information in the archives showing that the U.S. Commissioner for Indian Affairs in Detroit had paid the $300 fee for the lawyer who defended the suit against Marantette.

Not that it argues one way or another in the case of George Bush’s wiretaps, but just the same I like knowing the historical precedents for things like this.

Nov 182007

I must have missed something. I don’t know what inspired the recent spate of articles about the selection of judges, but there are a couple of new articles, both informative and insightful.

It started with Sandra Day O’Conner’s article in the WSJ, which I blogged about here.

Paul Jacobs has an article about the judicial selection process in Missouri: Where do judges come from? He points out how it’s a conflict of interest to have judges and trial lawyers (especially trial lawers) appoint the judges. He proposes letting the people back into the process by letting the voters choose a commission to select judges. Too bad Sandra Day O’Conner didn’t think of that one.

If there was any doubt about whether the organization representing lawyers should be allowed to control the process, George Will shows what happens when trial lawyers are allowed to have conflicts of interest, such as when they buy victims to be the principle plantiffs in class action suits, and then share their ill-gotten gains with the political party that supports them:

Does political money flow toward beliefs or do beliefs move toward money? Much scholarship strongly suggests the former. Democrats are rewarded for their devotion to trial lawyers, but there is another reason why they are disposed to devotion. The problem is not that Democrats are “bought” by trial lawyers. The problem is that Democrats, who see victims everywhere, are actually disposed to believe the narrative of pandemic victimization of investors.

Milberg Weiss turned that narrative into gold, which it shared with Democrats. Since 1980, the firm’s partners have given more than $7 million to Democratic candidates, and an additional $500,000 to help build the Democratic National Committee’s new headquarters.

Nov 162007

Sandra Day O’Conner thinks it threatens judicial independence to have special interest groups pouring money into judicial campaigns. (WSJ: Justice for Sale : How special-interest money threatens the integrity of our courts.)

She says, “Whether or not they succeed in their attempts to sway the voters, these efforts threaten the integrity of judicial selection and compromise public perception of judicial decisions.”

It’s good that somebody understands that our judicial system rests in large part on the willingness of the public to accept its decisions. That’s a point I was trying to make during the Clinton scandals. While that willingness can stand a lot of abuse, it can’t stand an infinite amount of abuse.

O’Conner proposes that states eliminate the use of elections to choose judges. I disagree with that for reasons I’ll omit here, but her point is correct that partisan elections can undermine confidence in the judicial system.

O’Conner also proposes that the government propagandize the voters on what makes a good judge. I guess that’s harmless enough, so long as people continue to understand that the government is its own partisan, special-interest group.

But she doesn’t say anything about the greatest danger to public confidence in the judiciary: the tendency of courts to overstep their bounds and make partisan political decisions that should be the domain of the legislative or administrative branches. When high courts not only overturn unconstitutional laws (which is their job) but order legislatures to pass laws to their liking, they are playing a partisan political role and should not be surprised that big money gets involved in the process of selecting judges.

Oct 022007

A Percent for Art? How come governments are now treating artists (narrowly defined) as a privileged aristocracy?

From the WSJ:

When Yahoo moved into its Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters six years ago, it kept peace with local authorities by buying and installing $500,000 worth of public artworks.

Now Yahoo says it is suffering for its art.

On its front lawn, the technology giant installed a work by New York artist Sharon Louden that paired real wetlands grass with artificial cattail-like reeds. The grass grew. The city complained. Last year, to rein in its overgrown yard, Yahoo dispatched a grounds crew with weed whackers.

Artificial reeds were cut, bent and twisted. The artist, horrified, responded with letters from her lawyers, which were met with letters from Yahoo’s lawyers. “They turned my art into a bad miniature golf course,” Ms. Louden says.

As negotiations continue over who controls Yahoo’s front yard, the company has found itself caught at the intersection of two artist-friendly laws — one that made the company install art, and a second that essentially prohibits the company from messing with it.

Like Sunnyvale, many cities across the U.S. have embraced the “Percent for Art” movement. Typically, cities ask or require companies to allocate 1% of their construction budget to buying and prominently displaying art, often in exchange for tax cuts or use of public land.

If Yahoo wants to be foolish with its money, that’s it’s own business. But is it proper for governments to be skimming money off of projects to divert to some of their favorites?

But it’s more than just a matter of fiscal responsibility and fairness. Consider this quote:

The governors of men have always made use of painting and sculpture in order to inspire in their subjects the religious or political sentiments they desire them to hold. –Diderot

I’ll bet that holds true for lawn sculpture as well.

I’ve long advocated Separation of Arts and State for the same reason that we have Separation of Church and State.

Sep 222007

From The Economist:

To eschew such tools is to fight terrorism with one hand tied behind your back. But that—with one hand tied behind their back—is precisely how democracies ought to fight terrorism.

Exactly so.  But we’ve spent many decades getting used to the idea that there really are no limits on what government can do.    The General Welfare clause tells us that anything goes, they say, no matter that the Constitution says no.   Interstate Commerce is defined to include much more than interstate commerce.   So how are we going to all of a sudden ask our government accept the limits of the Bill of Rights when it comes to spying on citizens?