Turning Away from Power

The Rotunda of the U. S. Capitol houses many grand paintings depicting crucial moments in American history. These works bring American history to life and remind all who stop to look at them of our nation’s rich heritage. As a Congressional intern, I had the enjoyable job of leading Capitol tours and attempting to explain the importance of these historical scenes to visitors. On the northwestern wall hangs my personal favorite among the paintings. It does not feature the Signing of the Declaration, nor the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, nor a military victory in the Revolutionary War, though those are all worthy subjects. Instead, it shows George Washington, following the achievement of American independence, resigning his military commission in preparation to return to his home.

George Washington braved tremendous hardships during the course of the Revolution. From braving a brutal winter in camp at Valley Forge to successfully outmaneuvering the most powerful military in the world, he showed tremendous strength and skill. When undisciplined American forces started to panic and retreat in battle outside Princeton, New Jersey, Washington single-handedly prevented a rout by walking calmly forward amidst a sea of flying bullets. Witnesses to the event said that only a miracle could explain his survival, but Washington did not so much as flinch as the British lines fired. His resolution played a vital role in the American victories of both the Battle of Princeton and the entire war. Following this victory, however, Washington faced another challenge, more subtle and more insidious than that of battle.

As a victorious general, and with the Continental Congress frequently acting weakly and incompetently, Washington had many opportunities to set himself up as a dictator. How many men, given such an opportunity, could have resisted grabbing such power? Hailed by the people and beloved by his soldiers, Washington could have easily crushed the few who would have stood in his way. Indeed, in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, a group of army officers actually encouraged Washington to forcibly seize authority from the Congress, which was well behind on paying those officers at the time. Ignoring such temptations toward power, however, Washington chose in December of 1783 to give up his commission as Commander-in-Chief and retire to his farm. In doing so, he avoided falling into the temptation of power which ensnares so many successful leaders.

Power, like most temptations, comes disguised in attractive garb. Good men may imagine all of the benefit they could bring to others given authority over those others, and thus altruism is no sure guard against such a temptation. Would Washington have been wrong in seizing lifelong authority over the new American nation? Such a move, after all, would have instituted a sort of political order considered normal in most of the world at the time. Washington understood, however, that many men who begin by seeking power to benefit others end up simply seeking power. Given that we are finite and live in an imperfect world, no person ever acquires sufficient power to accomplish all the good they could wish, and thus the search for more power never ends. Instead, many lives often end as the result of such a search.

By resigning his commission, Washington cut this temptation short from the very beginning. He chose humble private life over the self-aggrandizing position of a dictator. While he did later return to public life to serve as the first U. S. President, he remained carefully within the realm of authority established for him by the constitution, establishing a valuable precedent of government by laws, not men. Moreover, he once again gave up power voluntarily after two terms. If any man, American or not, is attracted to the good he might do given sufficient power over other men, let him consider Washington’s example. History provides numerous examples of men who might have done well had the temptation of arbitrary power not driven them to commit great evil. By contrast, the virtuous Washington, as we see him today in the Capitol Rotunda, stands as a rare example of one who was offered a crown and walked away.

The Fruits of Their Labor

 

 

Thousands will flock to the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula this week to celebrate one of Michigan’s finest products – the cherry – at the National Cherry Festival.

People from all over the world gather together in Traverse City, Michigan – the Cherry Capital – to watch the famous Blue Angels fly, join the Cherry Queen and her court for a Princess Tea, sing along with famous musicians and most importantly buy and eat that most delicious Michigan fruit – the cherry.

However, the Cherry Festival is not only about flying, teas, musicians, or even the cherries themselves. The Festival is also meant to honor Michigan cherry farmers and their hard work. My own Momma grew up in Michigan’s cherry region, and her sister is still involved in the Cherry Festival after being crowned Cherry Queen many years ago. So it is from my own experience and observation when I say that generational cherry farmers pass on more than just sprawling cherry farms filled with emerald leaved and ruby fruited trees, they  pass on something much more valuable – their enthusiasm for hard work.

Most of Michigan’s orchards are family owned and are tended with diligent, loving hands. In every season, cherry farmers can be found ceaselessly caring for their trees. During the winter, farmers carefully prune their trees to preserve the tree’s energy for cherry growing. During the deep nights of spring, ever-watchful farmers can be found tracking every dip in the temperature. Regardless of the hour, if the temperature drops too low, persistent farmers set up wind machines, sprinkling hoses, heating apparatuses, or use other means to try to mitigate frost damage. Once the threats of frost pass, farmers face the challenges of pest control, and the process of harvesting. On top of these annual challenges, excessive rain can cause the cherries to split, and excessive drought can stunt growth. Luckily for Michigan residents and cherry lovers, cherry farmers still refuse to give up.

The fruit of their steadfast labor constitutes nearly 20% of Michigan’s Agricultural production[1] and accounts for 70-75% of national tart cherry production, and 20% of national sweet cherry production according to this Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development report. None of these significant percentages would be possible without the people willing to work hard and long to produce a product in which they believe.

It is for this ideal that free market fighters fight. The ideal that hard workers can cultivate and appreciate the value of their own hard work, and that if they so choose, these hard workers can exchange the products of their hard work for the products of other hard workers. Though the cherry industry itself is far from a perfect model, being beset with excessive penalties and regulations, it is the farmers that we look to for inspiration, and it is for their hard work and the work of others like them, that we will keep fighting for a better, freer Michigan.

But for now, thank you Michigan Cherry farmers. Enjoy a well-earned National Cherry Festival.

 

[1] Michigan Agricultural production was $13 billion according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s article “Facts About Michigan Agriculture.” According to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s report “Michigan Specialty Crops” cherry production accounted for a total of $65.5 million in 2011, which is equivalent to 19.8% of the $13 billion agricultural output.

Dependence Day

The Fourth of July is a day of celebrating freedom and the sacrifice of many to create the nation we live in today. The Mackinac Center interns are certainly among those who are daily thankful to live in America. However, they are also aware of the government’s influence in their lives, even over things they do on Independence Day.

Red White and Brew – Evan Fryzelka

For many of us, a Fourth of July celebration would not be complete without a few ice cold beers. It is ironic then, that on the day that we celebrate liberty and independence, the process by which that ice cold beer is delivered to us, is anything but free. Brewers cannot simply sell their beer to any retailer who is willing to buy it. They must first sell it to licensed wholesalers who will then sell it to licensed retailers. The brewer must also make exclusive territory agreements with each of his wholesalers. This is called a three-tiered system and it is meant to prevent over-promotion and bring order to the market. What it really does is create convenient government-sanctioned monopolies to ensure that distributers will never have to compete with each other. The belief is that competition will lead to over-promotion, and because we as free individuals cannot make the right choices for ourselves, this will become a detriment to public health. In the spirit of Independence Day, our government should unleash the free market on this old and outdated system.  Producers should be allowed to compete and consumers should be allowed to decide where, when and from whom they will buy their next ice cold beer.

Sea to Shining Sea – Todd Flynn

My favorite part of 4th of July is swimming and boating on the lake. Being from Traverse City, this has been a common 4th of July activity my whole life. My parents and relatives take the boat out each day, and find the lake much more crowded than usual. There are boats everywhere, and with that comes sheriffs. These law enforcement officials are out in full force on the 4th. They are out to make sure that nobody is driving drunk, and that each boat is generally following other laws as well. In the state of Michigan, the driver of a boat must be no younger than 12 years old, and must be carrying a boater’s license issued by the DNR. Additionally, each boat is legally required to have a fire extinguisher, a throw-able floatation device, and an additional personal floatation device for each passenger on board. Boats are also required to give each other a berth of 100 feet when operating at speeds over 5 miles per hour, among other passing regulations. Sheriffs are the most prominent regulatory influence on my 4th of July.

The Rocket’s Red Glare – Shelli Cammenga

I can’t imagine the Fourth of July without fireworks! The bright bursts not only feed my excitement in the celebration, but the image of “bombs bursting in air” reminds me of the sacrifices which were made for the freedoms we enjoy today. But when it comes to figuring out where, how and which ones I am allowed to set off, I don’t feel quite as free. Until the Michigan Fireworks Safety Act of 2011, Michigan had banned any consumer fireworks except ground based devices and hand-held sparklers. Not surprisingly, the motive behind the 2011 advancement may have had to do with the sales tax and 6 percent safety fee collected from vendors, as well as the cost of permits to sell the consumer fireworks in state, which can cost a retailer between $600 and $1000. The legislature estimated that the new revenue from tax and licensing fees could range as high as $14 million a year. Though citizens can now use Roman candles, bottle rockets and firecrackers, to assure legality they must use them on private property and on the days immediately surrounding a holiday, when state law trumps any local ordinances against them. Even then, local authorities may have the power to restrict their usage during nighttime hours. According to the Detroit Free Press there was no spike in injuries after these new laws, and the type of firework with the highest percentage of injuries reported nationally remains the sparkler.

Though there is no doubt that many of these rules are aimed to protect people and create order, they are also proof that public policy touches all of our lives – even on the day we most celebrate our freedom.   

 

 

Living in a Social Democracy

For most of this year, I was fortunate enough to live in the beautiful Republic of Austria. It wasn’t the first time I could lived there, and I hope it won’t be the last. But as much as I love Austrian Economics and limited government, I can’t pretend that Austria actually subscribes to either of those philosophies. Living in Vienna, I could see the vast structure of the state everywhere, as I crossed street car tracks, watched a concert at the Musikverein, or watched the Polizei checking the permits of a busker on Kaerntnerstrasse.

The state is everywhere in Austria. And I wish I could say that it is clearly a failure; that the only reason I put up with their nonsense is that it isn’t my country. I’m just visiting, I can ignore it. But I would be lying.

See, Austria isn’t a failure. Despite its high taxes, Austria has one of the healthiest economies in Europe. It boasts both low unemployment rates and low sovereign debt. The heavily-subsidized arts, near-free university education, nationalized healthcare, and extensive public transit system have somehow not dragged them into a pit of economic despair. When I discussed their government with Austrians, they never complained about their taxes. I did get close once, when a friend lamented the high salaries soldiers receive with her tax money (since Austria is bound by treaty to maintain neutrality, they tend to consider their army a superfluous leech of public funds).

I recently read Daniel Hannan’s post in the Telegraph trying to understand how Austria hasn’t collapsed on itself. He brings up some good points, and a few possible answers to this conundrum, but I’d like to add my own observations.

Historically speaking, Austria is a world power that got cut down to size and castrated, and Austrians accept this. “I Am from Austria,” a song so popular it is all but the national anthem, actually has a line that translates to “the high time is behind you”. Today, Austrians are self-actualized. This wasn’t always the case, however. The “Anschluss” — Austria’s willing entry into the Third Reich in 1938 – guaranteed them a brief revival of supremacy, followed by terrible losses of life, property, and freedom in the second world war. Like the rest of Western Europe, they received American money through the Marshall Plan to help reconstruct their economies. The total destruction of their infrastructure during the war allowed them to start afresh and modernize much quicker than countries that never experienced landwar or airstrikes (like the United States).

Austrians have a small, well-run state, and they are willing to spend lots of their hard-earned money to keep it that way. Today, one of my professors described Austrian mentality as  deferential to state authority, a carry-over from hundreds of years under the Hapsburg monarchy. But in general they are also industrious, efficient, conscientious, cautious people. Besides, with an area about the size of Maine and a population roughly equivalent to Virginia, public policy doesn’t have to cover vastly different types of land or a very wide demographic of people. Although Austria has seen its fair share of immigration, the majority of those who live there are still Austrians, coming from families who have been Austrian for hundreds of years.

This is the first post in a series I plan to run throughout the summer, exploring what it is actually like to live in a successful social democracy — the good and the bad. I hear a lot of “don’t knock it till you try it” approaches coming from advocates for social democratic policies like those in Austria. Now that I’ve tried it, I’d like to give my two cents. So stay tuned!

 

Emotional Issues and State Policy: Adoption Funding

“I don’t care how poor a man is; if he has family, he’s rich.” – Dan Wilcox and Thad Mumford, “Identity Crisis,” M*A*S*H

 Family should be forever. As the first institution a child is a member of, it ought to be a reliable, supportive example of how to live in community and interact with others. Sadly, in a society plagued by numerous evils, many do not get this experience, but rather end up in the foster care system, waiting for adoption by a true “forever family.” There is no question that each child deserves such a home: the question is how this service is best provided. 

It is not hard to find heartwarming stories of the struggles and triumphs of building new relationships through adoption. Thankfully, through many solid policies enacted over the years, happy endings are plentiful in the state of Michigan. 

One of the strengths of the State’s foster care system is the innovative partnership between public and private agencies responsible for adoption planning that has led to high placement rates, both in foster families and “forever” homes. For example, though the state is still responsible for the initial removal of children in troubled situations, in 2002 the Family Independence Agency sent over half of its cases to private agencies to find worthy homes for them. This has decreased the costs involved and has also added more caseworkers so that even with growing numbers of placements they are spread less thinly. Apart from their work with the state, private agencies have the added benefit of being able to aid in some types of adoption that the state cannot, such as direct placements between the birth parents and the adopting family or international adoptions. 

Reforms made in Michigan since the 1980s have allowed more freedom in the system to benefit children, such as making it so that parental rights can be severed more quickly in cases of egregious abuse, and some licensing requirements can be waved so siblings can be placed together. Allowing for single parents and young adults (over 18) to be home-studied (have their accommodations assessed for foster care suitability) and trained so they might be able to provide homes for children in the foster care system also gives a child their best chance at finding a suitable placement. Altogether, the Michigan foster care system has proven itself a commendable model of public/private partnership. 

Even with these advances, the system’s efficiency with time and resources can still be improved. One issue is setting a deadline for parents to consent to adoption so the process moves more quickly (with less uncertainty about the birth parents changing their minds.) Removing remaining regulatory barriers which make the adoption process more costly is another. The state budget could also benefit from giving more rein to the private groups that defray the costs of adoption voluntarily, as cutting the state adoption subsidies is a move which could save the state around $220 million. This especially makes sense for the $14.5 million spent on adoption support groups, as most can be found online and often prefer to be discreet and avoid state attention. 

Understanding the importance of the foster care system, it may seem counterintuitive and even heartless to cut state funding for such needs. This issue of funds allocated to the childcare system is an example of the often painful interaction between fact and emotion. There is no question as to the worthiness of the foster care and adoption system to receive support, or the vitality of its function in society; it is instead a question of which entity will run it the best, be it the individuals, nonprofits and religious organizations which work to help people in need or the government system. For the time being, working in harmony seems to be suiting the children, but on the behalf of those looking for a “forever family,” the eye of the voter should always be on improvement.

 

 

 

An Old Hope

Though it is entitled “A New Hope,” the story of Luke Skywalker is really a tale as old as time. The characters of Leia, Han and Obi-Wan may have been original, but their types are ageless: the underdogs rising up from humble positions to face a universe bigger than ever imagined, deeply in need of rescue and reform.

Since the ancients, the ability of men to harm one another has called for some way to maintain order in society. The idea of the populous voting for individuals to perform this function was already in place by the time of the Roman Empire. This protective entity is, of course, the government, and it can do much in the way of controlling crime and serving humanity. However, the danger is that the government is run by men as flawed as those they are trying to assist, but these men are legally allowed to use force for their purposes. This is why internal checks and balances are so necessary to limit corruption.

Of course, sometimes even these fail. As mentioned in my previous Star Wars article, the Galactic Senate was one such entity. As “A New Hope” progresses, its last echoes, now under the name of Imperial Senate, are dissolved. When Grand Moff Tarkin is asked how the Emperor will be able to maintain control post-bureaucracy, he reveals the true power of the death star, “Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.”

A government for the people is all well and good, but when it finds it necessary to rule by fear, historically men have found the need to rise up in defense of liberty. In Ancient Rome, the suspension of the senate added to the discontentment of its people, and though it took through the Middle Ages to recapture their rights, individual freedoms returned with the signing of the Magna Carta centuries later. Fighting for this same liberty, the colonists in America separated from a parliament who wrongfully exercised their legal force and declared their independence from such offenses. Through the years, though the flame has wavered through numerous wars and the coming and going of political philosophies, the spark of freedom has never died.

When Luke Skywalker found the nerve to fly his X-wing into the face of an oversized enemy, it was not to further develop and expand the galaxy, but to return to the freedoms and individual liberties of the old Republic. The rebel’s rallying cry is not so much for “change” as for “renewal” of the time tested system that reigned in brighter days. Observing similar movements in America by regulation rebels such as the Tea Partiers, one could call it a rebirth of interest in the founding principles. Once again, citizens are coming to remember the excessive government control the country was founded to avoid.

Though times change, empires rise and fall and movie sagas endlessly progress, the image of Luke Skywalker taking on the Death Star is engrained in our culture. It reminds us decade after decade that there will always be men to fight for freedom, because that is the oldest hope in the Galaxy.

Time And Radical Disagreements In Sci-Fi

It is apparent that the silver screen, be it film or TV, is a way to influence public opinion. Some writers, however, reject subtlety for blatant messaging. When Andrew Cartmel was asked in an interview what he hoped to achieve as a script editor, he recalled, “My exact words were: I’d like to overthrow the government.” He got the job.

What show was this, you may ask? It was none other than the longest-running science fiction show in history, Doctor Who.

 Even with two generations Star Trek is beat out by the British alien with two hearts, and the show will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. As the main character, the Doctor, is able to regenerate instead of dying, this has allowed for great longevity of the show and let 11 different actors bring their original take to the TARDIS, the Doctor’s time-traveling blue police box. Though it is a staple in Britain, Doctor Who attracts a strong cult following in the United States.

Throughout the show’s long history, it’s most political era was likely during the 7th reincarnation, played by Sylvester McCoy. This was when the aforementioned Cartmel was editor, and he managed a crew concerned about the performance of the current Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. One member of the cast went so far as to tell The Sun Times that they considered her to be “far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered,” which in the face of such monsters as Daleks, Cybermen and the Loch Ness Monster, is quite a statement.

This era was dotted with plotlines which paralleled the miner’s strike, including a speech based on material from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They even wrote a semi-transparent parody on the PM as “Helen A,” a dictator who forces her citizens to be happy. Looking at the wider range of Doctor Who, however, one can clearly find evidence for the free market, limited government principals PM Thatcher stood for.

Though she may have exercised much of her governmental power creating a strong sense of nationalism, she also espoused the idea of limiting the government, restricting public expenditure, encouraging privatization and instating tax cuts. She described her intended society as a place “Where people are free to make choices, to make mistakes, to be generous and compassionate. This is what we mean by a moral society; not a society where the state is responsible for everything, and no one is responsible for the state.”

Whether he intended to or not, the 6th Doctor recognized the validity of her concerns about an unchecked government. Upon returning from many years abroad, he witnessed firsthand its effect on his people, the Time Lords, who became to him the worst evil he had ever faced, “In all my travelling throughout the universe, I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilization: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarens, Cybermen – they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten Million years of absolute power. That’s what it takes to be really corrupt.”

As the series continues, the too-powerful Time Lords show their true colors in denying the Doctor fair trial, in starting a genocidal Time War with the Daleks, and creating their own weapon to save themselves by warping the mind of one of their own to bring them back when the time is right. Wherever he goes, the Doctor stands up for the people he meets and is the image of liberty as he travels freely and unhindered throughout space and time in his TARDIS, doing good where he can even when it gets complicated. Though he takes Presidential control of Gallifrey once during his fourth regeneration to protect his race from an invasion, he has the moral fortitude to turn down the offer when he is again chosen during his fifth regeneration.

Though initially many of the writers of Doctor Who had leftist agendas, a second look at their work suggests that limiting government to avoid the corruption of power is in fact a good idea. Though not originally spoken to answer her critics in British science fiction, Thatcher’s quote rings true, “It pays to know the enemy – not least because at some time you may have the opportunity to turn him into a friend.” Looking at the plots of many episodes, were the producers and the former PM to meet as friends, they may find something they agree on. Desire for power is the motive behind the vast majority of the show’s villains, and if there are not governmental checks and balances enough to limit them, the Doctor will!