What is Limited Government Anyway?

January 26, 2016

With the presidential primaries underway, the media is choked with talk about getting the government off the people’s backs, restoring limited government, making government let the people alone. But the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, their candidates and supporters are actually saying something very different – they want government to support their definition of their rights and push everyone else out of their way, and most important they want the courts to decide in their favor when others complain that they are trespassing on public land or polluting the air, land and water in ways that injure and interfere with the lives of others. That’s government in their favor.

We lawyers talk about law as a seamless web. That sounds like an idiom but it’s actually very precise. Everything is governed by rules. Judges always decide that someone does or does not have a privilege or a right. Those are all decisions about what the law is. Law always favors someone and disfavors someone else. If someone has a privilege, then everyone else loses when that person does whatever he or she is privileged to do. The question is not, cannot be, whether there is law; the question we have to deal with is whether it is fair and whether it is good for the public. Government off the backs of some means government on everyone else’s back, often leaving you and me poor and defenseless.

Limited government, regulation off people’s backs, are the tropes we hear when a government agency or legislature takes note of bad behavior – fraud, pollution or unconscionable business practices that cause decent people great loss. Unscrupulous companies, some very large and well known, as we discovered during the 2008 financial shock, want no regulations that would set a moral floor under their behavior, allowing more moral enterprises to compete instead of being bankrupted by cut-rate competition from the scandalous moguls. The only regulations that the unscrupulous like are regulations that keeps everyone else out of their way.

So when you hear that trope, look squarely at the privilege these anti-government claimants are defending. You hear it loudest when people are claiming the right to hurt the public. That’s not a claim of freedom that would have made any sense to the Founders of our country.

When the Founders spoke and wrote about government, their central questions were what’s fair and what’s good for the public. Those was central in every aspect of their work from the definition of property rights to the rights the public retained and what the public could and should do for the benefit of the people. Concern for public welfare was central to the building of the Erie Canal that defined the path of commerce in the State of New York for a century and a half, even as the canal was replaced by roads and railroads to continue developing the path the canal had developed. Concern for public welfare was central to the establishment of schools which made Americans among the most educated people on the earth, education that was at the root of all the good things that have happened since.

The Founders believed in public spirit, not a spirit of what the public could do for one’s selfish needs, but a spirit about what each of us could contribute to the improvement of the community, the states and the nation. When President John F. Kennedy told the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he was channeling the spirit of the Founders.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 26, 2016.


Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


Outdated Legal Doctrines

May 22, 2012

The law of contract, based on the consent of the parties, and the law of torts, based on our obligations when no agreement covers what happened, are fundamental to American law. There is only one problem. Both fields are hopelessly out of date. Read the rest of this entry »


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