Archive for January, 2009



   Posted by: Elizabeth    in Politics

Two things struck me today as I performed my daily glean of headlines from aggregate news sites. One, an executive order from our newly inaugurated President, the other, a policy change from his newly appointed Secretary of State. The problem? I mean, aside from the fact that government has no business at all doing either of these things.

Worked it out? It’s the recession. Presumably, President Obama knows about this particular situation and is working to alleviate the strain. So.. why is it that he and his top cabinet official are actively working to increase spending given to international programs?

These policies come hot on the heels of the most expensive Presidential inauguration in US history. It cost so much, in fact, that President Bush declared a state of emergency in Washington, D.C. to help cover the costs. A state of emergency. How is it that no one at the top is seeing that we just do not have the money for the things some of them are wanting to do?

This is not the first occurrence, nor will it be the last, in what I expect will become a long trail of breadcrumbs left by this administration. For all our sakes, I hope that I am wrong. In the meantime, stay vigilant and keep an eye out for the trail.



First Principles – Limited Charity

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

It is hard to imagine any difference more pervasive between conservatives and liberals than each group’s view of charity in America.  Despite the often useless commentary, it is apparent to anyone willing to see the viewpoint of the other side that both groups believe strongly in helping the less fortunate.  For too many years, however, the conservative view of charity has been maligned in politics to the point where it would be easy for the unobservant to question whether conservatives are charitable at all.  While the answer is obvious — we are — conservative charity is nuanced and easy to misunderstand.  A vocal commitment to limited charity, however, is essential to the progress of the conservative movement.

The easiest way to describe limited charity is to begin with the saying about the man and the fish.  As the saying goes, “If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish he can eat for a lifetime.”  As a matter of principle, liberals and conservatives can readily agree that teaching is the better option for improving the starving man’s life.  Teaching, however, has implications which are not immediately obvious from the saying alone.  Limited charity distinguishes itself by the way in which it deals with those implications.

The thing to realize is that teaching a man to fish is a much harder job than simply giving him something to eat.  The charitable giver, a capable fisherman, has likely spent years practicing his skill and learning the tricks needed to catch whatever food he needs, probably with some surplus left over.  Teaching a man to fish is certainly not a one day project.  The man, however, is starving.  The fisherman will need to give the man a fish so that he doesn’t starve before learning how to catch his own.

To the uneducated man, this is now an incredible deal.  He is now learning how to fish and being fed by the generous fisherman.  To give the story its final twist; the first lesson the uneducated man is likely to learn is that it is far easier to eat the fish being given to him than it is to catch his own.  Thus, the uneducated man has a selfish incentive to avoid learning how to fish for as long as the fisherman sticks around.  It is in resolving this dilemma that the principle of limited charity distinguishes itself.

To proponents of limited charity, the resolution to the uneducated man’s free-riding is to remove his incentive to avoid learning.  More concretely, the fisherman must eventually walk away, even if it means that the uneducated man will die.  The fisherman, however, in taking on the act of charity, has also taken on certain responsibilities that conservatives today must recognize and live by as well.  The most important of these is the responsibility to tell the uneducated man exactly when his instruction will end.  The fisherman may choose to extend the end date if the uneducated man is genuinely trying to learn, but in no case should even the most genuine of effort be rewarded indefinitely.

Free-riders are ultimately dependents which bind the fisherman and themselves until neither is actually free.

For conservatives, the choices which must be made are strikingly straightforward.  A man who can fish is almost always more useful than a man who is dead.  Conservatives should never for an instant be content with allowing a man to die without ever having been given a chance.  However, leaving a man for dead is better than tying two men down and forever restricting the useful output of one to offset the uselessness of the other.  As a matter of mathematics, 2 > 1 > 0.5.  As a matter of principle, “Live free or die.”



Taxing Virtual Worlds

   Posted by: Robert    in News

Today I came across the National Taxpayer Advocate’s annual report to Congress.  The context for finding my way over there was an article over on another blog mentioning that the IRS may be considering taxing “virtual worlds” like Second Life and World of Warcraft.  The report stops slightly short of recommending that the IRS actually contrive some way of imposing a virtual tax, but I was left with the general impression that the Taxpayer Advocate would like to see taxpayers shelling out real dollars to the IRS for each gold coin picked up in WoW.  The Taxpayer Advocate points out a few reasons why such a scheme might be difficult to put into practice, but the report leaves out the myriad of reasons that taxing virtual worlds is a bad idea in the first place.

Volume 1, Section 13 of the report lays out the question of what the IRS should do with virtual worlds.  That section is framed from the standpoint of asking the IRS to clarify points of confusion regarding when income taxes might arise from the transfer of property in a virtual world.  Prior to reading the report, I would have thought the answer fairly straightforward: Converting your virtual goods into real goods (i.e., selling gold for dollars) is taxable, everything else is not.  This rule is simple, intuitive, probably what almost everyone does anyway, and avoids the need for the IRS to promulgate new rules which are sure to be more harmful than the rule we have today.

The most obvious problem with taxing virtual worlds is figuring out how much each piece of virtual property is worth in terms of real dollars.  The Taxpayer Advocate touches on some of the principle concerns with valuing virtual goods, including the fact that all virtual property is subject to forfeiture at the discretion of the virtual world operator and certain limitations imposed on the transfer of some virtual goods.  In addition, unlike real goods which are limited in both quantity and lifespan, virtual goods can be created by virtual world operators at will, in any quantity, and do not deteriorate with time.  This leaves virtual world operators uniquely able to affect the value of virtual goods by exercising nearly absolute control over supply at effectively zero cost.

One vitally important question that the Taxpayer Advocate does not address is which games would be subject to taxation.  The report named World of Warcraft and Second Life explicitly, but made no suggestion that the taxing authority could or should be limited to those games.  The outer bounds of reason require that taxes can only apply to games which are persistent; a game like Starcraft, in which the entire world expires when one player wins or all players exit, cannot rationally be said to confer income on a player.  WoW and Second Life are both Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs), so MMOs would certainly fall within the tax.  But what of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), or smaller scale online roleplaying games like Diablo?  Does the popularity of the game matter?  Does a game need to have an interface to the real world market, such as people who actually want to buy and sell game items on eBay?

But perhaps the most important consideration that the Taxpayer Advocate should have kept in mind is that imposing a tax on virtual worlds will almost certainly destroy the entire market for online gaming.  Most people buy and play games for the purpose of entertainment.  In that sense, no matter how well a player may do in-game, nearly everyone will find that gaming is best viewed as an expense.  Adding a tax on items in the virtual world itself would serve only to add the stress of bureaucracy to what should be a fun venture — imagine the frustration of needing to figure out if you have enough money in your real world bank account to pay for a random sword you picked up on the dungeon floor.

Hopefully, the Taxpayer Advocate’s brain-twisting “confusion” will remain buried deep within the bureaucratic nest from which it came.  Nobody is well served by the expansion of the government’s tax authority into the realm of things which do not even exist.

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Powell v. McCormack and the Role of Judges

   Posted by: Robert    in Law

It is hard to ignore all of the chatter about the appointment of Roland Burris to the US Senate.  One of the most significant questions I have seen posed about the behavior of the Senate Democrats is whether or not the Senate even has the power to exclude Burris as long as he meets the qualifications given in the Constitution.  I have mostly seen that question answered in the negative by way of citation to Powell v. McCormack, a case decided in 1969 with some strong parallels to the current situation.  Although it does touch strongly on the issue currently before the Senate, I find the Court’s opinion in Powell most interesting for what it has to say about what it means to judge.

The case arises from Article 1, Section 5 of the Constitution which states that

Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members

On the way to deciding that Powell could not be excluded from taking his seat as long as he satisfied the qualifications set forth in Article 1, Section 2, the Court spent a decent amount of time exploring whether or not the House could add qualifications other than the age, citizenship, and residency requirements given in the Constitution. What is noteworthy is that much of what the Court said about the judging power of Congress is similar in tone and scope to what judicial conservatives say about the judging power of judges.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the words of Senator Murdock of Utah, quoted favorably in Powell by Justice Douglas:

Mr. Murdock: I construe the term “judge” to mean what it is held to mean in its common, ordinary usage. My understanding of the definition of the word “judge,” as a verb, is this: when we judge of a thing, it is supposed that the rules are laid out; the law is there for us to look at and to apply to the facts. But whoever heard the word “judge” used as meaning the power to add to what already is the law? (88 Cong.Rec. 2474.) (Douglas, J., concurring)

This is stunning from the man who told us that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.” (Griswold v. Connecticut)  It is also entirely correct.  Although Senator Murdock was not then talking about the judiciary, the term “judge” is most often associated with the courts as both the title and job of those on the bench.

The majority opinion in Powell is equally clear in its condemnation of Congress exceeding the enumerations set forth in the Constitution.  It would be pleasent indeed if the Court’s tone were carried through to all of the other powers Congress has taken for itself in excess of its other enumerated list (Article 1, Section 8).  Precedent, the Court tells us, would not even be an issue: “That an unconstitutional action has been taken before surely does not render that same action any less unconstitutional at a later date.” (Powell)

It is disappointing, though not surprising, that the Court apparently saw no conflict between limiting the judicial power of politicians — who are answerable to the people — while leaving the judicial power of judges — who are not — even further expanded, all in the name of ensuring “that the people should choose whom they please to govern them.” (Powell, citing Hamilton, 2 Debates on the Federal Constitution 257 (J. Elliot ed. 1876))  Regardless, it was nice to see the limited role of judging layed out in such clarity.


First Principles – Personal Responsibility

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Personal responsibility is one of the most fundamental principles of representative democracy.  It is characterized by the general belief that in the vast majority of situations, a person is responsible for their own decisions and, as such, must reap their own rewards and consequences.  Personal responsibility is the foundation of accountability and justice.

In modern America, accepting the blame when something goes wrong has become a strikingly costly proposition.  In business, situations which once might have been resolved with an apology and reparation are now routinely brought to the government for administrative or legal processing.  In the product liability context, almost any defect with a product — including defective users — can be cause for a class action lawsuit.  Companies which once used discriminatory employment practices continue to face the threat of lawsuits if any of their employees end up discovering that discrimination had once taken place.  Given that most companies are not in the business of creating dangerous products or intentionally discriminating against employees, most of these lawsuits are the result of accidents, oversights, or individuals acting against the company’s best interests.

The result for business is a perverse incentive to bury or disguise known faults in the hope that nobody will discover the problems beneath the surface.  The logic even for companies that get caught is disturbingly simple: Admit guilt now and be sued right away or deny guilt now and be sued later.  In the meantime, people get hurt and all of society pays the price.  Whistleblower laws, which seek to make it harder to shirk responsibility, do little to fix the broken incentive system because they are all stick with no carrot.  Worse still for believers in small government, whistleblower laws are a big government correction (more law) to a big government problem (lawsuits).

On the other side of the coin, individuals are just as eager to pass off responsibility as companies are to shirk it.  Nowhere is this better seen than in the criminal context where rapists and murderers try to pass off their crimes as the long term consequences of childhood abuse or other unfortunate things from their past.  Then there are the people suing the tobacco industry over their marketing of “Light” cigarettes because such cigarettes were not as healthy as they thought they were, apparently missing the fact that any health issues were entirely their own fault for smoking in the first place.  Presenting people who have made harmful decisions as victims does little except detract from justice and breed contempt from people who go through life without any reward for their attempt to live an upstanding life.

For conservatives, the road to promoting personal responsibility is bound to be long and hard.  Despite the cost, conservatives must stand up and practice what we preach.  We must be more upstanding, more forthright, and more honest than those who go through life shirking or shifting responsibility.  We must hold our own feet to the fire.  But at the same time, we must avoid the trap of acting as though we are better than those who do not hold our values.  It is our own fault if we act like jerks.

A nation where people admit their mistakes is a nation where reconciliation is possible.  Nobody comes out of court happy with the opposing party, while apologies can often be the first step on the road toward friendship and trust.  Companionship, not hostility, is the fabric from which a free and peaceful society is woven.



First Principles – Small Government

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

For as long as I can remember, Republicans have been hailed as the party of small government.  When voting Republican, it has been generally safe to assume that the vote will go to somebody who wants to cut taxes, educe government spending, and ease the burdens of regulation.  In recent years, Democrats have made the argument — successfully, for it is true — that Republicans are not nearly so good at reducing the size of government as they claim to be.  The time has long past come for Republicans to return to this most central of pillars for all of modern conservatism.

The principles of small government are deeply rooted in the American tradition.  Back in the 1700s, America’s founders fought a war against the tyranny and oppression of a powerful yet distant monarch who exerted his influence needlessly and harmfully against the colonies.  In winning that war, the founders secured for themselves and their posterity a network of states under a strong but limited national government.  They recognized that distant leaders were somewhat immunized from the needs of the people and determined to not allow their nation to fall under the rule of yet another distant sovereign.

Today, the very liberties secured by the founders and reserved by them to the states and the people are used as tools for expanding the power of the national government.  The list of national powers, though still few and defined, has been read so expansively as to have become effectively unlimited.  To make matters worse, the people have been largely complacent in the national government’s radical expansion.  Debates over national policy are frequently made over whether or not the policy is good, with very few people bothering to inquire as to whether the national government even has the authority to implement the solutions they seek.  To make matters worse, when politicians do call some policy unconstitutional, it tends to be because they disagree with the policy as a policy matter with very little real concern for what the Constitution actually permits or requires.

America’s modern small government advocates remain in a state of disarray.  The most organized small government group are the Libertarians; a fact which is rather unfortunate for small government conservatives in general.  The trouble with Libertarians is that they undervalue the necessity of government to nearly the same degree as Democrats overvalue the virtue of government authority.  As a single cause movement, Libertarians are ill-prepared to deal with the fundamental issues which give rise to the need for government power in the first place.  Put briefly, Libertarians offer nothing to promote the order and security of American society other than the generalized assertion that the people themselves will figure out some non-governmental way.  Libertarians also fail to meaningfully distinguish between local and national governments.  The result is a group that looks mostly anarchist and not worth serious attention.

While Libertarians may be fairly accused of going too far, their guiding philosophy has all of the rigor and consistency which conservatives would be wise to adopt.  Conservatism as a whole is fully capable of filling the massive void left by the Libertarians in terms of how to go about organizing a society in the relative absence of government.  The remaining First Principles, personal responsibility and limited charity, provide the grounding for a complete picture of society which libertarianism alone lacks.  Conservatives are able to recognize that the local governments, which are most responsive to the people, are able to be entrusted with greater power than the distant and generally isolated national government.  Conservatives can also build the non-governmental organizations necessary to perform those tasks which are necessary for society but not right for government intervention on any level.

The entire journey begins by asking whether any proposed government action is rightfully within the government’s authority.  Politicians must be encouraged to honestly ask this question and to vote against any proposal which exceeds the government’s authority, even if they agree with the proposal as a matter of policy.  Politicians can be much more than simple law makers.  Using the same talents and abilities that give them office in the first place, politicians are well prepared to champions and advocates for causes throughout society.




   Posted by: Izzymandias    in Uncategorized

Izzymandias, reporting for duty.


First Principles

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

Going as far back as the primaries, I have been convinced that this election would give Republicans an opportunity to set the definition for the future of the party.  John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and even Rudi Guiliani stood out as serious contenders for the Republican ticket and each one offered something decidedly different in terms of the party’s future.  The party’s most notable also-ran, Ron Paul, was able to generate a lot of excitement because of his ideas on bringing about a major reformation of government.  In the end, it was the strength of the Republican Independents that brought out a victory for John McCain, much to the frustration of those seated further to the right.  With Obama having now won handily in the general election, and with the Democrats having extended their dominance of Congress, it seems apparent that the McCain Republican is unlikely to be the party’s future.  With the party still at a crossroads, I think it’s well past time for conservatives to take a step back and reflect on what it is we really stand for.

Looking back over the past election, I saw a number of things that seemed to attract a lot of attention.  Abortion, religion, healthcare, Bush, and more all brought out conservative ire at various points as the party faithful chafed at the thought of electing a man who is not a True Believer.  Meanwhile, the excitement over Sarah Palin was matched only by the excitement people had about Ron Paul.  On the other side of the aisle, Obama was able to portray himself as the helpful candidate, promising cheap healthcare and free money to a large chunk of the population.

Out of these admittedly unscientific observations, I’ve put together a short list of three guiding principles which I believe it is essential for the Republican Party to adopt.  These principles will not please everyone and following them will necessarily require that compromises be made on particular issues which are sure to alienate some of the conservative base.  At this point, though, the most important thing is that the ship needs to set sail in some direction again, rather than being bogged down by a thorny web of issues.

These three points are the direction we should choose:

  • Small government.
  • Personal responsibility.
  • Limited charity.

I plan to discuss each one, in turn, in the coming days.



Welcome to Flames of Freedom

   Posted by: Flames of Freedom    in FoF Policy

Welcome to Flames of Freedom, a new blog dedicated to the promotion of conservative thinking in America.

As young conservatives ourselves, we have watched our country as it wanders through the wilderness of liberal and faux-conservative politics.  Along the way we have become annoyed with the tarnish which dulls and distorts conservative beliefs, upset about the lies so frequently told in the political arena, and disheartened at watching America slip ever farther from the ideals on which it was founded.  At stake, we feel, is not merely the future of a political point of view, but the very heart of American freedom.

And so it is that we open our doors, throw some logs on the fire, and join the growing chorus of voices who seek to restore true freedom to America.