Sunday, May 31, 2015

FIFA, Silk Road and American "Justice"

This week in the news we have seen two criminal cases that are not entirely unrelated - the sentencing of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and the arrest of FIFA officials in Switzerland.

Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. What did he do that the US justice system determined was so irredeemable, you might ask? Did he commit mass murder? No, he ran a website that was used by people all over the world for the buying and selling of recreational narcotics. Ulbricht appears to have been motivated not so much by financial gain (although there is nothing wrong with that) as philosophy. He was a libertarian and believes, as I do, that governments have no business interfering in the voluntary interactions of rational, adult human beings. As this article on libertarian website explains, Ulbricht believes people should have the right to choose whether or not they take recreational drugs and governments should not initiate violence against those who do so (or those like him who enable them to do so).

The United States Government has devoted a large part of its resources over the last few decades to pursuing and imprisoning people who consume and trade in recreational narcotics. As a result America has the highest level of imprisonment of any Western nation (with 4.4% of the world's population, the US has 22% of the world's prisoners - and more than half of all federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences). The very high imprisonment rate is due to three factors. Firstly the American justice system is overwhelmingly weighted in favour of prosecutors with federal prosecutors having a 93% conviction rate [2012 figures], which is matched only in countries that tend not to have much respect for the rule of law such as China. Secondly, the prosecutorial system in the United States is based on a fundamentally corrupt practice that is outlawed in many other countries - that of plea bargaining. This practice encourages prosecutors to lay manifestly excessive charges against defendants so that they will be forced to plead guilty to lesser charges, even when those lesser charges are themselves tenuous. Thirdly, the US has manifestly excessive sentences, especially for drug offences - for a first offence conviction for trafficking in just one gram of LSD the federal mandatory sentence is 5 - 40 years in prison [source: DEA website].

In Ross Ulbricht's case the inherent excess and corruption of the US justice system is made even worse by what Forbes magazine describes as "staggering corruption in the Silk Road investigation." The article reveals that two of the investigators in the case have been charged with embezzlement and theft and that "a state's witness took the fall for an agent's theft, thus becoming a target for murder-for-hire" (for which it was implied that Ross Ulbricht was responsible even though he was not tried for this). Evidence of this incredible corruption was suppressed by the prosecution until immediately prior to the trial and the judge denied all attempts by the defence to introduce it during the trial. Read the article linked above for yourself and I'm sure you will be as gobsmacked as me as to how someone can be sentenced to life in prison on the back of such impropriety by the US authorities.

With all this in mind, what should we make of the arrest of FIFA officials in Switizerland on extradiction warrants from the US Government? I think there is no doubt that FIFA is a very corrupt organisation and has been for many decades. The officials concerned, and long-term FIFA president Sepp Blatter as well, should held accountable for their corrupt practices. But I think Russian president Vladimir Putin (who is something of an expert on corruption himself) has it right when he says the arrests were “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” The sight of US Justice Department officials posing for photos as they left FIFA's regional association offices in Miami with boxes of papers had more than an hint of sham about it, and newly-appointed US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch's press conference did not add to the credibility of the case (and doesn't she know it isn't called "soccer" in the rest of the world?).

I have written before about the imperialistic ambitions of the United States to extend its legal bailiwick to the whole world. This wouldn't be so bad if the United States lived up to the intent of its founding document as a nation of people with "unalienable Rights...[including] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness", whose government derives its "just powers from the consent of the governed." But America is no longer that, if it ever was. The US has deviated so far from its founders' original intent of a limited republic, where the government serves at the pleasure of its people rather than the other way around, that it is hypocritical in the extreme for it to try and impose its legislative morality on the rest of the world.

Don't misunderstand me - I'm not saying America is irredeemably corrupt or has lost all respect for the rule of law, and I'd still far sooner be tried in an American court than a Chinese one - but a state that locks up a man for the rest of his life for the offence of running a website is a cruel and capricious one. And the world doesn't need a cruel and capricious imperial policeman.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Cyclists are the Parasites of the Roads

Recently a friend of mine who is an avid cyclist told me he was off to protest outside the Wellington City Council chambers with a bunch of like-minded, two-wheeled self-locomotionists. When I asked him why, he said it was because the Wellington City Council did not provide enough cycleways.

'Let's get this straight,' I said to my friend. 'You don't pay any road user charges or petrol taxes, you don't pay any accident insurance levies and you don't even pay any city rates because you live out of town. And yet you want Wellington City ratepayers like me to provide you with special paved tracks for you and your mates to cycle around the city. Is that correct?'

That's right,' he said with a smirk.

A little while ago I narrowly avoided my vehicle being hit by a cyclist while I was stopped at a pedestrian crossing. The cyclist had broken at least three traffic rules and by doing so had placed himself in the position of having to chose whether to hit an elderly pedestrian on the crossing or my car. It was only my alertness and my very quick reactions in getting my car out of the way that prevented him causing serious injuries either to himself or the pedestrian. My reward for my almost superhuman effort to save him from disaster of his own making was to suffer his verbal abuse. Rest assured, I gave as good as I got.

Let's face it - cyclists are the parasites of the roads. They don't obey any road rules, they are the most discourteous road users, they constantly put themselves in danger and expect motorists to have some sort of six sense to avoid them, and they think the rest of us should be happy to pay for their self-indulgent lifestyle choice. They are the ultimate bludgers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Time to Sell Biased State Media

One of the first and most significant appointments David Cameron has made after his landslide UK election victory was that of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary. The reason this appointment is significant is that Whittingdale will be the minister responsible for the BBC and in his previous role as chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee he has been very critical of the BBC and the licence fee that funds it. Some are going as far to suggest that Whittingdale's appointment is the Conservative Government's payback to the BBC for its very biased (i.e. pro-Labour Party) coverage of the election.

In Britain the BBC has a dominance over broadcast media that state media outlets in former Soviet bloc countries could only dream of.  It owns nine television channels and sixteen radio stations as well as numerous digital media outlets and cultural assets such as symphony orchestras. The BBC paints itself as unbiased but it is certainly not. It is partisan, secretive and ruthless in pushing its biases, and it is incredibly arrogant in refusing to concede its errors. 

Some examples of the BBC's behaviour are its cover-up of accusations of child abuse against Jimmy Savile, its promotion of the scandalous libel against former Tory peer Lord McAlpine and its reliance on a secretive panel of so-called independent climate scientists for its coverage of climate change issues (that turned out to largely comprise non-scientists from environmental lobby groups). The BBC is, in short, a malevolent presence in British culture.

In New Zealand over the last few weeks there has been a minor furore about the likely cancellation of TV3's current affairs Campbell Live. I have written before about left-wing bias in the the coverage of politics by the New Zealand media and in particular about how partisan John Campbell is. I said that I didn't have a particular problem with Campbell Live because TV3 is a privately-owned broadcaster and that eventually the market would sort him out. The uncertain future of the show is proof I was right. The BBC and our own state broadcasters Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand are a different matter. State-owned enterprises, even those like Television New Zealand that are commercially-focused, are not subject to the economic realities of private enterprises. The market cannot sort them out.

Thomas Jefferson said that 'to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical'. State broadcasting, particularly state broadcasting that is politically biased, does exactly that.

If there were ever valid arguments for the state to own media outlets (presumably around the lack of sufficient scale in small countries to justify private sector investment and monopolistic practices of a small number of private media outlets even in larger markets) those arguments no longer exist. The internet has reduced the cost so dramatically that anyone can afford to broadcast to millions from their bedroom and there are literally millions of news and opinion outlets of every possible political persuasion. It is time for the state to get out of broadcasting. Cameron's government should break up and sell the BBC and the New Zealand government should do the same for Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand.

I'm sure Rupert Murdoch would be interested.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Tax Freedom Day

It is tax freedom day in New Zealand - the notional day of the year on which we no longer have to hand over our hard-earned money to the government but can start to keep it for ourselves. May 7th is also the day on which businesses have to make their final provisional income tax and Goods and Services Tax payments for the previous financial year. For profitable small businesses like mine, that means making a very big payment to the Inland Revenue Department.

I do not willingly pay this money. I only hand over this large chunk of my income because the government threatens to incarcerate me if I don't. I know I could make better use of the money than the government does and that paying for my family's health, education and savings would cost me less than the wodge of cash I pay the government. And don't tell me it's the price of living in a civil society - according to the Minister of Finance, the New Zealand Government obtains 70% of its income tax revenue from 10% of its taxpayers so clearly I'm paying for a hell of lot more than what it actually costs me and my family to live in this society. Plus, there are perfectly civilised societies in the world, such as Monaco, that have no personal taxation at all.

I recently attended a discussion with Inland Revenue Department staff about the future of tax collection in New Zealand and was surprised when one of the representatives of the IRD said that they were considering all views on how tax services should be operated in future except for the view that 'taxation is immoral and should be abolished.' The fact that even in the fortress of taxation they acknowledged that the morality of taxation was not a certainty was very gratifying, if cold comfort for those like me who hold to that view.

I am not so quixotic as to believe that taxation will be abolished in my lifetime, but I do think we stand at a crossroads in respect of the burden of taxation. During the period from the mid-1980s until the end of the 1990s most Western governments reduced the burden of income tax on their populations, but many countries like New Zealand saw left-of-centre governments restored in the 2000s that increased tax rates again, albeit not to the staggeringly high levels that were commonplace before the 1980 reforms. Leftish parties in Britain, Australia and New Zealand now want to increase the burden further to pay for their profligate policies. The tax take as a percentage of GDP in New Zealand currently sits at about 39%. That's two dollars in every five that is taken by the government and too much already.

We must continually remind politicians that it is our money and our tolerance of the extortion that is taxation is not boundless.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Why I Oppose the Death Penalty

This last week we saw another mass execution of foreigners by the Indonesian government for drug trafficking, and earlier in the week I listened to a debate on the Intelligence Squared postcast on the subject of "Should We Abolish the Death Penality." These events caused me to reflect on and reaffirm my opposition to the death penalty.

There is something nauseatingly banal about the ritual of judicial execution. The build-up to the Indonesian executions was accompanied by months of legal and political wrangling as the Indonesian President Joko Widodo dismissed appeals and stuck to his determination to make an example of the offenders. The condemned became unwilling celebrities as everyone connected to the case including the local police commissioner ensured they were photographed with those about to die.

The Intelligence Squared debate outlined various important arguments for and against the death penalty. Those in favour of it won the debate and I thought they made the better arguments - that some crimes and some criminals are so bad there is no valid alternative to putting them to death. Those against the death penalty made the usual arguments - that mistakes are made and innocent people are executed, and that the death penalty is applied discriminately. However, I think that neither addressed the key question in my mind - is the death penalty moral?

The question of the morality of state-sanctioned homicide cannot be answered without addressing the broader question of what is the moral role of the state. As a libertarian, my view on this is clear - the state exists only to protect individual rights. More specifically, the state exists to prevent the initiation of violent actions against individuals and their property. The corollary of this is that the state cannot morally initiate violence unless it is to counter actual or imminent violence against individuals. The cold-blooded killing of a criminal, however justified it may seem in terms of retributive punishment, does not satisfy this criteria.

The execution of drug traffickers by the Indonesian government is a particularly grievous example of immoral state-sanctioned killing. Trading in recreational narcotics does not, in itself, present an imminent threat of violence to anyone (leaving aside the fact that drug trafficking laws have driven the trade into the hands of violent gangsters) and therefore it should not be illegal, let alone punishable by death. The only real crime here was the murder of the traffickers by the Indonesian government.