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Libertas Institute announces its latest hire—our new development manager: Heather Williamson!

Heather joins us having recently worked with FreedomWorks as their Western States Director, organizing grassroots campaigns to implement conservative policies and elect liberty-minded candidates in several states. Her educational background is in political science, which is in her blood—Heather’s first lobbying effort was at the age of 12, lobbying Congress as the Youth President of the National Right to Life.

Heather and her family have made Utah their home for the last 15 years, and has been active in politics since that time. She has managed several local and statewide campaigns, most recently helping elect Senator Mike Lee and managing his offices in Utah for over a year and a half.

As Development Manager, Heather will be working to expand Libertas Institute’s profile across the state, network with prospective donors and allied organizations, and to create outreach programs and efforts to help our mission succeed.

Curious to know more? Send Heather an email at heather@libertasutah.org.

 

Monday, September 8, 2014 | 5 comments

Policing for Justice, or Profit?

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Throughout the country, police officers are able to seize a person’s property without that person being charged with—let alone convicted of—a crime. The policy giving legal sanction to this action is known as civil asset forfeiture, one of worst by-products of the so-called “war on drugs.”

Civil asset forfeiture has received modest media attention over the years, and was thrust into the spotlight once more by a lengthy investigative piece by The Washington Post titled “Stop and Seize.” This article surveys to what extent this legal strategy has been used to confiscate a citizen’s property since 9/11, finding that officers charged with upholding the law (and presumably protecting people and their property) have seized, without a warrant, $2.5 billion since that time from innocent individuals.

Concurrently released with the Post article is a new report on civil asset forfeiture by the Institute for Justice, titled “Bad Apples or Bad Laws?” “The study concludes that civil forfeiture abuse isn’t a problem of just a few ‘bad apple’ police officers or rogue prosecutors, but rather bad laws that encourage bad behavior,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Civil forfeiture creates a real and perverse incentive for law enforcement to pursue profits instead of justice.”

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In an exclusive interview published last month, we broke the story regarding Salt Lake City’s heavy-handed fines being imposed on Lyft and Uber drivers operating without the city’s blessing. Citations amounting to $6,500 and more have been issued to drivers for daring to drive consenting passengers without the drivers having jumped through the city’s regulatory hoops.

Records obtained by Libertas Institute this week suggest more reasons why the city may be resistant to the innovative disruption that these ride-share companies bring. In the last fiscal year, Salt Lake City received $362,361.65 in fees from the three authorized taxi companies for the ~200 authorized vehicles operating throughout the city. This is in addition to license fees paid by the three companies to the city.

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Monday, September 1, 2014 | One comment

Organized Labor in a Free Society

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“Freedom in capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in ancient Greek republics: Freedom for slave owners.” —Vladimir Lenin

Labor Day is an interesting holiday for those that love liberty. For some, Labor Day reeks of the success of the socialist workers movement and should be eschewed; for others, it is merely a celebration of those whose labor is critical to our diverse economy. I propose that for those that love liberty, Labor Day can be a positive holiday that recognizes the importance of voluntary exchange in a free society. While we disagree with Lenin’s assessment of freedom in a capitalist society, we understand the source of his frustration.

Capitalism in Lenin’s view is more about individuals than about a system. Lenin and other socialists saw powerful individuals as “capitalists.” These were the individuals who owned capital or the means of production. By owning machines and factories the capitalists could leverage their ownership into profits by hiring wage laborers to carry out production. In Lenin’s view, this employment relationship was exploitative of the worker in the same fashion as slavery. However, there is a key difference. In the slave relationship the master literally owns the slave and can coerce the slave’s labor to the master’s profit. In contrast, the employment relationship in a capitalist system is voluntary. The worker owns their labor just like the capitalist owns their factory. Thus, a worker voluntarily offers their labor to the owner in exchange for the owner’s voluntary payment of wages. If the owner feels they can profit more from the worker’s labor than from the wages they offer to pay, then the exchange is beneficial for the owner.

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So-called “identity politics” have recently been at the heart of many political controversies in this country. From immigration policy to public spending, it seems that political spin doctors attempt to make each policy controversy personal for voters by making the narrative about personal traits like race or gender and creating an “us versus them” dichotomy for each debate.

This approach often sidesteps the more fundamental questions about the proper role of government and the use of government power. Such is the case with recent police shootings. A recent Washington Post article did exactly this by framing the differences in media and community responses to the Ferguson shooting and Utah’s own shooting of Dillon Taylor in racial terms. In Ferguson, a white police officer shot a black teen while in Utah a white man was shot by a non-white officer. The article tries to frame the outrage in Missouri with thousands of protestors versus the more subdued response in Utah as one based on race. This approach misses the more important point—the difference in responses is a direct reflection of the level of discomfort with government power in the two states.

In Ferguson, racial terms are only an easy way to understand people’s level of personalization with the event. There is a large population of racial minorities who may perceive the shooting of Michael Brown as a use of police authority that could be used against any of those who share Michael Brown’s race. That group is likely to respond strongly because the use of deadly force by a government actor is considered a more likely possibility for them on a personal level. However, in Utah a member of the racial majority being shot by police didn’t evoke the same response. The use of racial terms are only superficial. The deeper issue is whether Utahns see the use of deadly force by government agents against them as a possible or personal reality.

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Social networks have been saturated with a wash of “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos featuring people voluntarily pouring ice water over their heads in the name of charity. One can hardly scroll through their Facebook feed without encountering dozens of these videos posted by everyone from personal friends and family to celebrities and even former presidents. This viral phenomenon is an interesting example of the power of social pressure as people feel the need to conform to the expectations of others by participating (along with those who might be participating to get personal attention).

This “challenge” is accepted by pouring cold water over oneself, and posting a video of the feat wherein the person challenges a few others to do the same. The consequence of declining the challenge is to contribute a moderate sum to a particular charity. All participants are encouraged to donate at least something to the charity, whether or not they douse themselves. The precise origins of the challenge are not clear but the concept has been used in various ways for many charities.

The largest and currently most viral version is raising money and awareness for the ALS Association which advocates for and supports scientific research to treat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a neurodegenerative disease that debilitates motor function. For ALS, the viral challenge has been a financial boon. The association has received $53.3 million in donations this August compared to just $2 million over the same period last year. In fact, the nonprofit ALS has received more donations in one month than its entire net worth of $20 million in 2013. While participating in the challenge is a fun way to cool off this summer, it raises some interesting questions about our society and the role of social pressure.

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In two recent and separate incidents, individuals recording the actions of police officers were cited for “disorderly conduct” after testy exchanges between the person recording an the officer(s) being recorded.

The first incident occurred in Bountiful, where Bryce Weber noticed a police officer sitting outside his home for some 40 minutes. He stepped outside to record the officer, who alleged that Weber’s recording of him was interfering in his work. Despite Weber ultimately moving across the street while continuing to record, the officer still claimed that he was interfering and thus cited him for disorderly conduct, as Weber refused to return to his home when ordered to do so by the officer. Read more details of the encounter here.

As it relates to this situation, a person in Utah is guilty of disorderly conduct if “the person refuses to comply with the lawful order of a law enforcement officer to move from a public place…” The question Weber’s defense attorney will likely push back on is whether the officer’s command to Weber to return to his home was lawful. While in certain circumstances an officer can lawfully order a person to move away so as not to impede the flow of traffic, interfere with an investigation or other police action, etc., an order to go inside one’s home—as opposed to moving away a safe distance, for example—seems unreasonable and unlawful.

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A new study, authored by two university professors, find that corporate interests and wealthy individuals control policy making so much that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” the study analyzes nearly 1,800 policy issues, comparing public opinion on each to the preferences of heavily financed lobbying when determining the final result of legislation. This research, says historian Allan J. Lichtman, is “shattering” and “should be a loud wake-up call to the vast majority of Americans who are bypassed by their government.”

“By contrast,” the study notes, “economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.” Likewise, the authors write, “interest group alignments are estimated to have a large, positive, highly significant impact upon public policy.”

They conclude: “If policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

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The following are some of the important excerpts from our First Annual Fourth Amendment Forum. They are provided with time codes in case you are interested in watching that portion of the video to see the comment in context.

Kara Dansky (ACLU attorney, national office), 12:50:

Where Utah stands out is that Utah is a leader in reform, actually. Utah passed a bill last session… that will require some reporting of SWAT deployments and different kinds of data that are collected in connection with SWAT deployments. I think this is a really positive trend… As far as I can tell, no state other than Utah is making much of a concerted effort to shine some light on this problem, and to bring some transparency and oversight. So I think that that’s great.

AG Sean Reyes, 20:45:

We really do want to empower law enforcement. At the same time, though, and particularly as the lawyers tasked with protecting the liberties of our own citizens, we want to make sure that they do it properly, without depriving those rights and those liberties in the process. I don’t think it’s a zero sum game. I think we can have effective and proper law enforcement, and still be vigilant about protecting the rights and liberties of our citizens.

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Between the Cliven Bundy standoff and the Recapture Canyon protest, federal ownership of vast swaths of land within western states has come to the fore of public attention. Utah has been leading efforts to transfer federal land into state control, passing H.B. 148—demanding the transfer of federal lands to state control—in 2012 and hosting a summit for like-minded western legislators in April of this year.  Seven other western states have passed similar bills in recent years, giving the issue the feel of a credible movement. But, fervor aside, what is a federal land transfer likely to look like?

I. It’s Complicated: The Implications of a Federal Land Transfer

In some ways, a federal transfer of land is more complicated than one might expect. Though less well known than H.B. 148, H.B. 142 passed in 2013 and is in many ways the more meaningful step toward Utah getting control of land in its borders. After the initial excitement of H.B. 148, H.B. 142 authorized a study and economic analysis of what would actually be involved in a mass federal land transfer.  Conducted by teams of researchers associated with the University of Utah and Utah State University, this study aims to get the nuts-and-bolts information that Utah would need to be prepared to more than double its land holdings. The results of this study are due to be presented to Utah legislators this November so while the results aren’t in yet, work to date indicates the scope of what will be involved.

The first issue is simply inventorying federal land in Utah, all 35,033,603 acres of it. The amount of land involved is so vast that just getting a grip on where it is and what each area’s unique potential uses are (development, preservation, recreation, grazing, timber, mineral extraction, oil and gas, solar, and wind) is quite an undertaking.

The next issue is identifying current interests associated with each area and developing a way to account for and manage those interests during and after a transfer. Much of this land is already subject to oil, gas, mining, grazing, and timber leases or rights which would contractually need to be honored or otherwise addressed. Other areas are already used for recreational purposes which would need to be accounted for.

Then there’s the matter of money. There are currently several revenue sharing schemes in place for money generated from public lands. Essentially, in recognition that federal ownership of lands necessarily deprives Utah of the ability to generate tax revenue from that land, the federal government has developed several programs which share portions of the proceeds from grazing and timber leases and shares them with local governments.  Any transfer plan needs to account for how money will be shared and how localities will adjust after the transfer.

And that is to say nothing of trying to estimate the bill for taking over an area the size of Wisconsin. It’s not a simple matter of finding what various federal agencies currently take in and spend to manage land in Utah: because the federal government mismanages and underfunds land management, the cost of doing it right could be significantly higher than what is currently being spent. Conversely, there are certainly potential efficiencies that could be gained through effective management. The study authorized by H.B. 142 analyzes several hypothetical scenarios involving different types and degrees of transfers and attempts to predict the economic impact of each.

II. The Process of Getting Control of Federal Lands

There are essentially two tactical routes which Utah could take to get control of federal lands.

The first would be for Congress to pass a bill ceding land to Utah. Federal land transfers are actually quite common, but they generally happen on a very small scale. For example, last year the federal government transferred, gratuitously, a small amount of land in Wyoming for a shooting range. It’s simple, but requires adequate political will at the federal level which seems unlikely. Attempts at larger federal land transfers have not made much progress. For example, in 1995, Senate Bill 1031 proposed a bill to offer all BLM land to the states. It summarily died in committee. Admittedly the political climate and elected leaders are much different now than in 1995. However, devolving federal lands does not seem to be high on any federal legislator’s bucket list.

The second option would be a lawsuit that would argue that the federal government is required to transfer federal lands to the states. There are credible legal arguments supporting this proposition—primarily that the Utah Enabling Act was a compact which bound the federal government to dispose of land within state boundaries or that the equal-footing doctrine requires the federal government to afford Utah the same right to control property within its borders as earlier-admitted states. However, assuming the Supreme Court was willing to hear the case, there is no controlling legal precedent so the outcome would be anybody’s guess. And given the Roberts Court’s penchant for avoiding controversy even when mental gymnastics are required to do so, the outlook is not necessarily promising.

While returning land within Utah to local control makes sense from both a management and a self-determination standpoint, it is a complicated issue. Regardless of the method used to pursue it, it will be an uphill battle. It is nevertheless a battle worth pursuing.

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