Still Pissed Off About the Hawley-Smoot Tariff

Monday, June 20, 2005

Power, From the Barrel of a Gun and Otherwise

Chairman Mao famously said that "all power comes from the barrel of a gun." I think in general that we agree with Chairman Mao at our peril. But sometimes it seems people do so without realizing it.

Here's my gripe. Here in Vegas there is only one real talk radio station. The morning hosts are Alan Stock and Heidi Harris. They have a recurring theme that gets under my skin, so I'm going to discuss it, as well as make a larger point.

One morning when they deigned to actually discuss the political, the topic was a local candidate for judge (yeah, we elect judges here, apparently because we're retarded). The candidate in question was making news because it was revealed that she had worked her way through law school as a stripper. Alan and Heidi were decidedly for the proposition that because nude dancing is a legal profession, her, uh, eye-raising resume' shouldn't count against her at all. This conclusion is part of a broader attitude that basically anything goes in Vegas, as long as it's legal it must be fine, and if you don't like it, Salt Lake City isn't too far away.

Their approach is a little tiring, in large part because it's so repetitive, but also because it subscribes a little too closely to Chairman Mao's dictum for a couple of putative libertarians. The logic is, government should not be used to enforce morality. Nude dancing is a morality issue, and therefore the government should stay out of it. (So far, the argument is not fundamentally unsound). Then they take the next step and argue that because government should stay out of it, criticisms based on morality must be defective. Therefore, if one of their callers says this judge is not qualified because she was a nude dancer, that caller must be a freak, religious nut, extremist, whatever.

Here's where I disagree: even though I must take as a baseline approach that government doesn't regulate morality here in Las Vegas, it does not necessarily follow that the regulatory power is or should be the only power. That is, just because government cannot (and let's just assume it cannot) forbid something using the police power (i.e. that which comes from the barrel of a gun), it does not follow that government has and should have no other kind of power.

In other words, even if everyone agrees that government should not criminalize nude dancing (and here, I'm not arguing that point one way or the other, only using it as an example), one might wonder whether government has other avenues of influence, other than the police power, to effect policy. Government may, in fact, have a persuasive power, as well as a police power.

For an excellent example of why that might be a good idea, consider this rather old news from Uganda. (Also here for a lamentation). Uganda is unique among African nations, it seems, in that it has successfully lowered its AIDS infection rate. How? By using the ABC method (abstinence, be faithful, condoms if the first two options fail). Most notably for the purposes of this post, the program is not a criminal one, whereby philanderers are jailed for unprotected sex. Instead, the government is using other forms of power to influence, rather than coerce, the population to comply with governmental policy goals. And remember, Uganda's program has actually worked. (For a different view on the Uganda situation, this writer argues that it's the "C" in ABC that's getting all the results. That strikes me as a seriously inconsistent argument, given that all the other African nations that promote condom useage have rising, rather than falling, AIDS cases).

In other words, here is an example of government using non-police power, on a highly morality-driven topic, and getting results.

There's more to be said about persuasive power. Consider that critics of the Catholic Church like to complain that the Church is partly to blame for the African AIDS crisis, because the popes won't budge on their no-condom stance. But note that these critics are tacitly acknowledging the importance of the Catholic Church's non-police power - no one will argue that the Pope's power comes from the barrel of a gun, and yet everyone seems to agree that he does, in fact, have power.

In another important example, consider the Missouri statute that came under attack in Webster v. Reproductive Health Serv., 452 U.S. 450 (1989). Missouri passed a law regulating abortions, for example by banning the use of public facilities for abortion procedures. The plaintiffs also attacked the preamble to the statute, which said in part, "the life of each human being begins at conception." This section was upheld because it merely expressed a value statement in the abstract. Two important points can be drawn from this. First, the Supreme Court upheld the power of a state to make a value judgment (albeit one without any legal effect). Second, the fact that the preamble was attacked suggests that the plaintiffs recognized that there was power in the preamble, even if the preamble had no specific enforceability. They realized as a tactical matter that the government was trying to use something other than police power, and they tried to stop it.

Now to return to Mr. Stock and Ms. Harris. I've been assuming so far that it is government, rather than private individuals, who would be making some sort of decision concerning this former stripper/would-be judge. As a practical matter, I can't see that happening - no one has ever suggesting anything like government intervention to bar her from running. Rather, we're talking about private conduct, private individuals, deciding whether the woman's past will affect their voting decisions. In this light, it is completely irrelevant that nude dancing is a legal profession. No one can argue that citizens can't base their voting purely on moral grounds. I don't think Stock and Harris expressly stated otherwise. But the tone of their discussion suggested it.

In other words, their view looks something like this: government cannot prevent nude dancing, because it is a morality issue, and government shouldn't criminalize morality issues. Because criminalization is the only power government has, the government has no legitimate power over this issue. Because the government has no power, private citizens should not take morality issues into account when voting on a particular candidate for judge. When stated thus, it's clear that the logic is hopelessly flawed - which of course explains why Stock and Harris never stated it thus. They simply didn't think it through, it would seem, and that led to their absurd approach on the radio a while back.

For that matter, when Stock and Harris dismiss callers who complain about seediness in Las Vegas, saying "hey, you can always move to Salt Lake City," they are totally out of line. It may be true that government cannot or should not criminalize whatever religious people deem immoral, but that doesn't change the rights of those religious people to attempt to influence the government to adopt their policy views, either by voting or through other political processes. Yes, they can move to Salt Lake City (or some other city, if they are not Latter-day Saints but nevertheless disapprove of whatever Stock and Harris are railing against). But they also have every right to stay here in Las Vegas and try to change things.

And just to reiterate, I emphatically reject Mao's dictum that "all power comes from the barrel of a gun." History teaches otherwise. And I don't take psychotic mass-murderers at their word.