When I saw that Rand Paul (R-Comedy Central) had voted against a bill outlawing the use of lasers to blind airline pilots on the grounds that “the states ought to take care of it,” I was reminded of this week’s best Onion story imagining an effort by Republicans to repeal a law providing for the destruction of an asteroid coming at the Earth.
The Onion story didn’t mention lawsuits seeking to have asteroid-destruction declared unconstitutional as a violation of the limited, delegated powers of the Federal government. But I’d be grateful if one of our libertarian-leaning readers could point me to the specific provision of the Constitution under which the Federal government could spend money on asteroid destruction. It’s not, properly speaking, defense, unless the asteroid was deliberately launched at us by the Klingons. The asteroid isn’t “in commerce” at all, so it can’t be covered by the Commerce Clause.
No doubt some socialists would assert that the reference to “the General Welfare” in the first sentence of Art. 1, Sec. 8, plus the Necessary and Proper clause at the end of that section, would cover asteroid destruction. And I might agree with them. But of course from the libertarian perspective that proves way, way too much.
So I offer this as a challenge: If you think that the doctrine of limited powers forbids much of what the federal government currently does, please explain why that same argument wouldn’t forbid spending money to shoot down an asteroid.
Footnote If your objections to “big government” are based on economics rather than constitutional law, please explain why the public-goods argument that justifies shooting down the asteroid doesn’t apply to the programs you don’t like.
As a libertarian-conservative, I am glad to help resolve this question. Of course, it should be noted from the outset that the framing of these kinds of questions is a common Kleimanian tactic; he tosses out an appealing public policy approach, and then dares readers to conclude that the approach may not be constitutional. I certainly agree with Kleiman that asteroid defense cannot be covered by the Commerce Clause (thank goodness that there are some limits recognized by the Left on the reach and scope of the Clause), but I don’t see why he is so quick to dismiss asteroid destruction as a defense measure merely because the asteroid was not “deliberately launched at us by the Klingons.”Original public meaning jurisprudence assists us in showing how asteroid destruction can be justified by Art. I, Sec. 8 of the Constitution as being “for the common Defence.” I am indebted to Professor Larry Solum for his excellent and comprehensive definition of original public meaning jurisprudence, which is excerpted below:
The original-meaning version of originalism emphasizes the meaning that the Constitution (or its amendments) would have had to the relevant audience at the time of its adoptions. How would the Constitution of 1789 have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted? Of course, the same sources that are relevant to original intent are relevant to original meaning. So, for example, the debates at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may shed light on the question how the Constitution produced by the Convention would have been understood by those who did not participate in the secret deliberations of the drafters. But for original-meaning originalists, other sources become of paramount importance. The ratification debates and Federalist Papers can be supplemented by evidence of ordinary usage and by the constructions placed on the Constitution by the political branches and the states in the early years after its adoption. The turn to original meaning made originalism a stronger theory and vitiated many of the powerful objections that had been made against original-intentions originalism.
This sets the stage for what is sometimes called “the New Originalism” and also is called “Original Meaning Originalism.” Whatever the actual origins of this theory, the conventional story identifies Antonin Scalia as having a key role. As early as 1986, Scalia gave a speech exhorting originalists to “change the label from the Doctrine of Original Intent to the Doctrine of Original Meaning.” The phrase “original public meaning” seems to have entered into the contemporary theoretical debates in the work of Gary Lawson with Steven Calabresi as another “early adopter.” The core idea of the revised theory is that the original meaning of the constitution is the original public meaning of the constitutional text.
Randy Barnett and Keith Whittington have played prominent roles in the development of the “New Originalism.” Both Barnett and Whittington build their theories on a foundation of “original public meaning,” but they extend the moves made by Scalia and Lawson in a variety of interesting ways. For the purposes of this very brief survey, perhaps their most important move is to embrace the distinction between “constitutional interpretation” understood as the enterprise of discerning the semantic content of the constitution and “constitutional construction,” which we might tentatively define as the activity of further specifying constitutional rules when the original public meaning of the text is vague (or underdeterminate for some other reason). This distinction explicitly acknowledges what we might call “the fact of constitutional underdeterminacy.” With this turn, original-meaning originalist explicitly embrace the idea that the original public meaning of the text “runs out” and hence that constitutional interpretation must be supplemented by constitutional construction, the results of which must be guided by something other than the semantic content of the constitutional text.
Once originalists had acknowledged that vague constitutional provisions required construction, the door was opened for a reconciliation between originalism and living constitutionalism. The key figure in that reconciliation has been Jack Balkin, whose influential 2006 and 2007 essays Abortion and Original Meaning and Original Meaning and Constitutional Redemption have argued for a reconciliation of original meaning originalism with living constitutionalism in the form of a theory that might be called “the method of text and principle.” Balkin has called his position on the relationship between originalism and living constitutionalism “comptibilism,” but it is important to understand that this means that an originalist approach to interpretation is consistent with a living constitutionalist approach to construction.
Per Professor Solum’s definition, we have to ask how “the common Defence” would “have been understood by an ordinary adult citizen at the time it was adopted.” Specifically, we have to demonstrate that the notion of “Defence” against a threat does not depend upon that threat being initiated by a sentient being, or group of beings. This entails showing Kleiman that the non-presence of Klingons or any other sentient beings in a scenario which features an asteroid threatening life on Earth does not prevent the necessary countermeasures from being considered constitutional as acts of “Defence.”
In order to proceed along this line of inquiry, a definition of “defence” or “defense” (however one wishes to spell it) is needed. I can think of no better lexicographical authority than Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language. Consider especially the following bit of information: In his book Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, the writer Henry Hitchings quoted Joseph Emerson Worcester as saying that “[Johnson’s] Dictionary has also played its part in the law, especially in the United States. Legislators are much occuped with ascertaining ‘first meanings,’ with trying to secure the literal sense of their predecessors’ legislation . . . Often it is a matter of historicizing language: to understand a law, you need to understand what its terminology meant to its original architects . . . as long as the American Constitution remains intact, Johnson’s Dictionary will have a role to play in American law.”
So, Johnson’s Dictionary was/is quite useful when it comes to analyzing bodies of American law. Now, we have to ask what Johnson wrote about the definition of the word “defence.” Well, it just so happens that we can look. Feel free to examine the definitions of “defence,” “defenceless,” “to defend,” and “defendable.” One will find that none of the definitions in question make it necessary for a threat to have been launched by some form of sentient being, or group of beings, before one can be said to organize and implement some kind of “defense/defence” against that threat via preventive measures. Absent any competing definitions of similar or greater influence, one may reasonably conclude that “an ordinary adult citizen” would not have understood “defence” to mean a countermeasure against a threat set into motion by a sentient being, or group of beings–like Klingons, for example. A “defence” can therefore be mounted against a threat that appeared or emerged sua sponte, without any sentient beings or higher intelligence having brought that threat into being, and/or having directed that threat against us.
Indeed, if Kleiman wanted to get a libertarian legal analysis regarding this issue, he might have done well to ask Glenn Reynolds, whose blog is full of posts regarding the need for asteroid defense. I recognize that Kleiman loathes Reynolds, and has nothing but contempt for him, but it perhaps would not have been a bad idea for Kleiman to put his loathing aside and consider that Reynolds’s example might indicate that there are plenty of libertarians who (a) are concerned about defending the Earth against extinction-causing asteroids, and (b) might be able to justify it (as I have) constitutionally. As a general matter, it might be best for Kleiman to consult actual lawyers regarding constitutional or statutory interpretation, before trying to navigate legal thickets on his own. I mean, it’s his blog, and he can do what he wants, but it is worth noting that past Kleimanian efforts to play lawyer have ended quite poorly.
This post by Mark Kleiman is a good example, in that it puts forward a laughable caricature of libertarian and originalist constitutional thought that would have been discredited with but a moment’s investigation into the question (as I noted here, and Pejman Yousefzadeh discussed here). To Prof. Kleiman’s credit, he backed off (a little) when other took the time to respond, but that a prominent, thoughtful academic would post something like this as an ostensibly thoughtful critique of right-leaning ideas says quite a bit about the state of much academic discourse.
I agree with Jonathan below that the Constitution (through the spending power) allows Congress to spend tax money to protect the Earth from an asteroid.
On the other hand — and at the risk of confirming Mark Kleiman in his belief that libertarians are loopy — I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.
Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.
On the other hand, if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.
This does make me uncomfortable, much like my view that patents are highly useful but morally unjustifiable, so I’m open to persuasion
I think this is a mistake about how a reductio works. The mere fact that Volokh is willing to bite this bullet has no real bearing on the fact that the conclusion is clearly false, and so the argument is either logically invalid or else proceeds from false premises. I’d say “false premises.” The best liberal thinking—classical, modern, whatever—proceeds from broadly consequentialist ideas about making human beings better off.
So not only does Sasha Volokh claim that it is immoral to tax people to blow up an asteroid (or install lightning rods, or mandate lightning rods, or pay for a tree-trimming crew on the public roads), but it is immoral to tell people of an approaching asteroid so they can scramble to safety because it will cause violations of rights through looting.
That said, I don’t think that Sasha’s view is necessarily ridiculous or “insane.” Any theory based on absolute respect for certain rights necessarily carries the risk that it will lead to catastrophe in some instances. Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.
Many such scenarios are improbable. But over the long sweep of human history, improbable events can and do happen. Had Kerensky suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 (as he easily could have that summer) or had the Weimar Republic done the same with the Nazis, the world would be a vastly better place, even though most political censorship (even of evil ideologies) causes far more harm than good. A civilization-destroying asteroid attack during the next few hundred years is also a low-probability event.
Thus, the potential flaw in Sasha’s view is one that it shares with all absolutist rights theories. Scenarios like the above are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself. But I don’t believe that all the great moral theorists who endorse such views from Kant to the present are either ridiculous or “insane.”
It’s also worth noting that Sasha’s approach would in fact justify asteroid defense in virtually any plausible real world scenario. As he puts it, “if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.” It’s highly unlikely that news of an impending asteroid impact whose onset was known to the government could be prevented from leaking to the general public. Even if it could, “all hell” would surely break loose after the asteroid impact, resulting in numerous violations of libertarian rights by looters, bandits, people stealing food out of desperation, and so on. Either way, Sasha’s analysis ends up justifying asteroid defense.
If I understand Sasha correctly, he’s only partially a rights absolutist. He doesn’t believe that you can ever sacrifice rights for utilitarian benefits, even truly enormous ones. But he does think that you can justify small rights violations as a way of forestalling bigger ones. Sasha is an absolutist when it comes to trading off libertarian rights for other considerations, but a maximizer when it comes to trading off rights for greater protection of those same rights in the future. Effective defense against a massive asteroid impact easily passes Sasha’s rights-maximizing test.
Obviously, I welcome correction from Sasha if I have misinterpreted his views.
I’m glad that Adler agrees with me – and disagrees with many Tea Party lunatics, including some recently elected to the Senate and the House – that there’s no actual Constitutional question about funding the Department of Education or National Public Radio. That, of course, was my point.
I’m also glad that Sasha is standing by his guns, thus demonstrating that my argument was not directed at a mere straw man, though his objection to spending is philosophical rather than Constitutional.
Sasha worries that his honest and forthright response might confirm me in my belief that “libertarians are loopy.” That’s certainly a reasonable concern. But I would have thought that a bigger concern would be that the conclusion is, in fact, obviously loopy, and – like any good reductio ad absurdum argument, ought to lead to a re-examination of the premises that would lead to such a loopy conclusion.
Ilya Somin is right to point out that any theory that puts an absolute constraint on action runs into problems when inaction has catastrophic consequences. But if he really can’t see the difference between torture and income taxation – can’t understand why absolute opposition to torture is not analogous to absolute opposition to public spending on public goods – then “loopy” is entirely too weak a word.
I leave it to others to debate the constitutional and moral merits of government spending on asteroid defense (my view is that such spending is both constitutionally permissible and morally proper, but I have nothing original to add on the subject). I just wanted to add that one side of the debate is an unusually near-literal application of the saying, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.”
Noah Millman at The American Scene:
An impending catastrophe – asteroid strike – threatens to kill everyone in the society. That doesn’t violate anyone’s “rights” because you don’t have a “right to life” but rather a right not to have your life taken away by somebody else against your will. Therefore, the government has no right to tax you to protect you – and everybody else – from the asteroid.
So how is the asteroid to be stopped?
Presumably, everyone in society would agree voluntarily to cooperate to stop the asteroid. That is to say: we could still have collective action, but it would have to be voluntary, not coerced.
But would everyone participate?
The government goes around, passing the hat for contributions to stop the asteroid. A certain percentage of people, though, don’t believe in asteroids. Another percentage believe that the asteroid will bring the Rapture and so must not be stopped. These people are crazy, though, and crazy people are not interesting to talk about. Let’s hope there aren’t too many and ignore them.
Some people, though, notice that there are wealthier people than them in the society, and figure those other people should shoulder the burden of saving society. These are the “free-riders.”
Now, so long as this group is relatively small, no problem. Enough people will still put up enough money to stop the collective catastrophe. But so long as that is the case, free-riding is the economically rational thing to do. Indeed, in any large enough society, free-riding is always the rational thing to do: in a society with enough people putting up enough money voluntarily to stop the asteroid, free-riding is costless; in a society without enough such people, contributing is pointless.
The salvation of this ultra-libertarian society, then, depends upon the existence of a sufficient number of irrationally self-sacrificing people, people who ignore their rational self-interest in order to procure a social good for the group, without regard for the amount of “free riding” going on around them.
On the assumption – which I don’t think is pushing it at all – that there are a whole lot of communal problems that require collective action to address, libertarianism is only practical in highly communitarian societies.
I don’t know that that’s a knock-down argument against libertarianism. Wikipedia is a highly communitarian activity that grew up in a highly libertarian environment (the Internet), and most of the world is free-riding.
But it’s worth stressing nonetheless, because libertarians tend to talk as if rationality will lead to the necessary level of cooperation. But it won’t. In any case of communal threat where attempted free-riders cannot independently exposed to the threat, while contributors are protected, the rational thing to do is free-ride.