Author Archive | Ilya Somin

Some Upcoming Speaking Engagements

Here are some speaking engagements I will be doing in the next two weeks:

Thursday, January 22: I will be delivering the annual Brennan Lecture at Oklahoma City University. My topic (picked because it interested the organizers) is “NFIB v. Sebelius and the Constitutional Debate Over Federalism.” Perhaps Justice William Brennan would turn over in his grave if he knew that I was giving this lecture. There are important areas of agreement between us, but probably not on this issue. On the other hand, he might already have turned over when co-blogger Randy Barnett delivered a previous lecture in the series in 2004 (the list of past speakers also includes many people closer to Brennan’s views).

Jan. 27, noon: University of Chicago Law School Federalist Society: I will be doing a talk on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (with commentary by a U of Chicago professor, name TBA).

Jan. 28, noon: University of Illinois College of Law Federalist Society, Champaign, IL: “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” (with commentary by Illinois Prof. Jason Mazzone).

January 31, 2-3:30 PM: University of Texas School of Law, Austin Texas, Conference on “Is Democracy Desirable?” (with commentary by Yale Law School Professor Heather Gerken and University of Texas Professor Sanford Levinson). […]

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Immigration and Political Freedom

I recently wrote a guest post for the Open Borders blog on migration and political freedom. The connection between the two is often ignored in debates over immigration policy. Here’s an excerpt:

There is widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental human right – that everyone is entitled to substantial freedom of choice in deciding what type of government policies they will live under. This is one of the main justifications for democracy. Voting enables the people to exercise political choice. But the principle of political freedom also has implications for international migration. The same logic that justifies giving people a right vote at the ballot box also implies that they should have a right to vote with their feet. This is particularly true of people living under authoritarian governments, where foot voting is often the only feasible way of exercising any political choice at all. But even for those fortunate enough to live under a democracy, the right to migrate elsewhere is an important aspect of political freedom. In both cases, obviously, the right to emigrate is of little value unless there is also a right to immigrate to some other nation….

Although the democracy has spread rapidly in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population still live in undemocratic states….

Residents of many authoritarian nations can exercise political freedom only through international migration or not at all. If developed democracies refuse admission to migrants from such countries, they effectively deprive them of their political freedom. They therefore become complicit in violating a fundamental human right. One can object that Westerners are not responsible for the lack of democracy in many Third World nations. But as philosopher Michael Huemer explains, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use

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The Pot Bowl

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the two teams that made it to the Super Bowl on Sunday represent Colorado and Washington – the two states that recently legalized marijuana. If this somehow helps accelerate the recent decline in public support for the War on Drugs, it will almost be enough to offset my disappointment over the Patriots and Tom Brady losing to longtime rival Peyton Manning. […]

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Lawyers for Victims of WWII Internment of Japanese-Americans Urge Overruling of Korematsu

At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston has an interesting post on an effort by lawyers who represented Fred Korematsu and other victims of the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to persuade the Obama administration to advocate the overruling of Korematsu v. United States, the notorious 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld the forcible internment of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II [HT: GMU law student Rebecca Bucchieri]:

Lawyers who worked for years — ultimately successfully — to clear the names of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry who were convicted of violating government detention policy during World War II are trying to persuade the Obama administration to join in wiping off the books the Supreme Court rulings of that time, upholding those detentions. The most famous of those rulings – often reviled – was the 1944 decision in Korematsu v. United States.

The lawyers did so in a letter last week to U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., attempting to shape the government’s response to a new Supreme Court appeal that attacks the Korematsu decision. They want the government to formally repudiate that precedent, and tell the Court that it is no part of the justification today for detention of U.S. citizens during the war on terrorism.

The new case is Hedges v. Obama (docket 13-758), an attempt to revive a constitutional challenge to Congress’s recent support of presidential power to detain suspected terrorists….

While Congress was debating that measure, a controversy arose over how far it would go, if at all, to permit the detention without trial of U.S. citizens captured inside the U.S. In a compromise effort to resolve that dispute, Congress included a statement that now seems ambiguous about what was intended. In the Hedges case, the claim is that the statement can be

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Are People Too Dismissive of Others’ Arguments or Not Dismissive Enough?

Economist Tyler Cowen argues that people too readily dismiss others’ arguments:

One of the most common fallacies in the economics blogosphere — and elsewhere — is what I call “devalue and dismiss.” That is, a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether. Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means. Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course.

The “devalue” part of this chain may well be justified. But it should lead to “devalue and downgrade,” rather than “devalue and dismiss.”

“Devalue and dismiss” is much easier of course, because there then will be fewer constraints on what one can believe and with what level of certainty. “Devalue and downgrade” keeps a lot of balls in the air and that can be tiresome and also unsatisfying, especially for those of us trained to look for neat, intuitive explanations.

His George Mason Economics Department colleague Bryan Caplan responds that, in reality, most people aren’t dismissive enough:

I’m tempted to object, “Thank goodness for dismissal, because most ideas and thinkers are a waste of time.” But on reflection, Tyler’s overly optimistic. Dismissing ideas often requires rare intellectual discipline. Psychologists have documented our assent bias: Human beings tend to believe whatever we hear unless we make an affirmative effort to question it. As a result, our heads naturally accumulate intellectual junk. The obvious remedy is to try harder to “take out the trash” – or refuse to accept marginal ideas in the first place.

I think both Bryan and Tyler capture some of the truth. When new information or arguments cut against are strongly […]

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New Hampshire House Passes Marijuana Legalization Law

The New Hampshire House of Representatives recently became the first state legislative house to pass marijuana legalization. Legalization measures adopted in Colorado and Washington in 2012 passed by referendum. As the above-linked Concord Monitor article notes, the law faces tough sledding in the state senate, and could well be vetoed by New Hampshire’s Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. Nonetheless, it is an incremental step forward for the cause of legalization, which has been gaining ground in both public and elite opinion in recent years. […]

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Searching for Time Travelers on the Internet

Physicists Robert Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson have written an article on their research searching for time travelers on the internet. This could turn out to be the scientific paper of the year! But, sadly, no evidence of time travelers was found. Slate summarizes the study here:

In a paper pre-published on arXiv, a pair of actual physics professors detail their exhaustive efforts to canvass the Internet for evidence of time travelers. Drs. Robert J. Nemiroff and Teresa Wilson of Michigan Technological University had me at the first line of the abstract: “Time travel has captured the public imagination for much of the past century, but little has been done to actually search for time travelers.” Say, that’s a good point!

They go on to explain that they approached the problem by scouring the Web for tweets, Google searches, and other online postings about events—such as a comet or the naming of a new pope—that hadn’t happened yet at the time they were posted. “Given practical verifiability concerns,” the researchers note, “only time travelers from the future were investigated.” That’s understandable: Time travelers from the past presumably wouldn’t have had prescient insights to offer.

Sadly, it seems, neither did any time travelers from the future. “No time travelers were discovered,” the researchers report, in what must rank as an early front-runner for most disappointing sentence of 2014. They conclude: “Although these negative results do not disprove time travel, given the great reach of the Internet, this search is perhaps the most comprehensive to date.”

Either time travelers don’t exist, or Star Fleet’s Department of Temporal Investigations is doing a bangup job of covering up their presence, so as not to contaminate the timeline.

Here is a link to the full paper.

On a (slightly) more serious note, the authors […]

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Gun Control, Mass Shootings, and Political Ignorance

Law professor Josh Blackman and Yale student Shelby Baird have posted an interesting paper entitled “The Shooting Cycle,” on the reaction of public opinion to mass shooting incidents, like the tragic events in Newtown and the Washington Navy Yard in 2012 and 2013. Political ignorance plays an important role in their explanation for why such events result in temporary spikes in public support for gun control, followed by reversion to the mean. Here is Josh’s more detailed description of the findings:

The pattern is a painfully familiar one. News breaks that an unknown number of victims were killed by gunfire at a school, store, or other public place. The perpetrator wantonly takes the lives of innocent people. After the police arrive, the perpetrator is soon captured or killed, often by suicide. Sadness for the losses soon gives way to an emotional fervor for change. Different proposals for gun control are advanced—some ideas that were proposed earlier, but never obtained popular support, and other ideas that are developed in response to the recent tragedy. Politicians and advocates are optimistic for reform. However, as time elapses, support for these laws fades…..

This contribution to a symposium issue of the Connecticut Law Review on the Second Amendment peels back much of the rhetoric surrounding gun violence, and, distant from the passions, explores how the government and people react to these tragedies. This article offers a sober look at what we label the shooting cycle, and assesses how people and governments respond to mass killings….

We address this important issue in five parts. In Part I, we define the term “shooting,” and quantify how frequent they occur. Shootings, labeled “mass murders” by the FBI, are killings where the “four or more [murders] occur[] during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the

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Upcoming Talks in Boston on Democracy and Political Ignorance

This week on Thursday and Friday, I will be giving three talks in Boston on my book Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, sponsored by student Federalist Society chapters at their respective law schools:

Thursday, Jan. 16

12:15: Boston College Law School, East Wing 115A

3:30 PM: New England School of Law, Cherry Room

Friday, January 17

Noon: Boston University School of Law, Room 620 […]

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Proposed California Referendum Initiative Would Make it Even Easier to Declare Property “Blighted” and Condemn it

Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation has a good post outlining the the dangers posed by a California ballot question drafted by local governments interested in expanding their already very broad power to condemn property:

[J]ust before Christmas, the law firm of Rutan & Tucker—the leading California law firm for cities that want to steal your land for redevelopment—filed a new ballot initiative [that]… would bring back redevelopment as the “Jobs and Education Development Initiative.” But what’s even more remarkable is how it would expand the power of eminent domain even further than California’s already extremely broad Redevelopment Law allows. Indeed, if this initiative were to pass, it would essentially declare the whole state of California “blighted….”

Quick background: to take property for redevelopment, a local redevelopment agency (typically the City Council) has to declare an area “blighted.” They don’t have to declare each structure to be blighted—they can condemn whole neighborhoods, including perfectly adequate property, if lots down the street or around the corner are “blighted.” And what is the definition of “blight”? The Redevelopment Law contains two lists of factors (“physical” and “economic”), and the officials have to declare that one item from each list is present. That’s all. And the factors are already very vague. My personal favorite is “conditions that prevent or substantially hinder the viable use or capacity of buildings or lots.” What does that mean? It means whatever the government says it means.

That’s the current law. It is already so bad that practically any property in the state can be declared blighted if local officials want to do it. What the new initiative would do is expand these two lists even more.

For example, it changes “conditions that prevent or substantially hinder the viable use or capacity of buildings or lots” to

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Welcome John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport!

I am very glad to see that John McGinnis and Michael Rappaport are going to be guest-blogging here about their excellent new book, Originalism and the Good Constitution. I have some disagreements with their analysis. But it is nonetheless one of the best defenses of originalism in a long time. I reviewed the book in this post, back in October.

Readers interested in originalism and constitutional theory should also check out McGinnis and Rappaport’s many fascinating blog posts at the Liberty Law blog. […]

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Why Write a Book About a Seemingly Intractable Problem like Political Ignorance?

Some VC commenters and readers of my recent book and other work on political ignorance, wonder whether there is any point to writing about this subject if my argument is correct. If most voters are ignorant about politics because such ignorance is rational, and that problem is unlikely to be overcome by information shortcuts, education, or media reform, won’t they simply ignore my argument that we can help alleviate the problem by limiting and decentralizing government? If so, limitation and decentralization might prove to be just as unfeasible as more traditional strategies for alleviating political ignorance.

I can’t deny that this is a genuine dilemma. One possible answer is that there is value to understanding a problem better even if we can’t immediately come up with a workable solution. Other writers might be able to build on my analysis and use it to help develop more effective proposals of their own. The issue of the rationale for writing Democracy and Political Ignorance came up often enough in various presentations I gave about the manuscript before it was published, that I decided to provide a more thorough answer in the book itself. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote (footnotes omitted):

Given the self-perpetuating nature of the problem of political ignorance, readers might wonder whether there is much purpose to a book such as this one. Even if the case for limiting and decentralizing government is correct, rationally ignorant voters could easily ignore it, just as they do a great deal of other relevant information.

The challenge is indeed a daunting one. Nonetheless, there is at least some reason for cautious optimism. Past experience in several countries suggests that substantial liberalization and decentralization can be achieved in modern democracies. In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, New Zealand greatly

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Exposing the Nefarious Plot to Make Me a Federal Judge

Perhaps the strangest reaction to George Will’s Washington Post op ed about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance is this post at the Democratic Daily blog, which claims it is all part of an effort to “groom” me to become a GOP-appointed federal judge:

OK: Smart. Then “guided.” (GOPs recruit out of Yale and Harvard just like Dems.) Poly sci at Harvard and Law degree from Yale. And then apprenticeship to an appeals court judge — which is a specific kind of grooming in the legal culture. Remember, John Roberts clerked for William Rehnquist, and the fact that they are successive Chief Justices is neither surprising nor, save for historical accident, coincidental.

Now, since Ilya was clerking for Texas Judge [Jerry] Smith (appointed by Ronald Reagan) in 2001-2002, it’s safe to suggest what his politics were becoming, with the blue-ribbon certification: Harvard, Yale, Hangin’ Judge Smith (who served an apprenticeship under a Texas Judge who had, otherwise worked for Humble Oil Company — former Standard Oil division — his entire career until LBJ put him on the bench).

So, we have an idea that Ilya of George Mason is being groomed for a Federal Judgeship, and is laying out his “popular”/academic work which is being touted as a favor to someone by George Will.

Whoever has been grooming me to become a federal judge is doing a very bad job of it. In reality, no one with my lengthy paper trail of controversial and often unpopular positions is at all likely to be appointed a federal judge. And the GOP in particular is unlikely to appoint someone who has publicly called for things like the complete abolition of the War on Drugs and near-open borders immigration, and argued that laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional sex discrimination. Much of […]

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Rational Behavior is Not the Same Thing as Morally Praiseworthy Behavior

In this recent post commenting on George Will’s column about my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, Bill Quick of the Daily Pundit blog commits the understandable and common mistake of conflating rational behavior with good behavior. He claims that my argument that voter ignorance is rational must be wrong, because voter ignorance has harmful consequences:

I like Ilya, but his hackneyed apologia for individual rational ignorance when it comes to politics is pretty easy to shoot down…. You see, dead is dead, and dead doesn’t care whether it comes from an individual or a collective decision.

Nor does the dead individual care, either. Dead comes only on an individual basis, whether the terminal stroke is delivered by a single fist, or a nuclear explosion. What this means is that if you decide that it’s okay to remain an ignorant dumbass because your one single vote isn’t likely to decide anything, you may think you’ve offered a perfectly rational, unshakeable argument for doing so. But your ignorant dumbassery is painfully exposed when the collective decisions from which you have deliberately excluded yourself squashes the individual you like a bug.

It’s the same thing with the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons: It may seem perfectly rational for the individual to misuse the common field for his own benefit – until that field is destroyed and he dies because of his suicidal fecklessness….

Bottom line: If your individual actions lead to your own destruction, it doesn’t matter whether the destructive outcome arrives on an individual or collective basis. There is no way such suicidal actions can be rational as a general proposition.

Quick assumes that by calling political ignorance rational, I am offering an “apologia” for it. But, as I explain in the book, and here, individually rational behavior […]

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John McGinnis on the Case for Allowing Cell Phone Use on Planes

Few issues arouse as many strong emotional reactions as the possibility of permitting cell phone usage on planes. At the Law and Liberty blog, Northwestern University law professor John McGinnis has an excellent post making the case for legalization:

Cell phones on airplanes frighten a lot of people and not for safety reasons. Few people want to listen to a seatmate discuss his cat’s health or other trivia for hours. As someone who flies a good deal and values a trip in the clouds for wispy and random reflection, I deeply sympathize. But as a friend of liberty, I oppose a law to ban phone calls on planes….

In the same week in December that the FCC voted to consider lifting its ban on cell phones for airplanes, members of Congress introduced legislation to ban calls, regardless of an inquiry into their safety. This position allows our representatives to pose as tribunes of the people’s ear. But left to their own devices, airlines have an interest in maximizing revenue by satisfying both cell phone users and devotees of peaceful glide time.

First, some airlines might permit cell phone uses and others not, giving customers a choice. Southwest, for instance, has said it will not allow phone service, regardless of its legality. Second, airlines could have quiet sections where no cell phone is permitted and sections where travelers can connect with the world outside. Even the government monopoly of Amtrak offers inspiration here with its quiet cars in several sections of the nation.

Third, airlines could use surcharges to limit phone use to those most willing to pay for it, thus preserving relative tranquility while satisfying those who really need to make calls. Unbundling communication and transportation services in this way could even lower prices for passengers who do not

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