On a snowy and cold December Saturday, I spent the day at a training class for activists who want to do a better job of holding their elected representatives accountable to the Principles of Liberty. I learned several things in the class, but my main takeaway was that it’s clearly time for a change at our Colorado State Capitol.
The Concept of Rights
What are “Rights”? The word is one of the most used and misused in our current day political vocabulary. When the founder of Principles of Liberty, Mr. Richard “Rich” Bratten, asked this question of our class, a lot of ideas were thrown out – a “right to life”, a “right to healthcare”, a “right to education”, “human rights”, “animal rights”, “property rights”, “a right to a decent wage”, and many others. We enjoyed a lively debate on the concept of rights, but what it boiled down to was this: the Rights that are important and worth fighting to preserve are our unalienable Natural Rights – the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
By unalienable, we mean that these rights are inherent in our nature and they exist because we exist. Nobody grants these rights, though they can be abrogated or stolen; and nobody can assert or claim a “right” that involves depriving another of their unalienable rights. The most vivid demonstration of this concept was when Rich asked the group if it was OK to take $20 from one person by force to buy a meal for a starving person. Sadly, not everybody in the class was able to see that this is inherently immoral.
Rights are not granted by governments. There is no such thing as a “right” to healthcare, because that involves the use of force to compel somebody else (a healthcare provider) to provide goods or services against their will without proper remuneration. There is no such thing as a “right” to education, because that involves the use of force to compel somebody else (a teacher) to provide their service (teaching) in a facility owned by others (a school building) against their will or without proper compensation.
Today, people use the word “right” to describe something they want, and then demand the force of government to compel others to provide them with that want, whether it is a minimum wage their skills may not be worth to an employer in a free market; a “free” college education that they feel they’re entitled to, or a cake they won’t eat because they want to compel somebody else to provide it against their religious beliefs.
When I talk about “Rights”, I’m talking only about our unalienable, Natural Rights as enumerated in our Declaration of Independence. These are the Rights that Principles of Liberty was founded in 2011 to preserve.
The Proper Role of Government
The discussion next turned to the Initiation of Force and the Proper Role of Government.
Government has the legal monopoly on the use of force. This is an awesome power, and the only MORAL use of this power is to enforce individual rights. Using force to defend one’s life is entirely appropriate and moral. No individual may INITIATE the use of force against another. Nobody may use force to take another person’s property.
The proper role of government, as outlined in the Declaration of Independence, is to secure the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That is all.
The ways in which governments should secure these rights are by enforcing property rights, acting as a referee in disputes (though private arbitration exists and is often used), the police power to enforce laws that protect life, liberty and property, and the military to protect the nation against foreign aggression.
It is not a proper role of government to redistribute property, to pick winners and losers in a market, to force people to perform acts of charity against their will or anything else that deprives or impinges upon an individual’s natural, unalienable Rights.
Any bill that is introduced into a state legislature should be read and evaluated by those who will vote on it through the lens of “Is this the proper role of government?” If it is, then it should be evaluated in light of the other principles of liberty; and if not, it should be resoundingly rejected.
Another interesting concept illustrated by Mr. Bratten is that the national platforms of the three major parties in the United States – the Democrats, Libertarians and the Republicans – all express support for the principles of liberty that he has identified, with one exception: Nowhere in their platform do the Democrats express support for limited government or property rights. The fact that so many legislators don’t follow these principles means that national platforms are largely meaningless.
The Legislative Process
Mr. Bratten then led the class through a discussion of how bills become law. I had the opportunity to witness this process first-hand in 2013 as the Democrats, in an unprecedented raw display of power, enacted several gun control bills over the clear objection of many Coloradans. I saw bills go through first reading, committee hearings, floor debates, third votes and then the same process in the other chamber.
We learned about “kill committees” where bills go to die. These committees are staffed by legislators who are term limited or are from safe districts and are relatively immune to political pressure. We learned how the party leadership – of both parties – uses (and breaks) the rules to achieve the outcomes they want.
We learned about how Mr. Bratten came to found Principles of Liberty, how they determine which bills they are going to review and rate; and how legislator scores are determined.
Over 600 Bills and Millions of Dollars
Each of the 100 state legislators is allowed to introduce up to 5 bills in a session. There are others that are introduced by committees and leadership. Often, legislators will get permission to introduce additional bills, and this is the reason why in a typical session over 600 bills will be introduced. At the cost per bill of $5,000 to $10,000, this represents a large expenditure in the millions of taxpayer dollars.
Mr. Bratten told us that Principles of Liberty reviews each bill, but only rates about 250 per session. Appropriations bills are usually not rated, and bills that have conflicting principles (i.e. it supports limited government but weakens property rights ) are not rated. Typically each bill is rated on two to three principles.
What Are the Principles of Liberty?
The Principles of Liberty that Mr. Bratten’s organization use for rating purposes are as follows (for each, I will provide one of several rating criteria):
- Individual Liberty: Does this bill protect or erode individual liberty by protecting or eroding the Bill of Rights?
- Personal Responsibility: Does this bill diminish the role of personal responsibility through government intervention?
- Property Rights: Does this bill protect or interfere with use of property?
- Free Markets: Does this bill use government regulation or intervention in the markets to further socio-political agendas?
- Limited Government: Does this bill execute a clearly defined and proper role of state government?
- State vs. Federal Balance of Power: Does this bill assert or abdicate state powers?
- Fiscal Responsibility: Does this bill limit spending to that required to perform limited, constitutional role of government?
- Equal Protection/Rule of Law: Does this bill protect individual rights/liberty equally for everyone?
A final principle is that of constitutionality – Does this bill fall within the scope of the powers granted to government by the Constitutions of the State of Colorado or the United States? Many people think that the courts are the final arbiters of the constitutionality of any particular law, but it is not so. Our Founders created three separate but equal branches of government, with checks and balances on each. To those who argue that five Supreme Court justices have the final say on what is or is not “Constitutional”, I give you Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), Buck v. Bell (1927), Korematsu v. United States (1944), Plessy V. Ferguson (1896) and Kelo v. City of New London (2005).
The Process and The Scorecard
Each Thursday during the Legislative Session, which in Colorado will run from January 13 through May 11, 2016, volunteer activists will receive a list of bills that are to be reviewed, and each Sunday night Mr. Bratten publishes a weekly report listing bills that are being heard in the coming week and the position of Principles of Liberty in support for or opposition to the bill and the principles used to evaluate the bill. These bills are being reviewed and ranked before they are heard or voted on, and the process is designed to be non-partisan.
Each legislative session, Principles of Liberty (POL) tabulates every vote by all 100 members and evaluates them by principle. By doing this, POL generates statistically significant data that is used to rate each legislator for their adherence to the principles outlined above. This scorecard is highly important, because it gives citizens an objective method to measure how well or how poorly their legislators support the proper role of government in our lives. After having learned about this, it will be a key factor in determining whether or not I will support any incumbent or candidate in the future.
Time For A Change!
The 2015 legislative scorecard is very illuminating. The highest ranked legislator in the House was Representative Justin Everett (R-HD22) with a score of 98.8%. The lowest ranked in the House was Representative Dianne Primavera (D-HD33) with a score of 17.9%. In the Senate, the highest ranked was Senator Vicki Marble (R-SD23) with a score of 94.3% and the lowest ranked was Senator Andy Kerr (D-SD22) with a score of 27.9%.
Overall, in the House, seven legislators received rankings of “A”, five received rankings of “B”, eight received rankings of “C”, and forty-five – over half! – of our elected representatives from both parties received rankings of “D” (3) or “F” (42). The highest scoring Democrat received an “F” with a 28.2% score.
In the Senate, it’s even worse. There were 2 “A” rankings, 3 “B” rankings, 3 “C” rankings, 2 “D”s and 25 “F”s, again with several legislators from both parties failing the grade.
I think these results are appalling – that fully 69% of our House representatives and 71% of our state senators failed to protect the principles of liberty and restrict our state government to its proper scope and function. If we can’t do this at the state level, it will be virtually impossible at the federal level.
My Call to Action is this: Every citizen and activist who is concerned about the direction our state and country are taking should stand up and be heard. Use the tools provided by Principles of Liberty to hold our state legislators accountable. We should demand that those ranking “B” and “C” check their premises and more closely adhere to the limited government that best promotes freedom and human flourishing; and we should work to replace those legislators who clearly are in office to expand the role of government, limit freedom and chip away at our constitutional republic.
The erosion of our liberty is a tragedy in the making. It’s time to turn the tide.
By Richard D. Turnquist
December 13, 2015