“Criminal in nature”

Whoever snooped in Joe the Plumber’s motor vehicle records should spend some time behind bars.

Right. The notion that Joe the Cranky Racist Non-Plumber ought to have been immune from criticism after he chose to make himself a campaign issue is absurd. But invading his privacy by using the authority of enforcement agencies to access his motor-vehicle records is, as it should be should be, a crime.

Naturally, the McCain campaign is charging the Obama campaign with complicity. So far, there’s no basis in fact for that charge, but that’s true of most of what McCain has said about Obama this year. Ignore it.

Still, at least three people almost certainly broke the law. And they ought to go to jail for it, pour encourager les autres.

In a world where information processing gets cheaper every year, data-base snooping – especially under law-enforcement cover – needs to be erected into an absolute taboo. The IRS has done a good job of this; tax return information never leaks. That should be our model.

Footnote I see from comments to Jonathan Adler’s Volokh Conspiracy post that three different questions are being [deliberately?] conflated by those on the losing side in this election:

1. Was it a crime to access Wurzlebacher’s motor vehicle records? Of course it was. Whoever did it should serve time.

2. Did the Obama campaign have anything to do with the snooping? Right now, there is absolutely no evidence of that, which hasn’t kept the McCain campaign from charging Obama’s staff with a serious crime, just as the McCain campaign tried to create a flap out of the racial fantasies of one of its mentally-ill volunteers in Pittsburgh. That should tell every reasonable person what assertions from the McCain campaign are worth.

3. Are any facts about Wurzlebacher relevant to the campaign? Of course. He pretended to be, and is held out by the McCain campaign as being, a small businessman whose taxes would go up under the Obama plan. It turns out that he is neither. It also turns out that he’s a tax-dodger and a racist (who likened Obama to Sammy Davis, Jr.). McCain can legitimately be challenged about his judgment in making Wurzlebacher into some sort of hero/poster boy, and facts about Wurzlebacher are relevant to that challenge.

As to whether the publicity is somehow unfair to Wurzlebacher, he aggressively sought it out, starting with his decision to confront Sen. Obama as Obama campaigned in Wurzlebacher’s neighborhood and continuing with his baseless allegation — which has become a McCain-campaign mantra — that Obama’s opposition to the same tax cuts McCain opposed back in 2001 makes Obama a “socialist.”

As to Wurzlebacher’s lack of a plumber’s license: plumbing is a highly skilled occupation, requiring a license in every state. Of course those licensure rules can be abused, but since the average consumer is utterly incapable of jugding the quality of plumbing, and since homebuyers have no way of knowing the quality of the plumbing services previously purchased by homesellers, and since the potential damage from bad plumbing work is substantial, licensure is not an unreasonable rule (by contrast, for example, with licensure of hairstylists).

By claiming to be a plumber when he actually dropped out of an apprenticeship program, Wurzlebacher is padding his resume, just as much as a law school dropout working as a clerk-typist at a law firm would be unjustified in calling himself “Joe the Lawyer.” Even libertarians who believe that anyone should be allowed to practice law ought to condemn such resume-padding, unless their snobbery is such as to deny that qualified plumbers, like qualified lawyers, possess a legitimate occupational status based on their training and knowledge.

All that said, not every fact about Wurzlebacher is relevant to the campaign, and some of the attempts to damage him personally because of the political stance he chose to take ought properly to be condemned. But again, since there is no evidence that the Obama campaign was involved in any of those attempts, loose talk about “the coming Obama thugocracy,” along with false claims about massive vote fraud and campaign-finance fraud, ought to be dismissed for what they are: pre-emptive whining by a bunch of (in both senses of the term) losers.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com