More wasteful government spending

Where does the Constitution authorize the Centers for Disease Control?

The Administration’s budget for 2011 proposes to eliminate the vector-borne disease unit of the Centers for Disease Control. Excellent! Much more important to cut government spending in the face of the worst demand shortfall since the Great Depression, in order to reassure financial markets – which don’t in fact seem to be at all worried – that the Federal Government isn’t about to go bankrupt, than to prevent a massive outbreak of dengue fever on the Gulf Coast. What some liberals don’t understand is that living under third-world conditions toughens you up and makes you a better, more God-fearing person. Such misguided people will criticize this decision.  But I, for one, am proud to see the Administration proposing the sort of bipartisan policy that warms the hearts of Pete Peterson and the Sunday talk-show hosts.

After all, where in the Constitution does it say that the Federal government has the power to regulate insects or prevent infectious  disease. The socialist, big-government CDC needs to be shut down, so that our children and grandchildren can live the free-market, Tenth-Amendment, disease-ridden, short, and miserable lives the Framers intended them to live.

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:

21 thoughts on “More wasteful government spending”

  1. What you don't seem to understand, and what I have learned only after long discussion with vaccine opponents (or a common type of christian scientist), is that the absence of certain diseases from our nation have nothing to do with a modern public health system. I have been shown very convincing charts which prove that as the United States (or Europe, Japan, etc.) became wealthier, the incidence of certain communicable diseases became less common. Let me repeat, it is NOT the modern public health system, it is economic development which keeps us healthy!

    Now, you may be tempted to suggest that rising incomes is a proxy for investment in public health services and the widespread use of more advanced medical practices and technologies; you would be wrong.

    The real reason economic prosperity seems to lead to lower incidence of many communicable diseases is…

    I can't quite remember right now but there is a bunch of stuff explaining it on the internet and well it doesn't matter anyhow because even if choosing not to follow the advice of public health 'experts' means we get sick more often it is actually healthier because nature (or god) intends for us to get sick of some of these diseases but we'd be fine because nature (or god) wouldn't just have lots of fatal diseases that mostly killed the most vulnerable people and besides the threat has been overplayed by businesses (or liberals) trying to increase the power of a huge corporations (or the government).

    So there!

  2. Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO) has Fort Collins in her district, and she is on this story;… has some details. Senators Udall and Bennet are also getting involved.

    West Nile virus activity is increasing in several states (and even in Canada), so it should be possible to get some additional pressure on this issue. Even states without major vector-borne disease laboratories should have some Congressional intervention here.

  3. Actually, it's pretty clever, though rather cold blooded. If you really believe that no crisis should be allowed to go to waste, wouldn't you be tempted to create some of your own? There's nothing quite like a good epidemic to make people more open to governmental claims of extraordinary power.

    BTW, in Article V, it says you can amend the Constitution. This means, remarkably enough, that if there's a power the Constitution doesn't grant the federal government, and a consensus exists that the federal government should have that power, you can change the actual words of the Constitution so that the federal government can legitimately exercise it. Instead of simply pretending that the federal government is granted the power to do anything it thinks is a good idea.

    Maybe we should try that once in a while. Of course, trying would require admitting that the federal government doesn't already have the authority to do anything it damned well pleases. That's a difficult admission to get anyone in Congress to make…

  4. While CDC is obviously not within the specific enumerated powers, a fair argument is that it comes under the "general welfare" provision.

    The more relevant comparison to the unconstitutional must-buy health insurance mandate is if they tried a FEDERAL all-persons-must-accept-vaccinations law.

    Would that be constitutional in your view?

  5. Insect vectors are of disease are death-dealing invaders, and they can be dealt with under the powers of Congress to provide for the common defense. In addition, communicable disease crosses state lines and disrupt commerce, so the CDC is covered on that score as well. If the government has the authority to shoot down missiles, it has the power to shoot down mosquitoes.

    Many years ago, an underground comic book by Gilbert Shelton had as its superhero one Wonder Warthog, the Hog of Steel, whose secret identity was wimpy newspaper reporter Philbert Desanex. In 1964, he pulled the arms and legs off of every communist in the United States. In one episode, the Federal Bureau of Diseases, having eliminated the known afflictions of mankind, was fretting about its impending obsolescence and budget elimination. They sent a team to Africa to go to Wottalottaland and import Poltroonian Swine Fever. I do not recall how Wonder Warthog saved humanity, but perhaps Brett had this episode in mind. I am also aware of people who think that the government engineered the AIDS epidemic, but they usually come from a different part of the political spectrum.

  6. This is not just about dengue, Lyme disease, typhus, West Nile, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, etc.; there is no vaccine against malaria, and the US had widespread endemic malaria until 1950. Meanwhile, the plasmodium has evolved resistance to drug after drug, and there are ample sources of reinfestation around the world to get us in trouble again. Malaria is not just a couple of nights of chills and fever.

  7. So, Brett, you'd propose shutting down CDC until we have a Constitutional amendment to specifically allow it?

  8. JMC: The general welfare clause isn't a grant of power, it's a restriction on the power "to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises". You really think that the Constitution has a specific enumeration of delegated powers, an amendment delegating all other powers to the states, AND a couple of clauses, (Necessary and proper, general welfare.) which boil down to, "Never mind all that other junk, the federal government is authorized to do anything it thinks is a good idea."? And nobody figured this out for, what? 140 years? That's nothing but sophistry.

    I mean, do you think the Constitution is modeled after those stupid "gotcha" tests en elementary school, where you're given a list of instructions, told to read them all before starting, and the last instruction tells you to disregard everything prior on the list, and just turn the paper in signed? That everything is surplusage except for the general welfare clause, the necessary and proper clause, and a few structural directions? Let me quote Madison on the subject:

    “If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress…. Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America.”

    The modern judiciary's reading of the general welfare clause is exactly what it's author denied it meant, because the purpose of that reading is exactly what he said: To transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people into an unlimited government.

    Mark, I think the CDC, except to the extent it operates in a purely advisory capacity, IS unconstitutional. That does imply it should be discontinued. Ideally in a fashion intended to cause as little disruption as possible. It could quite simply be reduced to that advisory capacity while the amendment was pursued, (Amendments have been ratified in as little as 100 days.) or arrangements made to have the states take it's other functions taken over directly.

    Are we to conclude that, once the federal government starts doing something unconstitutional, there can never be any going back? A convenient position for anybody who thinks that the government shouldn't have been limited in the first place.

  9. Mark, some explication: We're currently in a bad situation. After about 80 years of the judiciary abdicating their role of enforcing constitutional limits on federal power, the federal government is doing a LOT of things which are unconstitutional, some of them for many decades. This leaves us with three options:

    1. The default: Continue having a constitution which mandates limited government, and a government which isn't limited. The problem with this is it precludes our ever having honest government, because only liars are willing to run a government based on lies.

    2. Start enforcing that constitution, and those limits. While this option is obviously the most attractive to any libertarian, I think it's probably the lease feasible from a political standpoint.

    3. Amend the Constitution to actually delegate to the federal government the powers it's currently exercising. This is the position I've reluctantly come to, and advocate a constitutional convention to do so. At least we'd be able to have honest government again.

  10. Brett does submit some thoughts worth thinking about. The world has changed so much in the past 200 years that the world of Jefferson and Madison has largely passed away. There is an openness to the Constitution, with its lack of precise definitions of its terms (just what is a cruel or unusual punishment or an excessive bail, anyway?) which mean that "enforcing the Constitution" has no clear meaning. Only on a few matters is there enough specificity (you cannot be President if you are 34 years old) to be enforceable in an unambiguous manner. But how lengthy would the Constitution need to be if we wanted one that had the desired specificity that many libertarians seem to desire? Would we be able to carry it around in our breast pocket?

    Another issue: FDR understood that Washington had acquired an importance in the lives of Americans that could not be evaded by him or his successors. The centralization of power in DC means that there is now less power at the local level; this means that ward heelers are less relevant to the lives of ordinary people (in relation to federal bureaucrats) than they were in the "good old days." Is that a world to which we wish to return? "Local control" sounds pretty good, but it can mean not power to the people, but power to the political machines and party bosses. Maybe enforcement of the Tenth Amendment would shift power back to them, but we might not be thrilled with the results.

  11. @Bill- My goodness…nature or god intended for us to get sick? Did nature (or god) also intend for us to heat the planet up and drown several million people, and displace a billion more?

    And just how do you think having more money in your pocket leads to a magical resistance to disease? You think Benjamin Franklin creates a sort of defensive shield?

    Unbelievable. Probably the most ignorant comment on this blog I've read this year. Stupefying.

  12. "But how lengthy would the Constitution need to be if we wanted one that had the desired specificity that many libertarians seem to desire? Would we be able to carry it around in our breast pocket?"

    A libertarian constitution could very well be shorter than the current constitution. But, then, the current constitution could be shorten quite a bit without changing its meaning. In any case, a lot less federal code could be derived from a libertarian constitution.

    "Unbelievable. Probably the most ignorant comment on this blog I’ve read this year. Stupefying."

    Bill forgot to include his satire tags.

  13. "But how lengthy would the Constitution need to be if we wanted one that had the desired specificity that many libertarians seem to desire?"

    Charles beat me to it; A constitution specific enough to satisfy libertarians could very well be shorter than the present one. The problem is, mere specificity won't cut it under today's circumstances; Even the most utterly specific document requires a certain degree of good faith on the part of those interpreting it, and that's what is lacking now. For instance, if you can 'interpret' the interstate commerce clause to allow regulation of matters neither interstate, nor commerce, being specific isn't the cure, the clause is plenty specific enough to preclude that interpretation. Replacing you with somebody who really cares what the words say is the cure.

  14. Something tells me that the requirement is for a constitution that's specific enough to satisfy libertarians and won't impose the kind of limited government we've seen in Haiti or Somalia.

  15. Brett thinks that specificity will not help under today’s circumstances. However, where there is specificity in the Constitution, it has been strictly observed. That is why there are and have been no 24-year-old representatives, no 29-year old senators, and no 34 year old presidents. All members of Congress are citizens of the United States. Specificity in the document has always been respected, even by activist judges. If there are counter-examples, let them be produced.

    People who care “what the words say” do not necessarily have the same interpretation. The Eighth Amendment prohibits excessive fines, but that does not mean that the dollar amounts in specific cases always means what Brett thinks it means, nor does it mean that someone who comes up with a different dollar amount lacks good faith. Brett’s own opinions are, for him, self-evident truths, and only bad faith can explain differences of opinion on what words mean.

    Now, Brett, was the Louisiana Purchase constitutional? If you say no, you are in good company, along with most of the New England Federalists who opposed Jefferson. Purchasing land is not one of the enumerated powers of Congress or the President. Does the passage of time turn a wrong into a right? If it was wrong then and wrong now, should there be a remedy now to make it right? If meanings are as self-evident as you seem to believe, this should be an easy question to answer.

  16. Ed, in some places where the Constitution is specific, the political class have not yet gotten around to voiding the clear meaning. Qualifications for office are likely to be particularly conserved, for the simple reason that everyone who has achieved office already has fulfilled them, and has no interest in expanding the universe of possible challengers by voiding the requirements. This is not to suggest that they would survive the current level of judicial deference if ever the political class found them inconvenient. We've already been put on notice that we peons aren't allowed to challenge the 'native born' qualifications of Presidential candidates. (I still think McCain was unqualified on that score, you can't retroactively make somebody 'native born' by application of a law enacted after they were born.)

    And note that you leaped straight to one of the genuine judgment calls in the Constitution, avoiding any of the clear language that's currently being violated, such as the guarantee of jury trials in ALL criminal cases. (A leap so predictable it's become boring. Can't you guys find another example?) I'm not denying that the Constitution has areas of ambiguity. I'm simply denying that they're as extensive as people who see in ambiguity a license to 'amend' typically claim.

    Claims of ambiguity are particularly weak in areas that were not seen as ambiguous for a century or more, such as that commerce clause.

  17. Some ambiguities are better than others. Sometimes laws are passed when their enumeration in Article I is not clear. Yesterday, for example, the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act was celebrated. There may be some debate over the authority of Congress to pass such an act. But it has liberated legions of Americans from confinement and exclusion from the activities that their fellow citizens take for granted. The Constitution was established and ordained in order to secure the blessings of liberty for the founders and their posterity. The ADA increases the liberty of the framers' posterity. Whether it would pass today is doubtful; I think that the GOP in the House and Senate would do everything in its power to block it, especially if it were seen as coming from the Obama White House. But the spirit of the ADA is different from that of the Patriot Act. The preamble gives the whys and wherefores of making a Constitution, in language that can hardly be called precise or specific.

    Other departures from the plain meaning of the text are more sinister. The denial of trial by jury in criminal cases, cited by Brett, is an action that threatens the blessings of liberty to the posterity of the men who labored in 1787 to secure that liberty. You can have a test for deciding how much to deplore a constitutionally dubious action: does it increase or diminish liberty?

    And I am still wondering about the constitutionality of that Louisiana Purchase. If it is not some 80 years, but rather some 200 years of shredding the original document that we are dealing with, our discussion will be affected accordingly. Hell, if we have to return the whole territory to France to reverse the wrong, we are stuck with socialized medicine and government-mandated work hours.

    This thread began with the abolition of the Vector-Borne Illness section of the CDC. Disease agents and vectors cross state lines and make people sick; this means that the conduct of business and the fulfillment of contracts can be impeded. Congress may act to do something about that. If one state had a lax or incompetent response to a disease that does not respect state boundaries, that would affect commerce in another state, which would be at the mercy of the policies of its neighbor. I am not claiming that this is self-evident, but it passes the test of common sense.

  18. "You can have a test for deciding how much to deplore a constitutionally dubious action: does it increase or diminish liberty?"

    You can have such a test for which constitutional violations get extra deploring. But you'd better deplore them all, if you want to claim you value the rule of law. And the rule of law is rather critical to the maintainance of liberty, in as much as, without it, any liberty we're allowed is merely at the government's whim.

    I would point out that the actual text of the commerce clause does not authorize Congress to regulate anything that effects interstate commerce. It authorizes Congress to regulate the commerce, itself. To the extent the CDC is regulating actual commerce, which actually does cross state boundaries, it's constitutional. To the extent that it regulates things which are either intrastate, or not commerce, it is not. And that is so, entirely apart from whether it would be a good idea for the government to have the power to regulate non-commerce/intrastate matters which impact health.

    Once you abandon that principled position? Your reasoning would allow the CDC to regulate our diets and exercise habits. It leaves no principled way of saying that the federal government could not mandate twice a day calisthenics, or that you eat broccoli once a day. Maybe it wouldn't… But only because it didn't, at the moment, feel like doing so. Not because it couldn't claim the power any time it felt like it.

    That's why all our liberties are insecure without the rule of law, regardless of whether, in any given instance, the government might use a usurped power for positive ends. The government ALWAYS claims it's ends are positive, and rarely, (For it appoints them!) lacks for judges willing to agree.

    Oh, the Louisiana purchase? A tough call: The aim was something not contemplated by the Constitution, but it does authorize the government to buy land. Explicitly so. I think men of good faith can disagree on matters such as that. But we're well out of the good faith disagreement zone today, as you yourself have acknowledged in a sideways manner, by admitting that you make your decisions on what to deplore based on the effects, not the constitutionality. Hardly a concession you'd have needed to make if you'd thought that you could defend the constitutionality of the government's actions apart from their consequences.

  19. Well, what did you expect, Brett? I am a big government, tax and spend, bleeding heart liberal! I think that having Braille on elevators for the different floors of a building is part of what I owe the blind as part of a social contract to open doors to them. It is irksome to a few people for reasons that are not clear, but the ADA has had some consequences that justify its passage.

    If there is a clause in the Constitution that authorizes the purchase of land, I would like to see the article and section. Otherwise, it is an implicit power, and there goes the horse out the barn door.

    The land grants that made the transcontinental railway possible affected interstate commerce (greatly enhancing it) before Congress could regulate it. No railroad, nothing to regulate. Nathaniel Taggert could build a railroad with no help from the government, but he exists only in Ayn Rand’s imagination.

    The ADA passed both houses of Congress by a national consensus that no longer exists. Its constitutionality would be suspect and today it would face obstacles from Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and the Tea Party and others who would say that next thing you know businesses will be required to hire the incompetent, the unqualified, and the criminally insane. Fox News would give them unlimited exposure. That is the era we live in now.

  20. "…, but the ADA has had some consequences that justify its passage."

    The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to accommodate disabled workers and outlaws discrimination against the disabled in hiring, firing, and pay. Although the ADA was meant to increase employment of the disabled, it also increases costs for employers. The net theoretical impact turns on which provisions of the ADA are most important and how responsive firm entry and exit is to profits. Empirical results using the CPS suggest that the ADA had a negative effect on the employment of disabled men of all working ages and disabled women under age 40. The effects appear to be larger in medium size firms, possibly because small firms were exempt from the ADA. The effects are also larger in states where there have been more ADA-related discrimination charges. Estimates of effects on hiring and firing suggest the ADA reduced hiring of the disabled but did not affect separations. This weighs against a pure firing-costs interpretation of the ADA. Finally, there is little evidence of an impact on the nondisabled, suggesting that the adverse employment consequences of the ADA have been limited to the protected group.


    Consequences of Employment Protection?: The Case of the Americans with Disabilities Act

    "…businesses will be required to hire the incompetent, the unqualified, and the criminally insane."


    But Prouse's pessimism about his career prospects proved unwarranted. That's because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects alcoholics who enter rehab. Although Northwest could have tried to take shelter under an exception, it chose to bow to the spirit of the law. Northwest rehired Prouse as soon as he was released from jail. And in July 1995 the company quietly confirmed that Prouse had returned to flying passenger jets.


    Life, liberty, and the pursuit of a good beer: how the ADA has turned alcoholism into a right

  21. "I think that having Braille on elevators for the different floors of a building is part of what I owe the blind as part of a social contract to open doors to them."

    Why can't you owe it to them at the state level? You are aware, aren't you, that most of what's unconstitutional for the federal government to do is, per the 10th amendment, constitutional at the state level?

    What lies behind this all consuming determination that essentially everything has to be done at the federal level? I suspect it's the fear that, if done at the state level, some states might chose NOT to do something liberals want done. IOW, doing it at the federal level is just a way of forcing populations that don't want to comply to do what you want.

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