Supreme Mediocrity

“Your modesty overwhelms me, Yogi.”

“Why not, Boo Boo? I’ve got a lot to be modest about.”

Those are my two favorite lines from The Yogi Bear Show, a cartoon I watched when I was a kid. After his reply to Boo Boo, Yogi looks self-conscious as he realizes what he has just admitted about himself. I thought of that line when I read of the recent Supreme Court decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, and, in particular, a statement made by Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion. In that statement, Roberts revealed what is, at worst, dishonesty and, at best, a mediocre understanding of government. Government has a lot to be modest about. So does Chief Justice John Roberts.

In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Humanitarian Law Project (HLP), a non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Los Angeles, sued to overturn part of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act. The HLP objected to the particular section that prohibits U.S. citizens from providing “training, expert advice, or assistance” to groups that the U.S. government has designated as terrorist groups. The HLP had wanted to talk to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Because those who violate this part of the law can receive a prison sentence of up to 15 years, the people at the HLP, understandably, wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t violate the law by talking to the PKK. What they found out with the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision is that they would be violating the law and, therefore, would be in danger of going to prison.

And what did the HLP want to talk to the PKK about? Perhaps how to build better bombs? Not quite. The HLP wanted to give the PKK tools for solving their problems non-violently. Specifically, the HLP wanted to advise the PKK on how to file human rights complaints with the United Nations and how to conduct peace negotiations with the Turkish government. But the Supreme Court has now said that even helping the PKK to use peaceful methods instead of violence would be to give “material support” and, thus, violate the USA PATRIOT Act.

This means that if I happened to meet a terrorist, either here in the United States or elsewhere, I would be in legal jeopardy if I told him that he should not be a terrorist. What this decision does, therefore, is give the U.S. government a monopoly on dealings with terrorist groups.

How did Justice Roberts justify this decision? A pivotal part of his argument was the following:

“In this litigation, by contrast, Congress and the Executive are uniquely positioned to make principled distinctions between activities that will further terrorist conduct and undermine United States foreign policy, and those that will not.” (From opinion by Justice John Roberts, Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, June 21, 2010, p. 30.)

Congress and the executive branch are uniquely positioned to make such “principled decisions”? Are Roberts and I observing the same people? First, among the top five characteristics for which Congress and the executive branches are known, being principled is not on the list. And, in case Roberts has forgotten, in order to make principled distinctions, you pretty much have to be a principled person. But, second, whence came this incredible skill that Congress supposedly has? We know that when they voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, few, if any, of them had actually read it. The simple fact of the matter is, as anyone who has had even a few dealings with representatives or senators knows, they have little expertise on anything.

And why would they have such expertise? They don’t get it from running in political campaigns, from jumping from issue to issue the way virtually all of them do, or from spending hundreds of hours a year dialing for dollars because campaign finance laws since 1974 have made it so hard for them to get support from just a few high-contributing supporters. So, far from being “uniquely positioned” to make fine distinctions, most of them are not positioned at all.

If we take Roberts at face value – that is, if we assume that he’s not lying – his statement shows zero understanding of the mediocrity of the people in charge in Washington.

Copyright © 2010 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at