Monday, June 27, 2016

Democrats Doing a Sit-In for Terrorist Watch Lists Makes Little Sense

After the mass shooting in Orlando, many in this country grieved for those lost in the largest murder on American soil since 9-11. I was unsurprised that the Democrats politicized the tragedy as another attempt to pass gun control reforms. In response, Democratic Senators attempted to pass four bills in response to the attack: two regarding background checks and two regarding terror watch lists. However, the bills did not pass. Democratic Senators responded in the atypical fashion of staging a sit-in. I'm not going to address the background check aspect because I covered that topic recently, so I will discuss the terror watch list bills.

There were two bills proposed. The Republican version was to ban anyone who is on the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database from buying a gun. The Republican bill's caveat was that the individual had to wait 72 hours to give federal officials enough time to prove to a federal judge that said individual actually has terroristic ties. If not, the individual can buy a gun. The Democratic version was more unforgiving. If you end up on the Terrorist Screening Database and are denied a gun purchase, you would have to contest it in court. What's even scarier is that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wanted to extend the dragnet beyond even the Terrorist Watch List.

The idea of using the Terrorist Screening Database seems like a no-brainer: "Let's use a database from multiple national security agencies to stop the terrorists from buying guns and reeking havoc on our country." I'm going to gloss over the irony that the Orlando shooter was on the Database twice, but the FBI didn't find anything. I'm also going to ignore the irony how Democrats are doing a sit-in, a non-violent form of protest common during the Civil Rights Era, while staging a political circus that will end up eroding civil rights.

It's easier to end up on the Terrorist Screening Database than you would imagine. Have you traveled abroad? Have you ever criticized the government on social media? Have you expressed views against the War on Drugs or War on Terror? These criteria can get you on the Terrorist Watch List.
All the government needs is an elusively defined "reasonable suspicion" and a "sufficient level of identifying information," but these concepts are vague enough  What's worse is that the government doesn't need evidence to put you on the List, nor does the government allow you to confront your accuser because it is not required to inform you that you are on the List. As the Intercept shows, neither "concrete facts" nor "irrefutable evidence" are required.

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee due process, which would not happen with such a bill. As a matter of fact, due process would get in the way of such a bill. Top that off with violating the Second Amendment, and such a bill would violate no less than three Amendments in the Constitution. Those who are convicted of terroristic acts are already prohibited from buying a gun. If we want to prevent terrorists from getting guns, all the Attorney General has to do is indict the individual. The problem with that is that there is often not enough, which leads to my point of "Oh, wait! It gets better": 40 percent of the million-plus people on the Terrorist Screening Database don't even have terrorist affiliations of any kind (see below). The ACLU released a report showing just how devastating the effects of such a policy affect those falsely on the Terrorist Screening Database.

Finally, let us remind ourselves that if a terrorist really wants to get their hands on firearms, they will find a way to do so, as the New York Times points out. If the terrorist is tipped off because he can't buy a gun legally because of this watch list policy, the terrorist will most probably find more illicit ways to do so, all of which undermines security. In short, if this ever became law, the government could restrict your Second Amendment rights simply because you're on a vaguely defined, "secret, notoriously inaccurate list." Focusing on a terrorist watch list is, at best, a distraction. Much like I brought up with high-capacity magazine bans last week, if we want to talk about passing "common sense gun reform," let's focus on policy alternatives that can actually reduce gun violence without trampling constitutional rights instead of policy that wouldn't even make a dent in the gun homicide rate.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Parsha Beha'alot'cha: Humility Begets Forgiveness and Healing

Talking about someone when they're not in the room. It's an all-too common occurrence in the world of interpersonal relations. So many of us have found the need to talk about others when they're not present. Talking behind someone's back: it can be ever so tempting to do. We actually see an instance of it in this week's Torah portion. Miriam is talking with her brother, Aaron, and instigates a conversation about Moses. The conversation goes something like this: Miriam makes a comment about Moses' wife, Tziporah, being a Cushite (Leviticus 12:1). They then say, "Has G-d only spoken through Moses? Has He not spoken through us , as well (Leviticus 12:2)?" After this conversation, the Torah says that Moses was a "very humble man" (ענו מאד), more so than anyone on earth (Leviticus 12:3). This humility could explain why G-d ended up getting angry on Moses' behalf. G-d metaphorically came down on a cloud to chastise Miriam and Aaron, and correct the two of them regarding Moses' level of prophecy. After leaving, Miriam contracted "leprosy" (צרעת). It didn't matter what Miriam had done for Moses. It didn't matter that she didn't air the dirty laundry in public. It didn't even matter that Moses didn't seem to mind. It was still still lashon hara, and Miriam was punished appropriately.

Rashi, in his commentary on Leviticus 12:1, tries to give Miriam the benefit of a doubt in this situation. At least at the beginning of the conversation, Rashi postulates that Miriam was concerned for Tzipporah because Miriam was concerned that Moses was neglecting his wife. The Rashbam believes that the Kushite woman was Moses' second wife, and that Moses' siblings were not thrilled with Moses' life choice. Even if we go with Rashi's approach and give Miriam the benefit of the doubt, it still does not absolve the second verse in which they play up sibling rivalry and ask why they don't have the same consideration as their brother Moses. One would think we would have learned our lesson from the Joseph story, but alas, that is not the case.

What catches my eye is that in contrast to the lashon hara being spoken by his siblings, we have a description of Moses as "a very humble man." Why? As Mussar text Duties of the Heart teaches, "All virtues and duties are dependent on humility." How so?  First, let's get a better grasp of what humility is. Numbers 12:3 refers to Moses as "very humble," or ענו מאד. When we hear the word "humble" in English, we often think of being meek because etymologically speaking, the word "humility" is so close to the word "humiliation." However, how could meekness be attributed to Moses? Moses was the adopted son of the most powerful man on earth. Moses had acquired many skills and talents over the years. He was considered the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, and led a group of thousands of complaining Jews. Given this context, Moses was not a meek man. Even with recognition of his gifts and who he was, he also realized who he was in relation to G-d (see Jeremiah 9:22-23). Humility, at least within a Jewish context, is not meekness. Being humble means having a sense of self-awareness and accurate understanding of the self. It means that the world doesn't revolve strictly around oneself. It means understanding your place in the world, but also to recognize that other people have space, and that you can make space for them.

That is exactly what Moses does in this week's Torah portion. Did it hurt Moses that his siblings were talking behind his back about his life choices and expressing jealousy? I can only imagine. At the same time, we see his reaction, especially in contrast to G-d's reaction. G-d's reaction, at least metaphorically, is to chastise Moses' siblings and give Miriam "leprosy." Moses, on the other hand, does not lash out at either one of his siblings. As a matter of fact, when Aaron beseeches Moses for help (Leviticus 12:11-12), what does Moses do? Moses cries out and says to G-d:

אל נא רפא נא לה.
Heal her now, G-d, I beseech you. -Leviticus 12:13

A short, yet powerful prayer on his sister's behalf. We don't see Moses throwing a temper tantrum (at least at not yet) or seeking revenge on his siblings. He acts as the bigger man and prays that his sister is healed. He puts aside his ego and realizes that the world is much more than the self. As R. Sir Jonathan Sacks points out, humility means honoring others (see Pirkei Avot 4:1) and regarding them as important, not less than yourself. "It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding others high." It is why the Ralbag teaches that based on this passage, one assists an individual that has caused you harm and is being [seemingly] punished (The Ralbag naturally adds the caveat that one helps those who are actually remorseful, but still, Moses' actions speak volumes).

Why are Moses' actions and humility important? When one is not angry, it is easier to see more clearly, which is why the Talmudic rabbis associated anger with idolatry (Talmud, Shabbat 105b). Not only can one see clearly, but with humility, it's not all about the self. Ego is removed from the equation. Moses was able to feel pity for his sister (R. Abraham ben Izra on Leviticus 12:13). As R. Kook stated, "Humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility engenders depression, it is defective. When it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity." Humility is an internal sense of self that allows for one to maximize spiritual potential. It allowed for Moses to be patient (Rashi on Leviticus 12:3), particularly with his siblings' imperfections. Humility leads to patience. His patience led to forgiveness. The process allowed for him to heal himself, which in turn allowed for him to focus on healing his sister. If this passage teaches us anything, it reminds us of the spiritual potential that we can reach as a result of being humble. May we reach a level of humility that is comparable to that of Moses.

Monday, June 20, 2016

High-Capacity Magazine Ban: A Good Way to Deal with Mass Shootings?

The tragic mass shooting that happened at a gay nightclub in Orlando a little over a week ago has caused considerable pain and suffering to many throughout the country, myself included. 49 innocent lives taken and even more critically injured. It's enough to make you sick. Even with a nation that is mourning over this tragedy, I was unsurprised to see the tragedy politicized. The Right turned made it about Radical Islam and immigration. The Left turned it into a debate about gun control. One of the gun control ideas I saw out there in response to the massacre was a high-capacity magazine ban. High-capacity is a difficult concept to define.

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, which has since expired in 2004, defined high-capacity as exceeding 10 rounds. This might be a bit low, considering that the most popular rifle (AR-15) has 30 rounds and the most popular handgun (Glock 17) has 17 rounds. 47 percent of magazines sold in the past quarter century have had more than 10 rounds, so it's not as if high-capacity magazines are uncommon. In this case, the shooter used a Sig Sauer MCX, which is similar to the AR-15, a military semi-automatic primarily used for military applications. The murderer was able to carry out this despicable act with 30-round magazines. While the semi-automatics still require the trigger pulled for each separate shot (as opposed to automatic firearms, which merely requires holding down the trigger), it was still enough to do considerable damage. And while 30-round magazines are banned in some states, they are not banned in Florida. The argument goes that if the shooter had magazines with fewer rounds, at least some of the carnage could have been prevented. Does the intuition withstand scrutiny?

Before getting into high-capacity magazine bans themselves, we need to have a talk about the prevalence of mass shootings first. Why? Because if we're going to talk about solving a problem, we need to know how often, frequent, and prevalent mass shootings are. Getting into the definition of mass shooting can be difficult (also see here). Looking at most recent CDC data, firearm homicides counted for 11,208 deaths in 2013, which isn't even one of the top fifteen causes of death in this country. Less than half of 1 percent of gun deaths are mass shootings. Also, most homicides are committed with handguns, not rifles (FBI Crime Data). More to the point, the homicide rate in this country, according to FBI homicide data, is at a 51-year low. In spite of media hysteria, mass shootings are nowhere as near as prevalent as portrayed. Unfortunate? Absolutely! Prevalent? While it would be nice to see them as low as they are in other countries, they are still not as prevalent as we believe.

Then there's an issue of why anyone would need a high-capacity magazine in the first place. Guns are used for more than just recreational shooting, but also self-defense. Some think that ten bullets is more than plenty in a self-defense scenario. Anything else seems excessive. But is it? While it normally takes no more than a few seconds to typically reload a magazine, someone who is under attack is under more stress, which, in all probability, impedes motor skills to reload the magazine. Even experienced shooters miss from time to time. Police officers, who are trained professionals, only hit their target 30 percent of the time. And that is just for able-bodied individuals. If you're elderly or an individual with disabilities, the last thing you want to be doing in a self-defense scenario is have to worry about reloading a magazine. The criminal attacking has the element of surprise, so a criminal is better prepared and less likely to be stressed. And what if there are multiple assailants? 15 percent of homicides from 1990-2008 (most recent data) were homicides involving single victims and multiple offenders (Bureau of Justice Statistics, p. 24). Depending on the year, at least a quarter of hate crimes are committed by multiple offenders (BJS, 2014). Using a gun with higher capacity for self-defense has a basis in reality.

The other major question is to ask whether a high-capacity magazine ban actually works. In 1994, the Clinton Administration passed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (FAWB), which included a magazine ban that limited magazines to 10 rounds. The Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released a 2004 study shortly the FAWB expired in 2004. What they found was the the FAWB did not have a discernible impact on the violent crime rate because it did not reduce the usage of large-capacity magazines in crimes (NIJ, p. 2). Part of that had to do with the already-existing supply of large-capacity magazines, and part of that had to do with criminals who will illegally acquire large-capacity magazines, regardless of what the law has to say. The Economics Department of the College of William and Mary also found that high-capacity magazine bans are ineffective (Moody, 2015).

Another thing to consider is that when these mass shootings take place, these assailants target victims that are most probably going to run away from the attacker and take cover. The assailant also tends to position themselves in a strategic position to carry out the heinous act. Combined with how little time it takes to reload or switch guns, an assailant can carry out their attack with little difficulty. As an example, the Virginia Tech shooter changed magazines 17 times, even though he had two handguns, a Walther P22 pistol and a Glock, with low capacities of 10 and 15 rounds, respectively. Even the shooter of the Newton shooting fired 154 rounds (from 30-round magazines) in less than five minutes, which implies he had to change magazines at least five times. With other mass shootings, the assailants brought multiple weapons. This was evident with the Columbine shooting, where the assailants simply brought multiple, low-round firearms. It's not easy to subdue an assailant in a gun-free zone, but even so, there is not a single instance in which a victim was able to ultimately subdue an assailant due to a magazine change. Gun control proponents cite what happened in Tucson (2011), Aurora (2012), and Newton (2013), but those were ultimately stopped because of gun jams, not because of magazine changes.

A magazine ban is a minor inconvenience to the assailant, at best. It will much more likely impact those using guns for self-defense than it would criminals who use guns for mass shootings. If we want to find common sense gun policy that stops gun violence while minimizing its effects on the Second Amendment, we should try something of a higher caliber.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Post-Shavuot Thoughts on Revelation & What Happened at Mount Sinai

Passover is one of the most well-known of Jewish holidays. However, the Exodus story doesn't end there. The Jewish people cross the Red Sea and then seven weeks later, the Jewish people received the Torah. This receiving of the Torah is what the Jewish holiday of Shavuot commemorates. However, is it really that simple? Did G-d literally hand the Jewish people the text? An even better question: what exactly is revelation, and how does it play into this series of questions? What I am going to delve into here momentarily is a stream of consciousness. It is not meant to be taken as a dissertation or a final say of how I view revelation because that can always change over the years. It is a sign that even after all these years of thinking about these questions, there is still an evolutionary process in how I perceive certain vital religious concepts, and how I am still grappling with certain aspects of Judaism. With that said, let's begin:

Revelation is key to discuss because without it, Judaism is reduced to a peoplehood and culture. Revelation is the way that G-d communicates to us, the way we can understand what He expects from us. The catch about "what happened at Mount Sinai" is trickier because the Jewish concept of G-d is that G-d is transcendent, incorporeal, omnipresent, Infinite Oneness. G-d neither exists in time nor space. As Maimonides (Rambam) explains in the Guide for the Perplexed, particularly in the last chapter of the second part, anything attributed to G-d, whether it be speech, action, or thought, is metaphorical. This would mean that G-d literally did not give us the Torah. What actually happened that day is by far more complex.

Another issue is with being able to objectively verify the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot use the Torah by itself to verify the occurrence of revelation because otherwise, it would a self-affirming, circular argument. At the same time, we can still make a more minimalist claim. Historically speaking, something did happen in the desert that forever shaped the consciousness of the Jewish people. It was the time when a covenant was established. It was when the Jewish people formed its sense of purpose on earth. That much can be said about the historicity of the revelatory experience at Mount Sinai.

To bring it back to the nature of G-d, we run into another issue with verification. We cannot use empiricism to prove G-d because G-d transcends time and space, thereby transcending empiricism. What happened at Mount Sinai is thusly indescribable, and that doesn't consider that this event took place centuries ago and is majorly complex. I do find the story more credible since Judaism is the only religion to claim national revelation, as opposed to all the other religions out there who base their credibility on individual revelation. I also can state with confidence that G-d exists because it is the most logical explanation for how the universe came into being.

Because we are dealing with matters of religion, we cannot and do not verify religious claims the same way we verify scientific claims. This is where matters of belief, faith, and religion are formed differently than that of scientific inquiry, at least in part because I am dealing with Transcendent Oneness, and I have to have the humility to utter the words "I don't know." Even if I don't know for certain, I still inquire, study, and delve deep into Torah. Why? Because questions about why we exist, sense of purpose, what constitutes happiness, and how to conduct ourselves on this planet are too important to capriciously pass up.

I look at Torah as a divine and authoritative text. It is an eternal text because it has the capacity to speak both to the Israelites who received the text at the onset, and has the uncanny ability to speak to us today. To paraphrase Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, "prayer might be how we talk to G-d, but Torah is how He talks to us." Given the nuance and complexities within the text, I find the Torah to reveal a lot about what it means to be a Jew. It is not as methodical as scientific inquiry, but studying Torah, at least for me, has been such an experiential affirmation of G-d's existence. When I read Torah for the first time and each time I study Torah, I feel as if G-d is revealing something to me. Jewish tradition helps shape and form what exactly the text says, but there is always that moment when the world teaches us something to change our view of Torah. Perhaps that is why we read the Torah in an annual, cyclical fashion: because each time we read it, it reveals something new about our relation with G-d and the world. It is also no accident that when we recite a blessing over the Torah, the blessing is in the present tense of "Blessed is G-d who gives us Torah (נותן התורה)," instead of in the past tense of "who gave us Torah (נתן התורה)."

I know that Shavuot commemorates revelation at Mount Sinai. I don't diminish that moment because it was so defining for the Jewish people. Conversely, it wasn't the last time G-d revealed to us. He reveals to us through His Torah, His mitzvahs, His creations, and all the wonders of the world. Revelation is not a one-time event, but rather a process that Jews have undergone through centuries. In summation, what happened at Mount Sinai was the springboard from which the Jewish people have developed their relation to G-d and to the world, and that initial moment of revelation has shaped Judaism into the meaningful religion that it is today.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Should the Swiss Have Rejected the Basic Universal Income Referendum?

Earlier this week, the Swiss people overwhelmingly rejected a referendum to enact a basic guaranteed monthly income of 2,500CHF, or about $30,000 annually. While $30,000 seems like a lot, Switzerland does have the highest cost of living in the world. What is interesting to note here is not so much the rejection of the referendum as is the fact it is even being considered. Switzerland would have been the first nation to have implemented basic income on a large scale. The basic income becomes ever closer to becoming a reality. In 2017, Finland is to conduct a social experiment by giving 10,000 randomized individuals €500 monthly. Ontario and Utrecht, the Netherlands are also conducting similar, smaller-scale experiments later this year. Were the Swiss right in rejecting such a referendum?

One thing that has to be said regarding the Swiss referendum specifically is that the basic income would have been additive, that is to say supplement the already-existing social welfare system. There is also the question of whether a basic universal income would be a good way to battle increased automation. I've taken a look at the arguments behind whether robots and automation will take over in the labor market, and the prevailing economic literature shows that concerns are overblown. What about as general poverty alleviation?

One of the bigger issues with a basic income, much like I elucidated upon when analyzing the topic a couple years back, is not simply that it disincentivizes work. It has the real potential to punish those who work. For basic income to work in a place such as the United States, the U.S. government would need to increase tax revenues as a percentage of GDP by another 10 percent and eliminate most non-health social spending. With more workers receiving a basic income, the tax burden more heavily shifts to workers. Alternatively, it would be economically more effective to scrap the convoluted welfare system for direct cash transfers. Libertarian economic scholar Charles Murray recently made such an argument. It would be enticing to take on Murray's proposal, assuming that it could be maintained. However, how much could we guarantee that the welfare system would be severely reduced or eradicated? How much could we guarantee that the basic universal income stays basic, and doesn't become another form of government largesse?

Ultimately, I am intrigued to see how the social experiments in Finland, Canada, and the Netherlands turn out because it can provide more conclusive insight on how well basic income may or may not work. I like the idea of a basic universal income replacing the welfare state in concept, but I have my severe reservations about basic universal income being implemented on a large scale. While the results of the aforementioned basic universal income experiments play out, might I suggest such more incremental alternatives, such as removing occupational licensing, allowing for unpaid internships, cutting back on unemployment insurance, just to name a few?

7-17-2016 Addendum: I came across this essay from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) on why basic universal income is problematic. The author argues that a) having a basic income in addition to the welfare state is not politically viable, and b) having the basic income replace the welfare system would increase poverty because the spending isn't as well-targeted. The article is significant since CBPP is Left-leaning, and some of the major proponents of basic income are Left-of-center.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

D.C. Metro On the Wrong Track: Why Privatize Urban Public Transit Systems

This past weekend was the beginning of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's massive SafeTrack program. The purpose of this initiative is that it will attempt to improve the safety and quality of the DC Metro's crumbling rail infrastructure. For those who live in the Washington DC area, such as myself, you already know much of a pain it is to ride the Metro on a normal day.  Now add considerable delays, reductions in service, and shutdowns of stations caused by SafeTrack, and you know that the next nine months of the DC Metro undergoing the SafeTrack initiative are going to cause a whole lot of disturbances and inconveniences. Whether or not the SafeTrack initiative will actually engender significant improvements remains to be seen. What it does signal, though, is the latest in the public sector's failure to provide adequate transit.

Earlier this year, the DC Metro was ranked the best metro system by financial analytics firm SmartAsset. How could I possibly have an issue with the DC Metro, I mean, aside from the service cuts that Metro riders will experience over the next nine months? In 2015, the DC Metro saw the lowest ridership in the past decade, as well as declining customer satisfaction. The WMATA has such an atrocious safety record that the federal government had to step in last year to oversee Metro safety. If you need to know how atrocious the safety is, the Federal Transportation Administration released a report in 2015 showing there were 3,000 serious unresolved maintenance issues, some of them dating back to 2003. The WMATA has a hard time handling snowstorms. Smoke incidents and fires have become more commonplace, as one study showsA 2016 report from consulting firm McKinsey shows that 63 percent of all DC Metro delayed are caused by maintenance issues.

In 2015, Moody's downgraded the WMATA's credit rating from Aa3 to A1 and changed the outlook to negative.  Just last month, Moody's downgraded the credit rating again to A2, but gave WMATA a more stable outlook. Considering the deficits WMATA continues to run and the fact that 78 percent of its operating budget is spent on wages and benefits (the joys of union-induced cost increases!), I'm hardly surprised that the DC Metro budget is unsustainable. On the other hand, the Left-leaning Urban Institute points out that a significant chunk the DC Metro's operating budget comes from local and federal subsidies, which is higher than its Northeastern counterparts. The reason why this is noteworthy is because its translates into less reliable forms of funding than a more steady tax revenue. Conversely, WMATA has had problems for years dealing with a tri-jurisdictional public rail transit system. None of this considers incompetent management, operators running red lights, obsolete rails, or aging rolling stock.

One could argue, much like the Urban Institute, that it's an issue of funding or how splitting funding commitments complicates revenue generation. However, I would posit that the issue is much more profound than that, mainly that the government does not have the same incentives that the private sector would have to improve service quality. Privatizing urban public transit is not a new proposition. The Cato Institute made a case for privatization back in 2010. More recently, a March 2016 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that a completely privatized bus service would have saved $5.1 billion in 2011, which was 30 percent of bus operating expenses that year (Jerch et al., 2016).

Bus lines have the potential to transport more people in an hour than the WMATA's eight-car rail trains. Since buses have lower capital costs and shorter lifespans, they are more able to respond to competitive forces in the market. Being able to adapt is important, especially since transit rail has an issue of being able to adapt. Bus lines are one possibility to adapt. Telecommuting, car-sharing, and carpooling are other possibilities. Once the technology is developed, self-driving cars will render the Metro obsolete. All the Metro does is crowd out the private sector. Instead of implementing SafeTrack or pouring billions into an increasingly insipid infrastructure, what the respective governments should do is stop expanding Metro and get out of the way so the private sector can develop and provide safer, less congested, less costly, and more efficient forms of urban transport.

5-23-2017 Addendum: The Cato Institute comes up with a convincing list of ten reasons as to why we should stop subsidizing public transit. Here is a report the Manhattan Institute released earlier this month, as well as an article from American Enterprise Institute on the costliness and inefficiency that is public transit.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Pirke Avot 2:3 and 3:2: Government as a Necessary Evil

Thomas Paine was one to say that "even in its best state, government is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one." I think his words still ring true today, but I also find that his words were also true over 2,000 years ago. The Rabbis during the Talmudic era recognized that government was vital for society to live:

היו מתפלל בשלומה של מלכות
Pray for the welfare of the government. -Pirke Avot 3:2

The verse goes on to say that we should pray for the welfare of the government because if people did not fear government, a person would be swallowed whole. The Rabbis realize that government prevents total anarchy and wanton crime (Artscroll). I'm libertarian and I agree: government plays a role in keeping society in check. As Sir John Acton pointed out, "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Government does have a purpose, even if I think that role should be limited. What's more is I think the Rabbis did in the vain of Sir John Acton's quote.

In Pirke Avot 2:3, we are warned to "beware of rulers since they befriend someone only for their benefit." The Rabbis had enough wisdom to realize that taking public office didn't make one immune from morally problematic behavior. If anything, this passage reminds us that politicians "act friendly when it benefits them, but [that they] do not stand by someone in his time of need." If anything, the Rabbis point out that government officials forget all the kindness that individuals perform on their behalf (Meiri). We see this at the beginning of the Exodus story when the new Pharaoh did not even know Joseph (Exodus 1:8)! Jews can recall that prior to the Spanish Inquisition, Jews helped build up Spanish society. The rulers forgot those contributions, and expelled the Jews from Spain. Many governments have oppressed Jews throughout history, not to mention the number of times that government have oppressed and slighted non-Jews. We are to be wary of government because it has its own agenda (Tiferes Yisrael), but at the same time, we are to pray for the government's welfare. This paradox reminds us where to place our ultimate trust. Government can only do so much good. While there are many people who go into government for noble purposes, the power amassed by government has the great potential to corrupt even otherwise good individuals. Government has a role, let's not forget that. But let's also not forget that we should not put our ultimate trust in government, but rather put our ultimate trust in G-d.