Straight Talk

A few questions for John McCain


As we near the major party conventions, here are a few questions for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain:

—In your book Worth the Fighting For, you write, "Our greatness depends upon our patriotism, and our patriotism is hardly encouraged when we cannot take pride in the highest public institutions." You've also said that "national pride will not survive the people's contempt for government." Do you really believe that the government is the root of American greatness? Would we better off as a nation if people refrained from criticizing the government? Does patriotism require us to support our country, "right or wrong?"

U.S. News reported last December that part of your economic plan includes a new entitlement program for the unemployed. You've said that the federal government should make up part of the salary of workers who are forced to take lower-paying jobs. Economists estimate your plan will cost $4-5 billion per year, but as a longtime legislator, you should know that new entitlements tend to become more generous and more comprehensive over time. Should your plan eventually emulate the Danish worker security plan it's modeled after, it will likely cost $400 billion or more each year. Given that the federal government currently faces some $59 trillion in unfunded Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security liabilities, do we really need another federal entitlement?

—In your January primary debate, you referred to "greedy" Wall Street stockbrokers, and in contrasting your career to the business career of Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, you said, "I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy. And I did it out of patriotism, not for profit." Do you think a career in public service is inherently more noble and virtuous than a career in the private sector? Are people who spend their lives on the taxpayer dole as politicians and government employees simply better people than those who create wealth and jobs through private enterprise?

—Public choice theory posits that government workers are just as self-interested and no less altruistic than private sector workers, and that we should acknowledge as much when making public policy. Do you believe in public choice theory?

—You're highly critical of businesses and corporations that benefit from government handouts and pork projects. And rightly so. But you and your wife's fortune comes from her inheritance of Hensley & Company, a Phoenix-based beer wholesaler and distributor. Beer wholesalers benefit from what's called the "three-tiered" alcohol distribution system, an anachronistic Prohibition-era law that requires beer, wine and liquor producers to first sell alcohol products to wholesalers, who then sell to retailers. The law essentially mandates a "middle man" in alcohol sales. It inflates the cost of alcohol for consumers by adding an extra mark-up—the bulk of which goes to huge companies like Hensley. In other words, alcohol wholesaling is a government-created and government-subsidized industry. How, then, does your family fortune jibe with your criticism of corporate welfare and corporate handouts?

—Is it the government's job to make us better people? If so, by whose definition of "better?"

—After the Supreme Court's decision in the Heller gun rights case, you admirably commented, "This ruling does not mark the end of our struggle against those who seek to limit the rights of law-abiding citizens. We must always remain vigilant in defense of our freedoms." I couldn't agree more. But on the subject of campaign finance reform, you said in 2006 that, "I would rather have a clean government than one where, quote, First Amendment rights are being respected, that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government." How do you reconcile these two positions? Is a "clean" government (whatever that means) really more important than the rights and freedoms of its citizens?

—America was founded on the idea of inalienable, individual rights—our Declaration of Independence outlined three of the most important rights as "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But your speeches and public statements seem to show a kind of contempt for individualism, or at least a preference for a kind of patriotic national collectivism. You've said, for example, that "each and every one of us has a duty to serve a cause greater than our own self-interest." You've also said that patriotism should be about "putting the country first, before party or personal ambition, before anything." Do you really believe this? Should we put love of country ahead of family? Faith? Our morality, or sense of justice?

—In 1989, your wife Cindy became addicted to the prescription drugs Percocet and Vicodin. Eventually, she began stealing medication from the non-profit medical charity she ran to assist the victims of war and disaster areas. You and your wife were able to negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department that let her off with restitution and admission to a rehabilitation center, but no fines, jail time or even public disclosure. Certainly no one could fault you for trying to save your spouse from criminal sanction. But you're consistently one of the most strident drug warriors in Congress. You've voted to strengthen penalties against those who use and traffic in both illicit drugs and who divert prescription drugs. You've supported mandatory minimums and harsher penalties for first-time offenders. Why shouldn't average people without powerful connections who make the same mistakes your wife made be shown the same leniency and mercy the criminal justice system showed her?

My next column will pose questions to presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

Radley Balko is a senior editor of reason. A version of this article originally appeared on FoxNews.com.