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Good theory, poor execution

Over in Reason, Ron Bailey has a column explaining why he joined the ACLU for the first time, prompting a discussion over in their blog.

I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU for a long time -- enduring jibes from certain other members of my family (you know who you are). I've always thought of the ACLU in the abstract as playing a crucial role; it's important to have an organization standing up to the government, taking on unpopular causes, fighting for civil liberties even at times like this, when many are ready to toss the Bill of Rights overboard.

The problem is that this describes the ACLU in the abstract. In practice, the ACLU all too often seems to be a one-track-minded organization that is more interested in making petty points in the name of ideological purity than in doing the things we need them out there doing. Now, I'm not talking about the fact that they've only decided to focus on certain aspects of civil liberties (e.g. speech, equal protection), while ignoring others (e.g. gun rights, economic liberty). That's reasonable, if a little disappointing; after all, we can find other organizations (the NRA, the Institute for Justice) to handle those matters. Rather, I refer to their obsession with the most trivial of issues, as long as those issues fit their agenda.

Take, for instance, this case. The ACLU recently lost a suit over a county court's seal. The seal, a one-inch circle stamped only on court documents, contains a picture of the ten commandments. Well, actually, that's not quite accurate -- actually, it contains a picture of two rounded stone tablets, with the roman numerals I-X on them, and no text at all. The ACLU spent three years litigating over this. And in describing this in the past tense, I'm being misleading; according to the story, they're still planning to appeal further.

Now, let's stipulate for the sake of argument that the ACLU is right. Maybe this is a clear violation of the Constitution -- though they couldn't find judges who agreed. But who cares? Is it important? Why on earth would you spend limited time and resources litigating this? Some guy out there was offended. Big deal. The ACLU will spend mucho time ranting about the evil John Ashcroft and the horrible Patriot Act -- but then they spend their resources suing over whether a couple of tablet-shaped blips that nobody ever sees in something the size of a quarter violate the Constitution. Good choice, guys.

And then there are the issues on which the ACLU takes a political stand, such as arguing against school vouchers or for driver's licenses for illegal aliens. These policies may be good ideas, or bad ideas, but they're far outside the areas upon which the ACLU should be focusing. They, of course, have every right to take such stands; I just don't want to support an organization which does so. These are policy matters, not civil liberties matters.

If I'm going to give them my money, I expect them to use it for the big issues. The big legal issues. So, currently, I'm not a member. I'll give my money to the Institute for Justice instead.


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