Maritime panel urged Jones Act critics be charged with treason

This article was previously published by the Cato Institute on Oct. 18, 2022.

By Colin Grabow and Scott Lincicome

It’s not every day you find a government document calling for Cato Institute employees to be charged with treason, but as a new article in The Dispatch details, here we are:

In March 2020, a maritime shipping advisory panel offered a simple suggestion to the government: Charge all past and current members of two libertarian think tanks with treason.

It is certainly not the first time a bunch of libertarians angered members of a bureaucratic panel. But this backlash stemmed from criticism of the Jones Act, a century‐​old law that imposes requirements for shipping between American ports.

Haley Byrd Wilt’s story provides a good overview of the situation, but this post provides a few noteworthy details that were left on the cutting room floor.

For many months Cato’s Patrick Eddington and Colin Grabow have been collecting internal emails from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) obtained via the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. Unfortunately, responses from MARAD have often been incomplete, with the agency citing various exemptions from the law to justify withholding information. While some exemptions are no doubt legitimate, other, less‐​convincing ones pushed us to challenge MARAD’s recalcitrance. After months of appeals, repeated missed deadlines to provide promised information, and threats of legal action on our part, MARAD finally sent the required materials last month.

After reading through what MARAD sent, we now can understand why the agency was so reluctant to comply with the law.

Almost at the end of the 41‐​page document is what appears to be a set of recommendations related to a March 2020 meeting of the Marine Transportation System National Advisory Committee (MTSNAC)’s International Shipping Subcommittee. Among them: “Charge all past and present members of the Cato and Mercatus Institutes with treason.”

It seems we’ve touched a nerve.

Although it’s impossible for us to determine who made this request and whether MARAD ever considered it (we should hope not), the situation remains deeply troubling. First, it’s undeniably true that someone who sits among government officials in meetings with MTSNAC suggested charging American citizens with treason, a federal crime punishable by death, due to their political speech. This is manifestly antithetical to the values of a free society.

Second, it’s also undeniably true from the FOIA’d documents that this opinion – and many other, less‐​salacious ones in support of the Jones Act – are permitted or even welcomed at the supposedly‐​impartial government agency charged with overseeing the nation’s waterborne transportation system.

Devotion to the Jones Act in the halls of MARAD and among rent‐​seeking members of the domestic maritime industry is apparently so strong that equating scholarly criticism of the law with treason didn’t even elicit the batting of a bureaucratic eyelash.

No wonder MARAD tried so hard to keep the documents from public light (a troubling situation in its own right).

For some time, Cato scholars have regarded the Jones Act as a protectionist failure whose persistence is best explained by public choice theory and regulatory capture. This latest discovery, while disturbing, only reinforces that view and emboldens our repeal efforts.

We’ll surely have more to say about this and other FOIA revelations in the weeks and months ahead. Until then, please visit Cato’s dedicated Jones Act webpage and find out why freeing the country from this antiquated law is long overdue.

Colin Grabow and Scott Lincicome are trade policy analysts with the Cato Institute, based in Washington, D.C. Grabow is also a Grassroot Scholar with the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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