“When I became a public defender, it was like the scales fell from my eyes. And I understood that the law has become an instrument of injustice.”
— Catherine S. Bernard
If you were stopped on the street and asked to name America’s core values, you might say, recalling the words of the Declaration, that Americans believe each person possesses rights that are absolute, that cannot be given or taken away, and that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You might say that and you might not, because in 21st century America such values are rarely articulated in public because of the danger they pose to the powers that be. They are clearly not the core values of most Washington and state lawmakers, judging by the outpouring of laws they set upon us. Consistent with their Keynesian economic orientation, they rarely see people as individuals, but rather as voting blocs or aggregates. Anyone with the nerve to exalt the individual is regarded as a threat to their political security.
And in that, they are 100% correct.
It is indeed refreshing, then, to find someone who not only has the moxie to stand up for our rights, but is also trying to get seated as a lawmaker — in this case, as the Georgia state legislator for House District 80, Brookhaven. It is somewhat misleading to think of Catherine Bernard as a potential lawmaker, though, because she thinks we have far too many laws and many of them need repealing. She also has strong opinions about Edward Snowden, the Fed, and ObamaCare. And she thinks government is choking on lawyers, even though she is one herself.
But rather than have me tell you about her, let’s go straight to the source. I had the pleasure of talking to Catherine recently to get a better understanding of who she is and what she stands for. What follows is a redacted transcript of our conversation.
George F. Smith: You graduated from the University of Virginia law school, but before that you were a political science and philosophy major at Emory University in Atlanta.
Catherine Bernard: That’s right.
GFS: Why those particular majors?
CB: I guess I’ve never been interested in much else. I did debate from very early on. My teachers actually recommended to my parents that they send me to debate camp. I was one of those kids who was always interested in fairness and talking out the issues, and making sure people were being treated in a just way, and that everybody was free to do the right thing.
GFS: Did you go to the debate camp?
CB: I started debate camp the summer after my eighth grade year and I went every summer thereafter. I went to several different ones, including University of Michigan, University of Kentucky, Wake Forest, and Longwood University in Virginia. My friends from debate have ended up all over the place — a lot of Supreme Court clerks, a lot of law professors — and I still cherish my friendships with them. They’ve provided an excellent intellectual sounding board for me as I’ve continued to develop my political philosophy.
GFS: Do you have a favorite political philosopher?
CB: Yes! John Stuart Mill.
GFS: Why Mill?
CB: Well, he doesn’t get everything right, but he got more things right than most. His conception of the harm principle is a strong justification for good politics and good government. He gets it right. Unless a person is doing something to harm others, his fellow citizens really have no right to interfere with his life.
GFS: So, why are you running for office?
CB: Part of it is, I don’t want to. We need more people in politics who are not caught up in the idea that “I want to do this. I want to be important. I want to exercise control over my fellow citizens.” You know, it really has become a career for a lot of people. They become a governor — someone who just exercises control over other people. This is not the vision of our country under the Constitution which is supposed to be “by, of, and for the people.” And you don’t get that when you have a political class that does nothing but participate in politics as a career. We need more change. We need people who will voluntarily term-limit themselves.
GFS: Would you impose term limits on yourself?
CB: Yes. In the state house you don’t need to be in there longer than three terms — three two-year terms. Ideally, two two-year terms but I recognize four years can be a relatively short amount of time.
GFS: What is Brookhaven’s greatest need right now?
CB: Well, I don’t mean to sound overbearing like I know what’s best for people — that’s the opposite of my approach — but I do think we need less government control. In voting to make Brookhaven a separate city, we voted for local control. But at every turn our local government has been just another layer of bureaucracy standing in the way of the will of the citizens, whether it’s the Pink Pony lawsuit or, just now, our mayor has shortlisted one of his campaign contributors who’s also a member of the planning commission. The supporter's firm is about to get a big transportation contract with the city’s comprehensive transportation plan. Stories like that are just rampant.
I participated in the Transit Oriented Development Process where we went to lots of meetings and talked about how we wanted the city to grow. I would talk to people and find out, “Oh, well, this guy is starting a company to sell golf carts, and that’s why he wants golf cart trails in Brookhaven.” There’s so much intertwining of people’s personal financial interests with government control that we’re setting ourselves up for worse and worse outcomes.
GFS: And how would you address this problem?
CB: More citizen engagement as well as an attitude from local government that government is not there to solve everything, that really the most desirable outcomes come from people coming together cooperatively rather than coercively. And I think one of the biggest examples is Briarwood Park, which is a park near Buford Highway that was not in great shape. A group of citizens got together and cleaned it up without coercive pressure from the city. They built a garden, raised donations from companies and individuals to build a playground, and now it looks great. It’s fantastic. You didn’t need a government mandate to do it.
Really, a state legislator should be looking at what’s best for the whole state of Georgia rather than get bogged down in local issues. As a state legislator, I would try to set the example of, “Let’s look at citizen solutions first rather than jumping to government-mandated solutions. Let’s make Georgia a society where we respect each other and cooperate with each other rather than try to pass laws to control each other.”
GFS: Do you find yourself at odds with people when discussing economics?
CB: I find myself arguing with Keynesians quite a bit. I don’t know if you’ve seen that video portraying Keynes and Hayek, where they’re in the ring boxing together—
GFS: Oh, yes, it’s great.
CB: Yes, it is. I think a good way to talk to Keynesians is to point out what exactly they’re trying to say — that it’s the broken window fallacy writ large. To Keynesians, as long as there’s some kind of activity going on, then that’s stimulating the economy. They love Paul Krugman — he won the Nobel Prize in economics, so he must be brilliant. And they have a habit of making non-falsifiable claims, and then whatever happens is evidence for their position. “Oh, the stimulus didn’t work? It’s because we didn’t spend enough money on it.” Their answer is always more government, no matter what.
CB: They complain about how bad our health care system is in the United States, and they say, “Well, your free market health care system isn’t working.” I say, “We haven’t had a free market health care system since the wage controls of the Forties that were put in place to force companies to start offering insurance instead of wage increases.” It was only when we started moving away from a free market system that we got stagnating and eventually declining outcomes.
GFS: Have your political views changed over the years, Catherine?
CB: Well, when I graduated from law school and started working for a big firm, I ran with a crowd where it wasn’t enlightened to be a Republican. All the enlightened people were Progressives. “Of course you had to believe in government as the solution.” I cast an absentee ballot for Obama in 2008 because I did not like George W. Bush, I did not like years of war, and I fell for it. I fell for the whole, “I’m going to restore the Constitution and bring peace.”
GFS: Ron Paul also ran in 2008. Did you have any opinion of him back then?
CB: I did, I did! I thought he was a racist, a sexist, and probably antisemitic.
GFS: And that has changed?
CB: Yes, because it was not based on any kind of knowledge or research. That’s what I’m saying about how I was really — maybe “conformist” is a strong word — but I was not questioning. I just accepted the view that Ron Paul, “Well, he’s that crazy old guy who wants women to be barefoot and pregnant and doesn’t care about the Civil Rights Act.” I think that experience has made me a better advocate for positions of liberty because I understand what we’re up against. I understand the way that people think about things like the Civil Rights Act. They say, “Well, how could you be against civil rights?” And I tell them, “How could you leave something as important as civil rights up to a government where it’s still good law to intern citizens based on their racial descent?” Korematsu v. United States was never overturned.
GFS: Ron Paul entered politics in the 1970s because of his opposition to the Federal Reserve System and its monopoly fiat money. He wants to abolish the Fed. What would you do with it?
CB: I would blink it out of existence. I think it is a terrible public/private partnership, I think it is an unaccountable private entity that has tremendous government power to print money.
Every dollar that’s printed and literally handed out to these crony bankers makes the dollar in a poor person’s savings account or paycheck worth less. People talk about income inequality and how it’s so awful that people are getting poorer and worse off, and I totally agree. But it’s actually government intervention and things like quantitative easing that is making it so much harder for poor people to get by.
Poverty had been going down in the United States until the War on Poverty, when it started plateauing, and now it’s actually going up. That’s crazy in a country like ours to actually have poverty going up. People are going to say, “Oh, things are getting worse. We must need more government!”
GFS: If you got rid of the Fed, would you also get rid of the Fed’s money — federal reserves notes?
CB: I support competing currencies. I think people should be free to trade in whatever currency they want. I would advocate repealing laws restricting other forms of tender. Bitcoin, barter, gold, silver — people should be able to trade however they consent to trade with each other.
GFS: If you had the power to repeal ObamaCare, would you?
CB: I absolutely would. What I want to get across to people is, there are so many folks, particularly on the Left, but also some of our more moderate conservatives, they look at opposition to ObamaCare as saying, “Oh, you don’t want poor people to get health care!” It’s actually because I want poor people to be able to get health care that we absolutely cannot impose any further form of socialized medicine. I have a very humanitarian opposition to ObamaCare.
When I became a public defender, it was like the scales fell from my eyes. And I understood that the law has become an instrument of injustice. It’s very easy to point at someone who questions the status quo and say, “Oh, well, that person’s crazy. That person just doesn’t understand the way the world works.” But that has always been the justification for tyranny. Everyone just going along to get along. So many of my friends think, “You see tyranny around every corner.” That’s an actual quote from one of my law school friends. And I say, “Well, I’m not trying to, but the time to notice it is before it becomes the Third Reich. Once that happens it’s too late. You have to find the warning signs and figure it out while everybody else is still thinking it’s kind of a crazy idea.
When I learned Wickard v. Filburn, I said, “Oh, well, that’s just rule of law!” It might be wrong but it would be worse not to follow the law — that would be disrespect for the rule of law. But I have almost gone a complete 180 from that where I do advocate civil disobedience. I do advocate people standing up for their rights even if the law is saying otherwise. I genuinely believe our basic freedoms that our country was founded on are in jeopardy, and we are not going to be able to fix that if we just have a blind reverence for the rule of law, no matter what that law is.
GFS: Edward Snowden — hero or villain?
CB: He’s a hero. We always see signs saying, “If you see something, say something.” If you see something that’s bad you should report it so that everyone else knows about it. And that’s exactly what Edward Snowden did. He saw our government violating the Constitution, lying to the people about this constitutional violation, and he exposed it — to us. I know some people who say, “Oh, he sold his secrets to the Russians!” No, he didn’t. If he had sold his secrets to the Russians we would’ve found out about it in a very different way. His actions are not the actions of somebody who is selling secrets to the highest bidder. He revealed them to American journalists who reported it in the American press.
GFS: Glenn Greenwald?
CB: I’ve actually been a huge fan of Glenn Greenwald even before the Edward Snowden revelations. I love his new website, The Intercept. I think he represents what journalism should be. There’s a great quote: “Journalism is what people don’t want to be printed. Everything else is public relations.” He’s going after the stories that are making people mad, and I think that’s a sign he’s on the right track.
GFS: Anything else you care to add?
CB: Well, I had a conversation today with a voter, a very nice guy. He was saying, “Yeah, yeah, you sound great! I’ll support you.” Then he said, “What do you think of the Tea Party?” And I said, “Well, I agree that we’re taxed enough already. Some of their positions are not as good as others, but they do get some stuff right.” And he didn’t like that one bit. He said, “I don’t believe in taking a government prisoner.” He was referring to the government shutdown. He said, “I like the establishment Republicans. The Tea Party, that’s what I have trouble with.”
It was just so disappointing to me. The mainstream media has engaged in a smear campaign about the Tea Party. They’re presented as uneducated, theocratic hicks who just don’t understand government. That’s the problem. They’re actually one of the strongest voices for limited government out there, but they’re being caricatured in a way that presents them as enemies of good government.
I really want to bring together people who want limited government for humanitarian reasons. I want to show folks that it’s not about being selfish or not caring what happens to other people. It’s because we care about what happens to other people that we don’t want to let the government keep doing what it’s doing.
GFS: Thank you, Catherine.
CB: My pleasure.