Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Regarding the feverish effort either to reauthorize, “reform,” or abolish the National Security Agency’s collection of our phone and email data, two things need to be said:
First, thank you, Edward Snowden.
Second, isn’t it great to see the ruling elite panicking?
Of course, the discussion about NSA collection of our “metadata” wouldn’t be happening had Snowden not told us about this spying. Recall that before Snowden’s revelations, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper lied before a Senate committee about mass surveillance of Americans. Later he explained, “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner by saying ‘no.’” These are the kind of people we’re dealing with.
Keep that lie in mind whenever an official assures us that the government respects our privacy and other liberties. As they say in the law, falsus in unum falsus in omnibus -- false in one thing, false in all things.
They’re panicking in Washington because the section of the USA PATRIOT Act (215) that is used to justify collection of phone data expires midnight Monday. True, a federal appeals court has ruled that warrentless bulk data collection exceeds the authority granted by Section 215, but that simply does not matter to some people. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to reauthorize that section and thereby (in his view) preserve NSA spying. Fortunately, enough senators, led by Sens. Rand Paul and Ron Wyden, have stopped him.
The House passed the USA FREEDOM Act (how about outlawing obnoxious acronyms as bill titles?), which may have started out as a sincere effort to limit the NSA but was amended, that is, watered down, into a form that kept some original backers from voting for it. Republican Reps. Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, who oppose unbridled government surveillance, voted no. That bill would prohibit the NSA itself from holding the phone data, but the agency could obtain the data from the telecom companies with approval of the rubber-stamp FISA court.
The Senate, however, couldn’t muster the votes to pass the House bill, which leaves us in our present favorable condition, namely: if nothing happens, the NSA program will die at midnight on Monday. Paul, Wyden, and their allies need only play stall-ball to prevail.
No doubt a last-ditch effort to save the spy program will take place Sunday night, when McConnell brings back the Senate. He is willing to extend Section 215 for just two days, but even this must not be allowed because it will give him more time to gather the votes for a permanent reauthorization of the odious provision. (It’s odious even if it does not actually authorize bulk data collection, which its author, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, says it does not.)
President Obama wants the Senate to pass the House bill, saying it is vital to keeping Americans safe. But no terrorist has been identified through the collection of bulk data. This is also the position of pro-civil-liberties senators who are in a position to know. (Also see this.) Meanwhile, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a surveillance hawk, has her own bill, which she offers as a compromise, but which can only do mischief with our privacy. The differences between her bill and other possible contenders are over how long the transition should be from government to telecom data collection and storage. That is hardly worth going to the barricades over. And even if the telecoms held the data, how could we know the NSA wouldn’t be able to get it whenever it wants, with gag orders to keep the telecoms quiet. Will Clapper assure us otherwise?
If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Civil-liberties organizations are divided over the House so-called reform package. The grab-bag bill may offer limits on government spying, but any such provisions are likely offset by other clauses that expand and entrench broad surveillance across a range of media. Who can say how it all nets out?
Power thrives in complexity because most people won’t pay attention.
The process is fraught with danger, and I suspect, knowing how Washington works, the Senate will pass the House bill as a compromise. Let’s hope Rand Paul et al. will run out the clock.
Tuesday, May 26, 2015
John Nash, the mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in economics and who was the subject of the 2001 Academy Award-winning biopic A Beautiful Mind, died last week along with his wife in a car crash. As editor of The Freeman, I published two articles on Nash and the movie based on the biography by Sylvia Nasar, in August 2002, one by Sandy Ikeda, "A Beautiful Movie, Lousy Economics," and one of my own, "Was the Beautiful Mind Sick?," which I reproduce below.
Monday, May 25, 2015
Today is Revisionist History Day, what others call Memorial Day. Americans are supposed to remember the country's war dead while being thankful that they protected our freedom and served our country. However, reading revisionist history (see a sampling below) or alternative news sites (start with Antiwar.com and don't forget to listen to the Scott Horton Show) teaches that the fallen were doing no such thing. Rather they were and are today serving cynical politicians and the "private" component of the military-industrial complex in the service of the American Empire.
The state inculcates an unquestioning faith in its war-making by associating it with patriotism, heroism, and the defense of "our freedoms." This strategy builds in its own defense against any criticism of the government's policies. Anyone who questions the morality of a war is automatically suspected of being unpatriotic, unappreciative of the bravery that has "kept us free," and disrespectful of "our troops," in a word, un-American.
To counter this common outlook, which people are indoctrinated in from birth and which is shared by conservatives and Progressives alike, we should do what we can to teach others that the government's version of its wars is always self-serving and threatening to life, liberty, and decency.
In that spirit, I quote a passage from the great antiwar movie The Americanization of Emily. You'll find a video of the scene below. This AP photo is a perfect illustration of what "Charlie Madison" is talking about.
I don't trust people who make bitter reflections about war, Mrs. Barham. It's always the generals with the bloodiest records who are the first to shout what a Hell it is. And it's always the widows who lead the Memorial Day parades . . . we shall never end wars, Mrs. Barham, by blaming it on ministers and generals or warmongering imperialists or all the other banal bogies. It's the rest of us who build statues to those generals and name boulevards after those ministers; the rest of us who make heroes of our dead and shrines of our battlefields. We wear our widows' weeds like nuns and perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices....Enjoy the day. I'll spend some of it reading revisionist history and watching Emily.
My brother died at Anzio – an everyday soldier’s death, no special heroism involved. They buried what pieces they found of him. But my mother insists he died a brave death and pretends to be very proud. . . . [N]ow my other brother can’t wait to reach enlistment age. That’ll be in September. May be ministers and generals who blunder us into wars, but the least the rest of us can do is to resist honoring the institution. What has my mother got for pretending bravery was admirable? She’s under constant sedation and terrified she may wake up one morning and find her last son has run off to be brave. [Emphasis added.]
Here's an all-too-incomplete list of books in no particular order (some of which I've read, some of which I intend to read):
- We Who Dared to Say No to War: American Antiwar Writing from 1812 to Now, edited by Murray Polner and Thomas E. Woods Jr.
- The Failure of America's Foreign Wars, edited by Richard M. Ebeling and Jacob G. Hornberger
- America's Second Crusade, by William Henry Chamberlin
- Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal, by Ralph Raico
- Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism, by Jeff Riggenbach
- War Is a Lie, by David Swanson
- War Is a Racket, by Smedley D. Butler
- Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, by Paul Fussell
- Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
- The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, by William Appleman Williams
- Empire as a Way of Life, by William Appleman Williams
- The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition, by Arthur Ekirch
- The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic, 1890-1920, by Walter Karp
- The Costs of War, edited by John Denson
- Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, by Stephen Kinzer
- All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, by Stephen Kinzer
- Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, by Chalmers Johnson
- The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, by Chalmers Johnson
- War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges
- A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin (This book has serious flaws, but it nonetheless shows the cynicism of the European imperialists.)
- The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, by David Hirst
- Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001, by Ussama Makdisi
- Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, by Max Blumenthal
- Genesis: Truman, Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John B. Judis
- The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination, by Jeremy R. Hammond
- The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe
- The General's Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine, by Miko Peled
- Assault on the Liberty, by James N. Ennes Jr.
- Wilson's War: How Woodrow Wilson's Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II, by Jim Powell
- American Empire: Before the Fall, by Bruce Fein
- Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World, by Jonathan Kwitny
- The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, by David C. Unger
- The War State: The Cold War Origins Of The Military-Industrial Complex And The Power Elite, 1945-1963, by Michael Swanson
- Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, by Nicholson Baker
- Pearl Harbor: The Seeds and Fruits of Infamy, by Percy Greaves
- Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath, by John Toland
- Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor, by Robert Stinnett
- Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, by Daniel Ellsberg
- The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, by Nick Turse
- "War is the Health of the State," by Randolph Bourne
- “War, Peace, and the State,” by Murray Rothbard
- “‘Ancient History’: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention,” by Sheldon Richman
- "War's Still a Racket," by Sheldon Richman
Friday, May 22, 2015
The middle of next month will mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. My knowledge of the “great charter” is modest, to be sure, but lately I have been reading about it and its legacy. (See the “Liberty Matters” discussion, in which I have a small editorial role, going on this month at Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty. Also listen to Nicholas Vincent’s conversation with Russ Roberts on EconTalk. Vincent is the author of Magna Carta: A Very Short Introduction.)
Magna Carta was an agreement a group of rebellious barons forced on King John on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede, a meadow on the Thames in England, about midway between London and Windsor Castle. I won’t attempt to summarize the gripping story, but I’ll oversimplify by saying that the barons were fed up with the king’s demands for revenue to finance war in France and John felt compelled to agree to their demands to rein in his power; in his estimation, refusal would have brought less-desirable consequences. The English branch of the Catholic church (this was pre-Reformation, of course) also had an interest in protecting itself from the king, and its concerns were addressed in the document, all 63 clauses of which were written in Latin on a single sheet of sheep-skin parchment.
The charter is one of those things that virtually everyone across the political spectrum (however defined) has invoked in support of his or her cause. As the scholars point out in the “Liberty Matters” discussion, dissidents have held it up as a shield against tyrants, while kings have used it to defend the legitimacy of their rule. It’s been enlisted in a variety of missions. Advocates of slavery took refuge in Magna Carta, but so did the proto-libertarian Levellers.
It’s tempting to think of Magna Carta as a declaration of the limits of state power and therefore as an early charter of liberty. But the arguments against this perspective are persuasive. It contains little if any political philosophy. As Nicholas Vincent says, the barons would be appalled by modern conceptions of liberty. It’s also important to note that the barons, who appealed to English tradition, were not interested in everyone’s liberty but only the liberty of a small minority of free men. The language imposing limits on the king’s power was vague at best. Bringing the king under the rule of law sounds promising, but it leaves open the question of what the law should be. That was the king’s province. The much-lauded clause 39 in the 1215 Magna Carta (there were several versions) states:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land. [Emphasis added.]
The italicized words are hardly crystal clear. Trial by jury in criminal matters did not exist at that time. These words are followed by:
To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Again, this sounds promising, but what is right or justice when the king owns his realm?
The principle “no taxation without baronial consent” also appears, though not in those exact words, of course. Nevertheless, the barons were not proto-libertarians. Defending the liberties of “free men” left a lot of people out of the class of beneficiaries. What the barons sought to minimize were John’s arbitrary diktats over themselves. They didn’t want it so “good to be the king.”
Regardless, neither side abided by the agreement, and war between king and barons ensued. King John appealed for help from Pope Innocent III, who excommunicated the barons and declared Magna Carta null and void because the king signed under duress. However, it was reissued by subsequent kings, albeit with important changes from the original, such as elimination of clause 61, which called for the creation of a council of barons that could sanction the king for wrongdoing. Why would any king reissue a charter that appeared to limit his power? Because having power doesn’t mean never having to bargain with those who would oppose you -- bargaining may be the least costly way to maintain some power. (This point is made clear in the excellent British television series Monarchy.)
As Magna Carta scholars point out, the interpretation (mythology) and impact of the charter over the last eight centuries are as important as -- maybe more important than -- the document and the authors’ intentions themselves. Even if it wasn’t actually a charter of liberty, it is regarded as such -- by people, as I’ve already noted, who have widely differing views on liberty.
This has implications for libertarian strategy today.
That genuine liberty -- in the sense of what Roderick Long calls “equality of authority” -- can grow out of efforts intended to achieve something less is worth keeping in mind. I claim no profound insights in the matter of strategy, but I do know that social processes, like the people who actuate them, are complex, and therefore unintended consequences -- good and bad -- are ubiquitous and to be expected. This makes devising a strategy for social change complicated and more likely impossible. There’s no algorithm for changing a society from unlibertarian to libertarian. We have no script. That’s an argument for the “let a thousand flowers bloom” strategy. (An earlier “Liberty Matters” examined the “spread of liberal ideas” through history.)
If troublesome barons in the 13th century helped to promote future general liberty without its being part of their intention, the case for libertarian optimism may be buoyed. Things may look bleak on a variety of fronts, but we can never know what might turn the tide. Magna Carta is not the only example of such unintended consequences. In Lust for Liberty: The Politics of Social Revolt in Medieval Europe, 1200-1425, Samuel K. Cohn Jr. describes many peaceful and violent acts of resistance against local tyranny, some of which won significant concessions from rulers. It is unlikely the rebels carried a treatise on political philosophy under their arms or a theory of rights in their heads. They didn’t gather in the village square to hear a political philosopher read from his latest treatise. The rebels simply reacted against particular burdens that had become intolerable; they did not set out to make a libertarian society. Yet they created facts on the ground, not always permanent, and set precedents for their descendents.
It’s more than likely that theorists developed their ideas after studying local revolts. In those days, theory and history weren’t compartmentalized. So it’s a mistake to think that libertarian theory must precede libertarian social action or that inchoate resistance unguided by “pure” libertarianism can’t make real progress toward liberty. Couldn’t a thinker spin out a theory of individual rights without prompting from history? It’s possible, but it seems more likely that historical episodes jump-started the intellectual process and that theory and action (history) will mutually determine each other.
If you want more a modern example to go with Cohn’s, I recommend Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States, which chronicles how liberty was won in the streets through the misbehavior of riffraff who probably never read Locke or Paine or even Jefferson.
There is no one right strategy. If anything proves successful, it will be a loose web of complementary strategies (perhaps too loose to call a “web”), with a good measure of improvisation. Theories will prompt action; and action will prompt theories. Some approaches will consist in what will be labeled “compromise.” (Oh horror!) That is, individuals and organizations will advance liberty through partial measures to reduce state power. Savvy libertarians will capitalize on such measures to push for more progress toward liberty. (“If you liked Measure X, you’ll love Measure Y.”) They won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In truth, no compromise is involved if an incremental step is regarded as such and not as an end in itself.
I need not point out -- or need I? -- that merely because one incremental measure meets the libertarian standard as a genuine short-run step toward liberty, not all measures represented as such must do so. Each proposal is to be judged on its own merits, and good-faith disagreements are to be expected. That’s the nature of the endeavor. I see no reason for libertarians, in the name of purity, to withhold support for steps that make real progress toward liberty and pave the way for more.
The libertarian movement needs individuals and organization that devote their efforts to sound incrementalism, just as it needs those who do nothing more than teach pure libertarian philosophy. These approaches need not be at odds. In fact, they are complementary. One without the other is unlikely to succeed because society is unlikely to turn libertarian or dismantle the state all at once. Incrementalism without a guiding philosophy probably won’t get us all the way to where we want to go, while merely issuing declarations about libertarianism is unlikely to bring about change. How do we get from here to there if it won’t happen in a single bound?
It’s important not to conflate philosophy and strategy. An uncompromising market anarchist can coherently embrace incrementalism, understanding that because of most people’s conservatism, the state will not be abolished overnight. Murray Rothbard used to say that libertarians should take any rollback of state power they can get. In today’s environment, we won’t be setting the priorities.
What strikes me as futile is a “strategy” that consists in little more than boldly announcing that -- if one could -- one would push a button to (make most of the) government go away. That approach tells the uninitiated something about the speaker, but it says little about why a free society is worth achieving and why the state is our enemy. That requires something more than moralizing shock therapy.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
You probably are not a terrorist. Chances are the government doesn’t even suspect you of knowing a terrorist. Even so, the National Security Agency (NSA) — without a warrant — collects information about your — and every other American’s — phone calls. Edward Snowden blew the whistle on this bulk-data-collection program.Read the rest of my article "Phone Surveillance Must End," written for the Independent Institute, at The Daily Caller.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Republican presidential aspirant and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio gave a major foreign-policy speech recently, and the best that can be said is that he did not claim to favor small government and free markets. What he wants in a foreign policy couldn’t possibly be reconciled with any desire to limit government power. Rubio is for big government no matter what he might say on the campaign trail.
He acknowledged this when he said, correctly, “Foreign policy is domestic policy.”