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Friday, May 14, 2021

Palestine/Israel Erupts Again

 In Coming to Palestine I defended, from a libertarian perspective, the Palestinians against Israeli/Zionist oppression. I am reluctant to repeat that case in a far shorter form here, but the horrendous current events throughout Palestine/Israel, including the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, cry out for comment. I can do no better than to link to Caitlin Johnstone's piece "Fifteen Thoughts on Palestine." It deserves careful reading.

I will add only a few thoughts. The mainstream criticism of the Palestinians, who object to being dominated by a settler colonial state, boils down to "But Hamas...." (This is not to say, of course, that all would be well if Hamas disappeared.) My answer to that objection is this: how long will take to learn that relentless oppression of a group breeds and nourishes the most violent ("extremist") faction of that group? If you want the violence-minded constituents not to rise to the top or to fade away, you must stop oppressing the group! Don't make violence appear to be the only alternative because all peaceful paths have been blocked.

Yet that is what Israelis and their bipartisan American-backers have consistently done for decades with their phony "peace process" and other subterfuge.

I don't like Hamas. Even though it has moderated its aims and has given signs of accepting of two-state solution, it's a far cry from having a libertarian orientation. For one thing, launching even its crude rockets toward civilians is wrong, however understandable. I attach that final phrase because many residents of the Gaza Strip are refugees from earlier expulsions perpetrated by pre-state Zionist paramilitary forces and then the Israeli military. One of the places where refugees were driven from is Sderot, which is a rocket target favored by Hamas. Still, I condemn targeting civilians.

That said, we must never who the aggrieved party is: the Palestinians, who were driven from land they had lived on and worked for generations--all for the sake of building a Jewish state. Let's also remember that at one time much Jewish opposition was expressed against the idea of a Jewish state in part because it would require mistreatment of the Palestinians. (Again, see my book.)

Finally, ceasefire talk is in the air, both from Hamas and the UN (and opposed by the Biden administration). Yet Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat says, "We don't think this is the right time for a ceasefire."

That's the worst thing a government spokesman or leader can say when that government is pulverizing essentially defense people. Keep in mind that under "normal" conditions the people of Gaza are treated worse than prison inmates, subjected to bad water, restricted food and medical supplies, and complete control over entry and exit by the Israeli military.

It's always time for a ceasefire, followed by real good-faith efforts to relieve the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere of the oppression they have suffered for so many years.

TGIF: FDA Targets Black and Other Minority Smokers

Just when we are reminded that unnecessary conflict between the police and the people, especially in poorer black communities, is a poison to be eliminated forthwith, the Biden administration has moved in the wrong direction. Late last month the administration signaled that it wants to ban menthol cigarettes, which are especially popular with black smokers.

"Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products," Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock said. "With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products."

For years the FDA had been pushed on this issue by a coalition of organizations, including some self-identified black advocacy groups, although other similar groups, along with the ACLU, have opposed the ban. The FDA has finally agreed to the ban. It will take time to put it in place because of the public-comment process.

Let's be clear on what is going down. The central government wants to stop certain minority smokers from indulging their preferences. That's paternalism pure and simple. Apparently blacks and others who prefer menthol smokes cannot be persuaded to stop, so they will have to be forced--for their own good. A far higher percentage of black smokers than white smokers prefer menthol to unflavored cigarettes.

Strangely, this is occurring during the height of concern about unjustified police violence against black men and women. As we know, product prohibition always prompts the creation of illegal markets, and this breeds a poisonous relationship between police and the communities in which the illegal activities are most likely to occur. The reason couldn't be simpler. Unlike with crimes of violence against person and property--that is, offenses with victims--vice laws attempt to stop consensual transactions. Since those transactions by nature have no complainant, the police inevitably resort to intrusive, rights-violating methods to catch people in the act. The methods include surveillance, use of dodgy informants with have incentives to lie and set people up, and other trickery. It couldn't be any other way. If laws against victimless "crimes" are to be enforced, the most egregious enforcement methods will be brought to bear as a matter of necessity. It's in the very nature of the legal suppression of vice. (I'm including gambling, drugs, prostitution, and so on.)

Considering that minority community trust in the police is is not exactly high, why would anyone want to give the police more authority to root out consensual interaction? It can only make things worse.

Anticipating this criticism, the FDA promises it will not target consumers; only manufacturers and distributors will be in the authorities' sights. But that statement is misleading. Plenty of damage can be done at the street level if the manufacturers and distributors of illegal menthol cigarettes turn out to be small-scale neighborhood operations, which they may well be. (Why would highly visible Big Tobacco take the risk?) If people demand menthol smokes, other people will creatively cater to their demand. Remember Eric Garner's fatal encounter with the police when he was illegally selling individual cigarettes ("loosies") presumably to get around the high New York tobacco tax. In Massachusetts, which has already banned menthol cigarettes, the black market is reported on the rise. When police efforts to stop black-market manufacturers and distributors fail, will the police turn on consumers? Stamping out demand (if it could be done) would surely stamp out supply.

This can't end well. For one thing, a ban on one product could morph into a ban on other items that contribute to the production of originally targeted product.

And let's keep in mind the larger context. While the government says it's trying to save smokers from themselves, it also demonizes vaping and has outlawed most vape flavors. True, the exceptions to that ban (for now?) are tobacco and menthol flavors, but still the FDA has made efforts to scare smokers from switching to vaping, which is known to be much safer than inhaling the smoke from burning tobacco leaves. If smokers are scared away from vaping, many will stick with smoking, menthol or no menthol.

Meanwhile the FDA is also looking into lowering the nicotine content of cigarettes to "nonaddictive levels," a futile act of mere signaling since smokers could simply smoke more cigarettes to make up their nicotine deficit.

When will government learn? Actually, that's the wrong question. Officials have no incentive to take seriously many things they must already know because it would cost them their mission, power, and prestige.

Abolition of all vice laws should be step number one in any effort to eliminate unjustified police violence. Forbidding the state's officers from looking for outlawed but consensual transactions couldn't help but create a better relationship between the police and the people, especially those in the most vulnerable communities.

(For the case against all laws against victimless crimes, see Lysander Spooner's Vice Are Not Crimes.)

Friday, May 07, 2021

TGIF: A Refreshing Way to Think about Immigration

What I'm going to say about Chandran Kukathas's latest book, Immigration and Freedom, does not constitute a book review. Think of it instead as a book alert. Even having read only the preface and a couple of chapters, I am confident it is a book that fans of liberty will be interested in. You can tell by the title.

Kukathas is a classical liberal professor of political science at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, whose previous books have argued that monopoly government, as opposed to a polycentric legal order, is inimical to human diversity (The Liberal Archipelago) and have delved critically but appreciatively into the thought of F. A. Hayek (Hayek and Modern Liberalism). I first met Kukathas when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies in the 1980s, so his remarkable academic accomplishments since then come as no surprise.

His latest book aims for a different take on the much-discussed controversy surrounding immigration. What Kukathas explores is how restrictions on immigration impinge on the freedom of the citizens of the country that imposes those restrictions. Of course, he does not neglect the people who wish to move, but in writing his book, he intended to address a matter that has at least been insufficiently addressed by others. He does not neglect the economic ramifications of immigration, which have been widely explored from all sides, but that is not his main concern.

I note in the most positive way that this is a formidable book. It is well-written, but that doesn't make it light reading. Chapter two emphasizes at length the often-counterintuitive point that terms like immigrantcitizen, native, and national are political constructs, not metaphysical categories. The rules regarding those terms vary widely around the world, and it is wrong to think the "right" way merely waits to be discovered. We're talking about the state here, and as is often the case, arbitrariness and interest rule supreme. As Kukathas puts it, for example, "Just as it is possible to deny that a native-born resident can be a citizen, so is it possible to identify someone who is a resident but not a citizen as a native, or as a national."

He stresses that terms like immigrant cannot be defined without simultaneously defining terms like citizen, and that means immigration restrictions must effect non-immigrants within the country in question. Once stated, this may seem obvious, but Kukathas seems right in saying it is overlooked. Because of this fact, immigration is a much bigger subject than border control, however important that is. This indeed is a rich and deeply textured work of scholarship.

In his preface Kukathas states, "As someone sceptical about the pretensions of the modern state, I have long been troubled by its claims to control the movement of people, and even more bothered by the consequences of its exercise of the power to do so." This is the right way to launch a critical look at restrictions on immigration.

He goes on: contrary to those who think

the movement of peoples from other parts of the world threatens to transform our society and to undermine its fundamental values ... [t]he argument of this book is that the threat to freedom comes not from immigration but from immigration control.... Immigration control is not merely about restricting border-crossing but as much, if not more, about constraining what outsiders might do once they have crossed the border in a society. But it is difficult to control outsiders without also controlling insiders, since insiders are all too ready and willing to hire, teach, rent to, trade with, marry, and generally associate with outsiders. Moreover, insiders and outsiders are not readily distinguishable unless there are instruments of control in place to identify one or the other. [Emphasis added.]

You can see where this is going. This is not a polemic on behalf of open borders, though Kukathas is "sympathetic ... to that ideal." It's a much deeper look at the matter, and that makes it noteworthy. And this is no simple work of a priori political philosophy. He is as interested in history, law, anthropology, and sociology as he is in political philosophy. As I said: rich and deeply textured.

In chapter one, Kukathas writes:

The point of this book is to put freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well.... The conclusion [the book] defends is that if we value freedom--as we should--we ought to be wary of immigration control.

Amen to that.

Finally, Kukathas moves to "a larger thesis that lies at the heart of this work." He thinks we have a problem in how we see society itself, that is, "the relationship between society and its inhabitants." Specifically, the prevailing vision is of society as "made up of members"; in other words, society "is some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies." (Emphasis is in the original.)

But wait, Kukathas writes. Why think of society that way? He writes:

The thought running through this book is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal--one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans.

I hope I've shown that this is a refreshing approach that deserves wide attention.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Announcement

If you reach Free Association through the URL sheldonrichman.com, please start using sheldonfreeassociation.blogspot.com/. The sheldonrichman.com domain will end on June 1. Thanks.

Friday, April 30, 2021

TGIF: Bust the Conservative "Trust Busters"

When right-wing leader Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently declared that "liberty and monopoly do not go together," I fantasized that he had become a free-market anarchist. When I hear monopoly, I think government because what's the most literal of monopolies (or source of monopoly power) than the state?

Imagine my disappointment when I realized that, quite the contrary, he was embracing expanded government power over consensual interaction in the marketplace. He was introducing his aggressively named Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act. Hawley wants to be the our day's Theodore Roosevelt, also a Republican but no friend of individual liberty and free-market interaction.

Hawley says would like to break up Major League Baseball, Big Tech, Big Telecom, Big Banks, and Big Pharma, as well as limit or prohibit what other big companies can do, such as merge with or acquire other companies. It's quite a comprehensive serving of government powers from a guy who probably tells himself he favors limited government. That's how things are. Conservatives have long had higher priorities than defending peaceful interaction in all spheres. Hawley is no friend of liberty.

Like any good conservative, for Hawley many things outrank individual liberty: protection of the culture from the left, for example. In other words, when the left proposes government power as a solution to a real or imagined problem, Hawleyites propose some other expansion of government power, for example, regulation of social media and search engines on behalf of conservative groups. Mentions of liberty are mostly lip-service intended to keep some imagined coalition together.

Hawley's news release says his "new legislation [is designed] to take back control from big business and return it to the American people. Senator Hawley’s bill will crack down on mergers and acquisitions by mega-corporations and strengthen antitrust enforcement to pursue the breakup of dominant, anticompetitive firms."

As we'll see, this approach assumes that the anticompetitive power of business is an independent variable, rather than something derived from political power in countless ways. If all the intended and unintended anticompetitive laws and regulations were repealed, the Federal Register would be considerably thinner and we'd all be considerably freer. Competition would thrive. That's why I call corporate power "the most dangerous derivative"--it's generated by the government and wouldn't exist without it.

The release says, "A small group of woke mega-corporations control the products Americans can buy, the information Americans can receive, and the speech Americans can engage in. These monopoly powers control our speech, our economy, our country, and their control has only grown because Washington has aided and abetted their quest for endless power."

This is a gross overstatement, even with all the laws on the books. But to the extent Hawley is correct, it's too bad he fails to understand that he is indicting the interventionist state--that is, politicians and bureaucrats--and not of the market process, which when left alone has built-in safeguards against anticonsumer activities. It's called competition, but it must be left unmolested by the state, many of whose interventions enable firms to grow bigger than they would be in a free market. (See Milton and Rose Friedman's chapter "Who Protects the Consumer?" in Free to Choose.)

"Woke corporations want to run this country and Washington is happy to let them. It’s time to bust up them up and restore competition," the release states.

The word woke here indicates that culture is what drives Hawley and his allies. I don't mean that anything labeled "woke" is innocuous (far from it), just that Hawley wants to punish companies that take what in his view is the wrong side of today's raging political-cultural issues. He is incensed that Major League Baseball pulled its all-state game out of Atlanta because it disapproves of Republican-favored election-rule changes in Georgia. For Hawley, moving the game is an illegitimate attempt to influence public policy. His solution? Subject MLB to antitrust law. (He's joined by fellow Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.) That doesn't sound like the proposal of a small-government man.

Here are some things Hawley's bill would do:

  • Ban all mergers and acquisitions by companies with market capitalization exceeding $100 billion;
  • Empower the FTC to designate “dominant digital firms” exercising dominant market power in particular internet markets, which will be prohibited from buying out potential competitors;
  • Prohibit dominant digital firms from privileging their own search results over those of competitors without explicit disclosure;
  • Reform the Sherman and Clayton Acts to make clear that direct evidence of anticompetitive conduct is sufficient to support an antitrust claim, which will allow enforcers to effectively pursue the breakup of dominant firms and prevent antitrust cases from devolving into battles between economists;
  • Replace the outdated numerically-focused standard for evaluating antitrust cases, which allows giant conglomerates to escape scrutiny by focusing on short-term considerations, with a standard emphasizing the protection of competition in the U.S.;
  • Clarify that “vertical” mergers are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny;
  • Drastically increase antitrust penalties by requiring companies that lose federal antitrust suits to forfeit all their profits resulting from monopolistic conduct

That's quite an undertaking (an appropriate word in both senses) for any government, considering that the mortals who would enforce such a law would lack the essential knowledge and incentives needed to do the right thing. The history of antitrust is a history of cronyism and special pleading, but what would you expect?.

The bill would expand the Progressive-era Sherman and Clayton acts in several ominous ways. For example:

In any case alleging a violation of this section 5 or section 1 in which a plaintiff establishes by a preponderance of the evidence (including direct evidence) the existence of substantial market power or the anticompetitive or otherwise detrimental effects of particular practices, a plaintiff need neither define the scope of a relevant market nor establish the share of such a market controlled by the defendant.

Even if one wrongly grants the legitimacy of antitrust law, it is absurd that the relevant market or market share of the defendant would not need to be defined by the government or other plaintiff. How would one know that a firm was monopolistic? (Years ago the government sued the major ready-to-eat cereal companies for monopolistic  activity on the basis of a narrow definition of the breakfast-food market that excluded all the alternatives to cold cereal.)

No acquisition shall be presumed not to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly only because the parties to the acquisition do not compete directly against one another at the time of the acquisition.

Again, even many people who favor antitrust distinguish between horizontal acquisitions, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the same product, and a vertical one, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the first firm's inputs or buys its products. Hawley wants to go an extra step to insure that no company valued at more than $100 billion could change a market through an acquisition. That's true conservatism!

The bill would also have new rules for what it calls a "dominant digital firm," which would be any company that is accessible through the internet and "possesses dominant market power in any market related to that website or service." Here conservatives propose to enlist the state to go after the social networks and search engines for real and alleged mistreatment of ... conservatives presumably. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), another  creature of the Progressive movement, would be given the power to designate a person, partnership, or corporation as a dominant digital firm," at which time new rules apply. Oddly, this is the one section that acknowledges that government puts its thumb on the scale in economic matters: in determining a firm's "market power," the FTC would consider "the extent to which the firm benefits from government contracts or other privileges." That is an important point, but the solution is to withdraw the anticompetitive privileges, not to impose new restrictions.

None of this means that big business deserves nothing but praise. With some rare exceptions, many business people, as Friedman often pointed out, have long seen the government as a convenient way to get what they couldn't get through free competition. That's why antitrust was so often used not to protect consumers, but to protect less-efficient firms that fared poorly in the market. (See D. T. Armentano's classic, Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure.)

Moreover, we all should be bothered that the social network owners think it's right to mediate what is true and false in their customers' conversations and feeds. Social networks are private firms, but that doesn't make anything they do a good thing. Besides, we may justifiably wonder how much of what they do in this regard is done to stave off government regulation from progressives. They know the eye of the state is upon them. Further, we may also suspect that the big networks have calculated that when regulation comes, they, the experts, would be called on to write the rules--as long as they are seen as behaving well.

The argument against antitrust law is that it misconstrues the market. When free it is not a static condition but a process in perpetual motion, in which entrepreneurs are always trying to profit by better serving customers. In an unmolested market the threat of potential competition would do as much to keep a single firm on the customers' side as actual competition. So quantitative indicators are misleading. As D. T. Armentano says, high profits in an industry with one or two firms is not a barrier to new competition but an engraved invitation. Moreover, even a cartel agreement among a few sellers couldn't prevent "cheating" by parties to increase revenues; nor could it prevent new entrants from taking advantage of the dominant firms' disregard of consumer welfare.

Hawley's bill declares, "It is the policy of the United States that the principal standard for evaluating the permissibility of practices under this Act is the protection of economic competition within the United States.’’ But "competition" is too abstract a thing to protect, and history shows that such a goal opens the gates to complaints from inefficient firms (or their advocates in the regulatory bureaucracy) that claim they are victims of efficient firms' "anticompetitive" actions when in fact they are victims of their own inefficiency. 

Instead of protecting competition (aka weak firms), let's protect individual liberty for everyone.

The bill's chances of passing a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party are nonexistent of course. But this isn't because it would grant new controls over peaceful activities. Rather, it's because Hawley's motive is to rein in "woke" corporations. No doubt the Democrats will have their own antitrust bill before long.

Friday, April 23, 2021

TGIF: Does Nearly Everyone Favor Industrial Policy?

Over the years I've heard countless arguments about which word best describes the American economic system. Some insist it is essentially socialist, while others favor the word fascism. (Fascism is socialism with a private-property and market veneer.) Still others describe the system as a mixed, or interventionist, economy.

We need not decide among these because the huge system has many facets, at least some of which at some time or other have fit one or more of these terms.

One term we might all agree on, however, is industrial policy. That's because it is general enough to cover almost anything except the market unmolested by the state. And yet it's a good term for the whole basket of objectionable policy sets. It fits most people along the conventional political spectrum, even if they differ in degree.

Think about it: in the current system virtually government activity can be defended on the grounds that it's good for the "the economy," including locking it down in the name of public health. This goes for both more and less government intervention. So even reducing government control in a particular matter might be favored by an interventionist under particular circumstances, with the understanding that if circumstances change, control would be increased. We're talking about an policy orientation and motive more than any particular measure. Industrial policy is frequently equated with "picking winners," which it is certainly part of it. But picking winners will then be defended as a way to make the economy healthy, notwithstanding obvious crony-serving features.

You can see this engineering orientation in trade policy. Even some people who are usually on the free-trade side of the spectrum can see free trade as a government policy, not the absence of policy. This even was true in the early years after the American Revolution. The Articles of Confederation did not empower the central quasi-government to regulate trade, and since it had no power to tax, it could not levy revenue tariffs. Of course, the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, which explicitly gave Congress the power to regulate trade and to tax. Those issues were important in propelling the movement to scrap the Articles in favor of a far more powerful central government. (See my America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

For the governing class the power to regulate trade was indispensable to the policy arsenal, even if free trade was favored at any particular moment. Rulers could imagine many circumstances in which they would need to impose tariffs, quotas, or sanctions on other countries "for the good of America," which always included economic concerns. As George Will wrote long ago, free trade is not a principle; it's an expedient"--but not necessarily always. (Will may think differently today.)

Trade is certainly not the only area where this engineering mindset is at work. The country's infrastructure is another popular area, as we can see today. Nearly any government requirement can be imposed in the name of upgrading roads, bridges, and the rest. Crazy levels of spending, borrowing, and taxation can be supported as necessary to the health of the economy even if the resulting legislation actually has little to do with the infrastructure. We can also see where trade and infrastructure intersect: President Biden, like past presidents, has a "Buy American" provision in his infrastructure bill, which would push the price tag higher than it would be without that provision,

Immigration is another area where more or less restriction will usually be defended in the name of American economic well-being. The issue is hardly ever related to individual liberty for aspiring immigrants and Americans. This should need little elaboration.

At the root of this mentality is the pretense that "the economy" is a machine. Any machine needs tending; it cannot be left to run itself indefinitely. Ergo, the economy needs tending by government officials. If pressed, people who think this way would have a hard time clinging to the trope, but that does not stop them from operating as though the economic system were literally a machine. Notice how often they talk about an economy's potential for overheating, stalling, cooling down, braking, and so on.

But if an economy is not really a machine, why is it useful to pretend that it is? I'll venture a guess. When one speaks in those terms, it's easier to obscure the fact that it's not a machine that will be tended; rather, it is people who will be monitored, controlled, and penalized for disobeying government directives. If the economy just a machine that is being regulated, no one need worry about rights abuses. You might criticize the regulators on competency grounds, but not on moral grounds.

Yet when you walk around, you see no economy. It is not a thing like a machine, a building, or a vehicle. When we say economy, we mean individual persons acting in a series of continuing and more or less regular relationships that involve money in transformation of stuff from less-useful to more-useful forms, as consumers view things. Government officials don't regulate an economy; they regulate individuals--us!--thereby interfering with our lives, liberties, purposes, and pursuit of happiness.

That's the moral case against industrial policy. The technical case involves the familiar public-choice and Austrian knowledge-related critiques of central planning: namely, that the politicians  and technocrats, first, can't know what they'd need to know to regulate our activities for our own good, and, second, even if they had that knowledge, they couldn't be counted on to act appropriately, given that they are human beings with personal interests, for example, power, prestige, and career advancement. (Hence, the familiar mission creep.)

That one-two critique has never been satisfactorily addressed. We must oppose industrial policy in all its forms.

Friday, April 16, 2021

TGIF: Should Libertarians Join Organizations?

A few weeks ago YouTube suggested that I watch a 1988 episode of William F. Buckley's PBS TV show, "Firing Line," featuring Ron Paul, who at the time was the Libertarian Party candidate for president. I had to chuckle right at the top when Buckley introduced Rep. Paul by striking an ironic pose: while "libertarians specialize in non-organization...," Buckley said, "to run for president of the United States, which Dr. Paul is doing on the Libertarian ticket, does require organization, to be sure uncoerced." (Emphasis added.) Buckley flashed his trademark impish smile while his guest remained silent looking bemused.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning except that I've heard people make similar comments over the years. I have no doubt that Buckley was trying to be funny. The tip-off is in his final words, "to be sure uncoerced." Buckley was too smart and too knowledgeable not to know that libertarians--and this includes free-market anarchists--have no principled objection to organizations per se. Uncoerced is indeed the key point.

Amazingly, not everyone seems to know this. Many times I've heard people wonder how libertarians could have a political party or any other organization for that matter. It is one thing to wonder about a libertarian party, but quite another to wonder about all organizations. Maybe some of the questioners were trying to score a cheap debating point, but I suspect that for others, sheer misunderstanding was at work, as if libertarians favored self-sufficiency and social isolation. (They don't.) At the least, it is a sign of insufficient thought.

Why did Buckley say, "libertarians specialize in non-organization"? Specialize? Please! One of thing that libertarians do specialize in is enthusiasm for markets as an essential part of a free society. Markets are filled with organizations, if by that term we mean purposeful associations. (With respect to F. A. Hayek, we can distinguish organizations from institutions, the word he reserved for spontaneous, bottom-up social and economic regularity with accompanying expectations.) The overall market order, which is highly complex, is such an emergent institution rather than a designed organization. It was not constructed with a single conscious purpose, but within it are countless organizations that one or more people created for specific purposes. That's what a firm, a co-op, and many other kinds of groups are. The unplanned order of the market, which is an arena for purposeful conduct that has no end explicit in itself, is full of planned associations. What libertarian would reject them in principle? We'd be a lot poorer and certainly no freer without them. Again, the standard is consent. Organizations can be good, and so individuals ought to be free to choose with whom they will associate and for what purposes.

What's said about the market is also true of society in general. Obviously, people form associations for all kinds of reasons, not just to make money through production and trade. Tocqueville noticed this on his visit to the young United States and reported on it in Democracy in America. Americans, he said, formed organizations whenever they wanted to accomplish things they couldn't do individually. To hear him tell it, Americans were organization-happy. In those days, keep in mind, they were in large measure radically and classically liberal in temperament, yet that did not stop them from doing things together whenever it suited. They understood that organizing per se infringed neither their liberty nor their integrity. No surprise there: human beings are social animals.

I don't mean to say that organizations pose no risk to people. Risks and temptations lurk everywhere. Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote a remarkable essay long ago titled "On that Day Began Lies," in which he pointed out that the danger of even private organizations lies in the temptation of individual members to believe that are not responsible for the acts of the group they participate in them--as though they could merge into a mass without personal accountability. Think of a mob, which is not typically thought of an organization but whose members act in concert toward a particular end. One can see how those members might distance themselves from their own actions by regarding the mob as an agent.

Read headed the essay with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Read then asked: "Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in councilmanic, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of 'millions of human beings'?"

He noted that personal integrity and honesty are key to avoiding trouble and suggested that this will determine the moral quality of any group. He asked:

What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.

The organization certainly seems to provide the temptation for members to distance themselves from "its" actions, even though the mob cannot act if no member acts. Mobs are not alone in this phenomenon. Read went on:

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery—that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

As we can see, Read didn't mean political associations only. Private associations also can challenge less-than-conscientious members' integrity. In this connection, he had much to say about how majority rule and the call for group consensus can tempt people to shift personal responsibility to the disembodied group.

In sum, Read wrote:

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary, or irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility....

How to stop lies? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accordance with one’s inner, personal dictate of what is right. And for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given permission to represent us otherwise.

In other words, do not associate with a group that does or advocates things you as an individual would not do or advocate. Being outvoted does not get you off the hook.

Read touched on a related theme in "Conscience on the Battlefield," in which he argued that even soldiers are responsible for the actions they are commanded to perform, including killing.

The upshot is that people of character can avoid the dangers of association without avoiding associations entirely. A separate question is whether a libertarian political party is good idea, but that's not my concern here. My message is that nothing about the freedom philosophy rules out voluntary participation in a wide variety of organizations.

Friday, April 09, 2021

TGIF: The Fraught World of Second-Bests

When discussion turns to how to make government "better," however any particular person would conceive that condition, libertarians understand that we are in the fraught world of second-bests. In other words, because of the nature of the state, no solution that merely attempts to reform it will be or could be truly satisfying. The system will continue to feature exploitation, rent-seeking, public-choice and knowledge problems, and worse.

We have an example of this in a recent Soho Forum Debate in which political scientist Terry Moe of Stanford University and Gene Healy of the Cato Institute argued over whether Moe's proposal for federal legislative fast-tracking, which is intended to enable presidents to eliminate congressional obstruction, is a good idea. I think Healy, a long-time critic of "the cult of the presidency," won the debate, but that of course doesn't mean that leaving things as they are is a good idea. Healy would agree.

Moe would add a feature to how Washington does things. His constitutional amendment would empower presidents to put legislation on a fast track. Thus within, say, 90 days after introduction, both houses of Congress would have to vote up or down on the president's bill--no committees, no amendments, no filibuster. Legislation could still be handled the old-fashioned way. Members of Congress could introduce bills that would go through the committee process of both houses and would be subject to amendment. Presidents could still veto those bills. Any prevailing filibuster rules would apply. Moe would simply put another arrow in a president's quiver.

Why does Moe want to do this? (It's not unprecedented, as Moe acknowledges: Congress has legislated that trade bills can be fast-tracked in this manner.) Simply put, he thinks the federal government is failing the country and has been doing so for a long time. The system set up by the framers of the Constitution, he says, is obsolete: they were operating under far different conditions from today's, and it's long past the time for change. Specifically, the system has too many "veto points" at which legislation can be derailed, resulting in paralysis and a dire failure to address important matters. (He offers immigration reform as a prime example.) The system all but assures that nothing happens, Moe insists, and we simply can't go on this way any longer.

One can readily acknowledge that things are not good now without embracing Moe's or any other particular reform. After all, it's always possible to make thing worse. 

I guess if your priority is the passage of legislation--any legislation--Moe's proposal would be appealing. But who judges Congress merely by how many bills it passes? (Come to think of it, some newspapers apparently do.) Quality is more important than quantity. Different people will evaluate the difficulty in passing bills differently depending on what they think the government would do with a free hand.

For people who love individual liberty, the first thing to notice is that legislative obstacles are bad only if the likely legislation would reduce government power and expand government respect for freedom. Gridlock, however, is good (with qualifications below) whenever it blocks government interference with peaceful private conduct, whether "personal" or "economic." (I regard this distinction as pernicious. Economic liberty is personal liberty; making and spending money in pursuit of one's life projects are as personal as human activity can get. Dividing liberty into two spheres, an idea endorsed decades ago by the Supreme Court, has been catastrophic. The courts scrutinize limits on freedom of speech and religion far more stringently than they scrutinize limits on the use of property. See my What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

The reverse is also the case; libertarians would applaud fast-tracking for bills that would remove restrictions on liberty, but oppose it for liberty violations. The problem is that exclusively pro-liberty fast-tracking is not likely to be adopted by the powers that be. Since bad bills easily outnumber good ones, fast-tracking would be no welcome reform.

This might suggest that gridlock is the best we can hope for in the current world. I have tended to think that is the case, but I things aren't that simple. As Healy points out, the libertarian preference for gridlock must be tempered by the fact that stymied presidents can turn to executive orders to get what Congress refuses to given them. Recent presidents have done this often. So the situation looks bleak. Reformed or not, the government will produce violations of liberty most of the time.

To be sure, Healy scored direct points against Moe's amendment during the debate. For some matters the proposal terrifies him. For example, George W. Bush wanted a much broader authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 than Congress gave him. Had fast-track been the rule, Bush would probably have gotten his way because members of Congress would have been afraid to vote against him after the horrific attacks. Could the government's war record since the start of the century been worse as a result? Maybe.

On the other hand, Healy suggested that Moe's amendment might not change things all that much. With fast-track the houses of Congress could defeat a presidential bill, then introduce something similar in the traditional manner, allowing amendments, etc. It occurs to me that presidents hoping for legislative success might informally negotiate with members of Congress to arrive at a bill that has a good chance of being fast-tracked even through houses in the other party's hands. Thus fast-tracking might accomplish much less than Moe expects.

We should be surprised by none of this. That the state--an irredeemably flawed and predatory organization--cannot be satisfactorily reformed is unremarkable. Conceived in sin and conquest, the state is based on the principle that some people should be empowered to coerce other people simply for living their lives in peaceful yet disapproved ways. Thus the only true reform is abolition.