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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, February 12, 2021

TGIF: What Now, Libertarians?

The prospects for individual liberty and the required rollback of the government seem as bleak as ever, but we can't let appearances, no matter how pervasive, be decisive. The spark within most people--the longing to chart one's course in life--never really dies. We've got to remember this as we search for new and innovative ways to make our case to an apparently uninterested public.

But I admit that things don't look good. We might have expected the four-year circus presided over by Donald Trump to sour people on the very idea of government. I always thought that was an unrealistic expectation. A yearning for a return to "normal" seemed more likely--and in this context "normal" means a conventional politician. Politically speaking, pre-Trump normal is bad, which is why we got the contemptible Trump in the first place. Yet normal is what we have now in the creature of Washington who is now the government's chief executive. (By the way and strictly speaking, if you're not in the military you have no commander-in-chief, and since the president presides as chief executive officer of the government, not the country, private citizens have no president either. A pet peeve of mine is people who call any president "my president" or "my commander-in-chief.")

For the record, Trump certainly could have done far worse than he did as president (that should have been his campaign slogan), but that is faint praise indeed. He was hardly dedicated to pushing back the limits of the bloated central state--far from it. For each of the very few positive things he did (some deregulation happened), he did a dozen rotten things, not to mention the toxic atmosphere he helped generate. (As someone said, he also brings out the worst in his enemies, but that's another story.)

We live in a time when most people believe that government spending and borrowing need have no limits. Of course they believe this: they are told this day after day by the pundits, politicians, and bureaucrats. Almost any excuse will do to increase borrowing and spending and to impose extraordinary restrictions and prohibitions on peaceful activities, but the COVID-19 pandemic was ready-made for this. If government officials, backed by some scientists, can scare enough people into believing they will die if they so much as step outside their homes, never mind go about their normal business, they'll win support for a wholesale shutdown of society. Then the government will have an excuse to intervene on an enormous scale in order to provide "relief" for the very ills it caused. We are encouraged to pretend that sky's-the-limit fiscal and monetary policies will have no consequences for our children and grandchildren.

Yes, a few people have objected to all this, but where are the mass (and peaceful) street demonstrations against what amounts to a society-wide quarantine? They don't happen because government-anointed experts have spoken. It almost doesn't matter that comparably credentialed experts dissent from the official line because they will be defamed and stigmatized as ideologues or industry lackeys who put almost anything ahead of the facts. Nevertheless, "believe the science" is worthless advice when competent scientists are on different sides of a question.

A pandemic of course is not the only way to have the population to capitulate to extraordinary interventions. A terrorist action or failure of financial institutions may also do the trick. Politicians are inventive that way.

So it's easy to scare people into surrendering their liberty, and politicians, bureaucrats, and special interests will never tire of looking for things to scare us about. Remember Rahm Emanuel's admonition to never let a good crisis go to waste. (This is a good time to tout Robert Higgs's classic, Crisis and Leviathan.)

And yet ... after all this, most people won't be thrilled with the idea of spending their lives scared and being bossed around by a cold bureaucracy. People in the United States like the words of the Declaration of Independence that refer to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (I presume many people outside of the United States get a warm feeling about this philosophy too.) And that's what we libertarians have going for us. Most people never really reject liberty deep down. They may not understand how liberty works in the social sense, which keeps them from embracing it completely. But that's where we libertarians come in. Our job is to show them that liberty is not just the right thing but the practical thing. The moral is the practical. (See my book What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

We have something else going for us, which we shouldn't forget: most people observe libertarian principles in their private spheres. They don't kill, coerce, or steal. The problem is that they have a different standard when it comes to politicians and bureaucrats. So our task is to point out that government officials are just people, so no double standard is permissible. If we can't do it, they can't do it.

Think of it this way: libertarians must teach people that one moral code exists for all. Politicians and bureaucrats are not really a class apart from the rest of us with special rules governing their conduct. That's not too tough a lesson to teach. It's an appealing idea actually.

The double standard is sometimes justified by the democratic representation principle. It will be argued that government officials can do things we can't because according to the principles of democracy, the people anointed their lawfully selected representatives with those powers.

Sorry, no cigar. No representatives can be democratically delegated powers or rights not possessed by the constituency that selected them by majority vote. You cannot delegate authority or rights you don't have. Even if a people band together to pick a representative, that person can only do what the group had the right to do as individuals. Democratic theory is political alchemy.

The idea of representation is coherent in nonpolitical circumstances, of course. But it falls apart when it comes to government. A member of the House of Representatives theoretically speaks for nearly 800,000 diverse individuals who may agree over very little. How can that be accomplished? The theory of representation was just a device to stifle dissent against the government after the divine right of kings fell out of favor. After all, how can you criticize the government if in fact it is you and your fellow citizens are really the government? This is obvious nonsense, but it works to keep dissatisfaction in check. Libertarians need to teach this lesson over and over.

I have no glib answers for how to reach people. It's a trial-and-error process all the way. Find ways to talk and write to people that will be fresh and attention-grabbing. Point to the real-world benefits of market activity in action. Remind people that trade occurs only when mutual benefit is anticipated by both parties to a transaction. Demonstrate how market incentives work to direct scarce resources toward making thing that consumers most want. Explain that privilege and shelter from creative competition are creatures of government policy, not of private consensual activity. Introduce people to the non-intuitive idea of spontaneous order--Adam Smith's invisible hand--which is essential to understanding how societies work. And emphasize that libertarianism isn't just about markets but covers all of free and peaceful cooperation.

Of course, always respect your audience. You'll never succeed otherwise.

One final note: it's not enough to sow distrust of government. If anything because that won't necessarily lead to individual freedom and voluntary social cooperation through the market and other forums. We must first directly nurture a love of liberty, respect for others, and reason. The love of liberty flows from those things.

It's easy to get discouraged, but remember what someone (apparently not Pericles) once said: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you.”

TGIF--The Goal Is Freedom--appears occasionally on Fridays.

Friday, February 05, 2021

TGIF: Imperial America, Which Never Left, Is Back

In a cliche-ridden foreign-policy speech delivered at the State Department on Thursday, President Joe Biden declared that "America is back"--on the global stage, presumably, as policeman of the world, but certainly not a disinterested policeman. The problem is that it never left.

Despite some uncouth rhetoric and regular New York Times headlines regarding "American isolationism," Donald Trump never withdrew the U.S. government from its meddling role in the world. He baited Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, and ended no war or U.S. assistance to other wars. Far from leaving NATO or punishing its members for not paying more for their military forces, he oversaw its expansion--which had only one purpose: to aggravate Russia. Yes, Trump apparently removed some troops from Germany--does anyone have a good reason why they are still there?--but Biden promised to change that. He also wants to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, which of course--*wink*--would never make Russia nervous.

If that's what he means by "America is back," let's us shout in unison: Thanks, but no thanks!

Not that we should be surprised by Biden's position, considering that his foreign-policy team consists of Obama administration retreads who act as though there's a world of difference between intervention and humanitarian intervention.

Biden put Russia and China on notice: "The days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over."

Hang on. We've never been given evidence that Russia, which has a weak economy and limited military, interfered with an election--quite the contrary--or engaged in cyberattacks. By the way, we know the U.S. government does that sort of thing routinely, even with respect to Russia and its allies. Moreover, if Vladimir Putin's government poisons its citizens--obviously something to be condemned by all decent people--how is that an aggressive action against against the United States or any other country? By that curious standard, U.S. persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, et al. could be construed as aggression against others.

I will give Biden credit for agreeing with Russia to extend the New START Treaty on nuclear weapons. (Putin's so-called puppet, Trump, pulled out of such treaties.)

And on China:

And we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.

Note the words: "Our most serious competitor." One way to reduce tensions among states is to stop seeing them as competing economic entities. America doesn't compete with China in the global marketplace because America is not a homogeneous entity with a single scale of preferences. An American consumer and a Chinese merchant may have a harmony of interest; likewise an American manufacturer and a Chinese consumer or producer. (Concerns about intellectual property can be taken care of by repealing the relevant laws. Ideas cannot legitimately be owned.) But Biden. like Trump, is locked into the mercantilist worldview in which nations compete against each other. That's why Biden promises to reinforce the "Buy American" policy, costing taxpayers more for stuff that the U.S. government could buy for less from foreign manufacturers. "Buy American" also distorts the international division of labor, making everyone less prosperous.

Regarding Biden's other charges against China, one need not approve of the oppressive Chinese government to understand that something is wrong when no government but the U.S. government is allowed to have a sphere of influence ("backyard"), which thereby extends to the whole world. In a world of states, that sort of policy is asking for trouble.

So Biden's speech wholeheartedly embraced America's role as the global overseer, self-appointed to keep everyone on good behavior, strangely alternating between invocations of altruism and "naked [national] self-interest." We know where that took us in the past.

Biden promised to end assistance to Saudi Arabia's "offensive" actions in Yemen. Fine. But how will he define "offensive"? We might have a clue in what Biden said right after this promise:

At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.  We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.

Bear in mind that the Saudi regime is one of the most repressive in the world.

So nothing will really change. If Biden wanted to make a constructive difference to that region, he would end the long-standing multi-front covert/overt war against Iran, including all the sanctions Trump imposed. Biden didn't otherwise mention Iran in the speech, yet he says he wants to reenter the nuclear deal, which Trump stormed out of. The way to do that is end the sanctions, which harm and even kill innocent people.

While we're talking about the Middle East, let us note that Biden said nothing about Israel and Palestine, despite all the damage Trump did there on behalf of the Israeli state and against the long-suffering Palestinians. We already know from his Senate confirmation hearing that Secretary of State Tony Blinken has no problem with what Trump did: from moving the embassy to Jerusalem to declaring the settlements in the de facto annexed West Bank just fine and dandy. Massive annual military aid to Israel--without any conditions whatever--of course will continue. That policy of course gives propaganda opportunities to other regimes that the U.S. government can then condemn as destabilizing. But which party is the real destabilizer?

Also among the no-mentions was Afghanistan. How can Biden give his first speech on foreign policy without discussing the country's longest war? That is really remarkable. The names Iraq and Syria also do not appear in the speech. Amazing.

As long as government exists, the proper foreign policy is nonintervention. Policing the world inevitably invites defensive and deterrent responses, which are then used as pretenses to counter so-called "aggressive" actions. It also makes fortunes for military contractors. The result is perpetual war in which liberty and prosperity must suffer.

TGIF--The Goal Is Freedom--appears occasionally on Friday.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Hot off the Press! Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism


It my supreme pleasure to announce the availability of Scott Horton's great new book, Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism. This encyclopedic work is available in paperback and Kindle format at Amazon and contains pretty much all you need to know about the lethal, corrupt, and counterproductive series of wars and imperial actions that still plague the world. 

And don't forget Scott's previous indispensable book, Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A Defense of the Peaceful Transfer of War-Making Power

Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausevitz famously said that "war is a continuation of politics by other means." I think we can reverse this: politics is war by other means. The ultimate aim of politics (in the narrow sense of the word; there's a more elevated philosophical sense) is what Frederic Bastiat called "legal plunder."

Other thinkers have elaborated this idea. Franz Oppenheimer's book The State comes to mind. Oppenheimer influenced Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, and through them the modern libertarian movement. Oppenheimer distinguished work -- which he called the "economic means" -- from robbery -- the "political means."

A gang can raid a group of productive people, steal their stuff, and ride off to the next community to plunder anew. Or it can stay around and keep looting the same people. Now people tend not to like this and won't be terribly productive. So to pull this off, the gang will need to convince the people that the arrangement is for their own good. The gang will promise to protect them from other gangs (which it will surely want to do) and provide other services that will tend to keep the people quiescent. The booty they will be deprived of will be relabeled taxes.

To sell this set-up to the people, the gang will need intellectuals or priests to formulate a religion, ideology, or what-have-you to persuade the people that this is all for their benefit. Why? Because rebellion is costly to rulers. For one thing, people who are busy resisting tyranny won't be producing stuff, which would undercut the point of politics: legal plunder. Better for the rulers, therefore, that the people (at least tacitly) consent to or acquiesce in the arrangement after being encouraged to believe that they are net beneficiaries, despite the palpable costs. Controlling education is useful in this regard.

So we might well look on politics as war on productive people by other means.

This has implications for the revered idea of the peaceful transfer of power, which is much in the news these days. The power that is to be peacefully transferred is the power to make war both domestically and internationally.

Does this mean that we ought to denigrate the peaceful transfer of power? No, of course not. Political power is properly and always an object of suspicion and (one hopes) diminution, but that is no justification for violent transfer. Violence embodies its own intrinsic evils and cannot be controlled or finely targeted. Collateral damage is the rule, not the exception. Moreover, violence will usually result in far worse state abuses -- with the support of most people, who will abhor civil disorder.

When President Woodrow Wilson and his Progressive supporters pushed for U.S. entry into the Great War, Randolph Bourne broke with his former allies and eloquently opposed their crusade. What especially irked Bourne was the Progressives' argument that entering the war would advance their reform agenda.

Bourne disagreed: "He who mounts a wild elephant goes where the wild elephant goes." Of course, Bourne is also the one who wrote that "war is the health of the state." Both quotations argue against violence as a means of social change. Even in the face of tyranny, we should favor a presumption of nonviolence, or what Bryan Caplan calls "pragmatic pacifism." (Also see this.)

The methods of nonviolent resistance have long been fleshed out by Gene Sharp. (See Carl Watner's "Without Firing A Single Shot: Voluntaryist Resistance and Societal Defense."

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Why Politics Is So Acrimonious

If we wish to understand what's wrong with today's politics, we ought to consider something F. A. Hayek pointed out long ago. It should have been obvious, but it escapes many people: namely, the more power government officials have over our lives, the more people will fear its falling into the "wrong" hands, that is, the hands of those who disagree with them. In response to a growing fear, they will be willing to undertake ever-more-extreme measures to wrest power from those hands or retain it for the "right" hands.

Who can deny this? Government is force. It is imposition -- not merely on people who really abuse others, but also on perfectly innocent people who mind their own business. Since that is so and since few people like having things jammed down their throats, as government officials control more and more aspects of life, including and perhaps especially cultural matters (through schooling, for example), people realize they have two only choices: be a victim or be an aggressor. Many people will choose the latter and be willing to go to great lengths, even street violence, to protect themselves and their families. (Note well: This is not an excuse for violence.)

If you wonder why zero-sum politics has become so acrimonious, therein lies a clue. (Other factors may explain the timing, etc.) You want less acrimonious politics? Strive for less politics. And that means replacing government with freedom, consent, and markets. We really have no other choice.

Monday, January 11, 2021

No Sacred Ground

The coverage of the riot at the U.S. Capitol last week was annoying to say the least -- what went on was no insurrection or attempted coup; it was just an end-in-itself temper tantrum committed by a bunch of idiots who never believed after Nov. 3 that they would actually prevent Joe Biden from being inaugurated at noon on Jan. 20.

Perhaps most annoying of all about the coverage was the barely veiled premise that the Capitol is a temple on sacred ground. Let's not fall for that nationalist bunk. I find it ironic that those who speak in such tones say they oppose nationalism, which is nothing but a body of state-worshiping dogma, sacraments, and rituals. They just don't like a particular branch of the church, that's all. So what's new?

Let's be clear: there is no sacred ground or holy buildings. The posers who are called "representatives" and who occupy such places have no more access to the Will of The People than the high priests had to Yahweh back in the day.

But okay, if we must use such honorifics, let's at least reserve them for justly acquired private property. (There is such a thing, and it rules out acquisition through government privilege.) After all, in theory (though not in reality), democracy is said to exist for the sake of people (not the people). And people, being mortal and individual, can neither flourish nor cooperate with others without being able to acquire and control parcels of land and objects. The only rule must be that you do so justly, that is, without violating the same rights of others. This comes down to a prohibition on the initiation of force. (I say plenty about this in What Social Animals Owe to Each Other, available at a Libertarian Institute near you.)

So, again, if we have to talk in such terms -- and really we don't -- Starbucks and the corner hardware store are more sacred than any government building, which was built with the proceeds from extortion, otherwise known as taxation. This doesn't justify or excuse what Trump's infantile horde did on Jan. 6, but it's a fact nonetheless.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Government's Perverse Incentives

It might seem reasonable to think that in the early days of a pandemic involving an unfamiliar pathogen, the public ought to allow the government leeway in its imposition of extreme measures, such as the virtual shut down of economic activity. But the initial impression ought to dissolve when one reminds oneself that we're talking about government, a monopolistic organization shot through with perverse incentives because it gets its revenue through coercion (taxation) and faces no profit-and-lost test. (We also must understand that extreme measures were imposed on the basis of a widely criticized computer model, not on any facts.)

Obviously everyone will know less about a newly emerged virus on Day 1 (whenever that may be) than on Day 30 and beyond. That ought to mean that policymakers and their advisers in the world of science should be prepared and eager to retreat from the early extreme measures when the data point in that direction. But, again, we're talking about politicians, bureaucrats, and the anointed experts who have their ears and don't wish to lose them. They all face perverse incentives that induce bureaucratic sclerosis. (Other perverse incentives also apply.) This phenomenon has long been identified with the Food and Drug Administration. Look at the incentives facing a bureaucrat who must choose between approving a new drug or not. If he approves and headline-catching unanticipated rare side-effects emerge, the bureaucrat's name on the dotted line could be mud, no matter how beneficial the drug is on the whole. Career ruined. But if he doesn't sign off and people keep dying because the drug remains unavailable, few among the public will call the bureaucrat a killer because his responsibility will escape most people's notice.

You can see the parallel with the pandemic. Even if new information showed the initial extreme measures to be inappropriate, officials would have almost no incentive to remove them. If they did and the number of cases and death rose, they would be pilloried in the press, whether or not their policies had anything to do with the rise. But if they didn't remove the extreme measures and cases or deaths surged, they would not be on the hook. In fact, they would say their policy actions kept the surge from being even greater. (The policy makers would be even less accountable for the deaths directly caused by the policies themselves, which is the case with the shutdown.)

However formidable, these perverse incentives are not insurmountable, and occasionally someone in the government world admits a mistake. But this is not to be expected often. Government is deadly.

The only cure is full freedom, decentralization, and open debate in an environment where dissenter are not officially stigmatized, shunned, or repressed. In other words, we need a radically freed market, which rewards rather than penalizes the identification and correction of errors.