Available Now!

Available Now!
What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, January 27, 2023

TGIF: Don't Blame Wokeism on the Unfinished Liberal Revolution

The National Conservatives are not only wrong about genuine liberalism -- that is, libertarianism -- they also apparently haven't bothered to read up on what they think they're attacking. Take Yoram Hazony, author of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, who recently appeared on the YouTube show Triggernometry. As Hazony makes clear, for him it's straw men all the way down.

Throughout the interview he uses the word liberalism for the philosophy he blames for saddling the West with wokeism. That's unfortunate because people use that term in many ways. What definition does he have in mind? I think we can infer that he means something like libertarianism (and not, say, Nancy Pelosi's "liberalism") since he faults the philosophy for its powerful commitment to free markets. Although he's not thoroughly opposed to free enterprise, he favors a government strong enough to step in when the "national interest" (ascertained by whom?) requires it. National conservatism without a commitment to government power to override the free market would be like a square circle.

Like other right-wing critics of libertarianism, Hazony believes that Western societies are in the woke soup because Enlightenment liberalism is intrinsically prostrate before its leftist adversaries. Why would that be? In his eyes, it's because liberalism's only message is this: do your own thing. He told Frances Foster and Konstantin Kisin:

If you [liberals, presumably] raise children and you tell them, "Look, do whatever you want. Do whatever feels good. Use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions, and you don't give them anything else, a great many people, maybe the majority, end up stuck and unable to make the decisions among, you know, what exactly is it I'm supposed to do and what is it I'm supposed to believe.

I have no idea why Hazony thinks that liberalism teaches people to do whatever feels good, or that, as he says elsewhere, that freedom is "all they need." One of the first things liberal parents would teach their children is to respect other people's rights: specifically, don't hit other kids and don't take their stuff without asking.

By the way, "do whatever feels good" is hardly the same as "use your own reason, exercise your own thinking, and come to your own conclusions." How does Hazony not see that?

Further, using your own reason does not mean: don't read history, don't learn from others' experiences, don't absorb the moral and political lessons of those who came before. Liberalism is not about the individual's starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel. Rather, it means that you shouldn't blindly accept what others tell you. Use your head. We have much to learn from other people and other ages. So what's Hazony's real beef with liberalism?

As this makes clear, he clearly doesn't know what liberalism is, but he's certain he knows what it has wrought:

Liberalism is what brought woke neo-Marxism. Every single institution that the woke neo-Marxists are running now was a liberal institution 15 years ago. So if liberalism had the antibodies, if it was enough to say let's just be free, if that was strong enough to be able to defeat woke neo-Marxism we wouldn't be where we are today....

Liberalism brought Marxism.

Have you noticed how everything the woke left favors these days -- to be sure, genuinely abhorrent stuff -- is reflexively condemned by the right as "neo-Marxist" -- even when the idea in question has nothing to do with the material forces of history and economic classes? You'd think Marxism was the only evil in the world. Actually, It's not.

Sometimes, when Hazony thinks he's scored points on liberalism, he sounds a bit like a liberal, such as when he reminds us that each individual is born into a culture, which ought not to be automatically rejected. The reason he doesn't realize that liberals can agree with this is that he thinks -- wrongly -- that liberals are Jacobins, who aspire to wipe the social slate clean and start over. Some liberals have occasionally sounded like they're saying something like that, but to suggest that Jacobinism or utopianism is intrinsic to liberalism is to do a disservice to an honorable and valuable -- yes -- heritage.

While Hazony concedes that it might be okay to reject some inherited traditions, he seems uncomfortable with that prospect. As he puts it, your forebears "hand[ed] down things [and] you have a responsibility to fight for those things." Why? Because they were handed down?

I prefer Thomas Sowell's take: another culture may well have features that are better than one's own -- superior at dealing with an aspect of life.

The entire history of the human race, the rise of man from the caves, has been marked by transfers of cultural advances from one group to another and from one civilization to another....

Cultures exist to serve the vital practical requirements of human life -- to structure a society so as to perpetuate the species, to pass on the hard-earned knowledge and experience of generations past and centuries past to the young and inexperienced, in order to spare the next generation the costly and dangerous process of learning everything all over again from scratch through trial and error -- including fatal errors.

Cultures exist so that people can know how to get food and put a roof over their head, how to cure the sick, how to cope with the death of loved ones, and how to get along with the living. Cultures are not bumper stickers. They are living, changing ways of doing all the things that have to be done in life. [Emphasis added.]

Every culture discards over time the things which no longer do the job or which don’t do the job as well as things borrowed from other cultures. Each individual does this, consciously or not, on a day-to-day basis. [Watch the video; read the text.]

Problems with change occur not when people are free to adopt "the stranger's ways" (the supposedly scary phrase is from Fiddler on the Roof); they occur when those who favor change have access to state power -- especially when government controls or strongly influences education, the media, and other commanding heights. Then some people, however well-meaning, can potentially impose their preferences on the rest.

Without access to power, people are free to adopt changes for themselves and try to persuade others, but then they would have to wait to see if the new ways catch on. Change, under those circumstances, tends to happen at the margin, although exceptions can't be ruled out. (Social contagion is possible.) But even then, free people would have peaceful consensual ways to protect themselves and their children from unwanted change. This is where freedom of association kicks in.

In general it seems reasonable for individuals to provisionally defer to tried-and-true ways because they have apparently passed the cultural natural selection test. Yet one also ought to remain open to demonstrations of better alternatives. Liberalism delivers the best of both: stability without stagnation and dynamism without chaos. But individual rights must be respected.

As a national conservative, Hazony of course favors nationalism. If all he means is that a world of many nation-states is preferable to a global empire, then libertarians stand with him. If we can't get rid of power, at least let's disperse it among small competitive jurisdictions. But he means much more than that since he and his fellow National Conservatives favor trade restrictions and other forms of welfare-state industrial policy. And I presume he would oppose secession, at least from nation-states he approves of. (He is an Israeli.)

Hazony commits a major blunder when he says that liberalism is inherently imperialist and that nationalism is inherently anti-imperialist. How does he figure that? Since liberals believe they have identified universal principles, he says, it is committed to imposing those principles on everyone. If you fail to see his logic, I imagine you're not alone.

Contrary to Hazony, liberalism doesn't says it has the one true way for everyone to live. Rather, it says all people ought to be free to decide how to live. Liberalism, which seeks to limit state power, doesn't entail imperialism because that would expand state aggression both domestically and abroad. Thus "liberal imperialism" is a contradiction in terms. Nationalist imperialism, however, is not.

While I wouldn't expect Hazony to be persuaded by what I'm about to say, I will point out that the alarming and long-standing decline of liberalism can be plausibly explained by its initial incompleteness politically, economically, legally, and even morally. Twentieth-century liberal writers, scholarly and popular, pointed this out repeatedly and tried to do something about it. That's why they wrote so much. These included Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Leonard Read, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and most fundamentally, Ayn Rand, who argued persuasively (to me at least) that as long as a secular or religious ethics of self-sacrifice predominated in a culture, the political-economic-legal system rooted in individualism and private property would never be whole-heartedly embraced because it would be tainted by the alleged sin of "selfishness."

Even the doctrine of limited government kept liberalism from fully blossoming because, as we've learned so often the hard way, limited governments don't stay limited. (See my article "Anthony de Jasay on Limiting Power.")

Thus liberalism didn't yield because it was inherently weak. It yielded because it was fatally compromised from the start. That's my answer to Hazony's question of why wokeism has succeeded. We don't need illiberal national conservatism to win back our freedom.

Friday, January 20, 2023

TGIF: The Economic Way of Thinking Can Save Lives

Thomas Sowell

The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-1983) wisely said, "The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of readymade answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists."

Excellent point, though I would both broaden and narrow her category of suspects. I would include most politicians, bureaucrats, pundits, and social-science and humanities professors in the suspect group. And I would exclude the economists -- spoiler alert: primarily those of the Austrian school, although others stand out -- who paint a much more realistic picture of the world than the others do.

For the record, Robinson was sympathetic to John Maynard Keynes and, later in life, communist China's Mao Zedong, and North Korea's Kim Il Sung. Obviously, her study of economics did not teach her how to avoid being deceived by all who represented themselves as economists. (I heard once that Che Guevera became head of Cuba's national bank in 1959 because when Fidel Castro asked his cadre, "Who here is a good economist?" Guevara, thinking he heard, "Who here is a good communist?" raised his hand. But that's apparently apocryphal.)

At any rate, mankind would have been spared a good deal of misery had people learned at an early age to engage in the economic way of thinking. If I were to sum it up in a short phrase, I would say: in a world in which the law of identity, causality, and scarcity rule, you can't do just one thing. Human action has consequences. This apparently is also the first law of ecology, but oddly, environmentalists (as opposed to humanists) seem ignorant of it.

The point is that all human action has rippling consequences across society and across time. The economist who called his textbook The Economic Way of Thinking, the late Paul Heyne, wrote, "All social phenomena emerge from the choices of individuals in response to expected benefits and costs to themselves." (Happily, Peter J. Boettke and David L. Prychitko keep updating the book. It's in its 10th edition.)

Heyne's maxim applies to the choices of politicians and bureaucrats also. So before proposing or endorsing a government policy, one ought to wonder about the social phenomena that are likely to emerge from it. Economics is an indispensable tool in this respect.

Henry Hazlitt's classic, Economics in One Less, is a great way to get started. Hazlitt wrote, "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups." Hazlitt's book elaborated an important message of his intellectual ancestor, Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French laissez-faire liberal, in the classic essay "That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen."

Individuals who adopt this way of thinking are better equipped to judge the promises of politicians, etc. who support taxes, minimum-wage laws, rent control, general wage-and-price controls, and the rest of the program of political authority over contractual freedom and other peaceful conduct. Even well-intended regulations will have unintended bad secondary consequences. Good intentions are never enough.

Any good introduction to the economic way of thinking will introduce readers to concepts like opportunity cost, the unseen, sunk costs, the margin, and tradeoffs. Most people seem to intuit some of these in their own lives. But they fail to do so when it comes to society as a whole. They are encouraged by politicians and pundits to think that common sense in private life does not apply to the big picture.

Opportunity cost refers to the fact when you choose a course of action, you necessarily foreclose another course of action. The true cost, then, is the (subjectively judged) next-best choice forgone. If you buy something for two dollars, your cost isn't really two dollars. It's what you regard as the next best use of those two dollars -- the future not chosen. You might decide afterward that you made a mistake: "I could've had a V-8!" Good economists do not regard people as omniscient robots.

Opportunity cost is another way of looking at trade-offs. If you do or choose A you can't do or choose B. Thus you trade B for A. Trade-offs are inescapable. Thomas Sowell, for whom the word genius is woefully inadequate, dramatically drew attention to this feature of life when he wrote, "There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs." Today's problems, he adds, may well be the result of yesterday's solutions. We'd do well to bear this in mind, especially in deciding what the government should be doing (if anything).

Opportunity costs and trade-offs are examples of the "unseen," another important concept in good economics. Bastiat's fable of the broken window (see link above) debunked the myth that destruction stimulates the economy by prompting spending and thus makes communities or nations as a whole richer. Bastiat showed that a town does not get richer when a store owner has to buy a new window. Sure, he spends money, benefiting some people in town, but wouldn't he have spent the money on something else? What else? No one knows. It's unseen. But we know that he and others are now worse off. The owner has the window, but he would have had a window plus whatever he wishes he could have spent the money on. No general enrichment occurs.

Remember that next time a pundit rhapsodizes about the silver lining in earthquakes and hurricanes ("Think of the jobs that will be created!") or a politician proposes to spend your money. Ask yourself, "What sort of things won't happen?"

Although many other concepts are entailed by the economic way of thinking, I will mention only one more variation on the unseen. This one has incited ugly bigotry and cost many lives: it's the concept middleman.

No one has documented this as well as Thomas Sowell, not only its economic dimensions but more broadly as well.  As Sowell shows in many works (see, for example, Black Rednecks and White Liberals), middlemen -- peddlers, storefront and chain-store retailers, importers, and money lenders -- perform an important service in the market by matching up people who would gain from trade but might otherwise have a hard time finding each other. Retailers specialize in matching manufacturers with consumers, sometimes extending credit, while wholesalers match manufacturers with retailers. Money lenders specialize in matching lenders with borrowers. (Estimating the creditworthiness of borrowers is no piece of cake.)

In short, middlemen save us a lot of inconvenience. Free exchange is win-win or it does not take place. If they do their jobs well, middlemen make us richer, which is why they earn profit. If their function were inherently superfluous, they would be driven out of business by better business forms.

Alas, the value produced by middlemen is unseen by the economically ignorant, but it is real. Historically, successful middlemen, even if they were only slightly richer than the people around them, have been despised for their success, especially (but not exclusively) if they had started out poor and were immigrants who noticeably differed racially or ethnically from the majority population. Why? Because the ignorant believed the middlemen were exploiters. They made good incomes seemingly without creating anything. They "merely" moved goods or money around or made them available sooner rather than later -- as if place and time were irrelevant. Where's the value in that?

Sowell's work shows that this animosity born of economic ignorance and envy is at the bottom of a great deal of the world's racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry and violence, including mass murder, even when such ignorance is obscured by added rationalizations. (Demagogues often fanned that bigotry for political gain.)

"Middleman minorities" have in fact been the most persecuted groups in history all over the world, Sowell writes. That description might bring the Jews to mind, but Sowell shows that the Jews were far from unique in that respect. His list of chronically persecuted and even slaughtered middleman minorities includes the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Lebanese in west Africa, Indians and Pakistanis in east Africa, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Ibos in Nigeria, Parsees in India, and Tamils in Sri Lanka.

The magnitude of that violence, Sowell says, dwarfs that of other violence. Middleman minorities were hated not only for their higher incomes but also for the distinctive cultural traits that made that success possible, among them thrift, willingness to work long hours, strong families, and so on. The majority population often was at an economic disadvantage because of its cultural disadvantage; it wouldn't or couldn't compete against the minority, fanning the hatred.

The story is tragically common. Sowell says that while the overseas Chinese and other groups have been called the "Jews of [insert pertinent location]," that could easily be turned around: the Ashkenazi Jews were the Chinese, Lebanese, etc. of Europe.

While emphasizing these beleaguered groups' commonalities, Sowell does not deny the uniqueness of each group's story. The Nazi's unprecedentedly bureaucratized and mechanized elimination of Europe's Jews, of course, comes to mind. Nevertheless, Sowell writes in Black Rednecks and White Liberals (PDF), "In view of what was actually done to some of these other groups [the Chinese and Armenians, for example], there is little reason to doubt that their persecutors would have used such technological and organizational capabilities [as the Nazis used] if they had them." Sowell is no ivory-tower, library-bound intellectual. He's traveled the world more than once for an international perspective on this and related issues.

As I said, mankind would have been spared a great deal of grief -- and would have been much richer -- had people early on learned the economic way of thinking.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

What Kind of Liberal?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am a Locke-Smith liberal.

Friday, January 13, 2023

TGIF: Where the Socialists Go Wrong

Since socialism is "in" today -- even though many people who say they favor it have no idea what it is -- F. A. Hayek's last book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988), is worth checking out. Hayek, the late great Nobel-laureate economist of the Austrian school, begins this way:

This book argues that our civilisation depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation, an order more commonly, if somewhat misleadingly, known as capitalism. To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection -- the comparative increase of population and wealth -- of those groups that happened to follow them. The unwitting, reluctant, even painful adoption of these practices kept these groups together, increased their access to valuable information of all sorts, and enabled them to be 'fruitful, and multiply...' This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

Socialists take a different view of these matters.

Well, that last sentence is quite an understatement. By socialism Hayek didn't mean the welfare state or continuing government efforts to manipulate market outcomes according to some notion of equity. That would be interventionism or the mixed economy. No, socialism is the abolition of the market order and its necessary condition, private property: the replacement of free private enterprise with centralized bureaucracy. Let's cut to the chase:

The main point of my argument is, then, that the conflict between, on one hand, advocates of the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market, and on the other hand those who demand a deliberate arrangement of human interaction by central authority based on collective command over available resources is due to a factual error by the latter about how knowledge of these resources is and can be generated and utilised. As a question of fact, this conflict must be settled by scientific study. Such study shows that, by following the spontaneously generated moral traditions underlying the competitive market order (traditions which do not satisfy the canons or norms of rationality embraced by most socialists), we generate and garner greater knowledge and wealth than could ever be obtained or utilised in a centrally-directed economy whose adherents claim to proceed strictly in accordance with 'reason'. Thus socialist aims and programmes are factually impossible to achieve or execute; and they also happen, into the bargain as it were, to be logically impossible.

Hayek is saying that once we understand how information about resources is produced and transmitted, we realize that central planners can't deliver the goods. Socialism can't keep its (earlier) promises of plenty. (Nor of justice, but that's for another time.)

Here Hayek extended Ludwig von Mises's fatal critique of socialism; namely, that

  1. without tradeable private property in the means of production, markets for resources and producers' goods don't exist;
  2. without such markets, true prices can't exist; and
  3. without prices, rational economic calculation is impossible;
  4. therefore, socialism is impossible; it's "planned chaos."

By impossible Mises meant that without genuine money prices resulting from free exchanges, the millions of disparate resources and goods could not be accorded a common unit of account, and therefore rational decision-making about what ought to be produced, how much should be produced, and the best methods of production is foreclosed. In a world of scarcity with a growing population, that is bad news indeed.

When the socialists responded to Mises that planners could simulate market prices with computers and bureaucratic trial and error, Hayek said, No, they can't because what makes true and informative prices happen -- producer and consumer free choice in an environment with widely dispersed and ever-changing local and often tacit knowledge about resources and preferences -- is beyond any central planner's reach. In what Hayek called "the great society" -- which is marked by extended cooperation with countless strangers rather than the earlier, primitive face-to-face tribal relations -- spontaneous coordination via the price system is the name of the game, literally a matter of life and death.

Thus Mises identified the "calculation problem," and Hayek the complementary "knowledge problem." The Mises-Hayek tag team was triumphant. When the Soviet Union dismantled itself, the American socialist economist Robert Heilbroner declared, "Mises was right."

As a result, newer generations of socialists gave up their goal of outproducing the market in favor of the "era of limits." In effect they said: "It's good that socialism can't outproduce the market. Affluence is bad for the planet, so the last thing we should want is for the people of the developing world to achieve our sinfully high living standards. Better that we should produce far less according to the instructions of trusted, saintly, and omniscient bureaucrats, who will distribute the output more caringly than profit-driven impersonal and spontaneous market forces could ever do."

And would you like to buy a bridge cheap? Back to Hayek.

The demands of socialism are not moral conclusions derived from the traditions that formed the extended order that made civilisation possible. Rather, they endeavour to overthrow these traditions by a rationally designed moral system whose appeal depends on the instinctual appeal of its promised consequences. They assume that, since people had been able to generate some system of rules coordinating their efforts, they must also be able to design an even better and more gratifying system. But if humankind owes its very existence to one particular rule-guided form of conduct of proven effectiveness, it simply does not have the option of choosing another merely for the sake of the apparent pleasantness of its immediately visible effects. The dispute between the market order and socialism is no less than a matter of survival. To follow socialist morality would destroy much of present humankind and impoverish much of the rest.

Many people with whom I share a deep loathing of war and surveillance apparently get a warm cozy feeling from the word socialism. I suspect it's because they've never encountered Hayek's point, much less examined it. That's a shame. They have nothing to lose but their self-forged chains.

Saturday, January 07, 2023

To Capitulate or Not to Capitulate? That Is the Question

Why is it bad to capitulate but good to recapitulate, especially since no one could recapitulate without first capitulating?

Friday, January 06, 2023

TGIF: The Mythical Right to Medical Care

This clever video juxtaposes footage of Bernie Sanders and the late Milton Friedman to create a debate over whether the central government should take over medical care in America. Sanders condemns as a "national disgrace" the lack of a medical care guarantee for all -- rich, poor, and in between. Medical care, he insists, should be "a right of citizenship." Then, echoing someone in the audience, he changes that to "health care is absolutely a human right."

The remarks by Friedman from the '60s and '70s chosen for the video address the efficiency problems with government-run medical services, including the inevitable restrictions on consumer choice. Politicians and activists may feel good when they passionately declare that the government should guarantee all people medical care. Unfortunately, such declarations neither create nor deliver quality care justly or efficiently. Friedman was a long-time advocate of the separation of medicine and state. In his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, he called for, among other things, the end of medical licensing, and he defended that view in these recorded remarks before a group of presumably uncomfortable doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

Since Friedman spoke as an economist, not a political philosopher, in his remarks, I thought I'd say something about the rights issue that Sanders raises. To pick a nit: Sanders needs to make up his mind. Is medical care a right of American citizenship or a human right? I don't see how it can be both. The term human right suggests universality, while a right of American citizenship does not.

But let's leave that and look at this purported right. The first thing that occurred to me is that this "right" doesn't match its billing. Medical care is not like air or water; it doesn't appear naturally. On the contrary, the many services and products that constitute medical care must be created through human effort.

This ought to pose a problem for the right-to-medical-care set. A declared right to medical care would camouflage something even more ominous: a right to the labor of doctors, nurses, technicians, developers of medicines, inventors and producers of medical devices, and so on.

That raises a question: do those people have a say in the matter? If the answer is yes, then there goes the purported right; they would be free to decline to go along. But if the answer is no, they are no longer free people, but slaves. Don't we all agree that slavery is bad? (Well, almost everyone. Slavery still exists today, including in Libya, thanks to the U.S.-led regime change in 2011, and many other places. The number of slaves today is larger than in previous times, but it gets nowhere the attention still given to American slavery, which was abolished 158 years ago.) Abraham Lincoln correctly said that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." It follows that if self-ownership -- the opposite of slavery -- isn't right, nothing is right.

Is Sanders calling for slavery?

No, no, he and his allies will protest. No one is talking about slavery. No one wants anyone compelled to produce medical services and products. (I'm not entirely sure about that. Would they not endorse conscription for doctors if enough of them opted out of Medicare and Medicaid because of the bureaucratic intrusions?)

If they don't favor slavery, what do they mean? They mean that the government should guarantee payment for medical services for all. (As if the government would pay for something without dictating terms.) But how can the government guarantee payment? Society's medical bill is huge (partly because of government intrusion on both the supply and demand sides), and politicians and bureaucrats certainly don't personally have that sort of money. So they'd have to get it from somewhere else, and we know where that is: the pockets of the people living in America. All that politicians and bureaucrats can do is rearrange existing wealth according to their own preferences. (Actually, it's worse than that; by intervening, they impede the creation of new wealth and innovation in the medical field.)

One way or another, the government would have to transfer wealth from the people who create it to bureaucrats. If the chosen method is taxation (and if it didn't create a tax revolt), the transfer would be straightforward. The dollars the government takes and spends are dollars surrendered under duress by the individuals who earned them. Okay, taxation is not slavery, but it is extortion.

On the other hand, if the government borrows the money, the Federal Reserve would monetize the debt by inflating the money supply, driving up prices (and distorting the structure of production). Depreciation of the money would constitute a transfer of purchasing power from consumers to bureaucrats. That's just a hard-to-see form of taxation. (By the way, without the power to tax, the government would be unable to borrow.)

Sure, everyone theoretically would eventually get some kind of medical attention (if they lived long enough; you know how government monopolies are), but would the system be worth it in terms of lost liberty and utility? It's not as though free people wouldn't arrange for decent medical services, insurance, mutual-aid associations, and philanthropy if liberated from government domination. (Bulletin: we don't have a free medical system.) 

Sanders and the Medicare-for-all brigade endorse an untenable situation in which two or more sets of people are in a conflict over the same money: those who earned it and those whom the legislators and bureaucrats claim to be serving. We ought to be able to agree that they can't both have a valid claim to the same money. (How could the earners, who include entrepreneurs, business owners, managers, and employees, not be entitled to their earnings?)

For a rights theory to do its job -- which is to define the moral-political zone in which each individual can act and flourish in peace -- rights must be mutually consistent, or compossible, as the political philosopher Hillel Steiner puts it. That means the test of any rights theory is this: could all people exercise their rights simultaneously without conflict? Under classical-liberal natural-rights theory, they could. Under the progressive theory, they could not. Thus the progressive theory fails.

Sanders's view would eviscerate the Lockean principle that each person is an end in himself and not merely a means to other people's ends. Sanders & Co. effectively repudiates self-ownership and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which is really a single right: the right to be free from aggression.

No right to medical care exists. Everyone has a right to engage in peaceful and consensual cooperative activities aimed at obtaining medical care. But a right to medical care per se? No way, not if we value liberty -- and quality medical care.

Friday, December 23, 2022

TGIF: Year-End Downers

One always hopes to end the year on a high note, but politically speaking, at least, that is difficult again in 2022. One searches in vain for advances in individual liberty and setbacks for power.

Sure, with the receding of the pandemic, life has returned to normal in many respects. But the ratchet effect that Robert Higgs identified still is the rule. After a rise in government power in response to a crisis (real or imagined), the drop-back is never complete because those who wield power have had their appetite whetted. The precedent itself presents a new threat. If the federal and state governments could so easily shut down virtually all of society (because of a virus that threatened mainly old and sick people), they could do so again. What's even more ominous is how so-called public-health officials and other government agents stigmatized dissenters, no matter how good their credentials, who might have stoked public opposition to the historic infringement of their liberty.

Other political fronts are no more encouraging. The central government is spending obscene amounts of money, so it obviously doesn't need a pandemic to get away with it. Congress has allocated $858 billion to the Pentagon, which is apparently more than the Biden administration asked for. Some $44 billion more is in the offing in support of Ukraine against Russia, bringing the year's total to over $100 billion. (Russia's war is indefensible, but the U.S. and Ukrainian governments are not blameless.)

This military spending has bipartisan support, prompting a two-part question: why do so many "responsible" people 1) think bipartisanship is dead and 2) wish for its resurrection? In an important way, politics is not polarized nearly enough! What we need is a more pronounced polarization over opposing principles: liberty and power.

Need I point out that all that spending has bad consequences? The government will borrow a goodly portion of what it spends, and the Federal Reserve will then create money to buy up that debt. The conjured-up money will join the previously created fiat money in chasing the existing supply of goods and services, pushing prices up even more. That's inflation, which already is eating our purchasing power and savings. Interest rates are prices, by the way, which means they will rise too now that lenders expect money to be worth less in the future. This increases the government's (and our) cost of borrowing. So interest on the debt will grow, requiring more borrowing, and so on. Bad outcomes breed more bad outcomes.

Imagine if the politicians and bureaucrats did not have our best interests at heart!

For the record, as Eric Boehm at Reason reports, "The government spent $501 billion in November but collected just $252 billion in revenue, meaning that about 50 cents of every dollar spent were borrowed."

But that's not all. "And now Congress is gearing up to spend even more," Boehm writes. That's because before year's end, Congress will send Biden a $1.7 trillion omnibus (translation: everything-including-the-kitchen-sink) spending bill. 

All of this comes as the current occupant of the White House insists that the budget deficit is declining. Boehm writes,

That was always misleading, as the falling deficit was entirely the result of one-time, emergency COVID-19 spending coming off the books. The underlying figures showed all along that the deficit situation was continuing to worsen, and that President Joe Biden's policies were adding trillions of dollars to the deficit over the long term.

November's spending and revenue figures should put an end to these silly games. We're only two months into the fiscal year, but the federal government is now on pace to run a deficit of about $1.9 trillion, which would be the largest nonpandemic budget deficit ever and a huge increase from the $1.38 trillion deficit in the fiscal year that ended on September 30.

Excuse me, $1.9 trillion? In nominal terms, that's bigger than Bill Clinton's final budget. Not that it would be preferable for the government to raise taxes, mind you. What is needed are massive spending cuts via the elimination of entire departments, programs, and missions. Let's start with the military by liquidating the empire.

Enough of that bit of depressing news. Let's turn to something else: the revelation that Twitter (and presumably all the social media) worked closely with the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Pentagon, and other government agencies to monitor our posts and promote their own propaganda. First Amendment violations surely occurred. Government officials need not have commanded Twitter to suppress posts they did not like. They didn't even have to wink. They're government officials, after all.

It wasn't all about keeping information about Hunter Biden's laptop and dissenting views on COVID-19 away from the public, though. The Pentagon used Twitter to spread its propaganda about Russia, China, Iran, and other subjects through covert accounts. It identified many of these accounts for Twitter so they would be protected, and for years several Twitter accommodated the U.S. military's campaign to mislead the public.

Because Twitter's new chief, Elon Musk, made these disclosures possible, one might think this is a welcome high note on which to end the year. Maybe. On the other hand, Musk does not inspire confidence. His vacillations and murky definition of "free-speech absolutist" suggest he has no clear idea of how he sees the platform. The whole thing seems so half-baked.

I could mention Congress's failure to stop the war in Yemen (damn Bernie Sanders), the threatening rise of national conservatism, and the heavy yoke of wokeism, but I'll stop. Let's rest up to resume the battle. Happy Holidays!