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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, June 18, 2021

TGIF: Is "Free Election" an Oxymoron?

American leaders and their loyal media pundits love to sit in judgment of other countries' election, declaring them fair or rigged according to their seemingly meticulous standards. In fact, the real standard is that the regimes "we" like hold free and fair (enough) elections, while the regimes "we" dislike don't. What about regimes "we" like that hold no national elections at all, like Saudi Arabia? They are forgotten whenever the loveliness of democracy is the topic of discussion.

Maybe a broader approach would shed light on the matter. We could ask: does any country have really free and fair elections? In other words, could an election be described that way even if the authorities did not engage in blatant voter or candidate suppression or outright vote fraud?

I'm not trying to be clever here. I am not one of those people who might say that since free will is an illusion, the idea of a free election must also be an illusion. Free will is real. To borrow a trope from philosopher Etienne Gilson (1884-1978), free always buries its undertakers. (Gilson said this about philosophy, though many people think he said it about metaphysics or natural law. What he said applies to these.)

I'm saying that other features intrinsic to political elections prevent them from being truly free and fair. First, the people who cast votes do so under duress. Not that armed agents of the state literally hold guns on to their heads as they go to the polls. It's more subtle: opting out of an election is not the same as opting out of the consequences of the election. The latter cannot be done. Nonvoters are subject to the same impositions as voters are. If the winning candidate raises taxes and interferes with peaceful conduct, everyone will be caught in the net. The only way to escape is literally to leave the jurisdiction, which implies that government owns all property. Of course, one cannot leave a jurisdiction without entering another, which will likely have similar impositions. (Political competition among jurisdictions may provide some relief at the margin.)

Because of the duress under which people vote, Lysander Spooner acknowledged that a person might vote simply in self-defense: "In short, he finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former."

I'm reminded of Herbert Spencer's sarcastic comment on the popular idea that nonvoters are not entitled to complain about the outcome of elections. But, Spencer pointed out, according to the conventional wisdom, voters--no matter whom they voted for--are not entitled to complain either. Why not? Because those who backed the winner can hardly have grounds for dissatisfaction, and those who voted for the loser knew the risks when they chose to participate in the election. So everyone must shut up and do what they are told. How convenient!

We have other grounds for questioning the fairness and freedom of any election. Even if we concede that voters freely elect the officeholders by majority rule--ignoring all the obstacles to maverick parties and candidates--can we really say that voters select the policies that the resulting regime will carry out. I don't think so. For one thing, the connection between what candidates say and what they do in office is extremely weak. Candidates are often vague about what they will do, but even when they aren't, voters have no good reason to think the candidate will do more than make symbolic moves in the direction of keeping their promises. Voters have little and mostly no recourse. They cannot take back their votes or sue the candidate for breach of promise. (Some jurisdictions have recall procedures, but they are expensive and require a majority vote.) Voting is like buying a pig in a poke.

Another problem is that most voters most of the time vote behind a veil of ignorance. They not only do not know what a candidate will do if elected; they also don't understand the issues that governments deal with. For example, if candidates differ on the minimum wage--whether to raise it or to have such a law at all--how are voters who know nothing about economics to make an intelligent choice? They will be unable to, so they will vote on the basis of feelings, a candidate's campaign skill, or sheer tribal partisanship. (See Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.) That's an unreliable way to make good decisions.

The same goes for foreign policy and any other area in which government officials act. Each of these areas require study, which requires time and resources. How many people will have the resources, not to mention the inclination, to acquire the knowledge needed to make good choices about all the things candidates promise to do?

A final problem is one that most people understand but don't like to talk about: no single vote counts. People who have abstained from voting their whole lives can rest assured that no election would have come out differently had they voted. One thing that tells us is that each individual is free to vote on any basis they like because they know the consequences of that one vote are nil. In that sense, elections are free, but that's not what the democracy advocates mean by free elections. We might call them free and irresponsible.

Critics of democracy are often accused of favoring authoritarianism because most people think that is the only alternative. Some people who dislike democracy indeed favor authoritarianism, but that certainly cannot be true of libertarians. The libertarian alternative to democracy is the removal of matters from the political sphere so that they can be addressed in the social sphere, that is, the sphere of consent, cooperation, and contract, where persuasion replaces force. That's what created human progress in the first place.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Decentralized Revolution Appearance

I discussed Israel-Palestine with Aaron Harris on the Mises Caucus's Decentralized Revolution podcast. Watch and listen here.

Friday, June 11, 2021

TGIF: VP Tells Guatemalans to Stay in Their Place

Shame on Vice President Kamala Harris.

On her recent trip to Guatemala she said, "I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come. I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

This is what passes for sensitivity to human rights in the post-Trump era. It's the same attitude that marked not only the Trump years but also the pre-Trump era under Barack Obama, the deporter-in-chief, and Joe Biden.

Notice Harris mentioned the "dangerous trek" without acknowledging that the U.S government is a big reason for the danger. If immigrants were welcome, they would have safe ways to travel north to the United States with their children. It's typical of government officials to create a peril and then pose as humanitarians in offering advice about safety.

What's the Biden-Harris solution to the problems that Guatemalans are trying to escape from by migrating to America? Harris promised U.S. help in reforming the government there. "The goal of our work is to help Guatemalans find hope at home,” she said. Her administration has about as much chance of doing that as it has to help Americans find hope at home.

The U.S. government would have a chance to improve conditions in Guatemala and other places, but that would require doing something it has no desire to do, namely, slash its power dramatically. It could start by permitting unconditional free trade and by ending the drug war, which has ravaged Guatemala and Latin America even worse than it has the United States. Do you think Biden-Harris would entertain that truly progressive program? Me neither.

But even if that were to happen and Guatemalans became much freer and safer, many might still want to come to the United States. Yet that would be none of the U.S. government's business. Until someone has been proved to have violated someone else's rights, they should be left unmolested by the state. That's not just a right of Americans; it's a right of all persons. The right to move is a natural individual right that in itself does no harm to others as physical force does. Accepting a job that an American wanted or affecting the culture doesn't count as harm. We benefit from the countless people who have changed the culture over years and from the immigrants who have started businesses, invented products, and achieved great productivity. That some people fear change should not be allowed tilt government policy against immigrants.

All the fear-mongering about free immigration is nothing more than that: baseless attempts to scare Americans essentially into shutting the borders. To see this, one need only consult the heroic work of Bryan Caplan of George Mason University, who demolishes every bogey about open borders in blog posts, journal articles, and graphic nonfiction. Caplan shows that fear of immigrants--about wages, culture, politics, and more--is simply irrational. He also points out how much free movement would increase the wealth of the world, as people in low-productivity countries moved to high-productivity countries like the Unites States. He and others have emphasized that the best global antipoverty program would be open borders.

And as I pointed out recently, a new book emphasizes that restrictions on immigrants and would-be immigrants necessarily constitute restrictions on Americans. Chandran Kukathas writes in Immigration and Freedom: "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."

Telling Guatemalans or anyone else "Do not come" is no different from telling them to stay in the place where they belong. The long-suffering victims of tyranny, corruption, and government planning are properly resentful of American officials who give them such a condescending admonition.

Friday, June 04, 2021

TGIF: What the Really State Is

To better understand the nature of government, one can think of it as an agency that sells or, more precisely, rents power to others. The greater the power and the wider its scope, the more opportunities the state's agents will have to sell access to it in return for favors. Of course the demand for that power will also be greater. This stands to reason. If the government is allowed to make many important decisions about private activity, people will want to influence or control that decision-making--and they'll be willing to pay for that influence as long as the price is less than the expected payoff.

In other words, the supply of government power creates its own demand. This answers the concern over the corrupting influence influence of money in politics. If government has nothing to sell, no one will be trying to buy. 

This not to say that all that government officials do is rent out power. Many activities can be attributed to their own agendas. Like all people, they are prone to various incentives and foibles that lead them to do things that others who are affected either do not like or approve only because they can't imagine an alternative.  The motives of state agents can vary: self-regard and paternalism, for two examples. Motives can be tricky to identify: a good deal of self-deception can always be involved, and words often parts ways with the truth.

Nevertheless, much of what state agents do constitutes in effect the renting out of power to well-connected private interests. The renting out of power can also have various motives. Power may be used to benefit special interests as a way to garner political support, financial and otherwise. Campaign finance is the most obvious example, though many more subtle ways also exist. Again, the motive for renting power to special interests could also have paternalist. Politicians could (erroneously) figure that for the good of all, certain people ought to have access to power that no one else has. Motives of course tell you nothing about the morality or effectiveness of any particular action.

Private interests that pay to get their hands on power can have various motives also, but I would guess that most of the time the motive is self-regard.

I should note that I am using the term rent idiosyncratically. Economists use the phrase rent-seeking to label the private pursuit of returns through government favors. By that they mean that private interests seek returns on investment that exceed what they would earn in the market without power being exercised on their behalf. I'm using rent in the colloquial sense in which people pay to use something (in this case) without acquiring ownership.

It's easy to think of examples of what I've been saying here. When business firms lobby for a tariff or an import quota, they are seeking higher prices and profits through the state's power to burden foreign competitors with taxes and import limits. Likewise, when firms seek licenses, subsidies, and other political favors, they grab for advantages that their competitors don't have. Similarly, complicated financial regulations that burden smaller and potential upstart competitors are likely to be welcomed (if not written) by large dominant institutions. (When things go bust, uninformed people will readily  blame the private firms without seeing the state's essential culpability. See my "Wall Street Couldn't Have Done It Alone.")

Another source of extra-market advantage is government contracting. Why should a firm take chances in an uncertain marketplace with fickle consumers if it can obtain guarantees by selling things to government agencies? Military contractors come to mind immediately. Billions of dollars of taxpayer money go to such companies every year. Private companies can't tax anyone, but government contractors in effect can do just that.

The more powerful the state, the more possibilities will exist for favoritism. And notice that favoritism breeds dependence on and support for the state. For obvious reasons military contractors are unlikely to be convinced by arguments for a noninterventionist foreign policy. Likewise, companies that rely on tariffs and import quotas probably won't find inspiration in the great British free traders Richard Cobden and John Bright.

Understanding the state is the first step toward rethinking the state, which is necessary for changing one's view about its value. If people think the government is nothing more than a well-intended social-service agency--the organizer of huge and benevolent mutual-aid society--their attitude will be favorable overall, even if they dislike some of what the state does. But if people come to see that the state exists to amass power and private resources in large part to distribute it to special interests, the majority who are victims might begin to object and demand change.

Friday, May 28, 2021

TGIF: About that "Real Estate Dispute" in Sheikh Jarrah

When the Israeli government describes the conflict over the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem as just a "real-estate dispute," it has a point. Palestinian families are at risk of eviction (and some have already been evicted) from homes they've lived in for many years so that Jewish settlers, many of whom were born in Brooklyn, N.Y., can move into them. This is being done on the basis of a 1970 law that permits Jews to acquire Palestinian properties that are said to have been once owned by Jews. Also, under a 1950s law, the Israeli government claimed the properties of so-called "absentee" Palestinians, even if those individuals displaced by war and other means were refugees living elsewhere in Israel.

Demonstrated solidarity with those besieged Palestinian families by worshipers in the Al Aqsa mosque and the Gaza Strip--and the Israeli military's (IDF) overwhelmingly destructive punishment--produced nearly two weeks of cruelty against the tiny (5-by-25-mile) and densely populated Gaza Strip, in which over 200 Palestinians, including about 70 children, were killed and many more wounded by the IDF, and about a dozen Israeli Jews were killed by Hamas projectiles. A ceasefire was reached and seems to be holding.

What's the actual story about this "real estate dispute"? To answer that question in a way I would be fully confident in I would need to undertake a long and costly research program. In lieu of that, I will rely--for the sake of discussion--on a narrative that seems plausible, though it will satisfy neither side's hardliners.

In other words, I will stipulate for this article that the government of Jordan, which controlled East Jerusalem from 1948 to 1967, expelled, drove, and otherwise pressured Jews to leave their homes in the 1950s and allowed Palestinian families to move in. As I understand it, Jordan also forbade Jews from visiting Jerusalem sites they regard as holy, especially the Western Wall. I do not defend those policies.

For the record, I note that Jordan was not an antagonist of Israel when the the self-identified Jewish state declared its independence in territory containing many Palestinian Muslims and Christians in May 1948. On the contrary, Israel and Jordan (then Transjordan) colluded to deny the Palestinians an independent state by dividing Palestine between them. Israel would get what the UN General Assembly had recommended for the Jewish state (55 percent)--in fact by the end of the "war of independence," it had expanded to 78 percent--and Jordan would get the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. (Egypt ended up in control of the Gaza Strip.) The secret Israel-Jordan agreement did not include Jerusalem, which the UN had recommended as an international city, under neither Jewish nor Palestinian control. Of course, Israel's 1967 war against Jordan and Egypt, among other Arab states, led to the current status of the West Bank and Gaza as "occupied territories"--although after almost 54 years, it is absurd not to see those lands as illegally annexed, if only de facto.

Here is how John Kunza of the website Jewish Unpacked, a Jewish publication that says it seeks to bring nuance to the Israel-Palestine controversy, describes Sheikh Jarrah:

In 1905, an Ottoman census that included Sheikh Jarrah and its surrounding areas found 97 Jewish families living in the area alongside 167 Muslim and six Christian families. Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jewish population was expelled from Sheikh Jarrah since the area fell on the Jordanian side of the new border.

Eight years later, in 1956, Jordan relocated 28 Palestinian families who were displaced during Israel’s War of Independence to Sheikh Jarrah. The move was approved by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), and the organization stipulated that the families would be given ownership of their homes after three years which would then end their refugee status. The Jordanian government never did formally transfer over the property rights to the Palestinians.

By the 1950s Sheikh Jarrah had changed hands several times from Ottoman rule, to British Rule, to Jordanian rule, to Jordanian rule with assistance by UNRWA which was in part stipulating property rights in the area. By this time the Jewish population, which had been documented living there for thousands of years, had completely moved out or was expelled and a Palestinian population had moved in or was relocated to the neighborhood.

To complicate the story, Israeli-American Kalmen Barkin noted in an interview with Scott Horton that some of the homes of Jewish families before the founding of Israel were owned not by those families but by nonprofit Jewish organizations that then disbanded. I will ignore that because, while important, it is not relevant to the point I want to make here.

An overall account of  Sheikh Jarrah, of course, may not tell us the truth about the particular homes and land at issue right now. Al Jazeera sheds light on those homes here. In part, Al Jazeera states:

Israeli settlement groups said Palestinian families had built their homes on land owned by Jews before 1948 and that they must vacate these homes, but Palestinian cartographer Khalil Toufakji refuted those claims.

Toufakji said he found the land deed that negates any Jewish ownership of the area at the time after digging through the archives in Ankara 11 years ago.

I can't confirm or refute Toufakji, so I will tentatively accept the settlers' side in order to show that even their version does not get them where they want to go.

Taking Kunza's account at face value, it must be pointed out that many more than 97 Palestinian families were driven--by terrorism and outright massacres--from their homes not just in West Jerusalem but throughout what would become and then became Israel in 1947-48. During that time, some 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed of their land. At least 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed to make way for Jewish villages. In 1967 additional Palestinians were dispossessed. All of this and more later was done to "Judaize" the entire "land of Israel." Critics call this "ethnic cleansing," but the perpetrators and their defenders themselves used the Hebrew word for purify. Even right-wing Israel partisans, including historian Benny Morris, say that expelling the Palestinians was necessary for the creation of a Jewish state. (For details see Ilan Pappe's The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. For my summary see Coming to Palestine.)

Here's the upshot: when Israel's partisans justify the evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, they prove too much from their own point of view. If, as they insist, Jews--any Jews--have the "right of return" to any land previously owned or occupied by Jews, then so must Palestinians have a right to return to land previously owned or occupied by Palestinians anywhere in the territory between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Rights cannot be applicable only to individuals of particular religious or ethnic. Today some Palestinians still have deeds and keys to homes they or their families were driven from in 1948. They have claimed a right of return or at least compensation, but Israeli law recognizes only a Jewish right of return. This is one reason that Israel, from the river to the sea, is increasingly described as one apartheid state dedicated to Jewish supremacy or domination. (See the recent reports from Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem, the Israeli human-rights organization.)

When we acknowledge that if a right of return exists, it must be applicable to all, then we can see at least the start of way out of the turmoil in Israel-Palestine: good-faith discussions among all the parties in which all disputed property claims are considered with respect and fairness.

I opened by saying that the Israeli government has a point when it describes the fight over homes in Sheikh Jarrah as a real-estate dispute. But it is not merely a real-estate dispute. It's much more because it is part of a decades-long comprehensive program to dramatically reduce, if not eliminate altogether, the Palestinians from what Israel and the Israelis regard as exclusively Jewish land.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Hamas, Israel, and the United States

For obvious reasons, I cannot endorse Hamas's firing projectiles at residential centers in Israel. But if is wrong to terrorize Israeli noncombatants into changing their government's outrageous anti-Palestinian policies, then it must also be wrong for Israel and the United States to terrorize noncombatants into changing their rulers' policies, which those countries routinely do through sanctions and other, explicitly military ways.

One morality--one set of individuals rights--for all!

Friday, May 21, 2021

Discussing Israel-Palestine on Year Zero

 I discussed what's going on in Israel-Palestine on the Year Zero podcast. Have a listen.

TGIF: Biden Labor Department Undermines Gig Economy

Why should government at any level have the power to overrule how workers and companies define their relationships? This question has become more important than previously with the rise of the gig economy, in which workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers are regarded by their companies and themselves as independent contractors rather than conventional employees.

The Biden administration thinks the central government, not private parties, ought to set the rules no matter what those parties want. So his labor department has cancelled a Trump-era rule that left this decision in the private sector. Why? For the good of the workers. Or so we're told.

According to Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, “By withdrawing the Independent Contractor Rule, we will help preserve essential worker rights and stop the erosion of worker protections that would have occurred had the rule gone into effect.... [T]oo often, workers lose important wage and related protections when employers misclassify them as independent contractors.”

Among said protections are the minimum wage and overtime compensation under the national Fair Labor Standards Act.

Walsh also says the gig economy is inconsistent with "the economic realities test and court decisions requiring a review of the totality of the circumstances related to the employment relationship.”

That is, individual freedom must take a backseat to judicial and bureaucratic rules that interfere with freedom of association. What are the grounds for that assertion?

Walsh seems uninterested in the attraction that gig jobs obviously have for those who opt for them over conventional employment. Gig drivers work when they want and have other leeway that hourly employees tend not have. Does Biden and Walsh not care if those attractions disappear when they ban the gig arrangement? How is that good for workers who would lose options they now have and willingly chose? Whatever benefits gig workers give up, they apparently prefer what they get in return. Every choice in life has trade-offs. It is classic arrogance and paternalism when bureaucrats claim to know better what trade-offs should be made and then force their will on others.

Walsh mercifully says that "in a lot of cases"--why not all cases?--gig workers should be classified as employees. But why should bureaucrats have the power to decide which cases those will be?

In 2019 the California legislature passed and the governor signed a law to make classifying workers as independent contractors tougher. Companies like Uber and Lyft managed to get a proposition on the 2020 ballot, and Californians voted 58 to 42 percent to exempt some workers, particularly drivers for companies like Uber, which claim they are technology companies not employers of drivers. In other words, they they provide not transport service but the technological infrastructure in which drivers and riders can find and coordinate with each other.

Technology stimulates innovations in the production and distribution of goods and services, innovations that by definition defy old forms. As long as innovative firms get no favors from the government, they must satisfy consumers to thrive. If the well-being of all concerned is the priority, we should reject a regulatory regime in which innovation requires the permission of bureaucrats before it can be tried. Do we really want bureaucracies overseeing our lives?

Keep in mind, also, that an innovation will often be opposed by people who are invested in the old ways to doing things. Taxi companies are notoriously protected oligopolies if not monopolies in most places. Existing companies enjoy shelter from competition; for example, often they can veto applications by aspiring competitors, making the limited number of existing licenses highly valuable. Gig firms challenge the old form by enabling riders and independent drivers (who may work for more than one company) to find each other through a mobile-phone app. This revolution in taxi service has been a hit with consumers, and people looking to make a living or to supplement their income seem happy to have the option.

Anyone who holds individual freedom as a priority will wonder why anyone of good faith would want to hamper such innovations.