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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, June 30, 2006

Kelo One Year Later

Last Friday was the first anniversary of a sad occasion, the day the U.S. Supreme Court said the Constitution permits the politicians who run New London, Connecticut, to throw people out of their homes so the land can become part of a ritzy private waterfront development that is expected to produce more tax revenue than the residences that stand there now. In modern America workers are expropriated for the benefit of "capitalists."
Read the rest of my TGIF column at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Contra Constitutional Sentimentalism

Revised June 25
I want to elaborate on a point I make at the end of my essay, "Is the Income Tax Unconstitutional?" Context is crucial (as Ayn Rand often reminded us). It's possible to judge the U.S. Constitution out of its historical context, but it's more useful to judge it in its full context. Had the people of the 13 states moved from life under the British monarchy to life under the Constitution, you might be forgiven for thinking it was an improvement. (Not everyone would agree [King George was much farther away], but leave that aside.) However, that's not what they did. Rather, they moved from life under the king to life under the Articles of Confederation (read it!) to life under the Constitution. Step forward, step back. Not so good. Why the sentimentality?

Disabuse yourself of this sentimentality by spending some time with the Antifederalists here.

Incidentally, why don't we celebrate John Hanson's birthday? He may not have had wooden teeth, and he may not have owned up to chopping down his daddy's cherry tree, but he could make one claim that George Washington couldn't: He was the first president of the United States. As Yogi Berra said, "You could look it up." (Right here, in fact.) There were six others before GW took over. Who had the better PR team?

[Update: If you read the comments, you will see that one kind commenter has corrected me here. Hanson was the third president, although the first to serve a full term and use the title President of the United States. Samuel Huntington was actually the first. Part of the reason this is subject to confusion is that Huntington was president of the Continental Congress before the Articles of Confederation took effect. He stayed on as president of the Congress on March 1, 1781, under the Articles, but was in office only until July 9. Huntington was succeeded by Thomas McKean, who served only until November 4. Thus John Hanson became the first to serve the full one-year term. The presidency was a congressional office; it was not a separate branch of the government.]

Which brings up another item: Americans lived under the Articles for eight years. That's a fair amount of time. The confederation didn't collapse in the first few months or year or two. It lasted nearly a decade. Even then, it didn't fall apart. It was subverted when the men charged with modifying the Articles instead locked themselves away in Philadelphia, tore them up, and wrote a whole new constitution, with terrifying powers delegated to the central government. Albert Jay Nock considered it a coup d'etat.

So why aren't those lost years studied in school? The question answers itself.

One last thing: I hear so many libertarians (not to mention conservatives) say, "If only we could get back to the original Constitution." I'm beginning to lose my legendary patience. I want to shout, "What do you think brought us to this situation? And you want to get back on that bus? No thank you." The actual history throws a whole new light on the "living Constitution" controversy. All constitutions are "living" -- and can't be otherwise -- because no constitution can be self-interpreting and self-enforcing. People interpret and enforce rules, and there's no controlling or predicting how particular people will interpret the rules. Hence, all constitutions "live." If you want your correct interpretation to prevail, you'll just have to find away to become the benevolent dictator. But how do you know you won't change your mind in light of new knowledge? And what happens when you die?

Enough already from the die-hard constitutionalists. Your bed was made in 1787. Now be good enough to lie in it without complaining.

The rest of us have work to do in these United (Former) States of America.

For Equality; Against Privilege

I am always looking for ways to make voluntarist, or libertarian, points with the maximum punch. I like to emphasize that, in briefest form, voluntarism can be said to be:

For equality, and
Against privilege.
By equality, I mean what Roderick Long (drawing on John Locke) says here and here. Long makes a crucial point about equality, "the unknown ideal," that all advocates of liberty should digest.

By privilege, I refer to the literal meaning of the word. As the American Heritage Dictionary points out, the word derives from:
Middle English, from Old French, from Latin prīvilēgium, a law affecting one person : prīvus, single, alone + lēx, lēg-, law.
A privilege is a favor from the state made possible either by taking something from someone else or by prohibiting others from engaging in an otherwise legitimate activity.

A world with Lockean equality and no privilege would be a voluntarist, or libertarian, world.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Is the Income Tax Unconstitutional?

Wishful thinking, always a temptation, is hazardous. Example: An awful lot of people think the income tax as it applies to private-sector wage earners is illegal -- even unconstitutional -- and they assume that if they can only come up with the right legal arguments, judges will strike down the tax and make America a free society once more. Many such people are in prison today.

It would be nice if their wish came true. But it's not going to happen, for reasons I will discuss here. This is another example of Richman's Maxim: There's no shortcut to a free society.
Read the rest of my latest TGIF column at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Meaning, Not Matter

Ludwig von Mises pointed out that economics properly conceived is not about material objects, but about people, their understanding of things, and their actions. If you pay attention you can find many confirmations of this subtle distinction. There is one, for example, in a favorite movie of mine, Galaxy Quest. The movie is about a group of washed-up actors who 20 years earlier starred in a highly successful "Star Trek"-type television program, which is still in reruns. Nowadays the only work the actors get is appearances at "Questarian" conventions filled with fanatical devotees of the program, and computer-store openings. But in another galaxy a group of aliens have been receiving the rerun transmissions and have assumed they are historical documents of real events. Inspired by the heroism, the aliens have built a working copy of the crew's ship, The NSEA Protector. Now the race of aliens is being killed off by a monstrous creature, and the alien leader comes to earth to enlist the help of the Protector's intrepid crew. Without realizing what is happening (the actors think the aliens are simply the nerdiest fans they've ever encountered), the cast is transported into space. Before long the actors realize this is not play acting. The danger is real, and they must rise to the occasion.

Here's the Misesian point: The "Captain" (Tim Allen), realizing the danger, begins to give orders to his "crew," most of whom are understandably reluctant to get involved. After hearing one such order, the Spock-like science officer, "Dr. Lazarus" (Alan Rickman), reminds his fellow thespians: "You don't have to listen to him. He's wearing a costume, not a uniform."

In all the action that line of dialogue may fly past the audience, but it deserves attention. It is entirely possible that a tailor could make two suits of clothes cut from the same piece of fabric and identical in every way. Yet one could be recognized as a costume and one a uniform. What's the difference? Certainly nothing material. The difference is in human interpretation and resulting human action. In the human world, nothing is purely physical.

Americans Should Be "Anti-American"

[W]hen [Robert] Kagan writes about anti-Americanism, he’s deliberately using an equivocal term in order to elicit unthinking, knee-jerk anti-anti-Americanism in his readers. He likes the imperial U.S. foreign policy, so when foreign people express their hated for it, Kagan and his ilk misdirect us to think the foreigners hate us as individuals. The apologists for empire count on you not to examine the matter too closely, because if you did, you might see the merit in what the foreigners are saying.

America once signified the ideals of individual freedom, peace, and nonintervention. But if, as Kagan believes, Americanism now means imperialism, then good Americans should be “anti-American” too.
Read the rest of my op-ed at The Future of Freedom Foundation website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Is This Really War?

In 1985, Wilson Goode became the first U.S. mayor to bomb his own city. In an effort to rid a West Philadelphia neighborhood of a ragtag, violent, back-to-nature organization called Move, which had engaged in a shootout with police, Goode ordered explosives dropped on the Move house from a helicopter. The whole block of row houses burned, 61 homes in all. Eleven people were killed, five of them children. Some 250 people lost their homes.

Goode came in for universal condemnation and ridicule. Too bad for him he didn’t drop his bomb in a foreign country and call it war. At least in Goode’s case he could claim he was the mayor of the city using the police to suppress a dangerous group that not only engaged in violence but also lived in an unsanitary way that affected its neighbors.

President George W. Bush cannot make the same kind of claims in Iraq, where things far worse than what Wilson Goode did happen regularly.
Read the rest at The Future of Freedom website.

Shameless Plug

John Stossel was interviewed in the Christian Science Monitor on Friday. Asked what he reads, he said, in part:
I certainly am reading Reason, Forbes, National Review, The New Republic, and The American Prospect. I read The Freeman [published by The Foundation for Economic Education]. I particularly like the writing of Sheldon Richman, who's the editor, and Walter Williams, who is always terrific.
The full interview is here.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Government by Obfuscation

Back when Americans were arguing over whether they should trade the Articles of Confederation for the newly drafted Constitution, the people called Antifederalists (the real Federalists, that is) warned that a complicated centralized political structure would obscure what the government does and expose the people's liberties to usurpation. Simplicity and transparency, they said, were bulwarks of freedom.

I was reminded of that when I read this Washington Post article last Tuesday by business columnist Allan Sloan. The upshot of his column is that among people who expect to inherit property, those he calls the "small rich" would be worse off if the estate tax were repealed permanently in 2010 than if the 2009 tax rules remained in effect. The tax rules are so opaque that only someone intimately familiar with the labyrinthine code could say if any given person would benefit or suffer from the repeal of a particular tax. Here, in what Mencken called the "land of the theoretically free," this is outrageous.
See the rest of my TGIF column at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Debate Over?

As I see it (and as others have said before), the debate over anarchism is actually over among libertarians. Anyone who does not want a single world government is an anarchist at least at the international level. He or she apparently believes that individual governments, despite having differing legal systems, can be counted on to get along most of the time without going to war with each other (a la Hobbes), trading and otherwise cooperating instead. (If they didn't believe this, they should favor world government, or -- same thing -- an American empire.) Yet that in essence is the anarchist argument; it just hasn't been extended to the individual level yet. Free-market anarchists believe that individuals, despite having differing legal systems, can be counted on to get along most of the time without going to war with each other (a la Hobbes), trading and otherwise cooperating instead.

The internationalist anarchist may respond to the individualist anarchist by saying that we can trust governments to behave more or less constructively in an anarchist setting, but we can't trust individuals to do so. This argument is precisely upside down. There is far more reason to believe that individuals, deprived of the power of taxation and the mystique of the state, would get along than that governments would. After all, governments can socialize their costs thanks to taxation, while individuals can't. That creates perverse incentives for governments.

So isn't the debate merely about which level of anarchism is appropriate, rather than the validity of the anarchist principle itself? It reminds me of the old joke in which a woman tells a man that while she would sleep with him for a million dollars, she certainly would not sleep with him for fifty. "What do you think I am?" she asks. To which he replies: "We've already established what you are, miss. Now we're only haggling over the price."

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

This Is Where We Are

Bradley R. Gitz is the William Jefferson Clinton Professor of International Politics at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas, but being a good neoconservative, pro-empire Republican, he prefers to tell his newspaper-column readers he simply "teaches politics" there. This is from his column today in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
No, the ends don't always justify the means, but the end of defeating Nazism was the kind that truly justified any means, even the incineration of hundreds of thousands of German men, women, and children. Had we incinerated 10 times more than we did, the moral assessment would remain the same because to have run even the slightest risk of losing the war to a creature like Hitler out of moral squeamishness would have been to commit a vastly greater moral offense than perhaps any other in history.

Thus, in the end, it doesn'’t ultimately matter whether the brutality of the area-bombing campaign can or cannot be retrospectively justified by its military utility. All that should signify is that British leaders believed it was at the time, and they were the ones making those difficult decisions under circumstances forced upon them.
This horrifying quotation comes in the course condemning as the "worst book of the year"
A. C. Grayling's Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan.

How nauseating, and how typical of the blood-thirsty imperialist neocon, for outrage at the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives to be branded "moral squeamishness." This follows from Gitz's deep-seated faith that if the U.S. government, or one of its allies, commits an atrocity, it must really have been necessary and therefore morally unblemished. No need, in this view, to examine matters too closely. Gitz may fancy himself a historian, but he is surely no historian in the
tradition of Lord Acton. Murray Rothbard reminded us,
As Lord Acton, the great libertarian historian, put it, the historian, in the last analysis, must be a moral judge. The muse of the historian, he wrote, is not Clio, but Rhadamanthus, the legendary avenger of innocent blood.
Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Whose Money Is It?

A bid to permanently repeal the federal estate, or inheritance, tax lost to a Senate filibuster Thursday. A compromise that would tax inheritances at a lower rate than previously is still possible, however. The tax has been in phase-out mode since 2001 and on its current course would disappear in 2010, only to reappear the following year. (Think of the incentives that creates.) The possibility of repeal had Big Government folks (the Bee Gees) beside themselves because it would "cost," that is, deny the social engineers, $600 billion over ten years starting in 2011. . . .That people actually own the money they make, and have the right to distribute it to their heirs, is conveniently ignored by tax defenders.
See the rest of my column here at the Foundation for Economic Education website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Good Riddance, Zarqawi

I wish someone other than the U.S. military had killed Zarqawi, but I'm glad he's gone nonetheless. He was a ruthless killer, although it should be pointed out that he did not start his atrocities in Iraq until the U.S. government invaded and occupied the country. Before that, Zarqawi was in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish area not under Saddam Hussein's control. Remember that when the people on Fox News tell you that Saddam had ties to al Qaeda.

I agree with whoever said that Zarqawi's death is a great face-saving reason for George II to withdraw from Iraq now. I'll take any reason, and this is good enough. We shouldn't expect to see a big change in the resistance to the U.S. occupation. Even the Bush administration concedes that foreigners make up a tiny fraction of the resistance. (Zarqawi was a Jordanian.) While the local al Qaeda pulled off some spectacular atrocities, including beheadings, its violent activities were never the main event. Moreover, there are credible reports that Osama bin Laden didn't like competition from Zarqawi, or his attacks on other Muslims. As someone pointed out, bin Laden lost a rival and gained a martyr -- not a bad day's work without lifting a finger. The resistance will go on.

For more on Zarqawi's death in perspective, see David Corn's analysis here in The Nation.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Iraqi Death by Political Abstraction

Try as they might, apologists for the war in Iraq won’t be convincing when they insist that, at worst, the Haditha “incident” (or was it a mishap?) was the unfortunate work of a few bad Marines. It was something much worse.

When men trained to kill on a battlefield — this wasn’t the Salvation Army, after all — are ordered into civilian areas where many residents see the troops as an occupying force rather than as liberators, what would you expect to happen? We hear war defenders complain that “the enemy” doesn’t identify itself. Why should it? In the eyes of the “insurgents” they are resisting an army of occupation. That Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t foresee this resistance doesn’t mean it was unforeseeable.

So who is ultimately responsible for the massacre of the 24 unarmed Iraqis at Haditha? The one who put the Marines there: President George W. Bush.
Read the rest of my op-ed at The Future of Freedom Foundation website.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Please, Mr. President, Take a Rest

George II has said this sort of thing so many times before, I guess there's no real point in posting these quotes. But here goes one more time:
[W]e will not rest until the promise of liberty reaches every people and every nation.
See the speech here.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Capitalism versus the Free Market

As Rad Geek points out here, the history of capitalism is not the history of free markets. This issue needs far more attention.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Governmental Habit

In 1977 the late economic historian Jonathan R. T. Hughes published a book called The Governmental Habit (updated in 1991 as The Governmental Habit Redux). It showed how pervasive government intervention in the economy has been since colonial times. The title captures an important phenomenon. People are in the habit of looking to government -- the only agency that may legally wield or threaten force against non-aggressors -- to get what they want. While earlier generations of Americans were hesitant to ask the local, state, or national government to do certain things (although perhaps not as hesitant as we thought), few modern Americans have any such scruples.

Americans of all classes expect the government (translation: taxpayers) to pick up the tab for services, and the politicians and bureaucrats to compel others to do things they don't want to. Someone must be buying Matthew Lesko's books or he wouldn't keep paying for those irritating television commercials.

People even want the government to do things that are outright dumb, such as compel us to conserve energy.
Read the full article at the website of the Foundation for Economic Education.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


We already know what will happen. A few of the men on the scene will be charged, tried, and imprisoned. Maybe someone slightly higher up will be reprimanded for the cover-up. But most of the people responsible will escape even censure. Of course, responsibility goes up to the highest level: the White House. Who decided to put men trained to kill in neighborhoods full of women, old men, and children, not to mention young men who object to the occupation of their country?

I recommend this moving article by Robert Higgs.

The State's Mystique

If we are to be free, it is images such as this that we must de-legitimate. Who are these guys anyway? And how does the one on the right stand up with all that metal on his coat? He reminds me of those Soviet generals on the reviewing stand on May Day. Which reminds me, an e-mail I received yesterday had this wonderful quote from H. L. Mencken:
As democracy is perfected, the office of the president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Limited Government

Can a polity bind itself with a knot so complex that it can't untie it? I've long wondered about that. The theory of the state offers many puzzles that can fascinate but that in the end are insoluable. Here's one from James Madison, Federalist 51:
You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
Well, good luck. Anthony de Jasay has devoted his scholarly career to showing that, logically, this is a lost cause. Madison was supposed to be a pretty smart fellow. Why didn't he realize that his maxim is hopeless?