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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Beinart Tries to Square the Circle

Peter Beinart has written a provocative and courageous article in which he calls on "liberal" Zionist Jews to amend their notion of Jewish identity in order to reject separation from the Palestinians and to embrace equality instead. He has timed the article with the impending though delayed Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, territory seized in the 1967 war and in which Palestinians have no rights whatsoever. Annexation will formalize what Israel has become de facto in the eyes of most of the world: an apartheid state.

Kudos to Beinart for his latest step in placing justice for the Palestinians at the top of the liberal Jewish agenda. In doing so he renounces the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he had supported, in favor of some kind of single state--a binational democracy or confederation--in which Jews and Arabs live together with equal rights. As he puts it:

Monday, August 03, 2020

Regarding Seth Rogen: Some Feelings Ought to Be Hurt

When actor Seth Rogen, an atheist of Jewish heritage, announced that he no longer supports Israel -- "I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life" -- he was criticized for his apostasy. (Being an atheist does not constitute Jewish heresy, but breaking with Israel does.)

Then, during a call with Jewish Agency chairman Isaac Herzog, Rogen learned that “many Israelis and Jews around the world were personally hurt by his statement, which implies the denial of Israel’s right to exist." Herzog says Rogen apologized, explaining that his comments were meant to be humorous.

But Rogen has "distanced himself from a statement from the Jewish Agency that claimed [he] had 'apologized,'" the Times of Israel reports. That must mean he wasn't just trying to be funny.

I stand with Rogen. His comments about Israel were spot on. I too was told lies about Israel growing up ("a land without a people for a people without a land") -- but I hasten to add that the people close to me did not know they were lies. I'd bet Rogen would say the same thing.

I am also happy to hear that he did not apologize for his comments. Why should he? The State of Israel came into being through the systematic dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians. Many Jews know this and criticize Israel for it. Not only that: many Jews would have been uncomfortable with the idea of an exclusivist Jewish state even if Palestine really had been a land without a people. (Rogen expressed the same view.) Reform Judaism was explicitly founded in the 19th century in opposition to the ideas of Jewish exile, diaspora, and separatism.

But what I most want to focus on here is Herzog's statement that Rogen had "personally hurt" Jews and Israelis. I assume he meant that Rogen had hurt their feelings. My question is: if someone's feelings are hurt by condemnations of injustice, why should anyone care? Are some people's feelings more important than other people's very right to live free and dignified lives? I don't think so. Some feelings ought to be -- need to be -- hurt.

This preoccupation with not hurting feelings is at the root of the ominous cancel culture and the burgeoning informal PC constraints on free thought and free speech. If you look hard enough you will find that these unfortunate things originated in attempts to inhibit good-faith criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians by stigmatizing the speakers as anti-Semites.

As long as we're talking about feelings, let's do a full accounting. Yes, I'm sure Rogen hurt some people's feelings. But I'm also confident his courage to speak also made Palestinians, anti-Zionist Jews, and other champions of justice feel more hopeful. Why don't their feelings count?

Connections and Parallels in Jewish History

I've been reading Rebecca Goldstein's engaging book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. On pages 106-07 I found two historical facts that I found noteworthy because of their connection to or parallel with things that happened either in antiquity, as reported in the Hebrew Bible, or in the 15th century. 

Goldstein writes, "In 1492, Granada, the last Moslem [Spanish] holdout, fell to the Christians. Now it was only the Jews and the backsliding conversos [Jews who had converted to Catholicism] who spoiled the royal vision of a unified Christ Spain." In less than three months King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella began the process of expelling from Spain Jews who refused to convert. "Considerable numbers" did so," Goldstein writes. Some 100,000 to 150,000 had to leave. The penalty for staying and not converting was death.

Two aspects of this are especially interesting.

First and obviously, the Jews could be expelled in 1492 from Spain only because them Muslims had not expelled them. (England had expelled the Jews in 1290, and France did so in 1182. Portugal, in contrast, required conversion in 1497 and wouldn't permit emigration.) Muslim rule had lasted 781 years, from 711 to 1492, and for most of that time relations between Jews and Muslims were good. The Jewish community flourished, especially in cities like Cordoba. Exceptions can be found, but they were exceptions. Goldstein writes:
It was under the expansive tolerance of sophisticated Moslem life that the perfumed essence of Sephardic [Iberian-Jewish] culture had been distilled, a culture poetic philosophical, scientific, mystical, and also worldly. At certain times, among certain more fundamentalist Moslem groups, the tolerance abated. [The great Aristotelian Jewish philosopher] Maimonides, for example, had been forced to flee, as a boy with his family, from his birthplace in Cordoba when it was conquered by the Almohades, a Moslem sect that demanded conversion of all Jews. But, the the most part, Moslem ruled proved to conducive to Sephardic flourishing. [Maimonides eventually settled and prospered in Moslem Egypt.]
On this matter the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand writes in The Invention of the Jewish People that Jews had welcomed the Muslim invasion of Palestine precisely because the conqueror were not Christians. (The Muslims of course would not persecute the Jews for allegedly killing Jesus 600 hundred years earlier.) Berber Jewish converts living in north Africa even accompanied the Moors on their conquest of Spain, Sand writes. 

Thus the contrast between how the Spanish Catholics and Muslims treated the Jews couldn't have been more different.

The second thing I found interesting in Goldstein's book is Ferdinand and Isabella's reason for the expulsion. Since the monarchs gave Jews the option to convert, they clearly were not essentialists; in other words, if Jews could stay by changing their religion, they could not have been thought of as inherently bad. So why were the told to leave if they would not convert? Goldstein quotes the Alhambra Decree
We have been informed that within our kingdom there are evil Christians who have converted to Judaism and who have thereby betrayed our holy Catholic faith. This most unfortunate development has been brought about as a result of the contact between Jews and Christians.... We have decided that no further opportunities should be given for additional damage to our holy faith.... Thus, we hereby order the expulsion of all Jews, both male and female, and of all ages, who live in our kingdom and in all areas in our possession, whether such Jews have been born here or not.... These Jews are to depart from our kingdom and from all areas in our possession by the end of July, together with their Jewish sons and daughters, their Jewish servants and their Jewish relatives. [Emphasis added.]
What's interesting here is that we find virtually the same justification for the genocide committed by Joshua's forces under Yahweh's mandate after the exodus from Egypt in the 13th century BCE. Here's Deuteronomy 7:
1 When HaShem ["the Name"] thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; 2 and when HaShem thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them; 3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of HaShem be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly. 5 But thus shall ye deal with them: ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and hew down their Asherim [a sacred tree or pole located at Canaanite religious locations], and burn their graven images with fire. 6 For thou art a holy people unto HaShem thy God: HaShem thy God hath chosen thee to be His own treasure, out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth. [Emphasis added.]
In both cases, then, the authorities worried that religious purity would be contaminated by by the Other's other religion. There was one big difference, however: the Canaanites were not given the conversion option, which would of course have included male circumcision. Another thing: a few of the tribes, according to the story, violated God's mandate and let some Canaanite tribes live among them. I must note, however, that by some accounts, a thousand years later, in the second century BCE, when the Maccabees ruled Judea, their conquest of the urban centers of Idumaea, or Edom (now southwest Jordan), included an ultimatum to the residents convert (and be circumcised) or leave. (See Shaye J. D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries Varieties, Uncertainties.)  

As they say, what goes around comes around. But, of course, the royal expulsion was a gross injustice: the Jews of 1492 Spain had committed no injustice against anyone in Palestine 28 centuries earlier.

Biblical fables notwithstanding, the Israelites were Canaanites, not sojourners, and archaeologists and historians have found no evidence for either the exodus from Egypt of an Israelite nation or Joshua's genocidal conquest of Canaan. In fact, for a long time the line between the Israelites' religion and the Canaanites' religion was faint and porous, which sometimes prompted oppression of polytheistic Hebrews by political/religious authorities striving to centralize their power in Jerusalem. Widespread monotheism did not get to the region for many hundreds of years.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

How to Care about the Disadvantaged

You may be in the presence of mere virtue-signalers if they:
  • wring their hands about police brutality without ever calling for repeal of all victimless-crime laws, which create a poisonous dynamic between police and public precisely because the conduct being policed is consensual for each party to the illegal transactions;
  • bemoan the lack of growing black-family wealth without calling for the elimination of Social Security, which imposes a regressive tax to confiscate savings that would otherwise be heritable by the savers' children;
  • lament the inadequate economic mobility of people in minority communities without condemning occupational licensing, which prohibitively raises the cost of entry into many kinds of work;
  • condemn the inadequate economic mobility of people in minority communities without opposing zoning and other land-use controls, which inflate the price of housing in areas with superior economic opportunities;
  • decry the sad state of education for minority children without demanding parental choice in an entrepreneurial free market in schools;
  • denounce minority unemployment without acknowledging that the legislated minimum wage kills jobs for people with few skills and makes the surviving jobs more onerous than before.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Available Now: What Social Animals Owe to Each Other


My latest book, What Social Animals Owe to Each Other, is now at Amazon.com. Enjoy!

Spinoza's Excommunication

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677)

On this day in 1656, 23-year-old Baruch Spinoza (Espinoza) was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, then the most liberal city in the world. Spinoza had not yet published any of the works that would make him known worldwide as brilliant philosopher, as well as the first to advocate separation of religion and state, freedom of conscience, and political freedom generally. He was one of the fathers of the Enlightenment and perhaps the first classical liberal.

Here is the decree, or cherem, ordering him expelled from his congregation. It was unprecedented in its severity, but note that no specific grounds are given for this treatment. Spinoza did not object to his expulsion. He Latinized his name to Benedict and went about his life as a talented lens grinder and philosopher of reason and libealism, his best-known works being A Theologico-Political Treatise and Ethics.

The Lords of the ma'amad, having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza, have endeavoured by various means and promises, to turn him from his evil ways. But having failed to make him mend his wicked ways, and, on the contrary, daily receiving more and more serious information about the abominable heresies which he practised and taught and about his monstrous deeds, and having for this numerous trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness to this effect in the presence of the said Espinoza, they became convinced of the truth of the matter; and after all of this has been investigated in the presence of the honourable chachamin [sages], they have decided, with their consent, that the said Espinoza should be excommunicated and expelled from the people of Israel. By the decree of the angels, and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation, in front of these holy Scrolls with the six-hundred-and-thirteen precepts which are written therein, with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho, with the curse with which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the curses which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells of him, or read anything composed or written by him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Feds Out of Portland

Maybe no one would have noticed if Trump had sent in some FBI guys just to help guard the federal courthouse in Portland, but Trump lives by the motto "Be ominously obnoxious or go home." So he sends in unidentified agents from customs, the border patrol, and other such agencies to scoop demonstrators off the streets. Now he's threatening to do the same thing in other cities, including Chicago. State and local officials in Oregon and around the country are concerned.

Trump may like the optics in this election season. To many of us, however, it looks bloody fascistic. Let local communities work this stuff out. The last thing they need is an escalation of trouble compliments of an invading federal force.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Prophetic Jewish Anti-Zionists

Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise

When Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal Zionist, abandoned the two-state resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and embraced one state with equal rights for all, he quickly drew the ire of orthodox Zionists, some of whom went so far as to describe Beinart as a "Nazi" who favors a single state as the "Final Solution" for the more-than-century-old problem. By this, Beinart's critics mean that equal rights in the unified land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River would surely bring the extinction of Jews.

It's a repulsive smear, of course, one that well confirms what Beinart wrote in his Jewish Currents article. What gets overlooked, however, is that the early Jewish anti-Zionists, especially the founders of American Reform Judaism, warned that the incipient movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine would nourish the anti-Semite  potentially endangering Jews everywhere, including the United States, where they enjoyed unprecedented freedom.This view was no better articulated than by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (1819-1900), founder of American Reform Judaism. 

Wise insisted that Jews did not constitute a single people, nation, or race but rather a worldwide religious community embracing many cultures and nationalities. Embracing one of the traditions of Judaism (which for much of its history was unified on little if anything), he preached a universalist, against a separatist, conception of his religion. This entailed the view that the human race was one people deserving of equal individual rights and freedom. For Wise, Judaism and Americanism were cut from the same cloth. (Ironically, in our time Israeli geneticists frantically and futilely search for the Jewish gene, which the Nazis also believed existed.)

As he watched the Zionist movement develop, Wise was horrified at what the future held. Writing in the final years of his life, he said: "The only class that will derive any advantage from the [1898 second Basel Zionist] Congress will be the anti-Semites, whose strongest argument that the Jews the world over are mere sojourners in countries, not a constituent part of their peoples, will receive expected support from the public acts and declarations of the Jews themselves."

He was not stretching the point. Theodor Herzl and his Zionist colleagues appealed for the support of European rulers by vocally assuming the anti-Semitic slur that Jews were a parasitic alien presence in the nations of the world and that the "Jewish Question" could be answered only by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. All Jews could then be concentrated there and away from the gentiles. (I use the word concentrated advisedly.) Whether the Zionists believed what they said or were just lied strategically, they made a consequential move.

A year before Wise made his statement, a committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform organization Wise founded, stated: "Such attempts [to establish a Jewish state] infinitely harm our Jewish brethren where they are still persecuted [Russia and Romania, for example], by confirming the assertion of their enemies that the Jews are foreigners in the countries in which they are at home, and of which they are everywhere the most loyal and patriotic citizens."

This point has been a staple of the anti-Zionist case ever since. It was so widely known that the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which expressed official British approval of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, lamely tried to address it by stating that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." How'd that work out, Zionists?

When Zionists today cite Hitler's attempted Judeocide as proof that the Zionist movement should have been listened to in 1897, one can reasonably ask, in light of what the anti-Zionists foresaw: is it unreasonable to view the horrors of 20th century as resembling a self-fulfilling prophecy? In other words, notwithstanding the tentativeness of counterfactual history, might things have been different had prominent and well-connected European Jews not adopted the anti-Semites' smear that Jews were indeed parasitic aliens who could never belong to their societies and had instead joined forces with the world's liberals to promote equal rights for all?

Monday, July 20, 2020

To Annex or Not to Annex -- Is the Question Moot?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who remains under a cloud of personal corruption, had more or less promised to annex some of the West Bank in July. He's let his deadline slip, we've been told, because he doesn't want to proceed while his buddy Trump is preoccupied with other matters. He must need the cover, which is interesting in itself. Meanwhile leading Jewish Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer are uneasy with annexation talk, perhaps because his party is no longer solidly in Israel's corner.

So who can say when and if a formal annexation will occur? I prefer to ask: does it matter? If the state of Israel does nothing, the Palestinians of the West Bank will remain without rights, ruled under an apartheid regime either by Israel directly or by Israel's subcontractor for security, the authoritarian Palestinian Authority.

As the indefatigable Norman Finkelstein often reminds us, Israel has already de facto annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which is just a big open-air prison. Under international law, when a government occupies an adversary's territory during a war, it is obliged to regard the occupation as strictly temporary. Keeping it and moving citizens into it are indisputably illegal acts. The law makes no distinction between offensive and defensive wars, although the 1967 war, in which Israel seized the Palestinian territories (which Jordan had occupied since 1948), was not defensive.

In 2004 the International Court of Justice reaffirmed this aspect of international law when it condemned Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the Jewish-only settlements, and the wall of separation as illegal.

By now, after 53 years, we are entitled to notice that Israel's occupation is not temporary. And that means the territories' status is not one of occupation but of annexation. It won't do to say that Israeli governments have tried to negotiate with the Palestinians according to the land-for-peace formula called for by the postwar UN Resolution 242. Israel has often pretended that it would be willing to give up some land for peace, but it is hard to take those gestures seriously. Every so-called "generous" Israeli offer contained so many conditions and Israeli prerogatives that the Palestinian territories would have been nothing more than a scattered archipelago of vassal districts. This is no less true of Trump's grand plan for Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinians have been victims of a cruel Israeli (and American) joke -- often with the complicity of what are laughably called their rulers, who have put their personal interests ahead of the people they claim to represent.

No wonder Netanyahu is in no hurry. He's already got what he wants. If he were to formally annex some of the West Bank, he would get flak both from those who support the long-suffering Palestinians and from his domestic right-wing, which will complain that he did not annex enough.

So as I say, what's his hurry?

Friday, July 10, 2020

Free Speech Is Sadly Controversial

In the topsy-turvy world we live in, this otherwise unremarkable letter calling for respect for free speech, published in Harper's and signed by 153 writers, etc., has set off a nasty firestorm of statist-left criticism. It seems that some people are so insecure about what they think and who they are that they cannot tolerate a world in which others are free to say and write what they like. The hell with that. I'll take John Stuart Mill.

TGIF: Mises, Ryle, and Me

Gilbert Ryle

In 1949, the first year of Harry S. Truman's only elective presidential term, three things happened that were of huge importance ... at least to me. Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) published Human Action. Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976) published The Concept of Mind. And, oh yeah, I was born. The connection here is that Mises's and Ryle's books are two of the most influential things I have ever read.

What's also interesting is what else the books have in common. Human Action sets out the logical structure of all purposeful action as well as its socioeconomic implications. Mises called the study of human action praxeology. Thus while Human Action is one of the most important books on economics ever written, it is so much more.

Ryle's book is also about human action, but his philosophical accomplishment was to show that our purposeful pursuits require no "ghost in the machine" -- no soul, spirit, or mind conceived as a nonmaterial organ -- to explain them. (The ghost explanation in fact creates philosophical problems rather than solves them.) Ryle went a step further and showed that, contrary to determinists, neuroscientists, and the like, human action also would require no exemption from the laws of physics to exist. In other words, Ryle set out to solve the old mind-body problem that had plagued philosophy at least since Descartes, and he did it without dismissing purpose, which we all understand in our everyday lives, or objective reality. I'm not aware that the two men ever encountered each other or commented on each other's work.

Here's a morsel of Mises:

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego's meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person's conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life. Such paraphrases may clarify the definition given and prevent possible misinterpretations. But the definition itself is adequate and does not need complement of commentary.

Conscious or purposeful behavior is in sharp contrast to unconscious behavior, i.e., the reflexes and the involuntary responses of the body's cells and nerves to stimuli. People are sometimes prepared to believe that the boundaries between conscious behavior and the involuntary reaction of the forces operating within man's body are more or less indefinite. This is correct only as far as it is sometimes not easy to establish whether concrete behavior is to be considered voluntary or involuntary. But the distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness is nonetheless sharp and can be clearly determined....

The field of our science is human action, not the psychological events which result in an action. It is precisely this which distinguishes the general theory of human action, praxeology, from psychology. The theme of psychology is the internal events that result or can result in a definite action. The theme of praxeology is action as such.... 

Action is not simply giving preference. Man also shows preference in situations in which things and events are unavoidable or are believed to be so. Thus a man may prefer sunshine to rain and may wish that the sun would dispel the clouds. He who only wishes and hopes does not interfere actively with the course of events and with the shaping of his own destiny. But acting man chooses, determines, and tries to reach an end. Of two things both of which he cannot have together he selects one and gives up the other. Action therefore always involves both taking and renunciation.

...Wherever the conditions for human interference are present, man acts no matter whether he interferes or refrains from interfering. He who endures what he could change acts no less than he who interferes in order to attain another result. A man who abstains from influencing the operation of physiological and instinctive factors which he could influence also acts. Action is not only doing but no less omitting to do what possibly could be done. 

We may say that action is the manifestation of a man's will. But this would not add anything to our knowledge. For the term will means nothing else than man's faculty to choose between different states of affairs, to prefer one, to set aside the other, and to behave according to the decision made in aiming at the chosen state and forsaking the other....

It is true that the changes brought about by human action are but trifling when compared with the effects of the operation of the great cosmic forces. From the point of view of eternity and the infinite universe man is an infinitesimal speck. But for man human action and its vicissitudes are the real thing. Action is the essence of his nature and existence, his means of preserving his life and raising himself above the level of animals and plants. However perishable and evanescent all human efforts may be, for man and for human science they are of primary importance.

We need not ask if human action exists. As human beings, we know it does "from the inside." Mises called this knowledge a priori because we don't first discover human action "out there." In fact, one obviously would demonstrate the existence of human action just by attempting to prove or disprove its existence. To ask if human beings act is in itself to act.

And now Ryle:

The fears expressed by some moral philosophers that the advance of the natural sciences diminishes the field within which the moral virtues can be exercised rests on the assumption that there is some contradiction in saying that one and the same occurrence is governed by both mechanical laws and moral principles, an assumption as baseless as the assumption that a golfer cannot at once conform to the laws of ballistics and obey the rules of golf and play with elegance and skill. Not only is there plenty of room for purpose where everything is governed by mechanical laws, but there would be no place for purpose if things were not so governed. Predictability is a necessary condition of planning.... [Thus] there is no need for the desperate salvage-operation of withdrawing the applications of [biology, anthropology, sociology, ethics, logic, aesthetics, politics, economics, historiography, etc.] out of the ordinary world to some postulated other word, or of setting up a partition between things that exist in Nature and things that exist in non-Nature. No occult precursors of overt acts [e.g., volitions] are required to preserve for the agent his title to plaudits or strictures for performing them, not would they be effective preservatives if they did exist. 

Men are not machines, not even ghost-ridden machines. They are men -- a tautology which is sometimes worth remembering....

Questions of ... patterns are properly asked of certain chain-processes. The question 'What makes the bullet fly out of the barrel?' is properly answered by 'The expansion of gases in the cartridge'; the question 'What makes the cartridge explode?' is answered by reference to the percussion of the detonator; and the question 'How does my squeezing the trigger make the pin strike the detonator?' is answered by describing the mechanism of springs, levers and catches between the trigger and the pin. So when it is asked 'How does my mind get my finger to squeeze the trigger?' the form of the question presupposes that a further chain-process is involved embodying still earlier tensions, releases and discharges, though this time 'mental' ones. But whatever is the act or operation adduced as the first step of this postulated chain-process, the performance of it has to be described in just the same way as in ordinary life we describe the squeezing of the trigger by the marksman. Namely we say simply 'He did it' and not "He did or underwent something else which caused it'.

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

Friday, July 03, 2020

There's Independence and There's Independence

Happy Independence Day, although I prefer immanent to vicarious independence.

It's Beginning to Make Sense

So now, if Trump says he's going to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan, he'll be accused of turning tail before the Russians. I wonder if there's a connection,

Regarding the Latest in Russophobia

I might believe the latest Russia story (about bounties for American scalps in Afghanistan) when I see a headline like this:

Russian Fiscal Conservatives Blast Putin for Paying for What He's Already Getting for Free

Friday, June 19, 2020

Police "Reform"

Pete Quinones and I discussed so-called police reform on Pete's podcast. Listen to it here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga.

This week the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga., ruled 6-4 that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans workplace discrimination on the basis of various categories (race, religion, color, sex, etc.), by implication also covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (i.e., homosexual and transgender persons). The case was really two cases, one involving the county government, the other a private company.

The ruling has brought the usual conservative gnashing of teeth about unelected justices' making law rather than doing their proper job, interpreting law. Note this delicious fact: the majority opinion was written by Justice Neil "But" Gorsuch, Trump's first pick for the court.

If I am asked what I think of the ruling, I will say this: I favor repeal of Title VII (and other parts of the law that restrict private persons), but I also favor the ruling. That will strike some as incoherent, but it's not.

Gorsuch wrote, "An employer who discriminates against homosexual or transgender employees necessarily and intentionally applies sex-based rules." He noted that the employers "seem to say when a new application [of a law's language] is both unexpected and important, even if it is clearly commanded by existing law, the Court should merely point out the question, refer the subject back to Congress, and decline to enforce the law’s plain terms in the meantime. This Court has long rejected that sort of reasoning."

That seems right: sexual-orientation discrimination is sex discrimination -- even if those who wrote and voted for the bill did not understand this. We often fail to see implications of the positions we hold. (Pointing that out was Socrates's occupation.) In the case of legislation, why should we be bound by the narrow understanding of its authors and those who voted for it? Thomas Paine would call that being ruled by the dead.

Most people don't understand that in the 18th century, free press meant freedom from prior restraint, not freedom from ex post punitive action by the government. Should we have stuck with the narrower meaning? I don't think so. (But conservatives might.)

I say all this as one who rejects the state and its monopoly court system. But as James M. Buchanan liked to say, we have to start where we are. Sorry, abolishing the state isn't on today's menu. So what do we want that we can have? And what do we do?

Of course I would repeal the 1964 Civil Rights Act as it applies to private persons. I despise bigotry and invidious discrimination, but we don't need the government to fight it. On the other hand, such discrimination by governments ought to be banned. The 1964 act struck down state Jim Crow laws, which mandated racial discrimination in both the private and government sectors.

But repeal of that law is not on today's menu either. Yet that should not keep us from applauding the court for recognizing the clear fact that sex discrimination includes sexual-orientation discrimination regardless of what some political hacks might have thought in 1964. (Maybe they just didn't think.)

By the same reasoning, good-faith libertarians should oppose removal of individual categories from Title VII. Who would favor striking out race or sex from the list if it were proposed on ostensibly libertarian grounds? Not I.

Friday, June 12, 2020

When "Defund the Police" Will Turn Serious

Defunding the police is only a small part of only one side of the equation. All anti-vice laws must be erased, and the people, individually and in voluntary combination, must be freed -- including freed from taxation -- to see to their own security, their own education, their own health care, their own this, their own that, and their own the other. When that stuff enters the discussion, it will have gotten serious.

Monday, May 25, 2020

About Those Shutdowns

When the only tool in your toolkit is a blunt instrument, every problem looks like one that can be addressed only with a blunt instrument.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Replace Your Divots


I am not, nor have I ever been, a golfer. I did golf once, just before the turn of the century, and I disliked it. Nevertheless, I live by a cardinal principle in golfer etiquette: Replace your divots.

A divot, of course, is a chunk of turf that is dislodged by a golf shot, leaving a hole on the course. Golfer etiquette requires that you should put the divot back in the hole if that's possible. This is a common-sense act of consideration for other golfers because a ball in a hole is hard to hit.

We can readily see that Replace your divots is simply an application of the principle Be considerate of others. And that's another way of saying, Respect others. You can easily find many appropriate applications of the principle in everyday life.

We can go a step further. If Replace your divots is a worthy principle, then Avoid creating divots in the first place if you can is a worthy corollary. Off the golf course, avoid creating divots would include covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough even when you're not in the middle of a serious pandemic.

We might be tempted to place this principle within rights theory. For example, the owner of the golf course probably has a rule, a term of use, that you must replace your divots. As a contractual matter, then, you are obligated to do so. Failure to comply is to violate the terms of your contract and hence a violation of the rights of the property owner. This reasoning is also used to show why falsely shouting fire in a theater is wrong.

I have no beef with that take, but there's more to the story because even if it were not a violation of someone's contractual rights, it would still be wrong to ignore your divots or falsely shout fire when it could endanger people. (You may shout fire, however, in a crowded online chat room. Context matters.)

Can this moral point be proved? Well, yes, in the sense that Aristotle thought ethics could be validated. Whenever we act we aim at an ultimate good: happiness, the good life, flourishing -- call it what you will. We can't help it because the idea of an ultimate end is baked into the very notion of action, which is the means that gets you there. (Sounds like praxeology, doesn't it?) "Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good: and so it has been well said that the good is that at which everything aims," Aristotle wrote to launch his Nicomachean Ethics. "If then in what we do there be some end which we wish for on its own account, choosing all the others as means to this, but not every end without exception as a means to something else (for so we should go on ad infinitum, and desire would be left void and objectless),—this evidently will be the good or the best of all things."

What plausibly (or intuitively) appears to advance flourishing you may reasonably presume to be good. But such presumptions are in principle defeatible by evidence or by a clash with other well-founded moral principles. A Socratic inquiry would uncover such conflicts.

In the Aristotelian and Spinozan sense, the flourishing of rational social animals -- that's us -- is advanced by, among other things, reason-based relationships with other people (that is, no force, no injustice). I'm better off surrounded by people who live by reason (even if only by semi-conscious habit) than by irrational people. So I want to encourage other people to be rational, which in part means dealing with them on the basis of reason and respect. QED.

For more, I recommend Roderick T. Long's important monograph Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand and my "What Social Animals Owe to Each Other."

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Cuomo's Wager

Pascal’s Wager is a familiar idea. It goes something like this: regardless of what you may think about the existence of God, rational cost-benefit analysis says you should sign on. After all, if you do and you’re wrong, what have you lost? But if you don’t and you’re wrong, uh oh — you’re in big trouble, buster. (I’m not saying this makes sense, by the way.)

Something similar has gone on with the coronavirus pandemic and the draconian economic policies embraced by many governors in the United States, best exemplified New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. They have made a wager sort of like this: if we don’t shut the economy down and the pandemic fulfills the worst-case scenario, we are all in big trouble; but if we do shut the economic down and the pandemic falls closer to the best-case scenario, what will have been lost?

For those with their eyes open, the answer to this last question is simple: a lot. Forbidding most economic activity has to impose substantial hardship — material and otherwise — on countless people, not to mention future generations. I won’t go into detail, and I shouldn’t need to. Just think about it for a few moments. (See David Henderson’s “End the Lockdowns Now.”) And I haven’t mentioned the future harm from government’s so-called solutions: enormous deficit spending, money creation by the Federal Reserve, and the ratchet (specifically, the Higgs) effect from precedents set.

The point is that it’s easy to “reason” to the policy outcome you want if you list only the real and imagined benefits and ignore all the burdens. This was what Frédéric Bastiat was getting at in his brilliant essay “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.”

The blunt-instrument policies adopted by many governors were chosen in the dark. Flawed statistical models seemed to shed light, but knowledgeable people questioned the validity of those models from Day One. At any rate, we know more now (though not nearly enough), so it’s time for the lockdown orders to be lifted, liberating society’s widespread entrepreneurial problem-solving process to do its thing.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

L’etat C’est Moi!

Trump has vetoed Congress’s effort to keep him from going to war against Iran unilaterally. Nothing remarkable there. We’ve come to expect such things from the fraud who posed as an antiwar candidate.

What’s interesting is that Trump has reminded us of what a narcissist he is. That fact is so much a part of the landscape that it can be hard to notice these days.

In vetoing the bill passed under the War Powers Resolution, a 1970s post-Vietnam attempt to restore Congress’s exclusive power under the Constitution to make war, Trump said, “This was a very insulting resolution….”

Insulting? That’s why he vetoed it? Apparently Trump is incapable of seeing congressional action he doesn’t like as anything but personal. It’s hard to imagine another president saying this publicly. Other presidents would have pushed back (erroneously) against the constitutional war-powers argument, but they wouldn’t have made it personal, even if they suspected it.

As I’ve often said, Trump is a caricature of the establishment politician, and that’s why the establishment hates him.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Radical Incrementalism?

Hell, yes! Radical abolitionist anarchist libertarians can -- and I say ought to be -- incrementalists because, sorry, "abolition now!" is not on the menu today. No contradiction exists in the radical incrementalist or the incrementalist radical.

Tom Knapp addresses this point quite capably in his re-post "Blast from the Past -- Without a Net: Compromise versus Calculation." I recommend it highly.

The reason that no conflict need exist between abolitionism and incrementalism is that the former is an end while the latter is a means:

Incrementalism involves setting (and achieving) incremental goals -- taking "baby steps" in one's chosen direction. Incrementalism is a proposed means.

Abolitionism is the notion that wrongs should be abolished rather than simply minimized (and, at the abstract anarchist extreme -- no insult intended, that happens to be where I live myself -- that all wrongs must be abolished in order for the abolitionist to claim victory). Abolition is a proposed end or set of ends.

Thus, Knapp adds, "incrementalist means are not only available to "purists" and 'abolitionists,' but used by them, and are therefore not available only to 'pragmatists.'" He also has much to say about "pragmatists," who turn out to be pretty poor incrementalists.

I wrote about this issue five years ago in "Rothbardian Thoughts on Strategy."

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

FYI

This is to let you know that I've started a new blog: The Logical Atheist. If the subject interests any of you, pay it a visit and join the conversation.

Atomistic Individualism for the Win!

I'd say defenders of the automobile versus mass transit are looking pretty good these days.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

If Adam Smith Were Writing the Wealth of Nations Today

“It is not from the benevolence of the mask maker, glove maker, or hand-sanitizer maker that we expect our person protective equipment, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

Friday, April 17, 2020

TGIF: Is Self-reliance a Libertarian Ideal?


An Associated Press article published a few days ago reported on disagreements among libertarians over what, if anything, the government may properly do about the coronavirus pandemic. My purpose here is not to comment on the quotes from the various libertarians. I prefer to focus on just one sentence by the author, Hillel Italie.

It's this one: "Libertarian principles of self-reliance and minimal government have been around for centuries."

Only the part I emphasized -- the reference to self-reliance -- interests me today.
At first, that term may seen unexceptional -- even to many libertarians -- in an article about libertarianism. A term like self-reliance (along with rugged individualism) is often associated with the libertarian philosophy, again, even by many libertarians. But is that term really pertinent? Or is it misleading and subversive of public understanding? I say the latter.
It's certainly true that libertarians believe that people should not rely on the government because government is force (to recall the quote erroneously attributed to George Washington). But by what reasoning does one equate eschewing reliance on the state with self-reliance? Is there nothing else but the self to rely on? Society perhaps? It's hardly a novel idea. It's especially not novel among libertarians.

Are libertarians against insurance for their lives, homes, automobiles, and medical needs? I don't think so. What's insurance? It's a large number of people, mostly strangers, pooling their resources in case of a long-shot catastrophic event that would bankrupt any one of the individuals. Insurance is the opposite of self-reliance, but it's perfectly libertarian.

Are libertarians against voluntary associations for fellowship and other nonmaterial values? I don't think so.

Is the symbol of libertarianism the hermit, Randy Weaver, or Ted Kaczynski sans letter bombs? Again, I don't think so.

Can advocates of a political philosophy who spend so much time, ink, and electrons praising free markets, global free trade, specialization, and the division of labor hold self-reliance as a core aspiration? Can the people often described by their opponents as "Adam Smith fundamentalists" be regarded as worshipers of self-reliance. No way! The Wealth of Nations is a paean to social cooperation. Libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises, author of Human Action, nearly called his magnum opus Social Cooperation. That's the second-most-used phrase in the very long book. What's the most-used phrase? Division of labor, another way to say "social cooperation."

I suspect that the term self-reliance actually works as a subtle smear of libertarians. It's a way to portray them as churlish, "selfish," antisocial. But as we can see, no grounds exist for that portrayal. When Simon and Garfunkel sang, "I am a rock; I am an island," they were singing no libertarian anthem -- not by a long shot. (Sorry, Neil Diamond, neither was "Solitary Man.")
Libertarians are in no way advocates of -- gotta love this one -- atomistic individualism. Rather, they are, as I suggested long ago, better described as champions of molecular individualism. They form associations for all kinds of reasons. (Alexis Tocqueville noticed this feature of early America's rather libertarian masses.)  Even the non-Aristotelians among libertarians agree that human beings are social animals, which means that the individual's best shot at flourishing is in a society -- as a long as it's a free society, of course.

When libertarians themselves are confused about this matter, they undercut their own case. I have often heard libertarians condemn the welfare state because it discourages self-reliance. I've even heard libertarians demonize people who accept food stamps and Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
But that's not the problem with the welfare state, or the social safety net. The problem is with the armed tax collector, not the recipients.

There's nothing wrong with wanting a social safety net. It's telling that when people are free to do so, they set up their own voluntary safety nets.

Before the growth of the national welfare state in the United States, working-class and middle-class Americans hedged against the risky, uncertain future by joining mutual-aid societies, also know as fraternal societies, lodges, and in England, friendly societies. These were not only sources of fellowship; they were also voluntary welfare organizations built on the insurance principle. (They were mostly member-owned societies, rather than for-profit companies.)

In the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, working men and women joined these societies, among other reasons, to obtain various insurance benefits. They paid in when they were healthy and working, and drew benefits when they were not. Societies also paid funeral benefits so that families were not left with large debts when the breadwinner died. Some organizations even kept doctors under contract to provide affordable primary care to their members and families. (The state-linked medical societies did not like this "unfair" competition that lowered their incomes.)
Importantly, the societies were competitive and often part of nationwide networks: they boasted of their superior benefits in order to attract and retain members. Moreover, blacks and other minorities responded to racial and ethnic discrimination by forming their own -- successful -- societies. (See David Beito's history, From Mutual Aid to Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967. Also see my video.)

The libertarian case against the welfare state, then, is not that it undermines self-reliance. It's that the state is 1) coercive and 2) bound to provide an inferior product because it's a monopoly with captive customers (taxpayers).

Quite possibly, a libertarian may say he has something else in mind by the term self-reliance. He might mean that he thinks for himself. Fair enough. People ought to think for themselves, though even here we must issue a caveat. F. A. Hayek taught us that even someone who thinks for himself benefits by relying on knowledge that other people possess. Society -- the market specifically -- extends our intellects by enabling us to act on knowledge of which we would otherwise be ignorant. (Prices are carriers of such knowledge.) Yes, we each must sift through what we learn from others, but we could not flourish without that input.

Going back further than Hayek, Aristotle noted that much of what we can reasonably be said to know includes second-hand "reputable beliefs" picked up from society. I'm comfortable in saying I know the earth is spherical, but I could not confirm that personally. To be sure, which of these beliefs are accepted as reasonable is up to each individual; the proof of the pudding will be in the acting. (See Roderick T. Long's liberating Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.)

Thus for a variety of reasons, self-reliance is no part of the libertarian vision. It's time we corrected the record.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Szasz Centennary

Szaszpix2 


Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas S. Szasz (1920-2012), the most unappreciated libertarian in modern times. Beginning with his book The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961 and proceeding through dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Szasz, a Hungary-born physician and psychiatrist, spent more than half a century analyzing and debunking the myriad violations of individual liberty committed in the name of health, public health, and mental health. He dubbed the union of government and medicine The Therapeutic State.

In this cause, Szasz, who was also a historian and philosopher, not only documented the many ways in which the so-called mentally ill have been persecuted, imprisoned (involuntarily hospitalized), and tortured (drugged, lobotomized, electroshocked, etc.), he also demolished the establishment's case for the oppression and so-called "treatment" of recreational drug consumers, sellers, and manufacturers; homosexuals; would-be suicides; and other officially disapproved persons. No one was better at exposing the horror of the "war on drugs" -- it's a war on people not drugs, of course -- than Szasz. And keep in mind that when he defended the liberty of gays and lesbians, psychiatry still listed homosexuality as a mental illness. (Organized psychiatry voted [sic] it off the list in the 1970s.)

Most relevant to the world today, Szasz insisted on the traditional liberal distinction between personal health and public health, specifically, between conditions that may be harmful only to oneself and conditions that may be harmful to others, such as through a serious, contagious disease. He objected to the illiberal blurring of that line, which has justified interventions against people who have not harmed others and could not do so by, say, breathing on them. No one, Szasz wrote, has the right to declare someone else a patient -- whether sick or not -- against his will.

Many libertarians have ignored Szasz, who was my friend and mentor, because they have regarded psychiatry as beyond their expertise. But they missed the point. Szasz insisted that  libertarian principles pertain even to people who are stigmatized by the medical establishment, which has long been deputized by the state. Until someone threatens to harm or actually harms another person, the state should leave him alone.

Pick up any book by Szasz, including his collections of aphorisms, and you'll profit immensely. He was a wonderful writer and a fascinating thinker. You can find a list of his writings here. Lots more information is available at the Thomas S. Szasz Cybercenter for Liberty and Responsibility. See my post "Szasz in One Lesson" here. Other posts that I've written over the years are here, here, and here. Also see Jacob Sullum's interview here and Jim Bovard's appreciation here.

And the biggest treat of all is this video interview I did with Tom in 2005.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Why Politicians Do What They Do

I don't think politicians relish closing down the economy, nor do I think they'll be eager to do so in the future. For one thing, it's contrary to their interests. They do what they do because when all you have is a blunt instrument, every problem looks like something that can only be solved with a blunt instrument.

Anarchism and Pandemics

I highly recommend William Gillis's "Anarchism and Pandemics" at the Center for a Stateless Society site. It's one of the best things I've read so far on how a free society could deal with a serious pandemic.

Where the Coronavirus Didn't Come from

Benedict de Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), Ethics, Appendix to Part One, "Concerning God":
All such [misconceptions about God or nature] spring from the notion commonly entertained, that all things in nature act as men themselves act, namely, with an end in view. It is accepted as certain, that God himself directs all things to a definite goal (for it is said that God made all things for man, and man that he might worship him). I will, therefore, consider this opinion, asking first, why it obtains general credence, and why all men are naturally so prone to adopt it? secondly, I will point out its falsity; and, lastly, I will show how it has given rise to prejudices about good and bad, right and wrong, praise and blame, order and confusion, beauty and ugliness, and the like….

[J]udging from the means which [human beings] are accustomed to prepare for themselves, they are bound to believe in some ruler or rulers of the universe endowed with human freedom, who have arranged and adapted everything for human use. They are bound to estimate the nature of such rulers (having no information on the subject) in accordance with their own nature, and therefore they assert that the gods ordained everything for the use of man, in order to bind man to themselves and obtain from him the highest honor...; but in [people's] endeavor to show that nature does nothing in vain, i.e. nothing which is useless to man, they only seem to have demonstrated that nature, the gods, and men are all mad together. Consider, I pray you, the result: among the many helps of nature they were bound to find some hindrances, such as storms, earthquakes, diseases, &c.: so they declared that such things happen, because the gods are angry at some wrong done to them by men, or at some fault committed in their worship....
There is no need to show at length, that nature has no particular goal in view, and that final causes are mere human figments…. [E]verything in nature proceeds from a sort of necessity, and with the utmost perfection.... [Later he explains, “the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.”]
We must not omit to notice that the followers of this [divine-will] doctrine, anxious to display their talent in assigning final causes, have imported a new method of argument in proof of their theory—namely, a reduction, not to the impossible, but to ignorance; thus showing that they have no other method of exhibiting their doctrine. For example, if a stone falls from a roof on to someone's head, and kills him, they will demonstrate by their new method, that the stone fell in order to kill the man; for, if it had not by God's will fallen with that object, how could so many circumstances (and there are often many concurrent circumstances) have all happened together by chance? Perhaps you will answer that the event is due to the facts that the wind was blowing, and the man was walking that way. "But why," they will insist, "was the wind blowing, and why was the man at that very time walking that way?" If you again answer, that the wind had then sprung up because the sea had begun to be agitated the day before, the weather being previously calm, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will again insist: "But why was the sea agitated, and why was the man invited at that time?" So they will pursue their questions from cause to cause, till at last you take refuge in the will of God—in other words, the sanctuary of ignorance....
[H]ence anyone who seeks for the true causes of miracles, and strives to understand natural phenomena as an intelligent being, and not to gaze at them like a fool, is set down and denounced as an impious heretic by those, whom the masses adore as the interpreters of nature and the gods. Such persons know that, with the removal of ignorance, the wonder which forms their only available means for proving and preserving their authority would vanish also.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Dog that Didn't Bark

Not so long ago we might have been seeing public-service announcements like this:
For the duration of the pandemic, please use the internet and your cell phone for essential purposes only. It is imperative that we keep the bandwidth open for emergency use. 
Thank you for your cooperation.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Flunk the State!

Knowledgeable people (Bill Gates among them) had warned for years that governments were ill-prepared for serious pandemics. The US government was not just ill-prepared; it also maintained regulatory obstacles — in the name of public health — to others who were willing and able to act.

I’d say the case for statelessness looks better all the time.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

An Approach to Collective Problems

Libertarian political philosophy, as a practical matter, does not offer a prefabricated set of solutions to collective problems. Rather, it's a liberty-based approach to ameliorating collective problems that begins by acknowledging (among other things) the dispersion, incompleteness, and tacit dimension of relevant knowledge. Thus, the approach favors decentralization, competition (in ideas and services), and choice about what trade-offs to make and with whom to cooperate. Perhaps ironically, to succeed, individualism requires and produces the collective intelligence that only markets embody.

Friday, March 27, 2020

TGIF: Libertarianism in Emergencies

Libertarians have always acknowledged that emergencies -- severe extraordinary conditions of limited duration -- can justify actions that would be unacceptable under normal circumstances. This doesn't mean that all the rights-based rules disappear, only that some measures are deemed permissible that otherwise would be beyond the pale. Danger, however, lurks in this principle, requiring eternal vigilance.

For example, if someone collapses unconscious in the street, you may do things intended to help him without his consent. This does not justify a general policy of paternalism. Another common hypothetical is that of the person caught in a life-threatening blizzard in the wilderness who happens on a cabin (which, let us say for simplicity's sake, is unoccupied at the time). To save his life, the stranger breaks in, builds a fire, and eats the food. No reasonable person would fault him for not first seeking permission of the owner. What happens after the emergency passes is an interesting topic for discussion -- should he offer compensation? should the property owner demand and accept it? -- but let's not get into that now. (Yes, the hypothetical could be made far more complicated than mine, but that's also for another time.) Yet this cannot justify the abolition of property rights.

We might call those situations micro emergencies. They affect one individual or a few, while other people may experience nothing extraordinary at all. So what about a macro -- society-wide or global -- emergency -- a widespread epidemic, let's say? I can't see why the principle of emergencies would not hold. The aim of ethics (politics being a subset) is human flourishing, not blind slavishness to duty.

Unfortunately this might mean that in today's world -- where a dangerous communicable disease threatens to overwhelm the medical system -- governments would reasonably have freer rein to do things than they have in normal times. Most people would expect that to be the case and, moreover, would want it that way. I say unfortunately not only for reasons obvious to libertarians but also because the existence of the state has over a long period impeded and even forbidden the gradual spontaneous emergence of alternative, protean, voluntary public-health and mutual-aid institutions that would be better suited to responding to pandemics (and other disasters) than the centralized collection of politicians and bureaucrats we call the state. To see the point, you need only meditate on the leading government public-health agencies' prolonged botching of the matter of coronavirus testing. (Although it's been stretched nearly beyond recognition for obvious public-choice reasons, public health is a legitimate concept in light of the existence of serious communicable diseases.)

That we must regretfully do without those alternative institutions in the present emergency (although not entirely) should teach everyone a lesson for the future. But what can we do now? A libertarian who says he would "push the button" and at once abolish the state (or in the case of a limited-government libertarian, merely eliminate the welfare state) has little of value to say today. Does he think that alternative voluntary institutions would spring into existence? Institutions -- and the constellation of customs and expectations they embody -- need time to grow. I'm not saying that people working together consensually wouldn't do much good on their own in the meantime -- they are doing so now -- but the limits in the short term would be significant.

Besides, no such button exists, so why would we even talk about it? A radical scaling back of the state at this time would not find widespread support, so even if it could be pulled off, it would quickly be reversed because, like it or not, most people regard the (welfare) state as legitimate, even if they have objections to various parts of it.

So we're stuck with the state as it is in this emergency. Where does that leave us? Some restrictions on normal activities will be regarded as reasonable, targeted quarantines, for example. That doesn't mean we should suspend judgment and accept every restriction the politicians or bureaucrats come up with. (What's with the curfew? Where's the necessary connection with banning gatherings?) An emergency is no time to abandon one's critical faculties. Nevertheless, things that would and should be condemned in normal times will reasonably be deemed acceptable -- with regrets -- even by libertarians for the duration of the emergency. Exactly what all those things might be I'm in no position to say with any confidence. A reasonable restriction could certainly be pushed too far. How far is too far? It's not always clear, although we'll often know it when we see it. We will be in an improvisational mode for some time to come -- which is why decentralization, competition, and openness to information from far and wide should be the rule of the day. (See this.)

Of course, libertarians have a critical public role at this time. First, we should never cease to point out that much of what the government has done to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic has been in the nature of suspending restrictions on private conduct essential to responding in this emergency. The loosening of restrictions regarding trade, medical practice (including testing and tele-medicine), vaccine development, occupational licensing, and more demonstrates how routine and commonly accepted government activity has dangerously hampered the private sector's ability to anticipate and react to the pandemic. (Unfortunately restrictions on the price system, specifically, anti-price-gouging laws, are still in force. Trump has reinforced this.) When this is all over we must not let society forget how government stood in the way. What grounds could possibly exist for reinstating those restrictions that threatened our lives during the pandemic? They and others should be permanently repealed.

Second, we ought to be showing people that markets work in emergencies and that we need them more than ever. When hand sanitizer (which was not in common use a few decades ago) ran short, distilleries started making it. Hanes turned from making underwear to making masks. I'm sure other examples could be found. What if the whiskey and underwear industries had been shut down as nonessential? No bureaucrat can know all of the "nonessential" production required to support "essential" production. F. A. Hayek's insights about the market solution to the ubiquitous "knowledge problem" are more important than ever.

Our very lives depend on entrepreneurship, which is alertness to overlooked opportunities to improve people's well-being by transforming scarce resources from a less-valued to a more-valued form. Profit is not the only thing that motivates entrepreneurship, particularly in emergencies, but we must not discount its vital role. Thus "people before profits" is a false dichotomy that has devastating consequences, especially for the most vulnerable. (Profits from rent-seeking, that is, government favoritism, is what we should condemn.) When markets are free, serving others is profitable. Thus Trump should not use the Defense Production Act to command manufacturing. The price system is a faithful guide to action that helps others. Let it work. A corollary: globalization, the kind that is unguided by governments, is good and is saving lives now. The welfare-enhancing division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, Adam Smith wrote.

Besides suppression of the coronavirus we need the production of wealth, but only savings and investment through markets can produce new wealth for everyone (as opposed to special interests only). Government produces only the illusion of wealth by conjuring up apparent purchasing power through money creation -- raising the price of what's already been produced -- and moving existing resources around -- inevitably creating fertile ground for cronyism, pork-barrelism, and electioneering -- while consuming a large share in the process. Everyone will pay a huge price for the government's promiscuous fiscal and monetary "stimulus" -- which could conceivably be far worse than the coronavirus.

To state the obvious, we must find the best balance of mitigation of the spread of the virus and economic activity, which itself is required to conquer the disease. We have no grounds for confidence that politicians and bureaucrats can find this balance. Decentralization, with many information-generating centers, is indispensable. And let's not forget that "the vulnerable" include not only the medically vulnerable but also the economically vulnerable. (Also see this.)

Unfortunately, American governments have shut down much market activity. (Strangely, "socialist" Sweden has not shuttered businesses and prohibited gatherings.) So what can we do now? I'm persuaded that mass testing would pave the way for the resumption of more or less normal market activities, for it would identify those who have the virus antibodies and thus constitute no danger to others. (See this and this.)

Third, advocates of liberty and respect for people should demand that the U.S. government end all economic sanctions against other countries. In normal times, economic warfare is crueler than cruel since it deprives blameless people -- not rulers -- of food, medicines, and other necessities. Can you imagine what sanctions are doing now?

Fourth, libertarians should demand that any government emergency spending ought to come first from the so-called national-security budget, which, if you count everything, comes to over a trillion dollars a year. Liquidating the empire should be the order of the day. It's always been bad for Americans' and other people's health.

Fifth, we libertarians must teach our fellow men and women about what Robert Higgs has named the "ratchet effect." This is the well-documented phenomenon that extraordinary, intrusive government measures adopted during a crisis do not go away entirely once the crisis ends. (For details, see Higgs's classic, Crisis and Leviathan: Critic Episodes in the Growth of American Government.) We can't let the extraordinary become ordinary.

Sixth and related, libertarians must help people to understand that measures adopted during a bona fide emergency are unacceptable in other circumstances. Politicians and bureaucrats might enjoy their expanded powers in a crisis and so might try to invoke them under more typical conditions -- but we cannot let the bar be lowered.

We must not let our society come to see restrictions on individual liberty as the new normal. This is an emergency, and we must not forget it.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

We Need Markets Now More than Ever

Jeff Tucker's "In a Disease Panic, the Free Market Is Your Friend" ought to be atop everyone's reading list. As libertarians well know, people who are under the delusion that government is a creative element in society, rather than a predator, will never let a good crisis go to waste. (Barack Obama's first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, put it just that way.) The historian and economist Robert Higgs has documented the history of exploitation of crises to expand power and consume liberty in America in his classic, Crisis and Leviathan. We can see this process on vivid display with the outbreak of the coronavirus, or COVID-19.

What propels the expansion-through-crisis process is the belief that only government can respond effectively to the crisis. Most people, busy with their lives, don't know enough about economics and politics to see the flaw in the statist's case. By and large, and through no real fault of their own, they operate at a primitive level intellectually. Plus they take for granted what they've enjoyed all their lives: the increasingly accessible abundance of necessities and luxuries, which even a couple of generations ago would have made people green with envy. That is all the result of the fact that, despite all the obstacles, government has not managed to abolish markets, the price system, and entrepreneurship.

Enter Jeff Tucker's article:
The truth is that the market loves you right now, more in the midst of a disease panic than ever before. It would love you even more if companies were not being browbeat by government into curbing sales of essential items. Let the prices of sanitizer and masks rise and you draw more into production and distribution. Throttle the market and you reduce supply. 
The market would have loved you more had the Centers for Disease Control not failed to authorize private companies to test for the virus. It was only after the aggressive protests of the governor of New York that the CDC gave in and let people do what they wanted to do....

In a disease panic, we are learning, people lose their minds and stop thinking clearly about things that matter. They also reach out to authority to save them. All of this is expected. And it’s very sad. Even sadder is how the unscrupulous power mongers among us use such times to enhance the power of the state over our lives and claim it is for our own good. 
Libertarians need to speak up -- now more than ever.

Price-Gouging Laws Violate the First Amendment

Laws against so-called price gouging -- that is, price spikes during emergencies -- violate our natural right to engage in voluntary exchange at mutually acceptable terms. As economics has long taught, price ceilings that defy market forces make the affected goods vanish from the market. Instead of a product being available at a price more-than-X, it is instead unavailable at a price less-than-X. Small comfort for the consumer. (Try to find masks and hand sanitizer on ebay or at the supermarket.)

Here's another way to look at those laws: they violate freedom of speech (expression) and hence the First Amendment. Civil libertarians should be up in arms.

How can those laws violate the First Amendment? It is rather simple. The market's price system is a communications process, a means of expression. In the market, people's demonstrated preferences with respect to scarce resources are translated into highly usable information in the form of prices. Typically, when the quantity demanded for something rises, so does the price tend to rise. (Other things equal, as the economists say.) And vice versa. Adam Smith explained this beautifully in The Wealth of Nations. (See my article "The Market Is a Beautiful Thing.") Through the price system consumers (without realizing it) tell producers what to produce and in what quantity. And producers use it to tell us when we need to economize (that is, buy the product only for our subjectively most important purposes, leaving some for others). This is important because we live in a world of scarcity. To produce more of good A, we might need to produce less of good B. If we want the market to be sensitive to consumers' priorities, we'll want the price system to be free of political and bureaucratic molestation. It's as simple as that.

It follows, then, that if price controls -- such as law against so-called gouging -- are enforced, our voices are muffled if not silenced. That violates our freedom of expression and thus the First Amendment. When the price of hand sanitizer is bid up during a pandemic, the higher price is like a broadcast summoning producers to bring more product to the market. Laws against price spikes are like the gagging of consumers. It's true that empty shelves are also a form of communication, but unfortunately, price controls also remove the incentive for people to produce more of the goods that are suddenly in short supply. Prices are the irreplaceable tool of economic calculation, as Ludwig von Mises spelled out a century ago in his case against central planning.

No good comes from stifling the market -- that is, from interfering with peaceful cooperation.

Friday, March 06, 2020

TGIF: Democracy Can't Fix Socialism

However you feel about democracy, it can’t fix what’s wrong with socialism. 
In theory, modern representative democracy — unlike ancient Greek direct democracy — means that people vote for so-called representatives to fill various executive and legislative government offices. Those officials then enact and enforce rules that people are expected to obey under threat of fine and/or imprisonment. 
In theory, socialism has mostly been understood as direct government economic planning through public, that is, state, ownership of the means of production. In no real sense can a public own — meaning control — factories, farms, etc. In reality public ownership means control by the collection of politicians and bureaucrats called the state. Thus socialism until recently has been understood to entail abolition of private property, money, and markets. Competition, cooperation, and exchange give way to monopoly, command, and compliance.
(For the record, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialism in some circles was an umbrella term for any “left-wing” alternative to [state or political] capitalism. Thus some left individualist anarchist libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker and his compatriots, embraced the term while joining with other nonstate socialists to oppose corporatism, or neomercantilism, the alliance of state and favored business interests. In a linguistically more perfect world, socialism would denote the opposite of statism. In that sense, market anarchism is socialism because the arena of decision-making is society — the network of voluntary relations — rather than the state — the network of coerced relations.)
These days, at least in America, socialism no longer means only formal government ownership of the means of production and central planning. (It’s useless to complain: like it or not, words “move” and always have.) By socialism, Bernie Sanders and his followers intend it to mean a much bigger welfare state: “free” medical care for all, higher education, etc. Sanders says his models are in Scandinavia, but those are not socialist countries; rather they are highly market-oriented welfare states. At least these days, Sanders does not propose to abolish private property and markets. He does propose, of course, to interfere with market relations through taxation and decrees such as minimum-wage legislation. He seeks not to abolish markets but to forcibly modify their outcomes more to his liking. (Not that he deserves praise for that.)
Socialism (in the older sense) and welfare-statism, along with other forms of interventionism, for all their similarities and common shortcomings, are not identical, as Ludwig von Mises noted. (For the common shortcomings, find a copy of Israel M. Kirzner’s classic essay, “The Perils of Regulation: A Market Process Approach.” Also see Kirzner’s “Competition, Regulation, and the Market Process: An ‘Austrian’ Perspective.”) For example, Medicare-for-all and free college would be better described as welfare-statist because, as envisioned, the government would not own all the hospitals and colleges or employ the doctors, nurses, and teachers. The services would be regulated by bureaucrats and paid for by the taxpayers whether they like it or not.
I hasten to add that the difference I’m alluding to between socialism and interventionism is not moral but economic and institutional. Whether politicians and bureaucrats direct our behavior directly though government ownership or indirectly through regulation of nominally private arrangements makes little difference morally. Either way, our rights and freedom are violated.
Leaving the distinction between socialism and interventionism aside for now, let’s understand that socialism, however defined, would not have its intrinsic flaws eliminated by placing democratic in front of it, that is, by having officials elected. The reason is simple. If socialism were to have any chance of delivering on its extravagant promises, politicians, bureaucrats, and the public would have to know things that they could not possibly know. Here I invoke the rich critique of centralized power provided by Mises and F. A. Hayek. 
Mises showed, beginning a century ago, that the abolition of markets — which would necessarily include the elimination of authentic money prices — would bring chaos because the prices generated by people’s marginal decisions about scarce resources in markets are indispensable for economic calculation. Calculation is important because resources are scarce and we don’t want to waste them. Prices, which contain vital information, guide action throughout society. Without them, no one could make smart economic decisions for himself, much less for an entire society.
Hayek emphasized that central planners necessarily would be ignorant not only of prices but of the scattered, incomplete, and ever-changing underlying knowledge about supply and demand, including subjective consumer tastes. Specifically, he showed that much of the information that generates prices is not explicitly known data even to the relevant actors; we all possess tacit knowledge that influences our actions when we face unanticipated alternatives between two or more goods or courses of action. Not only is it the case that central planners could not know this information; we could not convey it to them even if we had a timely way to do so. Economic planning without true prices is like flying in a fog without instruments. The choice is between free pricing (which requires private property, markets, and free exchange) or what Mises called “planned chaos.”
Relevant to this discussion, Kirzner, in The Perils of Regulation, showed that a regulatory state would suffer from a similar “knowledge problem” as socialism. The regulators could not know what they would have to know to efficiently regulate an “economy” that accorded with the preferences of the individuals they ruled. Their ignorant interventions would distort prices, leaving the hampered economy less able to serve us. (In reality, there is no “economy”; there are only people who trade goods and services. We are the economy that demagogic politicians seek to regulate.)
So we ask: how could the knowledge problem be solved by democracy? As individuals, voters may know much about their own and their families’ situations, but how much do they know about their neighbors’, not to mention the rest of the country’s. I am certainly not qualified to choose among candidates offering competing plans for how much steel, aluminum, etc. should be produced next year and at what price, what kind of cars should be manufactured, or how much wages should rise. Are you? Freed markets (unmolested by politicians) do this reasonably well. And unlike politicians, markets constantly correct for errors.
Clearly, democracy cannot fix the economic flaws of socialism or interventionism. It can’t fix the moral flaws either. However you define socialism — unless it’s in the Tuckerite sense — it must entail state interference with peaceful cooperative interaction. (I reject the bogus distinction between personal and economic activities, just as I reject the distinction between personal and economic liberty. What’s more personal than our decisions about what to buy and sell?) Whether the intrusive government officials are elected or not makes no moral difference. Just as no autocrat ought to be able to tell me what peaceful actions I may and may not engage in, so no politician appointed by 50 percent plus one of voters ought to be able to tell me what I may and may not do.
I suppose the adjective democratic is meant to convey that the advocate wants socialism without the nastiness that Castro et al. brought with them: including the jailing in labor camps of various “undesirables” and enemies of the revolution, such as gays and independent-minded librarians. (It seems odd for Sanders to praise Castro for his literacy programs when the dictator also expressly rejected freedom of the press.) But as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, what begins as democratic socialism may not stay that way. It could become autocratic socialism as the legislators talk endlessly about how exactly the economy should be planned or guided. After all, even if everyone believed that the government should plan society, it wouldn’t follow that everyone agreed on the plan’s details. So at some point an impatient president might decide to put a stop to the idle chatter and take matters into his own hands through executive order.
Democratic or not, socialism and interventionism are unfit for human beings. 
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.