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Friday, May 14, 2021

Palestine/Israel Erupts Again

 In Coming to Palestine I defended, from a libertarian perspective, the Palestinians against Israeli/Zionist oppression. I am reluctant to repeat that case in a far shorter form here, but the horrendous current events throughout Palestine/Israel, including the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, cry out for comment. I can do no better than to link to Caitlin Johnstone's piece "Fifteen Thoughts on Palestine." It deserves careful reading.

I will add only a few thoughts. The mainstream criticism of the Palestinians, who object to being dominated by a settler colonial state, boils down to "But Hamas...." (This is not to say, of course, that all would be well if Hamas disappeared.) My answer to that objection is this: how long will take to learn that relentless oppression of a group breeds and nourishes the most violent ("extremist") faction of that group? If you want the violence-minded constituents not to rise to the top or to fade away, you must stop oppressing the group! Don't make violence appear to be the only alternative because all peaceful paths have been blocked.

Yet that is what Israelis and their bipartisan American-backers have consistently done for decades with their phony "peace process" and other subterfuge.

I don't like Hamas. Even though it has moderated its aims and has given signs of accepting of two-state solution, it's a far cry from having a libertarian orientation. For one thing, launching even its crude rockets toward civilians is wrong, however understandable. I attach that final phrase because many residents of the Gaza Strip are refugees from earlier expulsions perpetrated by pre-state Zionist paramilitary forces and then the Israeli military. One of the places where refugees were driven from is Sderot, which is a rocket target favored by Hamas. Still, I condemn targeting civilians.

That said, we must never who the aggrieved party is: the Palestinians, who were driven from land they had lived on and worked for generations--all for the sake of building a Jewish state. Let's also remember that at one time much Jewish opposition was expressed against the idea of a Jewish state in part because it would require mistreatment of the Palestinians. (Again, see my book.)

Finally, ceasefire talk is in the air, both from Hamas and the UN (and opposed by the Biden administration). Yet Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Lior Haiat says, "We don't think this is the right time for a ceasefire."

That's the worst thing a government spokesman or leader can say when that government is pulverizing essentially defense people. Keep in mind that under "normal" conditions the people of Gaza are treated worse than prison inmates, subjected to bad water, restricted food and medical supplies, and complete control over entry and exit by the Israeli military.

It's always time for a ceasefire, followed by real good-faith efforts to relieve the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere of the oppression they have suffered for so many years.

TGIF: FDA Targets Black and Other Minority Smokers

Just when we are reminded that unnecessary conflict between the police and the people, especially in poorer black communities, is a poison to be eliminated forthwith, the Biden administration has moved in the wrong direction. Late last month the administration signaled that it wants to ban menthol cigarettes, which are especially popular with black smokers.

"Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives, particularly among those disproportionately affected by these deadly products," Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock said. "With these actions, the FDA will help significantly reduce youth initiation, increase the chances of smoking cessation among current smokers, and address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products."

For years the FDA had been pushed on this issue by a coalition of organizations, including some self-identified black advocacy groups, although other similar groups, along with the ACLU, have opposed the ban. The FDA has finally agreed to the ban. It will take time to put it in place because of the public-comment process.

Let's be clear on what is going down. The central government wants to stop certain minority smokers from indulging their preferences. That's paternalism pure and simple. Apparently blacks and others who prefer menthol smokes cannot be persuaded to stop, so they will have to be forced--for their own good. A far higher percentage of black smokers than white smokers prefer menthol to unflavored cigarettes.

Strangely, this is occurring during the height of concern about unjustified police violence against black men and women. As we know, product prohibition always prompts the creation of illegal markets, and this breeds a poisonous relationship between police and the communities in which the illegal activities are most likely to occur. The reason couldn't be simpler. Unlike with crimes of violence against person and property--that is, offenses with victims--vice laws attempt to stop consensual transactions. Since those transactions by nature have no complainant, the police inevitably resort to intrusive, rights-violating methods to catch people in the act. The methods include surveillance, use of dodgy informants with have incentives to lie and set people up, and other trickery. It couldn't be any other way. If laws against victimless "crimes" are to be enforced, the most egregious enforcement methods will be brought to bear as a matter of necessity. It's in the very nature of the legal suppression of vice. (I'm including gambling, drugs, prostitution, and so on.)

Considering that minority community trust in the police is is not exactly high, why would anyone want to give the police more authority to root out consensual interaction? It can only make things worse.

Anticipating this criticism, the FDA promises it will not target consumers; only manufacturers and distributors will be in the authorities' sights. But that statement is misleading. Plenty of damage can be done at the street level if the manufacturers and distributors of illegal menthol cigarettes turn out to be small-scale neighborhood operations, which they may well be. (Why would highly visible Big Tobacco take the risk?) If people demand menthol smokes, other people will creatively cater to their demand. Remember Eric Garner's fatal encounter with the police when he was illegally selling individual cigarettes ("loosies") presumably to get around the high New York tobacco tax. In Massachusetts, which has already banned menthol cigarettes, the black market is reported on the rise. When police efforts to stop black-market manufacturers and distributors fail, will the police turn on consumers? Stamping out demand (if it could be done) would surely stamp out supply.

This can't end well. For one thing, a ban on one product could morph into a ban on other items that contribute to the production of originally targeted product.

And let's keep in mind the larger context. While the government says it's trying to save smokers from themselves, it also demonizes vaping and has outlawed most vape flavors. True, the exceptions to that ban (for now?) are tobacco and menthol flavors, but still the FDA has made efforts to scare smokers from switching to vaping, which is known to be much safer than inhaling the smoke from burning tobacco leaves. If smokers are scared away from vaping, many will stick with smoking, menthol or no menthol.

Meanwhile the FDA is also looking into lowering the nicotine content of cigarettes to "nonaddictive levels," a futile act of mere signaling since smokers could simply smoke more cigarettes to make up their nicotine deficit.

When will government learn? Actually, that's the wrong question. Officials have no incentive to take seriously many things they must already know because it would cost them their mission, power, and prestige.

Abolition of all vice laws should be step number one in any effort to eliminate unjustified police violence. Forbidding the state's officers from looking for outlawed but consensual transactions couldn't help but create a better relationship between the police and the people, especially those in the most vulnerable communities.

(For the case against all laws against victimless crimes, see Lysander Spooner's Vice Are Not Crimes.)

Friday, May 07, 2021

TGIF: A Refreshing Way to Think about Immigration

What I'm going to say about Chandran Kukathas's latest book, Immigration and Freedom, does not constitute a book review. Think of it instead as a book alert. Even having read only the preface and a couple of chapters, I am confident it is a book that fans of liberty will be interested in. You can tell by the title.

Kukathas is a classical liberal professor of political science at the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University, whose previous books have argued that monopoly government, as opposed to a polycentric legal order, is inimical to human diversity (The Liberal Archipelago) and have delved critically but appreciatively into the thought of F. A. Hayek (Hayek and Modern Liberalism). I first met Kukathas when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies in the 1980s, so his remarkable academic accomplishments since then come as no surprise.

His latest book aims for a different take on the much-discussed controversy surrounding immigration. What Kukathas explores is how restrictions on immigration impinge on the freedom of the citizens of the country that imposes those restrictions. Of course, he does not neglect the people who wish to move, but in writing his book, he intended to address a matter that has at least been insufficiently addressed by others. He does not neglect the economic ramifications of immigration, which have been widely explored from all sides, but that is not his main concern.

I note in the most positive way that this is a formidable book. It is well-written, but that doesn't make it light reading. Chapter two emphasizes at length the often-counterintuitive point that terms like immigrantcitizen, native, and national are political constructs, not metaphysical categories. The rules regarding those terms vary widely around the world, and it is wrong to think the "right" way merely waits to be discovered. We're talking about the state here, and as is often the case, arbitrariness and interest rule supreme. As Kukathas puts it, for example, "Just as it is possible to deny that a native-born resident can be a citizen, so is it possible to identify someone who is a resident but not a citizen as a native, or as a national."

He stresses that terms like immigrant cannot be defined without simultaneously defining terms like citizen, and that means immigration restrictions must effect non-immigrants within the country in question. Once stated, this may seem obvious, but Kukathas seems right in saying it is overlooked. Because of this fact, immigration is a much bigger subject than border control, however important that is. This indeed is a rich and deeply textured work of scholarship.

In his preface Kukathas states, "As someone sceptical about the pretensions of the modern state, I have long been troubled by its claims to control the movement of people, and even more bothered by the consequences of its exercise of the power to do so." This is the right way to launch a critical look at restrictions on immigration.

He goes on: contrary to those who think

the movement of peoples from other parts of the world threatens to transform our society and to undermine its fundamental values ... [t]he argument of this book is that the threat to freedom comes not from immigration but from immigration control.... Immigration control is not merely about restricting border-crossing but as much, if not more, about constraining what outsiders might do once they have crossed the border in a society. But it is difficult to control outsiders without also controlling insiders, since insiders are all too ready and willing to hire, teach, rent to, trade with, marry, and generally associate with outsiders. Moreover, insiders and outsiders are not readily distinguishable unless there are instruments of control in place to identify one or the other. [Emphasis added.]

You can see where this is going. This is not a polemic on behalf of open borders, though Kukathas is "sympathetic ... to that ideal." It's a much deeper look at the matter, and that makes it noteworthy. And this is no simple work of a priori political philosophy. He is as interested in history, law, anthropology, and sociology as he is in political philosophy. As I said: rich and deeply textured.

In chapter one, Kukathas writes:

The point of this book is to put freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well.... The conclusion [the book] defends is that if we value freedom--as we should--we ought to be wary of immigration control.

Amen to that.

Finally, Kukathas moves to "a larger thesis that lies at the heart of this work." He thinks we have a problem in how we see society itself, that is, "the relationship between society and its inhabitants." Specifically, the prevailing vision is of society as "made up of members"; in other words, society "is some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies." (Emphasis is in the original.)

But wait, Kukathas writes. Why think of society that way? He writes:

The thought running through this book is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal--one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans.

I hope I've shown that this is a refreshing approach that deserves wide attention.

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Announcement

If you reach Free Association through the URL sheldonrichman.com, please start using sheldonfreeassociation.blogspot.com/. The sheldonrichman.com domain will end on June 1. Thanks.

Friday, April 30, 2021

TGIF: Bust the Conservative "Trust Busters"

When right-wing leader Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently declared that "liberty and monopoly do not go together," I fantasized that he had become a free-market anarchist. When I hear monopoly, I think government because what's the most literal of monopolies (or source of monopoly power) than the state?

Imagine my disappointment when I realized that, quite the contrary, he was embracing expanded government power over consensual interaction in the marketplace. He was introducing his aggressively named Trust-Busting for the Twenty-First Century Act. Hawley wants to be the our day's Theodore Roosevelt, also a Republican but no friend of individual liberty and free-market interaction.

Hawley says would like to break up Major League Baseball, Big Tech, Big Telecom, Big Banks, and Big Pharma, as well as limit or prohibit what other big companies can do, such as merge with or acquire other companies. It's quite a comprehensive serving of government powers from a guy who probably tells himself he favors limited government. That's how things are. Conservatives have long had higher priorities than defending peaceful interaction in all spheres. Hawley is no friend of liberty.

Like any good conservative, for Hawley many things outrank individual liberty: protection of the culture from the left, for example. In other words, when the left proposes government power as a solution to a real or imagined problem, Hawleyites propose some other expansion of government power, for example, regulation of social media and search engines on behalf of conservative groups. Mentions of liberty are mostly lip-service intended to keep some imagined coalition together.

Hawley's news release says his "new legislation [is designed] to take back control from big business and return it to the American people. Senator Hawley’s bill will crack down on mergers and acquisitions by mega-corporations and strengthen antitrust enforcement to pursue the breakup of dominant, anticompetitive firms."

As we'll see, this approach assumes that the anticompetitive power of business is an independent variable, rather than something derived from political power in countless ways. If all the intended and unintended anticompetitive laws and regulations were repealed, the Federal Register would be considerably thinner and we'd all be considerably freer. Competition would thrive. That's why I call corporate power "the most dangerous derivative"--it's generated by the government and wouldn't exist without it.

The release says, "A small group of woke mega-corporations control the products Americans can buy, the information Americans can receive, and the speech Americans can engage in. These monopoly powers control our speech, our economy, our country, and their control has only grown because Washington has aided and abetted their quest for endless power."

This is a gross overstatement, even with all the laws on the books. But to the extent Hawley is correct, it's too bad he fails to understand that he is indicting the interventionist state--that is, politicians and bureaucrats--and not of the market process, which when left alone has built-in safeguards against anticonsumer activities. It's called competition, but it must be left unmolested by the state, many of whose interventions enable firms to grow bigger than they would be in a free market. (See Milton and Rose Friedman's chapter "Who Protects the Consumer?" in Free to Choose.)

"Woke corporations want to run this country and Washington is happy to let them. It’s time to bust up them up and restore competition," the release states.

The word woke here indicates that culture is what drives Hawley and his allies. I don't mean that anything labeled "woke" is innocuous (far from it), just that Hawley wants to punish companies that take what in his view is the wrong side of today's raging political-cultural issues. He is incensed that Major League Baseball pulled its all-state game out of Atlanta because it disapproves of Republican-favored election-rule changes in Georgia. For Hawley, moving the game is an illegitimate attempt to influence public policy. His solution? Subject MLB to antitrust law. (He's joined by fellow Republicans Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.) That doesn't sound like the proposal of a small-government man.

Here are some things Hawley's bill would do:

  • Ban all mergers and acquisitions by companies with market capitalization exceeding $100 billion;
  • Empower the FTC to designate “dominant digital firms” exercising dominant market power in particular internet markets, which will be prohibited from buying out potential competitors;
  • Prohibit dominant digital firms from privileging their own search results over those of competitors without explicit disclosure;
  • Reform the Sherman and Clayton Acts to make clear that direct evidence of anticompetitive conduct is sufficient to support an antitrust claim, which will allow enforcers to effectively pursue the breakup of dominant firms and prevent antitrust cases from devolving into battles between economists;
  • Replace the outdated numerically-focused standard for evaluating antitrust cases, which allows giant conglomerates to escape scrutiny by focusing on short-term considerations, with a standard emphasizing the protection of competition in the U.S.;
  • Clarify that “vertical” mergers are not exempt from antitrust scrutiny;
  • Drastically increase antitrust penalties by requiring companies that lose federal antitrust suits to forfeit all their profits resulting from monopolistic conduct

That's quite an undertaking (an appropriate word in both senses) for any government, considering that the mortals who would enforce such a law would lack the essential knowledge and incentives needed to do the right thing. The history of antitrust is a history of cronyism and special pleading, but what would you expect?.

The bill would expand the Progressive-era Sherman and Clayton acts in several ominous ways. For example:

In any case alleging a violation of this section 5 or section 1 in which a plaintiff establishes by a preponderance of the evidence (including direct evidence) the existence of substantial market power or the anticompetitive or otherwise detrimental effects of particular practices, a plaintiff need neither define the scope of a relevant market nor establish the share of such a market controlled by the defendant.

Even if one wrongly grants the legitimacy of antitrust law, it is absurd that the relevant market or market share of the defendant would not need to be defined by the government or other plaintiff. How would one know that a firm was monopolistic? (Years ago the government sued the major ready-to-eat cereal companies for monopolistic  activity on the basis of a narrow definition of the breakfast-food market that excluded all the alternatives to cold cereal.)

No acquisition shall be presumed not to substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly only because the parties to the acquisition do not compete directly against one another at the time of the acquisition.

Again, even many people who favor antitrust distinguish between horizontal acquisitions, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the same product, and a vertical one, in which a firm buys another firm that makes the first firm's inputs or buys its products. Hawley wants to go an extra step to insure that no company valued at more than $100 billion could change a market through an acquisition. That's true conservatism!

The bill would also have new rules for what it calls a "dominant digital firm," which would be any company that is accessible through the internet and "possesses dominant market power in any market related to that website or service." Here conservatives propose to enlist the state to go after the social networks and search engines for real and alleged mistreatment of ... conservatives presumably. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), another  creature of the Progressive movement, would be given the power to designate a person, partnership, or corporation as a dominant digital firm," at which time new rules apply. Oddly, this is the one section that acknowledges that government puts its thumb on the scale in economic matters: in determining a firm's "market power," the FTC would consider "the extent to which the firm benefits from government contracts or other privileges." That is an important point, but the solution is to withdraw the anticompetitive privileges, not to impose new restrictions.

None of this means that big business deserves nothing but praise. With some rare exceptions, many business people, as Friedman often pointed out, have long seen the government as a convenient way to get what they couldn't get through free competition. That's why antitrust was so often used not to protect consumers, but to protect less-efficient firms that fared poorly in the market. (See D. T. Armentano's classic, Antitrust and Monopoly: Anatomy of a Policy Failure.)

Moreover, we all should be bothered that the social network owners think it's right to mediate what is true and false in their customers' conversations and feeds. Social networks are private firms, but that doesn't make anything they do a good thing. Besides, we may justifiably wonder how much of what they do in this regard is done to stave off government regulation from progressives. They know the eye of the state is upon them. Further, we may also suspect that the big networks have calculated that when regulation comes, they, the experts, would be called on to write the rules--as long as they are seen as behaving well.

The argument against antitrust law is that it misconstrues the market. When free it is not a static condition but a process in perpetual motion, in which entrepreneurs are always trying to profit by better serving customers. In an unmolested market the threat of potential competition would do as much to keep a single firm on the customers' side as actual competition. So quantitative indicators are misleading. As D. T. Armentano says, high profits in an industry with one or two firms is not a barrier to new competition but an engraved invitation. Moreover, even a cartel agreement among a few sellers couldn't prevent "cheating" by parties to increase revenues; nor could it prevent new entrants from taking advantage of the dominant firms' disregard of consumer welfare.

Hawley's bill declares, "It is the policy of the United States that the principal standard for evaluating the permissibility of practices under this Act is the protection of economic competition within the United States.’’ But "competition" is too abstract a thing to protect, and history shows that such a goal opens the gates to complaints from inefficient firms (or their advocates in the regulatory bureaucracy) that claim they are victims of efficient firms' "anticompetitive" actions when in fact they are victims of their own inefficiency. 

Instead of protecting competition (aka weak firms), let's protect individual liberty for everyone.

The bill's chances of passing a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party are nonexistent of course. But this isn't because it would grant new controls over peaceful activities. Rather, it's because Hawley's motive is to rein in "woke" corporations. No doubt the Democrats will have their own antitrust bill before long.

Friday, April 23, 2021

TGIF: Does Nearly Everyone Favor Industrial Policy?

Over the years I've heard countless arguments about which word best describes the American economic system. Some insist it is essentially socialist, while others favor the word fascism. (Fascism is socialism with a private-property and market veneer.) Still others describe the system as a mixed, or interventionist, economy.

We need not decide among these because the huge system has many facets, at least some of which at some time or other have fit one or more of these terms.

One term we might all agree on, however, is industrial policy. That's because it is general enough to cover almost anything except the market unmolested by the state. And yet it's a good term for the whole basket of objectionable policy sets. It fits most people along the conventional political spectrum, even if they differ in degree.

Think about it: in the current system virtually government activity can be defended on the grounds that it's good for the "the economy," including locking it down in the name of public health. This goes for both more and less government intervention. So even reducing government control in a particular matter might be favored by an interventionist under particular circumstances, with the understanding that if circumstances change, control would be increased. We're talking about an policy orientation and motive more than any particular measure. Industrial policy is frequently equated with "picking winners," which it is certainly part of it. But picking winners will then be defended as a way to make the economy healthy, notwithstanding obvious crony-serving features.

You can see this engineering orientation in trade policy. Even some people who are usually on the free-trade side of the spectrum can see free trade as a government policy, not the absence of policy. This even was true in the early years after the American Revolution. The Articles of Confederation did not empower the central quasi-government to regulate trade, and since it had no power to tax, it could not levy revenue tariffs. Of course, the Articles were replaced by the Constitution, which explicitly gave Congress the power to regulate trade and to tax. Those issues were important in propelling the movement to scrap the Articles in favor of a far more powerful central government. (See my America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

For the governing class the power to regulate trade was indispensable to the policy arsenal, even if free trade was favored at any particular moment. Rulers could imagine many circumstances in which they would need to impose tariffs, quotas, or sanctions on other countries "for the good of America," which always included economic concerns. As George Will wrote long ago, free trade is not a principle; it's an expedient"--but not necessarily always. (Will may think differently today.)

Trade is certainly not the only area where this engineering mindset is at work. The country's infrastructure is another popular area, as we can see today. Nearly any government requirement can be imposed in the name of upgrading roads, bridges, and the rest. Crazy levels of spending, borrowing, and taxation can be supported as necessary to the health of the economy even if the resulting legislation actually has little to do with the infrastructure. We can also see where trade and infrastructure intersect: President Biden, like past presidents, has a "Buy American" provision in his infrastructure bill, which would push the price tag higher than it would be without that provision,

Immigration is another area where more or less restriction will usually be defended in the name of American economic well-being. The issue is hardly ever related to individual liberty for aspiring immigrants and Americans. This should need little elaboration.

At the root of this mentality is the pretense that "the economy" is a machine. Any machine needs tending; it cannot be left to run itself indefinitely. Ergo, the economy needs tending by government officials. If pressed, people who think this way would have a hard time clinging to the trope, but that does not stop them from operating as though the economic system were literally a machine. Notice how often they talk about an economy's potential for overheating, stalling, cooling down, braking, and so on.

But if an economy is not really a machine, why is it useful to pretend that it is? I'll venture a guess. When one speaks in those terms, it's easier to obscure the fact that it's not a machine that will be tended; rather, it is people who will be monitored, controlled, and penalized for disobeying government directives. If the economy just a machine that is being regulated, no one need worry about rights abuses. You might criticize the regulators on competency grounds, but not on moral grounds.

Yet when you walk around, you see no economy. It is not a thing like a machine, a building, or a vehicle. When we say economy, we mean individual persons acting in a series of continuing and more or less regular relationships that involve money in transformation of stuff from less-useful to more-useful forms, as consumers view things. Government officials don't regulate an economy; they regulate individuals--us!--thereby interfering with our lives, liberties, purposes, and pursuit of happiness.

That's the moral case against industrial policy. The technical case involves the familiar public-choice and Austrian knowledge-related critiques of central planning: namely, that the politicians  and technocrats, first, can't know what they'd need to know to regulate our activities for our own good, and, second, even if they had that knowledge, they couldn't be counted on to act appropriately, given that they are human beings with personal interests, for example, power, prestige, and career advancement. (Hence, the familiar mission creep.)

That one-two critique has never been satisfactorily addressed. We must oppose industrial policy in all its forms.

Friday, April 16, 2021

TGIF: Should Libertarians Join Organizations?

A few weeks ago YouTube suggested that I watch a 1988 episode of William F. Buckley's PBS TV show, "Firing Line," featuring Ron Paul, who at the time was the Libertarian Party candidate for president. I had to chuckle right at the top when Buckley introduced Rep. Paul by striking an ironic pose: while "libertarians specialize in non-organization...," Buckley said, "to run for president of the United States, which Dr. Paul is doing on the Libertarian ticket, does require organization, to be sure uncoerced." (Emphasis added.) Buckley flashed his trademark impish smile while his guest remained silent looking bemused.

This wouldn't be worth mentioning except that I've heard people make similar comments over the years. I have no doubt that Buckley was trying to be funny. The tip-off is in his final words, "to be sure uncoerced." Buckley was too smart and too knowledgeable not to know that libertarians--and this includes free-market anarchists--have no principled objection to organizations per se. Uncoerced is indeed the key point.

Amazingly, not everyone seems to know this. Many times I've heard people wonder how libertarians could have a political party or any other organization for that matter. It is one thing to wonder about a libertarian party, but quite another to wonder about all organizations. Maybe some of the questioners were trying to score a cheap debating point, but I suspect that for others, sheer misunderstanding was at work, as if libertarians favored self-sufficiency and social isolation. (They don't.) At the least, it is a sign of insufficient thought.

Why did Buckley say, "libertarians specialize in non-organization"? Specialize? Please! One of thing that libertarians do specialize in is enthusiasm for markets as an essential part of a free society. Markets are filled with organizations, if by that term we mean purposeful associations. (With respect to F. A. Hayek, we can distinguish organizations from institutions, the word he reserved for spontaneous, bottom-up social and economic regularity with accompanying expectations.) The overall market order, which is highly complex, is such an emergent institution rather than a designed organization. It was not constructed with a single conscious purpose, but within it are countless organizations that one or more people created for specific purposes. That's what a firm, a co-op, and many other kinds of groups are. The unplanned order of the market, which is an arena for purposeful conduct that has no end explicit in itself, is full of planned associations. What libertarian would reject them in principle? We'd be a lot poorer and certainly no freer without them. Again, the standard is consent. Organizations can be good, and so individuals ought to be free to choose with whom they will associate and for what purposes.

What's said about the market is also true of society in general. Obviously, people form associations for all kinds of reasons, not just to make money through production and trade. Tocqueville noticed this on his visit to the young United States and reported on it in Democracy in America. Americans, he said, formed organizations whenever they wanted to accomplish things they couldn't do individually. To hear him tell it, Americans were organization-happy. In those days, keep in mind, they were in large measure radically and classically liberal in temperament, yet that did not stop them from doing things together whenever it suited. They understood that organizing per se infringed neither their liberty nor their integrity. No surprise there: human beings are social animals.

I don't mean to say that organizations pose no risk to people. Risks and temptations lurk everywhere. Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote a remarkable essay long ago titled "On that Day Began Lies," in which he pointed out that the danger of even private organizations lies in the temptation of individual members to believe that are not responsible for the acts of the group they participate in them--as though they could merge into a mass without personal accountability. Think of a mob, which is not typically thought of an organization but whose members act in concert toward a particular end. One can see how those members might distance themselves from their own actions by regarding the mob as an agent.

Read headed the essay with a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first members of councils placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Read then asked: "Is it possible that there is something of a wholly destructive nature which has its source in councilmanic, or in group, or in committee-type action? Can this sort of thing generate lies that actually cause the loss of 'millions of human beings'?"

He noted that personal integrity and honesty are key to avoiding trouble and suggested that this will determine the moral quality of any group. He asked:

What makes persons in a mob behave as they do? What accounts for the distinction between these persons acting as responsible individuals and acting in association?

Perhaps it is this: These persons, when in mob association, and maybe at the instigation of a demented leader, remove the self-disciplines which guide them in individual action; thus the evil that is in each person is released, for there is some evil in all of us. In this situation, no one of the mobsters consciously assumes the personal guilt for what is thought to be a collective act but, instead, puts the onus of it on an abstraction which, without persons, is what the mob is.

The organization certainly seems to provide the temptation for members to distance themselves from "its" actions, even though the mob cannot act if no member acts. Mobs are not alone in this phenomenon. Read went on:

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery—that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

As we can see, Read didn't mean political associations only. Private associations also can challenge less-than-conscientious members' integrity. In this connection, he had much to say about how majority rule and the call for group consensus can tempt people to shift personal responsibility to the disembodied group.

In sum, Read wrote:

It ought to be obvious that we as individuals stand responsible for our actions regardless of any wishes to the contrary, or irrespective of the devices we try to arrange to avoid personal responsibility....

How to stop lies? It is simply a matter of personal determination and a resolve to act and speak in strict accordance with one’s inner, personal dictate of what is right. And for each of us to see to it that no other man or set of men is given permission to represent us otherwise.

In other words, do not associate with a group that does or advocates things you as an individual would not do or advocate. Being outvoted does not get you off the hook.

Read touched on a related theme in "Conscience on the Battlefield," in which he argued that even soldiers are responsible for the actions they are commanded to perform, including killing.

The upshot is that people of character can avoid the dangers of association without avoiding associations entirely. A separate question is whether a libertarian political party is good idea, but that's not my concern here. My message is that nothing about the freedom philosophy rules out voluntary participation in a wide variety of organizations.

Friday, April 09, 2021

TGIF: The Fraught World of Second-Bests

When discussion turns to how to make government "better," however any particular person would conceive that condition, libertarians understand that we are in the fraught world of second-bests. In other words, because of the nature of the state, no solution that merely attempts to reform it will be or could be truly satisfying. The system will continue to feature exploitation, rent-seeking, public-choice and knowledge problems, and worse.

We have an example of this in a recent Soho Forum Debate in which political scientist Terry Moe of Stanford University and Gene Healy of the Cato Institute argued over whether Moe's proposal for federal legislative fast-tracking, which is intended to enable presidents to eliminate congressional obstruction, is a good idea. I think Healy, a long-time critic of "the cult of the presidency," won the debate, but that of course doesn't mean that leaving things as they are is a good idea. Healy would agree.

Moe would add a feature to how Washington does things. His constitutional amendment would empower presidents to put legislation on a fast track. Thus within, say, 90 days after introduction, both houses of Congress would have to vote up or down on the president's bill--no committees, no amendments, no filibuster. Legislation could still be handled the old-fashioned way. Members of Congress could introduce bills that would go through the committee process of both houses and would be subject to amendment. Presidents could still veto those bills. Any prevailing filibuster rules would apply. Moe would simply put another arrow in a president's quiver.

Why does Moe want to do this? (It's not unprecedented, as Moe acknowledges: Congress has legislated that trade bills can be fast-tracked in this manner.) Simply put, he thinks the federal government is failing the country and has been doing so for a long time. The system set up by the framers of the Constitution, he says, is obsolete: they were operating under far different conditions from today's, and it's long past the time for change. Specifically, the system has too many "veto points" at which legislation can be derailed, resulting in paralysis and a dire failure to address important matters. (He offers immigration reform as a prime example.) The system all but assures that nothing happens, Moe insists, and we simply can't go on this way any longer.

One can readily acknowledge that things are not good now without embracing Moe's or any other particular reform. After all, it's always possible to make thing worse. 

I guess if your priority is the passage of legislation--any legislation--Moe's proposal would be appealing. But who judges Congress merely by how many bills it passes? (Come to think of it, some newspapers apparently do.) Quality is more important than quantity. Different people will evaluate the difficulty in passing bills differently depending on what they think the government would do with a free hand.

For people who love individual liberty, the first thing to notice is that legislative obstacles are bad only if the likely legislation would reduce government power and expand government respect for freedom. Gridlock, however, is good (with qualifications below) whenever it blocks government interference with peaceful private conduct, whether "personal" or "economic." (I regard this distinction as pernicious. Economic liberty is personal liberty; making and spending money in pursuit of one's life projects are as personal as human activity can get. Dividing liberty into two spheres, an idea endorsed decades ago by the Supreme Court, has been catastrophic. The courts scrutinize limits on freedom of speech and religion far more stringently than they scrutinize limits on the use of property. See my What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.)

The reverse is also the case; libertarians would applaud fast-tracking for bills that would remove restrictions on liberty, but oppose it for liberty violations. The problem is that exclusively pro-liberty fast-tracking is not likely to be adopted by the powers that be. Since bad bills easily outnumber good ones, fast-tracking would be no welcome reform.

This might suggest that gridlock is the best we can hope for in the current world. I have tended to think that is the case, but I things aren't that simple. As Healy points out, the libertarian preference for gridlock must be tempered by the fact that stymied presidents can turn to executive orders to get what Congress refuses to given them. Recent presidents have done this often. So the situation looks bleak. Reformed or not, the government will produce violations of liberty most of the time.

To be sure, Healy scored direct points against Moe's amendment during the debate. For some matters the proposal terrifies him. For example, George W. Bush wanted a much broader authorization for the use of military force after 9/11 than Congress gave him. Had fast-track been the rule, Bush would probably have gotten his way because members of Congress would have been afraid to vote against him after the horrific attacks. Could the government's war record since the start of the century been worse as a result? Maybe.

On the other hand, Healy suggested that Moe's amendment might not change things all that much. With fast-track the houses of Congress could defeat a presidential bill, then introduce something similar in the traditional manner, allowing amendments, etc. It occurs to me that presidents hoping for legislative success might informally negotiate with members of Congress to arrive at a bill that has a good chance of being fast-tracked even through houses in the other party's hands. Thus fast-tracking might accomplish much less than Moe expects.

We should be surprised by none of this. That the state--an irredeemably flawed and predatory organization--cannot be satisfactorily reformed is unremarkable. Conceived in sin and conquest, the state is based on the principle that some people should be empowered to coerce other people simply for living their lives in peaceful yet disapproved ways. Thus the only true reform is abolition.

Friday, April 02, 2021

TGIF: Targeted Advertising Violates No Liberty

Last week I modestly attempted to show that no injustice takes place when A sells B the opportunity to pitch its product to C. This is the principle behind print, television, and radio advertising, and it is no different in the era of social networks like Facebook. In principle, the commercial act I've described is similar to many other commercial acts. Someone has a megaphone and rents it to someone else, who then uses it to convey product messages to others. Where's the objection?

But this does not dispose of the matter because many people are bothered that the social networks collect information about their members, which advertisers may buy in order to tailor and target their merchandising campaigns for maximum effect. The thing that bothers critics seems, certainly a first glance, to make a lot of sense for all concerned. A car company quite sensibly would want to make its pitch to people who have already shown an interest in buying a car. It could waste a lot of money trying to sell cars without that information. Advertising is always iffy, so anything that increases the chances of success, however small they remain, may be worthwhile. On the other hand, people who want to buy a car could well appreciate that car dealers are seeking to direct commercial messages to them, and some (though not necessarily all) people not looking for a new car could well be glad to be free of such advertising, which they might regard as a nuisance.

The point is that when advertisers acquire information about potential customers and narrow the pool, they benefit others besides themselves. We need not start off suspicious of such a practice. One thing markets do best is produce information, and generally speaking, access to consumer information is a good. 

Of course wanting and acquiring market research is nothing new. What's new is the sophistication of the tools in the information age. However, it is easy to overestimate the efficacy of those tools. We too easily think that the ability to acquire information is equivalent to the power to manipulate. That is wrong.

Before the information age, gathering market data was a more crude operation. When Chevrolet advertised on TV's "Bonanza" decades ago, General Motors had at least a rough idea about who was watching the western each week. The networks did research--does anyone remember the Nielsen survey?--and that information was available to advertisers. There was no point in trying to sell Chevys to 6-10-year-old children. I suspect most people were not bothered by such research, although principled opponents of the market surely were.

But today's advanced online marketing research bothers many people because of how it is gathered. It's understandable. When we visit websites and or use social networks, we leave electronic trails unless we undertake efforts to avoid doing so. Everything we do online expresses our preferences to some degree, subject to recording; for a long time we've been on notice that this is the case.

We are also on notice that for a price such information may be made available to people who want to sell us things. We are free, though it may not be costless, to avoid leaving trails by using web browsers that protect privacy, such as DuckDuckGo or Startpage. Also, users may eschew social media if they find their privacy options inadequate or nonexistent. Granted, reading user agreements and navigating the privacy settings can be perplexing, but the market addresses that problem through online experts who often advise lay people on how to protect their privacy on the social networks. We live in a world of trade-offs, and we try to choose the mix of costs and benefits that best suits us as individuals.

Most people understand the trade-offs and are willing to give up some information in return for the convenience and fun of online activities. But others are upset to the point where they want the government to regulate or even stop the social networks and other platforms. Advocates of liberty would have to object to government interference beyond redress for fraud and breach of contract. As a general matter, making data from market research available is not only unobjectionable but ought to be welcome.

Let's not forget that placing an online ad before a group of people is no guarantee they will click on it, and clicking on it is no guarantee that they will buy the product. Consumers are in control. Why do critics of the information age insist on portraying us as puppets?

To sum up, research and targeted advertising is generally good in a variety of ways. Advertisers can waste less money. Entrepreneurs can refine their estimates of which consumer needs have been overlooked. And consumers can minimize their exposure to annoying and irrelevant ads. People wishing to opt out can find ways. 

One downside to the preoccupation with research-based online advertising is that the real threat to privacy--the government--gets too little attention. In the morality play, social networks and advertisers are bad and government regulators are good. But we've long known how little government at all levels respects our privacy. Information-age technology has aggravated that situation by orders of magnitude, as Edward Snowden showed us some years ago. Yet Congress keeps reauthorizing the executive branch's authority to spy on us (and people abroad) with impunity. Something's wrong when this is of less concern than Amazon's ability to tell me that it has what I was looking for last week.

What's the bigger threat: a company that buys information we've given up in order to sell us things, or the state, which ultimately seeks to control us?

Friday, March 26, 2021

TGIF: The Bias against Advertising

People who dislike markets harbor a special animosity toward advertising as cynically controlling. This is not new. In the mid-20th century John Kenneth Galbraith and other market opponents condemned advertising as business's way to manipulate people into buying things they had no real need for and actually didn't want. To hear them tell it, the consumer is not an agent but a puppet, with advertisers as the puppet masters.

This position was and is wrong--Galbraith and his colleagues, I suspect, did not think they were helpless buyers--and it was debunked by sensible people, including Israel Kirzner, the great economist of the Austrian school and student of Ludwig von Mises. After all, advertising is information about products, including products many people may be unaware of but would be happy to learn about. Sure, ads try to be attention-grabbing, but so what? People are busy, and information is all around. So the value of advertising is obvious.

This point is not undercut by the undoubted fact that manufacturers present their products in the best light possible. Part of growing up is acquiring a degree of skepticism about the claims made in advertisements. As long as government doesn't impede competition by blocking entry into markets and as long as consumers have recourse for actual fraud, consumers can be reasonably protected from false information. The value of advertising thus stands untouched.

The claim that ads can easily manipulate consumers is refuted by history and everyday events. If it were true, no business that advertised would fail. But businesses fail every day. The market antagonists who attacked advertising in the 1950s and '60s apparently missed the story of the Ford Edsel, a notorious example of a heavily advertised product from major company that flopped spectacularly.

Alas, we're usually wrong to assume that when a proposition is thoroughly debunked, it disappears and is never spoken of again. That would be nice, but in fact, advocates of freedom well know that hoary falsehoods must be refuted over and over for each new generation if not more often than that.

So the attack on advertising is still with us. Anyone who has seen the Netflix video "The Social Dilemma" will understand this. The program is an attack on all the social-media platforms for, among other things, cynically delivering helpless customers to businesses that want to sell them things. The program goes so far as to feature a retired Harvard Business School professor who said that Facebook et al., are simply "markets that trade human futures"! That sounds horrible, of course, but what she could have meant is anyone's guess. In a real futures market, people buy and sell options to engage in future transactions involving commodities at prices set in the present. The parties certainly do not buy people, and neither do advertisers on Twitter and the other platforms.

What do they do then? They pay the platform for the opportunity to place their product messages before potential buyers. Stated that way, the process sounds rather benign, and that's because it is.

It also should seem commonplace because it is. This is how print and broadcast media have long made money. Is a newspaper less of a news medium because it sells car dealers and funeral homes space in which they can pitch their products and services to readers? Are radio and television stations not really entertainment and news media because they sell time to businesses to make pitches to listeners and viewers? Is something wrong with commercial billboards? Are potential consumers merely helpless pawns of the advertisers? Of course not.

Broadcast advertising was an ingenious solution to a vexing free-rider problem. With old-style broadcast, a station or network could not charge consumers for its programs. The signal was transmitted, and anyone with a receiver could enjoy the programs. People were able to be free-riders, so as a business model, the drawbacks were substantial. (Entirely viewer-supported programming might work in some circumstances.) Luckily, some bright entrepreneur hit on the idea of selling advertising time to soap and soup companies. In return, the companies got the opportunity to pitch their wares to potential customers.

But notice that buying time did not guarantee that anyone would watch or listen to commercials. Many people instead broke for the kitchen or bathroom. And even if they stayed in their seats, that did not guarantee they would buy what was being offered. But they might, and advertisers were willing to pay for that chance.

Consumers are not puppets. They are human agents with preferences and interests. And they can take as active a stance toward advertising as they choose.

All of this applies to the social media. Even if advertisers have access to all the data that participants choose to give away through their online activities, it is no assurance either that they will click on ads or that they will buy the products even if they do click on ads. It's been pointed out that in 2017 only 0.9 percent of Facebook ads were clicked on. I'd like to know what percentage of clickers actually bought something. That hardly supports the claim that the social media are diabolical platforms for manipulating helpless people on behalf ruthless sellers.

So much for the hysterical insistence that Facebook et al. collect so much data on their participants that they can predict with great precision any individual's behavior and thus guarantee success to their advertisers.

This does not mean that the social media are beyond all criticism. One can be rightly irritated by their condescension toward participants, as when they suppress controversial links, and other objectionable features. But among their least objectionable features is they sell businesses the opportunity to pitch their products to us.

Friday, March 19, 2021

TGIF: What's Wrong with the Welfare State

Let's start with what is not wrong with the welfare state.

Much criticism of the welfare state focuses on how it encourages dependence not only on the government, but dependence on others per se. In some circles the wish for a social safety net is disparaged as a moral flaw encouraged by people who want to subvert humanity in general and the original liberal, or libertarian, project in particular. The welfare state is said to clash with such alleged and desirable virtues as rugged individualism and radical self-reliance. In this view the welfare state robs human beings of their essential character as independent persons--that it corrupts them with handouts and makes them parasites on the labor of others. (Such corruption of character cannot be ruled out as a consequence and can be found in some degree in the United States, but it is not inevitable because culture surely plays a role in how people respond to political incentives. See the case of Sweden and other countries in Scandinavia, which combine a "generous" welfare benefits with a substantially free-enterprise system.)

You ought to be able to spot the problem in the first step of this criticism of the welfare state. In the original liberal project, rugged individualism and radical self-reliance were not guiding principles because it was understood that people have always lived socially. The first liberal theorists knew this and had no wish to change society or human nature in that respect. In other words, people were always interdependent and dealt with one another in continuous mutually advantageous ways. That's what society is. A human being living in isolation is not fully human.

Of course the ways of social living changed over time. For example, circles of trust grew, transcending family ties, and the division of labor expanded as technology and political institutions permitted. Dealing with strangers, once unthinkable and highly risky, became increasingly common as people glimpsed the gains from trade and other benefits of social contact. The ideal was to live interdependently to mutual advantage with others. Thinkers like Frederic Bastiat in the 19th century understood that well.

What's the appeal of social living? The question really doesn't need answering because the truth has been so obvious since antiquity. Peacefully interacting with others as a way of life magnifies our individual intellectual power, our ability to produce, and out emotional satisfaction. For example, as a practical matter, an individual may know something about a subject, but that person surely won't know everything about it. Much is to be learned, then, simply by talking to other people, not to mention reading what others have written. A person is likely to learn more about a subject even when talking to an ignorant but inquisitive counterpart because just answering questions can lead to an extension of one's knowledge though the emergence of overlooked connections. John Stuart Mill had this sort of thing in mind when he wrote in On Liberty, "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."

Society extends our intelligence. But that's just one of the many benefits of social living.

Aristotle makes the point that continuous peaceful interaction with other people is the rational mind in action. As reasoning animals, we need that to live according our essential nature. Justice, respecting people's rights, that is, the commitment to interaction via reason, fosters the flourishing of everyone concerned.

An obvious fact bearing on this subject is that social life takes place in a world of uncertainty. No one can know what personal and social misfortune lies ahead. Therefore everyone has an interest in hedging against calamity. Insurance, the pooling of risk with others, is an old institution, and no one would say that someone who buys insurance against bad luck is shirking his duty of self-reliance or seeking unreasonable dependence on others.

This point should sit well with any advocate of individual liberty and global free markets in which people, goods, and money moved around according to the preferences of the individuals involved.

Superficially, the welfare state can look like nothing more than than the formalization of this legitimate liberal (libertarian) social welfare principle. That could explain why most people accept the welfare state to some degree. Welfarism can appear to be a proper plan to address our entirely reasonable concern about the risks of an uncertain future. You pay in when things are going well; you draw out when they aren't. That's where libertarian analysis comes in. For the welfare state's appearance is misleading. Moreover, the state's underlying flaws point to a better way not toward fostering fictional atomistic individualism, but toward a moral and more effective way to address our rational need to hedge against an uncertain future.

Then what is wrong with the welfare state? The two biggest flaws stem from its nature as a government institution. The welfare state is coercive, and it is monopolistic and anti-market. As a tax-financed institution, the welfare state is obviously coercive. The fig leaf of democratic representation aside, taxes are compulsory payments. They are not like club dues or prices in a shop. As a taxpayer, you cannot say no.

It follows that a tax-financed arrangement has little in common with a market or noncommercial voluntarily financed service. If consumers are free to say no and buy elsewhere--as taxpayers are not--then service providers must be responsive to customers in a way that no government must be. Otherwise, they could go out of business. Moreover, free consumers provide critical feedback to providers, which tends to improve service.

On the other hand, a government system is subject to what are known as public-choice and (Austrian-school) knowledge problems. That is, first, the bureaucrats and politicians who run the system have their own personal agendas (like career advancement and power) that may have little to do with the good of the people they ostensibly serve, and second, even if their incentives were perfectly aligned, they couldn't know what they would need to know to do the best job possible because the competition and consumer feedback that freedom generates would be absent. Ludwig von Mises showed that without market-generated prices, economic calculation and hence efficiency in the use of scarce resources are impossible, and F. A. Hayek showed that crucial knowledge related to what would serve our well-being is scattered throughout society and much of it is never articulated. The only way to obtain that knowledge in a usable form is via the prices that emerge when people are free to express their preferences through market activity.

These are serious practical flaws. Because of incentive and knowledge problems, even a modest welfare system that at first addressed only actually unfortunate people may not stay that way. Political dynamics may tend to bring expansion far beyond the original mandate, leading to fiscal problems, slowed economic growth, and liberty violations. And because of knowledge problems, blunders could abound in the absence entrepreneurship to sniff out and correct error.

In contrast, since all participants in an unmolested competitive marketplace and the larger noncommercial voluntary sector are free, providers have to work to win consumers over, that is, to persuade them that their offerings are superior to those of competitors. Hence, they must innovate, exhibit entrepreneurship, and find ways to lower prices and enhance quality. It is no accident that the market, even a heavily regulated one such as ours, displays more imagination than governmental service providers. Competition makes it in people's interest to spot and correct errors.

These considerations lead us to conclude that what's wrong with the welfare state is not that it caters to people's concern with uncertainty, but that it does so in a coercive and inferior way to other alternatives that would be available if the government did not crowd them out. That's a damning indictment. (It has also been shown that the welfare has been politically intended to keep poorer people who have been exploited through crony capitalism from rocking the boat by giving them money and other benefits and so keeping them quiet.)

What are the alternatives? We can point to two broad categories: for-profit market institutions and what were once known as mutual-aid organizations. The first group would include commercial insurance firms of all kinds. The second are voluntary organizations that are cooperatively owned by their members. The largely unknown history of mutual aid offers excellent ideas on how people can grapple with uncertainty without the coercive state. (For details see David Beito's landmark work From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967.)

In their heyday mutual-aid organizations, also known as lodges and friendly societies, were largely working-class associations that not only provided an arena for camaraderie but also elaborate methods of obtaining a variety of insurance benefits and even medical care, including hospital services. It was an extraordinary chapter in American (and British) history that holds the key to replacing the costly, debt-ridden, and ever-expanding U.S. welfare state with a free, innovative, and flexible arrangement capable of catering to a variety of needs in an uncertain world.

Who knows what services would be available today had mutual aid not been subverted by the welfare state?

TGIF--The Goal Is Freedom--appears on occasion Fridays. Topics discussed here are also addressed in my What Social Animals Owe to Each Other and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State.)

Friday, March 12, 2021

TGIF: U(nspeakably) S(adistic) Foreign Policy

If you had set out to construct a foreign policy designed to impose indescribable suffering on millions of innocent people around the world, you'd have a tough time coming up with anything more systematic and effective than U.S. foreign policy. An inventory of U.S. direct military and covert operations, aid to savage governments and murderous "rebels," and economic sanctions would easily lead one to think that the architects of this constellation of policies aimed to inflict death and maximum pain on innocent bystanders. It has been one series of crimes against humanity.

That would be an oversimplification of course. Clearly, the makers and executors of those policies have not merely aimed to inflict such suffering on innocents. Larger geopolitical goals have always been in play. But that by no means mitigated the results, which have been foreseeable and avoidable. Besides, the geopolitical goals are themselves to be condemned, seeing as how they flow from U.S. rulers' "exceptional nation" zeal to shape the world according to their idea of what's good.

Nor does it help to point out that the foreign regimes and other targets of U.S. policy have often perpetrated unfathomable brutality against innocents. The fact is that U.S. intervention predictably enlarges local and regional violence by orders of magnitude. So other people's crimes are no excuse for U.S. piling on.

Over many years, from Latin America to Africa, the Middle East, and throughout Asia, U.S. policymakers have imposed great hardship in a variety of forms: open combat through invasion and occupation, covert activities, and aid to allied repressive governments and insurgent groups aiming at regime change.

And then there are the economic sanctions. The U.S. government seems ready to impose sanctions on a population at the drop of a hat. (Thomas Jefferson called sanctions "peaceful coercion" presumably because shots need not be fired.) News of sanctions gets good play in the media. They may even bring sighs of relief if the public sees them as a substitute for sending American troops into yet another endless war. But detailed media follow-up is rare, and the real story of suffering is rarely told. On their own, most people won't give the sanctions on any given country a moment's thought, much less use their common sense to trace out the lethal implications. They certainly won't read sources that specialize in meticulous description of the ugly consequences.

Sanctions of course cut the target population off from global trade/finance and humanitarian assistance. The policy is meant to keep building materials, food, medicines, medical equipment, and other critical goods from reaching the victims of the policy. These are not unavoidable and unfortunate secondary consequences or collateral damage. They are the prime objective. That is nothing less than policy sadism, crimes against humanity.

Often sanctions are defended on the grounds that they will cause the stricken people to rise up and overthrow their bad rulers. But does that ever happen? It appears not. (The U.S. government has had sanctions on Cuba and Iran for a very long time, to name just two stark examples.)

Instead, people rally around "their" existing government in opposition to the cruel foreign government that is making their lives miserable. That's the most likely reaction, and it's unreasonable to expect otherwise. (Not that the policy would be justified under other circumstances.)

As has been pointed out so often, sanctions also give the government of the target country a plausible excuse for its own home-grown economic disasters. A government that tries to centralize economic activity according to a top-down plan will always fail miserably, creating terrible hardship including starvation  and disease for the public. In the absence of foreign intervention, the target public might figure out that the hardship is the government planners' fault, and that could lead to some kind of movement for change, possibly toward a free or at least freer market-based society.

But if the country is the target of sanctions, especially imposed by the powerful U.S. government (which has the clout to force other governments to comply), the local rulers can blame their own shortcomings on the outside intervention--blockades, boycotts, and the like--and survive. The self-serving rulers may even be able to throw in credible allegations about CIA-sponsored "liberal" insurgents because this sort of thing has happened often before. Most people in the population won't have the information necessary to understand their rulers' crimes and so will continue to look to those rulers for assistance in hard times. Savvy governments will score points by providing some relief to at least part of the population. Meanwhile, the rulers will demonize America, perhaps even creating conditions in which terrorism takes place.

In other words, sanctions may be counterproductive even from the point of view of the U.S. government. This, however, may not be the case if it wants to sow chaos in the target country and use terrorism as an excuse to violate civil liberties at home. That, too, of course would be sadism in action.

While I've focused on the harm U.S. sanctions inflict on the target populations, we should also mention that they have bad consequences for Americans who are not part of the policy elite. Sanctions obviously forbid them from trading with the target populations, harming firms and their employees and shareholders. This should not be overlooked, though the primary victims are the people of the target countries.

The upshot is that in the name of the American people but without their real consent, the political elite casually imposes unimaginable cruelties on foreign populations in pursuit of objectives that are not in the interest of Americans. The ordinary people of the target countries simply do not count in the policymakers' global gamesmanship. They are expendable. This is intolerable. Somehow the mass of the American people must be made aware of this long-standing cruelty so that they may be enlisted in a campaign to finally end the unspeakable sadism.

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

Friday, March 05, 2021

TGIF: That Old Minimum-Wage Magic

You don't have to actually think that legislating and raising the minimum wage will help low-skilled workers earn more money. That's not the point. The point is to display your correct political religion. Today favoring stepping the minimum wage up to $15 an hour is part of the so-called progressive dogma, or civic religion. Progressives who oppose $15 would likely have their credentials questioned or yanked. They would be branded heretics on Twitter. And religiously minded people, even if the religion is secular, rarely like heretics. They must be rooted out, shamed, and if possible, induced to recant.

What gives force to this take on the subject is that the case against legislating a minimum wage is nothing like rocket science. It's rather simple logic. If someone can't produce something like $15 worth of goods or services in an hour, why would a law forbidding any wage below $15 help that person? Common sense would tell almost anyone that it will be of no help whatever, and studies bear this out. You may ask how wages and productivity are determined, and the answer lies in the competitive market process. Arbitrariness is driven out by rivalry among entrepreneurs trying to maximize their profits. (More on this below.)

So someone whose productivity is below $15 won't be hired, and those with jobs may well be fired and replaced either by people with higher skills (which is why unions support the minimum wage) or machines. Either way, that's not good for the stated beneficiaries of the law. It wouldn't be the first time that the stated beneficiaries of a policy turn out not to be the same as the actual intended beneficiaries. Many lies go into policy-making. Remember Bismarck's insight that it would be better if the people didn't see how laws and sausages are made. Better for whom?

Okay, maybe not every low-skilled worker will lose the job. Employers have avoided firing people (not necessarily a pleasant experience or good for morale) by cutting other aspects of a job. Maybe, in firms' efforts to cut their losses, the workers will have their hours reduced so that total payrolls don't change, or workers may lose other on-the-job opportunities and noncash benefits, such as formal training for advancement and other amenities. That's not necessarily an improvement for low-skilled workers.

Depending on particular market conditions, companies may be able to pass a wage increase on to consumers through higher prices. But let's not forget that many consumers also have low incomes, so where is the general gain in welfare? If people eat fast food less frequently because of the price hike, how does that help workers? One thing we can predict is that the least-efficient firms may be driven out of business, killing jobs for more than the unskilled.

The point is that Adam Smith's invisible hand will continue to operate. Companies will find ways to avoid losing money. They aren't charities after all; they're businesses. If they go out of business, all their employees will lose jobs. People who want to help low-skilled individuals should find other, peaceful, ways that don't impose requirements on others, especially when they harm the vulnerable in the process. If you really want to help, find a charity that assists the low-skilled to gain the skills they need to make higher wages. When the competition (including from small-scale self-employment and cooperative management) is free, wages tend to correspond to productivity, so the key is to improving low-skilled workers' wages is to increase their productivity. Mucking with the price system is the wrong way to go because prices, including wages, are indispensable signals that guide our activities in a world of scarcity. If government distorts the signals (which it does in many ways), it misleads individuals as they try to improve their situations. (It's a sobering thought that our well-being hinges on people learning to appreciate something as so seemingly boring as price theory. It's not really boring.)

The government can help low-income by removing the myriad barriers to improvement, starting with the monopoly schools, which give no more than crumbs to kids growing up in lousy circumstances. Also on the policy hit-list should be occupational licensing, zoning and other land-use controls, intellectual property laws, and anything else that bars or impedes free-lance competition against vested business and labor interests. 

This assumes the minimum wage is well-intentioned. While I'm willing to assume that most people who favor it do mean well, can that really be said for organized labor, whose members make far more than even $15 an hour? Maybe labor organizations are willing to spend so much on lobbying for the wage because they anticipate that when low-skilled workers are let go, higher skilled workers, potential union members, will take their place. We should also understand that in early days, progressives caught up in the eugenics movements favored the minimum wage as a way to keep undesirables out of the workforce.

Some defenders of the minimum wage will insist economic theory is on their side. But when will they explain how a worker who is worth $15 an hour persists in being paid less than $15? Even in our government-saturated economic system competition exists for low-skilled workers; the fast-food industry is just one example. If workers really do produce $15 worth of value in an hour, why hasn't the wage been bid up simply through competitive hiring among all the fast-food rivals? It has not been explained why alert fast-food entrepreneurs haven't offered a wage somewhat higher than the prevailing wage to lure the best workers. That competitive move would set in motion a rivalrous process that would culminate in $15, if that is indeed the magic number under current circumstances. It seems unlikely that every fast-food owner and manager in the country once met in a room somewhere and agreed not to pay more than, say, $10. So what's the theory? Keep in mind that many fast-food and other low-skilled workers already earn more than the legislated minimum, $7.25. Ask yourself why.

There is no theory. Rather, as I said at the top, it's a religious creed and nothing more. Questioning it is a sin. But obviously it's not harmless. As one economist put it, the minimum wage has the same effect as a law banning low-skilled people working. Who would support that?

 

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

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Individual, Not National, Self-Determination Should Be the Goal

Jeff Halper, the American-born, Israel-based veteran human-rights activist is heroic. He has dedicated his life to working for justice for the Palestinian victims of Israeli settler colonialism, much of that as the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. His new book, Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State is the subject of a recent YouTube video, which I recommend to all who are interested in the struggle for freedom.

As much as I admire Halper, I still must take issue with him and many others in his camp on a basic issue: national self-determination. The issue is important because it is a key part of the collectivist-left outlook and therefore in conflict with libertarian individualism, which otherwise shares many of the same concerns.

Halper, like a growing number of people who have worked to bring attention to the Palestinians' plight, favors "one democratic state" in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This position has emerged from the realization that the two-state solution is impossible in light of Israeli policy and actions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. These areas are still called "occupied territories," but in fact, after the more than half-century since Israel conquered them, they are more aptly called de facto annexed territories, with varying degrees of repression of the stateless non-Jewish residents. In January the most prominent human rights organization in Israel, B'Tselem, issued a report supporting its declaration that the entirety of the land between the sea and river, and not just the territories acquired in 1967, constitutes "a regime of Jewish supremacy." "This is apartheid," B'Tselem said.

I agree with these positions. For me they flow naturally from my commitment to individual rights, including the right to peacefully acquire and exchange things, even things like parcels of land. When individual rights are respected, we may reasonably speak of the right to self-determination. But regrettably, Halper and his colleagues don't talk so much about individual self-determination. They prefer to talk about national self-determination; they seem to see the oppression of individuals as merely a manifestation of the oppression of a national group. I find this odd. I would have thought that self-avowed left universalists would find the idea of national self-determination unappealing. It's true that the slogan has been used by groups striving to break free from an empire. But nationalism and national rivalries have cost many lives and caused much misery over the centuries. So why does the left emphasize national self-determination rather than individual self-determination? Nations after all don't have selves. People do.

I wonder if it's because the collectivist left senses that individualism clashes with their basic beliefs. It suggests a framework that is pro-market, pro-trade, and -- horror! -- pro-private property--things they do not generally like.

What I want to say to such leftists is that, with respect to Palestinian justice, they can't get where they want to go by confining their analysis to national self-determination.

This is clear from Halper's interview. He says he supports both Palestinian and Jewish national self-determination and insists that an exclusive nation-state is not required for it to be realized. (This may strike one as odd since Palestinian refers to geography and Jew refers to religion.) All that's required for national self-determination, Halper says, is for a group to control its culture (whatever that means), resources, and land. But if he's right, how can a program of national self-determination for both groups get him where he wants to go, namely, to a non-supremacist state in which both groups can coexist?

The very heart of the controversy as it is generally understood is a dispute over who the land belongs to and who should control it: the group that has lived there continuously for the last millennium-plus -- mostly, Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and secularists, along with other, including Jewish, communities -- or the Europeans (of the Zionist movement) who arrived only a bit more than a century ago for the explicit purpose of changing the land into a Jewish State by dispossessing most if not all of the Palestinians. (Many of the Europeans in this group were complete secularists, even atheists, who nevertheless called themselves members of the Jewish People. They thereby invoked the same discredited racial theory that was rejected by liberal-minded people when it was espoused Europe in the 1930s by those who wanted to murder Jews.)

Halper's embrace of national self-determination for both "national peoples" in Israel/Palestine, then, can't be the path to peace and justice because it resolves nothing.

But we need not despair. We can still hope for peace and justice. How? By jettisoning national self-determination in favor of individual self-determination. After all, the rights that the Zionist project violated, and continues to violate, are not national rights. They're individual rights. Identifiable Palestinians were expelled by European Zionists from homes and real estate that they demonstrably owned. (Pre-Zionist Jews also legitimately owned property in Palestine, and their rights should be respected in any new arrangement.) Those property-owning Palestinian individuals lived in the hundreds of villages that the Zionist militias destroyed in their quest to establish a Jewish state in 1947-48. Some of those Palestinian individuals still possess the keys to their old houses and the deeds to their old real estate.

In other words, this isn't about nations or peoples. It's about individual human beings with natural rights, including property rights. The Palestinian People were not killed, dispossessed, and plundered by the Jewish People. Rather, particular Palestinian individuals were victimized by particular European Jewish individuals (though again, most were secular and even anti-religious) who claimed to be acting in the name of an ethnic or racial entity. (In fact, Jews are of many races and ethnicities.)

I don't deny that in process of establishing a Jewish state, Palestinian culture was assaulted and even erased. What I'm saying is that culture is carried by individuals. You can oppress a culture only by systematically violating the rights, including the property rights, of many individuals. The individual is the unit of moral analysis.

The path to peace and justice, then, lies in a single classically liberal state in which the rights of all individuals, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity, are respected. This entails the right to engage in commerce and to move about peacefully.

I discuss these and many issues, including the claim that Zionist organizations and individuals purchased all of the land from Palestinians legitimately, in Coming to Palestine.

Friday, February 12, 2021

TGIF: What Now, Libertarians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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