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Friday, July 23, 2021

TGIF: Critical Race Theory and the Schools

The government's K-12 schools--aka "public schools--are once again a battleground on which a bitter dispute is playing out. Wait!--once again? The government's schools have been a battleground since their inception in the 19th century. Since that's where the children are, how could it have been otherwise? For an institution that was supposed to produce social unity, it's done the exact opposite.

Today's battle is over Critical Race Theory (CRT), which in one form or another is being pushed by a lobby that has a stake in having us believe that all of American history, up to the present, can be summed up in one phrase: racist oppression. Or as Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times 1619 Project puts it, white supremacy "runs in the very DNA of this country." For my purpose today, though, I have no need to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of CRT. All we need to know is that it is a polarizing issue: some people very much want it to shape the K-12 curriculum, while others just as vigorously oppose it. Each side thinks that the future of America depends on its success. A couple of dozen red states have banned it from their schools, which in turn has set off a debate over whether the government should ban any ideas. The (classical) liberal tradition prizes free inquiry and free speech, so the thought of banning the teaching of a doctrine is abhorrent. But that's far from the end of this story.

What I want to emphasize is that CRT joins a long list of causes that were fought over in the public-school arena. They include prayer, evolution, sex education, math and reading teaching methods, creation science, and Western civilization. The history of the government's schools is a history of conflict, for the obvious reason I will discuss in a moment. The way to reduce such conflict is not to ban or promote particular ideas, but rather to stop the government from imposing ideas on unwilling people--or their children. The problem is not CRT or any other idea; it's government control of schooling.

Let's start by noting that the original purpose of government schooling, as I explained in Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families, was to promote unity by tamping down diversity. Few people today would believe this because diversity is supposedly what all enlightened people favor. (In fact, only superficial diversity is favored. Intellectual diversity is at least discouraged.) But back in the 19th century the founders of the "common school" movement feared that diversity, especially but not only religious diversity, would tear the young country apart. So the first government schools were designed to be a force for homogenization; they were to instill a nondenominational Protestantism in children in order to create a unified nation of model citizens. They would also dilute the influence of their gluttonous and slothful parents. When Jews and Catholics voiced their objections to the religious nature of the instruction, they were told shut up. So the dissenters set up their own schools.

As I say, conflict with respect to the schools is nothing new. It would have been amazing had this not been the case. It is in the very nature of government planners to expect that one size will fit all. If their plan doesn't fit all naturally, they'll make it fit, much like Procrustes. If it still does fit, they'll blame the unenlightened subjects.

But in no way can one plan be right for everyone. This is particularly true in the education of children. Yet government-run schools are ill-suited to tailoring services to the varying requirements of children. They may try, but the results will be upsetting. One result will be conflict between groups of parents, some of whom will support and some of whom will oppose what is to be imposed on all. Conflicts between parents on the one hand and teachers and administrators on the other will also be provoked. People don't like things shoved down their throats, particularly where their children are concerned.

It's always appropriate to ask what the alternative to a government "solution" is. The answer should be obvious: free choice in an open marketplace. It is only in the marketplace that people are fully free to invent new ways of doing things and offering them to potential buyers, who are free to choose or reject what's on offer. Some of those ideas will be defective--though it's not as if the planners of government education have never come up with a bad idea. But it's also the case that some of these ideas will be great and will benefit millions of children. The thing to remember is that no one can predict who will come up with the next great idea. But we can be sure that no school board or state education official will welcome an innovator who rejects the establishment's views on education. Bureaucracies won't act against their own self-preservation. Since government schools are compulsorily funded and most parents can't pay taxes and private tuition, the schools are usually safe. (It's been a rough road to even the limited choice that exists today.)

As I pointed out recently, advocates of full freedom in education have always emphasized that innovation and flexibility are features the government will never fully embrace. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) noted that to discover the best methods of doing anything, we need “unbounded liberty, and even caprice.” He added, “Now, of all arts, those stand the fairest chance of being brought to perfection, in which there is opportunity of making the most experiments and trials.”

Yes, trial and error has its risks; so does bureaucratic administration. But when government makes mistakes it exposes large numbers of people to danger and the impetus to correct errors is weak to nonexistent. In the marketplace, new ideas will be tried on a small scale, and consumers will be free to make their own decisions. Meanwhile others will be free to offer opposing approaches. When it comes to children's education, it's clear which system is superior.

Bringing this back to CRT, if people want to set up schools in which this outlook shapes the curriculum, they should be free to do so--and parents and children should be free to judge that approach for themselves. Let the verdict of the marketplace prevail. Will people always make wise choices? Of course not. But we know that bureaucrats will fail.

Friday, July 16, 2021

TGIF: Who's the Aggressor? Who's the Victim

When a libertarian says that the most basic individual right is the right not to be aggressed against, a clever interlocutor may accuse the libertarian of begging the question, of stuffing the rabbit into the hat. The trick, the critic will say, is in the word aggress: libertarians allegedly rig the game by restricting the category of aggression to only the actions they disapprove of, thereby institutionalizing many corrupt activities.

For example, If Jones tells Smith to get off land to which Jones has legal title, is it really clear that Smith is in the wrong and Jones is in the right? The critic will offer a counter-narrative: it's considered Jones's land because the political system arbitrarily defines property rights in a certain way. It might have defined rights differently so that Smith could walk on the land as wishes. So why not see Jones as the aggressor against Smith?

If the libertarian responded that Jones transformed the hitherto unowned parcel by mixing his labor with it, perhaps by clearing and fencing it, the critic might respond that Jones's act constituted aggression because, unlike yesterday and the day before, no one now may step on the land without Jones's permission. Jones, in other words, restricts everyone else's freedom. Who's right and who's wrong would depend on one's point of view.

This case against libertarian property rights implies that land has never been unowned because it has always been owned by humanity in common. Such a position was taken most famously by Henry George. While George did not oppose individuals' use of parcels of land, he said that users ought to have to pay land rent to the community, the true owners. This was George's "single tax." Murray Rothbard rebutted George's case in both its moral and economic dimensions. (See also Rothbard's Power and Market.)

If the point of rights theory is to enable human beings to flourish as they live side by side peacefully and cooperatively in society, then any theory that regards land and other scarce resources as jointly owned by all of humanity is in for problems. The moral is the practical. So imagine the impracticality of determining how a piece of land is to be used if everyone is to have a say in the matter. Yet if human beings are to prosper, decisions about how to use scarce resources are crucial. No one is infallible or has a monopoly of wisdom about the "best" use of resources, but we have the next best thing: the market and its price system. The market provides indispensable signals about ever-changing supplies and consumer preferences. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek made their marks as great economists by, among other things, showing that market prices are the only things we have to relieve, insofar as possible, our ignorance about how scarce resources can be used best to serve everyone's welfare. Private property and free markets expand rather than contract the public's access to resources.

The critic of libertarianism may listen and nod but continue to insist that we have no objective way to tell who is the aggressor: Smith or Jones. But maybe we do.

Life is not an abstraction. Individual people are beings who live day to day through the pursuit of projects, which usually involve the cooperation of others. Since we are physical beings, that pursuit requires control over things, including land, and therefore noninterference by other people. How could we live and plan long term if our activities could be interfered with and the fruits of our efforts could be appropriated by others? I take for granted that each person is a self-owner because denial of this principle collapses in absurdity. Lincoln wrote that "if slavery isn't wrong, nothing is wrong." Abolitionists called slave owners "man-stealers." If self-ownership isn't right, then nothing is right.

The principle of nonaggression is universal: you may not interfere with me, and I may not interfere with you. Liberty for all means no one is aggressed against. Society should be based on consent and cooperation.

In the story above, if we assume Jones acquired the land justly through homesteading, purchase, or gift, then the land is part of his project, and Smith's trespass constitutes interference with Jones's life. (Of course, trespass can be trivial, and methods of prevention or redress would have to be proportional to the offense. Put bluntly, Jones can't shoot Smith merely for setting foot on his land.)

Yes, in a physical sense, Jones's ownership "interferes" with Smith's freedom, although not his ability to live as a human being (except perhaps in an emergency). But human action is never merely physical. Justice is relevant. The same physical act can be just or unjust depending on the circumstances.

I think this demonstrates that the libertarian case does not pack its conclusions into its definition of aggression. Hard cases of course can arise, but generally we can determine who is the rightful owner and who is wrongfully interfering.

Finally, I have not tried to sort out the case of ownership clouded by historical injustice, namely, theft. What to do about this is a complicated matter, in part because of the variety of cases, on which I claim no particular wisdom. Those who wish to delve into the problem can begin by looking at what Rothbard had to say in The Ethics of Liberty.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Podcast Discussion of Coming to Palestine

Keith Knight and I discussed my book Coming to Palestine on his podcast, Don't Tread on Anyone. Watch and listen here.

Friday, July 09, 2021

TGIF: Watch the Forest as Well as the Trees

It's always important not to miss the forest for the trees. U.S. government announcements, such as its report of the turnover to the Afghan government of the seventh and last military base in Afghanistan, Bagram, should lead no one to think that U.S. foreign policy has changed worldwide or even in that particular region. Far from it. This is true even if virtually all U.S. troops, except for 600 military personnel, most of them left to guard the U.S. embassy, have left Afghanistan, as reported by Politico. (Who knows what the special operations forces will be up to?)

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki (at 1:03) said, "We have every intention of continuing an ongoing presence in Kabul, which is continuing even after we bring our military who are serving home by the end of August." But will those people come home or be redeployed? Can we expect cuts in the military budget? That may hold a clue.

A month earlier Psaki said, "The United States will remain deeply engaged with the Government of Afghanistan to ensure the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorist groups who pose a threat to the U.S. homeland." In part I translate this to mean that the military contractors need not lose any sleep.

Note that Psaki invoked the old "safe haven" case for being ready to do something more in Afghanistan--or anywhere else, really. This is the argument that if we aren't careful, certain failing countries could become headquarters for terrorist groups bent on attacking America or Americans. Chief case in point, according to the convention wisdom, is Afghanistan after the Russians left and the U.S. government turned its attention elsewhere. Then came al Qaeda, supposedly given safe harbor by the Taliban.

But the "safe haven argument is a myth—a false but widely believed tale used to justify continuing a policy of perpetual failure," Scott Horton has repeatedly pointed out. (See also Horton's invaluable Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan.) As Horton summarized in The American Conservative in 2017, apart from the particular case of Afghanistan, from which the tiny remnant of al Qaeda has long departed, "terrorists don’t need safe havens from which to strike. As we’ve seen in recent attacks in the United States and Europe, one or two men with rifles or a truck can do plenty of damage with no more preparation space than a rented apartment."

Moreover, he adds, "The few dozen core al Qaeda members who survived the initial Air Force bombing campaign in Afghanistan fled the country by the end of 2001 [largely to Pakistan]. They were a non-factor in the war against the Taliban regime, and at no point did they have major influence in the insurgency against the occupation that grew up in later years. If any did come back they would be irrelevant. Afghanistan is exile, as far as anyone can get from anywhere. It provides no special access to any Western target." (Emphasis added.)

Just to drive the point home, Horton goes on: "The September 11 hijackers, none of whom were Afghans, gained entry to the United States under regular tourist and student visas. The terrorists launched the attacks from Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey. They had planned them in Malaysia, Germany, Spain, California, Florida, and Maryland." (See the article and the book for details on how distant the Taliban was from Osama bin Laden, despite U.S. government efforts to conflate the two.)

Needless to say, the safe-have myth has cost many lives, Afghan and American. And the myth seems not to have outlived its usefulness. The case for the United States as guardian of the globe echoes the myth, even when it is not invoked outright. Never forgetting 9/11 apparently means that the U.S. military and CIA need to be ready to pounce anywhere and everywhere. Nothing that goes on the world can be allowed to escape the attention of our best and brightest, lest we are caught asleep again.

But as Horton points out in the case of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the allegedly vigilant policies are actually counterproductive: rather than avert threats, they produce threats that then are used to justify U.S. intervention. It's been well-documented that 9/11 grew out of long years' of American intervention in the Middle East, especially the close ties with Israel and the Saudi monarchy and the 1990s child-killing sanctions against the Iraqis. (For details, in addition to Fool's Errand, also see Horton's encyclopedic Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism.)

Provoking threats in order to respond to them is a very old game of state. Whenever U.S. troops suffer casualties in some remote place, I can almost hear a U.S. official saying, "That's why we need U.S. troops there. Without them, who would defend the U.S. troops there?"

In our efforts to keep track of the details of particular interventions, we must not lose sight of the big picture: the U.S. government's lethal and costly self-appointed mission to police the world and its rationalizations for that role. If liberty matters, it's a "little America" policy that we must promote.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Appearance on the Noah Blaylock Show

I was a guest on the Noah Blaylock Show for a discussion of education and the consequences of government control of schooling. Listen to the podcast here.

Friday, July 02, 2021

TGIF: Defend the Enlightenment!

The libertarian philosophy is embedded in Enlightenment liberalism. This is clearly seen in its commitment to free inquiry (reason) and free speech, the full realization of which, I argue, requires complete respect for individual rights, including property rights.

Unfortunately we live at a time when those values are increasingly under assault from from a variety intellectuals and activists despite political and cultural differences among themselves. We hear prominent people ask--and it's really an assertion disguised as a question--whether free inquiry and free speech are really all they have been cracked up to be in light of the American condition. This seems to be a change even from the recent past, when question like that would likely come only from the most authoritarian fringes of the left and right.

Advocates of individual liberty and the rich patterns of cooperation that liberty generates have reason worry. Nothing good would be gained from restrictions on those Enlightenment values--regardless of whether the restrictions came from the government or private sources. Nothing good at all.

Whatever one's fears about the state of American culture, it is difficult to see how stifling inquiry and speech could improve matters. Whether one is a left-collectivist who believes Enlightenment values lock in white male supremacy or a right-collectivist who believes those values have allowed the left to control the culture's commanding heights, the crushing of true liberalism can only lead to disaster, eventually for everyone.

You need not be a libertarian to see the point, and fortunately we see nonlibertarians all around the political spectrum expressing dismay about the new disparagement of free-wheeling inquiry and uninhibited expression of its findings.

This is not rocket science. Squelching speech does not make alleged bad thoughts go away. On the contrary, it may give them an illusion of legitimacy they would never have achieved in open discussion. When a subject becomes taboo, even good-faith people may reasonably ask, "What are the self-appointed censors so scared of? Does the forbidden claim have merit that I've overlooked?" How does that help the censors beat back ideas?

The value of the open competitive marketplace of ideas is so obvious that it ought not require repeating. We learn through the contest among ideas. The way to defeat an assertion is not to suppress it, but to rebut it. No idea is so dangerous that it has to be banned from the marketplace. A free society cannot tolerate thought police, whether political or private.

To cherish the intellectual marketplace, one only need realize that even someone who is thoroughly wrong about a particular matter or event (and perhaps even ill-intentioned) could contribute to our knowledge by stumbling on an overlooked truth. We just never known who might be the one to set the record straight in some way. (The leftist Norman Finkelstein has admirably made this point many times.)

Moreover, it's important that the intellectual marketplace--like the commercial marketplace and for the same reasons--not be rigged by the state in any way. All intellectual products should have to compete in a just (that is, rights-respecting) arena. Force is to be barred. But that's all that needs barring. Now may the best ideas win.

This does not mean that the common-sense rules of respect needn't be observed or that those who violate the rules should never be called to account. But it does mean that toleration is also a virtue when directed at offenders. We are rightly uncomfortable when people lose their livelihoods for saying the "wrong" thing in the "wrong" way. It is difficult to confine this kind of punishment to only the worst offenders. Boomerangs have a way of coming back at you.

Does an open marketplace guarantee that the truth always always wins right away? Of course not. But it's the best chance we have of rooting out error in the shortest time. The market certainly beats any imaginable alternative, which would have to be one form or another of authoritarianism. No thank you.

It's in the nature of ideas, as with all tools, that they can be used for good or ill. Stifling discussion because bad people may capitalize on fact can hardly be grounds for shutting down the intellectual marketplace. One could think of no surer example of the cure being worse than the alleged disease.

It's time for all true liberals, whatever their differences, unite to defend free inquiry and free speech.

Friday, June 25, 2021

TGIF: Liberty as a Problem-Solving Process

Strictly speaking, liberty isn't the solution to problems. It's what creates the framework in which solutions can be discovered. That is an important distinction because it reminds us that advocates of full-blown liberty do not offer the world a problem-free society but "only" a society in which problems are discovered and problem-solvers are mobilized as quickly, fairly, and efficiently as impossible.

To get this point across to students in lectures, I used to quote the the title of a 1970 hit record: "I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden." Social troubles will not disappear with the emergence of full freedom, but the chances of spotting and addressing them will be maximized in the most just way. That's the best we can hope for in a world of scarcity and uncertainty. On the other hand, that's not too shabby, is it?

What makes this happen? The answer can be captured in a single word: incentives. In a free society people are rewarded--they profit--by spotting and solving problems or correcting errors, before others have done so. Self-interest is further aligned with the interest of others.

This aspect of social life has been developed for many decades by the most important economists, among whom I would spotlight those of the Austrian school. In the 20th century they include Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Israel Kirzner, and Murray Rothbard, followed by a couple of later generations of social scientists who continue to work in this tradition.

If the incentive system is to work, people need to be free to offer solutions. The scientist Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), in writing about education, wrote that to discover the best methods, we need an environment characterized by "unbounded liberty, and even caprice." As Priestley also put it, "Now, of all arts, those stand the fairest chance of being brought to perfection, in which there is opportunity of making the most experiments and trials." (I wrote about Priestley's radical advocacy of freedom in education in Freedom and School Choice in American Education.)

The logic behind Priestley's idea isn't complicated. We don't always know if a method of accomplishing something will work--however good it may look on paper. It has to be tried. Since that's the case, we need a highly decentralized environment in which ideas can be tested. (I don't like the word system for what I have in mind because that suggests an overall design rather than what Hayek called "spontaneous order.") In a centralized system, trial and error would be dicey since the inevitable mistakes would be committed on a large scale, with little chance for individuals to opt out. But in a decentralized environment, mistakes are necessarily contained, readily observed by others, and then corrected by those who offer a different product or service.

Government agents face different incentives since government usually is the only game in town. In fact, they face perverse incentives: politicians and bureaucrats may prosper by the existence and even the exacerbation of problems. If an agency is failing, the solution most often is to appropriate more money! And since government centralizes approaches to problems, mistakes are committed on a large scale, especially when they are undertaken at the national level. Federalism can reduce the scale of error, but not nearly as much as the free market can because state and local governments lack other features of the marketplace.

This point turns the spotlight on another aspect of a free society: competition. Competition is what happens with one person thinks he or she has a better way of doing something than someone else does. The way to find out is to offer it to the public. This shows that competition and cooperation are two sides of the same coin, not opposites. But if the government erects obstacles to upstart competitors, the it throttles the process, and better ways of addressing problems are left on the shelf, if undiscovered at all.

Hayek called competition a "discovery procedure," which gets at a crucial point. I call competition the "universal solvent." We can find a similar idea in John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, in which he extols the truth-discovering value of the radically free exchange of ideas. (My favorite line from that book: "He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.")

Freedom and competition make possible discoveries that would not have been found otherwise precisely because it is only in that environment--the market order--that people encounter circumstances and alternatives with respect to which they will demonstrate in action their true preferences--preferences they might not have expected to demonstrate. This is part of what is meant by "spontaneous order." For this reason, government planners cannot hope to simulate market outcomes. The planners are barred from ever knowing what would have happened if people were left free. As James Buchanan pointed out:

I want to argue that the “order” of the market emerges only from the process of voluntary exchange among the participating individuals. The “order” is, itself, defined as the outcome of the process that generates it. The “it,” the allocation-distribution result, does not, and cannot, exist independently of the trading process. Absent this process, there is and can be no order.”

...Individuals do not act so as to maximize utilities described in independently-existing functions. They confront genuine choices, and the sequence of decisions taken may be conceptualized, ex post (after the choices), in terms of “as if” functions that are maximized. But these “as if” functions are, themselves, generated in the choosing process, not separately from such process. If viewed in this perspective, there is no means by which even the most idealized omniscient designer could duplicate the results of voluntary interchange. The potential participants do not know until they enter the process what their own choices will be. From this it follows that it is logically impossible for an omniscient designer to know, unless, of course, we are to preclude individual freedom of will.

Much more could be and has been said on this subject, but the upshot is this: the best way to expose and correct problems and errors is to leave people free.

Friday, June 18, 2021

TGIF: Is "Free Election" an Oxymoron?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Decentralized Revolution Appearance

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

Friday, June 11, 2021

TGIF: VP Tells Guatemalans to Stay in Their Place

Shame on Vice President Kamala Harris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as I pointed out recently, a new book emphasizes that restrictions on immigrants and would-be immigrants necessarily constitute restrictions on Americans. Chandran Kukathas writes in Immigration and Freedom: "It is difficult to control outsiders without also controlling insiders, since insiders are all too ready and willing to hire, teach, rent to, trade with, marry, and generally associate with outsiders. Moreover, insiders and outsiders are not readily distinguishable unless there are instruments of control in place to identify one or the other."

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

Friday, June 04, 2021

TGIF: What the Really State Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Hamas, Israel, and the United States

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

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

Friday, May 21, 2021

Discussing Israel-Palestine on Year Zero

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

TGIF: Biden Labor Department Undermines Gig Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 forget 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


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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.