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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, February 12, 2021

TGIF: What Now, Libertarians?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 05, 2021

TGIF: Imperial America, Which Never Left, Is Back

In a cliche-ridden foreign-policy speech delivered at the State Department on Thursday, President Joe Biden declared that "America is back"--on the global stage, presumably, as policeman of the world, but certainly not a disinterested policeman. The problem is that it never left.

Despite some uncouth rhetoric and regular New York Times headlines regarding "American isolationism," Donald Trump never withdrew the U.S. government from its meddling role in the world. He baited Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela, and ended no war or U.S. assistance to other wars. Far from leaving NATO or punishing its members for not paying more for their military forces, he oversaw its expansion--which had only one purpose: to aggravate Russia. Yes, Trump apparently removed some troops from Germany--does anyone have a good reason why they are still there?--but Biden promised to change that. He also wants to add Georgia and Ukraine to NATO, which of course--*wink*--would never make Russia nervous.

If that's what he means by "America is back," let's us shout in unison: Thanks, but no thanks!

Not that we should be surprised by Biden's position, considering that his foreign-policy team consists of Obama administration retreads who act as though there's a world of difference between intervention and humanitarian intervention.

Biden put Russia and China on notice: "The days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions—interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens—are over."

Hang on. We've never been given evidence that Russia, which has a weak economy and limited military, interfered with an election--quite the contrary--or engaged in cyberattacks. By the way, we know the U.S. government does that sort of thing routinely, even with respect to Russia and its allies. Moreover, if Vladimir Putin's government poisons its citizens--obviously something to be condemned by all decent people--how is that an aggressive action against against the United States or any other country? By that curious standard, U.S. persecution of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, et al. could be construed as aggression against others.

I will give Biden credit for agreeing with Russia to extend the New START Treaty on nuclear weapons. (Putin's so-called puppet, Trump, pulled out of such treaties.)

And on China:

And we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.

Note the words: "Our most serious competitor." One way to reduce tensions among states is to stop seeing them as competing economic entities. America doesn't compete with China in the global marketplace because America is not a homogeneous entity with a single scale of preferences. An American consumer and a Chinese merchant may have a harmony of interest; likewise an American manufacturer and a Chinese consumer or producer. (Concerns about intellectual property can be taken care of by repealing the relevant laws. Ideas cannot legitimately be owned.) But Biden. like Trump, is locked into the mercantilist worldview in which nations compete against each other. That's why Biden promises to reinforce the "Buy American" policy, costing taxpayers more for stuff that the U.S. government could buy for less from foreign manufacturers. "Buy American" also distorts the international division of labor, making everyone less prosperous.

Regarding Biden's other charges against China, one need not approve of the oppressive Chinese government to understand that something is wrong when no government but the U.S. government is allowed to have a sphere of influence ("backyard"), which thereby extends to the whole world. In a world of states, that sort of policy is asking for trouble.

So Biden's speech wholeheartedly embraced America's role as the global overseer, self-appointed to keep everyone on good behavior, strangely alternating between invocations of altruism and "naked [national] self-interest." We know where that took us in the past.

Biden promised to end assistance to Saudi Arabia's "offensive" actions in Yemen. Fine. But how will he define "offensive"? We might have a clue in what Biden said right after this promise:

At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries.  We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.

Bear in mind that the Saudi regime is one of the most repressive in the world.

So nothing will really change. If Biden wanted to make a constructive difference to that region, he would end the long-standing multi-front covert/overt war against Iran, including all the sanctions Trump imposed. Biden didn't otherwise mention Iran in the speech, yet he says he wants to reenter the nuclear deal, which Trump stormed out of. The way to do that is end the sanctions, which harm and even kill innocent people.

While we're talking about the Middle East, let us note that Biden said nothing about Israel and Palestine, despite all the damage Trump did there on behalf of the Israeli state and against the long-suffering Palestinians. We already know from his Senate confirmation hearing that Secretary of State Tony Blinken has no problem with what Trump did: from moving the embassy to Jerusalem to declaring the settlements in the de facto annexed West Bank just fine and dandy. Massive annual military aid to Israel--without any conditions whatever--of course will continue. That policy of course gives propaganda opportunities to other regimes that the U.S. government can then condemn as destabilizing. But which party is the real destabilizer?

Also among the no-mentions was Afghanistan. How can Biden give his first speech on foreign policy without discussing the country's longest war? That is really remarkable. The names Iraq and Syria also do not appear in the speech. Amazing.

As long as government exists, the proper foreign policy is nonintervention. Policing the world inevitably invites defensive and deterrent responses, which are then used as pretenses to counter so-called "aggressive" actions. It also makes fortunes for military contractors. The result is perpetual war in which liberty and prosperity must suffer.

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