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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Friday, September 30, 2022

TGIF: The Scourge of Conscription

By now Randolph Bourne's observation that "war is the health of the state" ought to be such a cliche that it would hardly need to be said. And yet, it must be said -- often -- because many still haven't gotten the word.

If the state is the adversary of liberty, as it nearly always has been, then it follows that war is also the ill health of liberty. And when one thinks of war, one ought also to think of conscription because it's often somewhere close by. In a perverse way, Americans have been lucky. The divisive decade-long Vietnam war and access to the latest war-making technology have made the draft just a bad memory for Americans since 1973 and politically toxic. Repeated attempts to bring it back, even with "national service" packaging fortunately have failed.

Outrageously, however, American men 18-25 must register with the euphemistically named Selective Service System, as they've been required to do since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Make no mistake about it. This is not a registration for a benign contest. As the Selective Service website states:

While there is currently no draft, registration with the Selective Service System is the most publicly visible program during peacetime that ensures operational readiness in a fair and equitable manner. If authorized by the President and Congress, our Agency would rapidly provide personnel to the Department of Defense while at the same time providing an Alternative Service Program for conscientious objectors.

How reassuring. The draft is always in the wings. And the penalty for the felony of not registering is a $250,000 fine and/or a five-year prison term.

The evil of slavery is almost universally appreciated, so why is the draft, which is slavery with an expiration date and high risk of death and injury, not universally condemned? Is it because in many places people believe that governments ultimately own their subjects and may dispose of them as they see fit?

The draft has been in the news lately because Russia, the invader, and Ukraine, the invaded, compel men into combat and other military "service." It is encouraging that neither Russians nor Ukrainians are fans of that policy. Russian men are protesting and some are getting out of the country. Ukraine has had to forbid men from leaving. Many people just don't relish war.

It should go without saying that if individuals have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then individuals have the right to decide when they will take up arms, free of a despotic elite or majority. We may not always like the consequences of freedom, but that's how it is.

Until 1973 America had suffered the tyranny of conscription repeatedly, but not everyone accepted it. One of the most eloquent speeches ever delivered in the House of Representatives was aimed at conscription by Rep. Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (1782-1852) in 1814 after a bill to draft men for the lingering War of 1812 had been introduced. Despite Webster's efforts, the bill passed, but the war ended before it took effect. Originally from New Hampshire, Webster also was a U.S. senator and secretary of state. He was in the Federalist party until 1825. As a staunch nationalist, he opposed nullification by the states of national legislation, a position that will seem at odds with his objection to the conscription bill.

We must bear in mind that Webster's speech came when many people distrusted standing armies and believed that the national government constitutionally could call up the state militias only in specified emergencies, namely, to "repel invasion, suppress insurrection, or execute the laws.” In the first few decades of the republic, however, membership in the militias was mandatory. But unlike a regular army, the militia did not require full-time service for a period of years. For the rank and file, it was a sideline (like being in a fire brigade) that was part of their normal lives. All but one of America's earliest wars were fought with such conscripts.

Webster objected not to compulsory military service per se, but rather to a bill according to which the "services of the men to be raised ... are not limited to those cases in which alone this government is entitled to the aid of the militia of the States." In other words, he was making a federalist case against the claims of the national government. This is a far narrower objection than a libertarian might have hoped for, but Webster still had worthwhile things to say against the inherent features of conscription.

Webster thought the bill was an attempted end-run around the Constitution. He asked:

What is this, Sir, but raising a standing army out of the Militia by draft, and to be recruited by draft, in like manner, as often as occasions require?... That measures of this nature should be debated at all, in the councils of a free government, is a cause of dismay. The question is nothing less than whether the most essential rights of personal liberty shall be surrendered, and despotism embraced in its worst form. [Emphasis added.]

Later in the speech he said, "If the Secretary of War has proved the right of Congress to enact a law enforcing a draft of men out of the Militia into the Regular Army, he will at any time be able to prove quite as clearly that Congress has power to create a Dictator."

He saw the threat of despotism all through the bill:

Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libelled, foully libelled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Charta to be slaves.

Imagine such words being spoken in Congress today. He clearly spelled out the consequences, which should be familiar to all in our own time:

Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?

Who will show me any Constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender everything valuable in life, and even life itself, not when the safety of their country and its liberties may demand the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious and mischievous government may require it?

Then he addressed the stated concern of Secretary of War John Armstong, a champion of the bill:

But it is said that it might happen that an army would not be raised by voluntary enlistment, in which case the power to raise an army would be granted in vain, unless they might be raised by compulsion. If this reasoning could prove anything it would equally show that whenever the legitimate powers of the Constitution should be so badly administered as to cease to answer the great ends intended by them, such new powers may be assumed or usurped, as any existing administration may deem expedient.

Webster, here sounding like an old Antifederalist, seemed to be rejecting the Constitution's "necessary and proper" clause as a potential blank check. That doctrine attributed to Armstrong, he said, would result in a central government of unlimited self-defined powers, which he condemned as a violation of the framers' intent: "An attempt to maintain this doctrine upon the provisions of the Constitution is an exercise of perverse ingenuity to extract slavery from the substance of a free government."

Should the law pass, he said, it would fall to the states to protect their citizens from that arbitrary national encroachment. The central government would then require an army to enforce conscription, just as it believed it needed conscription to raise an army. Webster said:

It will be the solemn duty of the State Governments to protect their own authority over their own Militia, and to interpose between their citizens and arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State Governments exist, and their highest obligations bind them to the preservation of their own rights and the liberties of their people. [Emphasis added.]

How is that not nullification?

In his expectation that the states would protect their citizens from a national draft, Webster's speech reminds us of the Defend the Guard campaign now going on in state legislatures to end Washington's power to commit National Guard units to overseas combat without a declaration of war, as has happened throughout the 21st century. (Watch Scott Horton's speech in Minnesota on behalf of the Defend the Guard movement there.)

The more things change....

Friday, September 23, 2022

TGIF: Sam Harris on Saving Democracy from Voters

Neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris caused quite a stir recently by defending the social networks' conspiracy (his word) to suppress news coverage of Joe Biden's son Hunter's smoking-gun laptop shortly before Election Day 2020. Harris said the suppression was justified because Donald Trump was such a threat to America that he had to be defeated whatever the cost to the election's integrity.

In other words, according to Harris, such tampering is okay as long as he deems it necessary to save American democracy from the voters.

The social networks are privately owned, of course, but remember that Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg has acknowledged that the FBI warned him, shortly before the New You Post broke the laptop story, that unspecified major Russian disinformation aimed at the election was about to surface. The authenticity of the laptop, with its damaging emails about Hunter Biden's lucrative business dealings with Ukrainian and Chinese entities while his father was the vice president, was known early on and has since been confirmed by others. Even the New York Times now concedes it. Allegations of Russian election tampering had as much merit in 2020 as they had in 2016, when Trump was portrayed by his critics as a Russian stooge.

But with or without prodding from the FBI, the social network operators, should not have suppressed the laptop story for a host of obvious reasons. These businesses acquired huge numbers of participants on the promise that they would be open forums. When they first began to interfere with that process, the networks let users down. To do this during a presidential election is a particularly egregious disservice. Why do people still depend on them for information? (No, this does not justify antitrust action.)

I leave it to others to debate whether Harris's assessment of Trump is accurate. I'm more interested in the principle Harris has set out.

Although I am as far from Trump fandom as anyone could be, the first question I would ask Harris is whether he considers himself the only person wise and trustworthy enough to decide if a candidate is sufficiently threatening to justify concerted suppression of unflattering information about the other candidate. If he says yes, then he's as self-centered as Trump. If he says no, he might do us the courtesy of spelling out how that decision would be made. Does he want a constitutional office created? How would the decider be chosen?

If he were to answer my questions, I would move on to this one: what makes him think that if his principle was adopted, he would like its future applications? Supreme Court justices have often disappointed the presidents who appointed them. For similar reasons, the decision makers anointed to carry out the Harris principle might somewhere along the way disappoint him. Harris must be a lousy chess player because he doesn't think even two moves ahead.

Still, Harris's remarks do raise an interesting dilemma. It's not a new conundrum: what if democracy looks to be on a suicide course? Does the "sacred" principle of majoritarianism, which libertarians as individualists abhor, extend to the principle itself? Or is it proper to cripple democracy to save it?

Small-d democrats might say, "Yes -- temporarily." But there's the rub. The future is uncertain. Temporary in intent is not necessarily temporary in fact. Governments taught us that long ago. We know that people don't like to give up power, as Lord Acton taught us. Power doesn't only tend to corrupt; it attracts the already corrupt. Wouldn't that suggest that democracy should never be suspended or tampered with in the present for fear that the winner of an election might suspend or tamper with it in the future? What say you, Sam Harris?

If this problem is addressed only after it arises, it's probably too late. The time to think about it is before a democracy with few real limits on power is launched. The War Games line, spoken by the computer after learning that nuclear war is futile, applies: "The only winning move is not to play."

It's not as if the original classical liberals and their libertarian descendants didn't warn us. Individualist political economists and social philosophers long ago pointed to the dangers of a democratic state with the power to meddle in all aspects of people's lives. For these thinkers, the whole point of laissez-faire in the age of democracy was to keep elected rulers, and thus the electorate itself, out of our private peaceful productive affairs so that the contest for political power would not become socially and economically disruptively cutthroat. When the government is just about omnipotent, everyone will want to get to their hands on it -- if only for defensive purposes.

Even if those pioneering political economists did not want to dispense with government entirely (a few did), they understood that society essentially runs itself without a heavy-handed state because people generally understand that their best interests are served through cooperation with others. Thomas Paine, for example, in Rights of Man wrote:

Great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.

Thus, at most, governments should be kept on a short leash, with their powers dispersed and their missions held to the barest minimum necessary to protect the peace, that is, individual rights. If we can eliminate the state altogether, even better!

What the good liberals didn't tell us -- because there's no magic formula -- is how to keep government to the bare minimum. Constitutions are no guarantee, are they? Today's libertarians are still working on cracking that nut. Most people are not going to read books on political philosophy or economics, even something as accessible as Frédéric Bastiat's The Law. So somehow we must strive to create a taboo against asking the government to do anything more than keep the peace in ways that respect everyone's rights. How do we do that?

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Friday, September 16, 2022

TGIF: Question Intuition!

In the 1960s a popular button that New Left activists wore implored everyone to "Question Authority!" It was good advice, even though many kinds of authority exist. Some authority is chosen (for example, one's doctor) and others are compulsory (the government). But in either case, questioning it is reasonable. The button did not implore anyone to reject authority, only to question it.

What about intuition? I have the impression that people think their own intuitions need not be questioned because they are reliable. But is that wise? I don't think so.

First let's acknowledge that much of what people take for an intuition is often a mere claim heard repeatedly through the mass media or social networks. Something that seems like an intuition may not be one at all.

But ignore that distinction for this discussion. Some factual claims just feel true to people who have not read much about the matter. For example, many people are likely to say that it is intuitively true that a growing human population must bring a progressive depletion of natural resources (and the products embodying them) and thus scarcer supplies, higher prices, more hardship for poorer people, greater economic inequality, and other bad things. They feel this must be the case. How could it not be true? Resources are finite and nonrenewable, so if more and more people demand them, harm must follow.

But is it really true? Or is this a case of knowing something that isn't so?

It will shock many people to learn that we know empirically and theoretically that it is not true. If that sense of doom is an intuition, then intuition can be and often is wrong. Malthus got it exactly upside down. As Marian Tupy and Dale Pooley, building on the work of the late great Julian Simon, demonstrate, world population has grown dramatically -- one billion in 1800, eight billion today -- along with a dramatic fall in absolute poverty and a dramatic increase in the production of and access to food and all the other things we need and want.

More people are living longer and materially better lives than ever before. This simply cannot be denied. Tupy and Pooley emphasize a largely unknown fact among laymen: today it takes people on average everywhere less labor time to earn the money to buy all sorts of goods and the underlying resources than it took in the past, even the fairly recent past. In the time the average manufacturing worker labored to earn the money to buy one egg in 1919, he could buy 36 eggs in 2019. The time price of an egg thus had dropped to 1/36 of the earlier time price, roughly a 97 percent drop in the real price. And so on across the board.

Today, Tupy and Pooley say, average time prices have fallen to 2 percent of their 1850 level. (Quality improvements, which are hard to quantify, make this fall an underestimate.) Let that sink in, especially how that disproportionately benefits the poorest people. They have more time to buy more things or to enjoy leisure. That's new wealth. Industrious people at all levels have become smarter and more productive because of modern technology.

Tupy and Pooley call their new book Superabundance because, contra Malthus, the increase in resources has outpaced population growth. That's counterintuitive. We forget that while people are consumers, most are also net producers. (See the charts here.)

Exactly what accounts for that great progress? Two things, the authors say. The first is human intelligence, or as Simon called it, the "ultimate resource." This is an apt term. Contrary to intuition, there are no natural resources. Zilch. In the pilot of the 1960s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies, the backwoods farmer and hunter Jed Clampett discovers oil on his land. Does he cheer? No, he is unhappy. He sees it as a curse. When a city man offers to remove the oil, Jed says he can't afford to pay for the removal. The city man laughs and explains that Jed will be paid (a lot), not charged, for the removal. (Jed was really behind the times.) Obviously, that was not always the case.

What happened? Knowledge happened. Chemically, the crude was the same stuff as before. But in the 19th century, a chemist (in Canada, I believe) discovered that kerosene, which could fuel lamps, could be distilled from that oil. Then others discovered that oil could be pumped and refined economically, that is, cheaply enough to make a mass market. (John D. Rockefeller had a lot to do with this.) This solved a problem: the common fuel for lamps, whale oil, had been getting expensive because the whales were being killed off. Eventually, it was discovered that gasoline, which could fuel machines, also could be refined from oil, and we were off to the races.

What turned useless black gunk into useful "black gold" was human intelligence. This is true for all so-called natural resources. Nature provides stuff, but it neglected to furnish a user manual. People had to figure it out for themselves. And we all benefited immeasurably.

As important as human intelligence is to the creation of resources, something more is needed: freedom (or at least a good measure of it). If people are not substantially free to act and interact, peacefully, of course -- if society instead is planned from the top -- little if any innovation will take place to improve the lives of entire populations. Freedom and innovation go together.

A further implication, as Simon heroically taught, is that population growth (along with immigration, by the way) is good. More people means more ideas that can combine with other ideas to produce even better ideas. (Free speech is obviously crucial.)

The great economist Ludwig von Mises understood all of this. My favorite line in his magnum opus, Human Action, reads: "The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier." As the number of our fellow human beings increases, getting shoes and everything else becomes even easier -- if the government can be kept at bay.

Everything today is more plentiful and cheaper than in previous eras -- well, almost everything. The only thing that has gotten more expensive is labor, which indicates that people have become more scarce relative to consumer demand and resources. If a demographic problem for economic growth is looming, it's de-population in the most productive parts of the world. What's your intuition have to say about that?

Indisputably, then, free human beings have made the earth more, not less, hospitable. (For details on all these matters, see the works of Simon and Tupy and Pooley, as well as others, including Matt Ridley, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Epstein, Patrick Moore, and Michael Schellenberger.)

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Energy News Flash!

Higher-income people can cope more easily with government-created soaring energy prices than lower-income people can. The state is no friend of those who struggle to pay their bills.

Friday, September 09, 2022

TGIF: Reject Both Identity and Egalitarian Politics

The push-back against identity politics by disillusioned leftists is welcome, but the striving to replace identity with economic equality as the guiding political principle? Not so much.

I won't spend time on the problems with identity politics, a zero-sum game if ever there was one. The virtue of universalism extolled by classical liberalism seems indisputable. Why wouldn't everyone begin with the same entitlement to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness free of government impediment?

As a general matter, past crimes committed by some long-dead people against other long-dead other people cannot be rectified without creating new crimes and instigating an unending chain of grievances. That's no recipe for the liberty, cooperation, and peace that our individual and social welfare require. Identity politics is founded on collectivism, according to which people are judged by their membership, typically involuntary, in a racial or ethnic group. The obsession with identity has now gone from the ridiculous (skin color) to the absurd ("gender"), but that's a topic for another day -- perhaps. It's a minefield.

So let's turn to the proposed replacement: economic equality, sometimes called class-based politics. A contingent of people, including but not limited to some orthodox Marxists, have pointed out that identity politics has tragically taken our eyes off the ball. Instead of focusing on something that can unify all "oppressed" people -- the wealth and income gaps -- we have been misdirected toward something that needlessly divides them and reduces or obliterates their ability to resist and to make things better. One proposal is to replace race-based government programs like affirmative action with class-based versions that give preferences to people with less-affluent upbringings. (One finds this view expressed in a heterodox publication I like quite a bit, Spiked Online.)

Why is that not a promising alternative? Because it is riddled with fallacies. I'm not saying we have no good way of talking about class; many classical liberals have done so. Karl Marx himself, who is dubiously credited with creating class analysis, acknowledged his debt to the early French laissez-faire liberals for their pioneering work in the field -- before he proceeded to mangle it because of his fallacious economics. According to the classical liberal view, the state creates class antagonism by appropriating wealth from the industrious people (the tax-producers, who include, along with nonmanagement workers, the creators of businesses and employers) and giving it to their cronies (the tax-consumers). This sets in motion a social conflict with wide ramifications.

Needless to say, most contemporary class analysts are not of the classical liberal variety even those who are increasingly suspicious of state power. They still suffer the fallacy that economic inequality is an inherent bug in market-oriented societies that requires force-wielding enlightened rulers (Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez perhaps) to intervene.

I think that the pursuit of economic equality is doomed to fail because it clashes with immutable reality. I emphasize, though I shouldn't have to, that I am not talking about legal equality, equality of liberty, or what Roderick Long calls "equality of authority." (Equality of opportunity is a slippery term if it means more than freedom from government impediment.) I mean only income or wealth equality.

Why would the quest for that kind of equality clash with reality? It must do so because individuals will never be the same in many key respects. They differ vastly in talent, drive, energy, ambition, entrepreneurial intuition, and more. These things are clearly relevant to their degree of ability to create wealth and earn income through voluntary exchange in the marketplace. We all know that not everyone is equally endowed with the ability to produce value for consumers, say, by organizing a business. That would be the case even if everyone had a good upbringing and no one was forced to attend a decrepit government school. That's just the way it is.

A serious attempt to create economic equality, or even something close, would create the nightmare world envisioned in Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron." The philosopher Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia set out a scenario that is only slightly less dystopian. He pointed out that even if everyone started the day with the same amount of money, they wouldn't finish the day that way because some would have been better at pleasing consumers than others. So what now? If the goal remained perfect equality, government officials would have to start each day by redistributing the money evenly again. What would that do to people's incentive to produce? The policy might lead to equality, but it would be at an abysmally low level. Only the envious would be satisfied, but envy is no basis for a prosperous or pleasant society. So which do we prefer: equality of poverty or inequality in which the lowest living standard is higher than it would be in the egalitarian dystopia?

The connection between inequality and actual living standards is illusory. Imagine a rising elevator: the ceiling goes up, but so does the floor. Now imagine a rising accordion-like elevator that rises: even as the distance between the ceiling and floor increases, the entire unit goes up. This demonstrates the distraction of focusing on inequality.

The vast difference in incomes and wealth among people in the United States, which defines classes, obscures the more-important shrinking of the gap in consumption. For decades now, lower-income people have had progressively easier access to life-improving conveniences and necessities that the upper class once had only at enormous expense -- if at all. (Not long ago, no rich person walked around with a powerful computer/communications device in his pocket.) One-time luxuries have become commonplace necessities and affordable for virtually everyone even as they have greatly improved in quality.

In fact, if you measure this increasing access to products, not according to money prices (which are confounded by inflation and other things), but according to how long the average employee must work to earn the necessary money (time price), the picture that emerges is astounding. This is a good measure because we ultimately pay for things with our effort.

Average working people today toil a fraction of the time their parents and grandparents did to earn what it takes to buy not just the same products, but much better ones. In other words, we all get more and more utility for free. Think about it: if today you can buy something with only 15 minutes of work instead of the hour you had to spend before, you obtain three-quarters of the product's utility gratis. You have money left over for other things that you previously could not afford.

How does that happen? It happens through dramatic increases in productivity, which are made possible through investment (of savings and profits) in innovative technologies, which in turn are made possible by human ingenuity. ("The ultimate resource," the great Julian Simon called it.) Better machines, computers, tools, and other inputs vastly increase the power of unaided labor, enlarging the volume of goods that can be produced in an hour. When that happens, wages go up and time prices fall. That is called progress, though I don't mean to imply that money is all that's required for happiness. (We also ought to pay tribute to fossil fuels and their producers, without which this could not have happened.)

One more ingredient is needed: competition among producers and employers free of government fetters. Without it, the potentially improved terms of trade won't be converted into consumer welfare. 

These insights are is central to a new book, Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley. But I first encountered this insight in Myths Of Rich And Poor: Why We're Better Off than We Think (2000) by Michael W. Cox and Richard Alm. (Listen to Keith Knight's interview with Tupy.)

What ought to matter, then, is not the differences in living standards but the absolute levels. The change at the lowest level alone is a good proxy for the general condition. Equality is a chimera and a destructive one at that. What we should want to see eradicated is real poverty, not inequality. Poverty is a comparative matter as well, however, since no matter how affluent the lowest income group is, it is still at the bottom. So the focus on (relative) poverty can also be an unfortunate distraction. We must keep our eye on the ball: real poverty.

America's lowest-income population is better off than even their recent ancestors, not to mention many people around the world today. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be even richer. The way to bring that about is to eliminate every government impediment to wealth creation, business formation, entrepreneurship, and labor mobility. That means eliminating everything from business regulations and subsidies to occupational licensing to home-building restrictions to intellectual property to taxes and much more. That's a large enough agenda to keep any politician busy for a while.

Friday, September 02, 2022

TGIF: National Conservatism's Ominous Economics

National conservatism is objectionable on many counts -- the name in itself tells you that -- but it does pay tribute to free enterprise. A closer look, however, may cause one to doubt its commitment.

The movement's official Statement of Principles includes Principle 6, which begins encouragingly, though predictably tradition-bound:

We believe that an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition. We reject the socialist principle, which supposes that the economic activity of the nation can be conducted in accordance with a rational plan dictated by the state.

So far pretty good. When people are free to act peacefully, most will engage in the voluntary exchange of goods and services (including labor) to achieve better lives for themselves and their families. In the process they will acquire possessions the security of which is necessary to the pursuit of sustained, even lifelong projects of all kinds (and not only commercial) aimed at that betterment. In other words, free enterprise and free trade take place when we are left free to pursue our broad interests through peaceful social interaction and the division of labor. It's a bottom-up, emergent environment that requires no coaxing from the government. (Historically, nonstate customary law emerged along with production, the division of labor, and trade. It did not wait for wise rulers to create an appropriate legal environment.)

But then the Statement of Principles starts its trek downhill: "[T]he free market cannot be absolute."

This is ominous. First, it's far from clear what that means. It should be obvious that no enthusiast of the free market thinks society ought to consist entirely of money-making. Life is more than production and trade of material values. Everyone knows that.

The sentence suggests to me that, according to the national conservatives (natcons), people -- even when they restrict themselves to peaceful consensual activities  -- can't be completely free of the cold hand of the state. The very rationale of the Statement tells us this. After all, these are the principles of "national conservativism." It's a nationalist movement. Its essential element is protecting the nation-state through the government. The existence of individuals is not denied, but their interests (as they conceive them) are subordinate to something called national interest. Individuals do not exist for their own sake. Therefore, every consideration is to be passed through the national interest filter. At bottom, then, national conservatism is a collectivist project. We cannot forget that, much less hope for an affinity between natcons and libertarians.

The concern with national interest prompts the question: as conceived by whom and by what criteria? The answer presumably is: according to the criteria of those who are elected to and are able to remain in office. The many problems posed by the perverse effects of democratic politics have been well-documented in theory and history. They include the impotence of any one vote, rational ignorance, rational irrationalism, concentrated benefits/thinly spread costs, inflated political transaction costs, apparently benign incrementalism, campaign theatricality, elites' access to power, and limited accountability. So right from the start, the statement poses more questions than it answers. It does little to reassure people who place a priority on individual liberty. In short, it ignores public-choice economist James Buchanan's call for "politics without romance."

Politicians and bureaucrats, then, would be assigned the task of letting us know when we have, in their judgment, pursued market activities too much. Natcons declare themselves in favor of the rule of law, but remember: the content of the law is as important as due process. It's not enough to be free from decrees handed down on the fly. We also need freedom from duly enacted oppressive legislation, that is, rules that forbid or specify the terms of consensual conduct.

"Economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation," the statement continues. Clearly, for national conservatives, it's not enough that policy-makers abstain from violating the individual's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because through freedom, tradition may fall by the wayside, and the natcons can't have that.

The best explainers of how markets work -- I'm thinking of the Austrian economists -- have shown that the general welfare is exactly what the pursuit of individual welfare in self-regulating markets accomplish. Adam Smith and his best predecessors understood this, even if they got some details wrong.

Let's never forget that strictly speaking, markets don't actually do anything. Only individual human beings act. When they act in a market setting, which is at once economic, legal, and cultural, it's as if people are led by Adam Smith's metaphorical "invisible hand" to do well for themselves by doing good for others. We must supply what others demand because bankruptcy awaits those who ignore others. Barred from government power and forbidden from using physical force and fraud directly, they will seek their own welfare by catering directly or indirectly to consumers. We may not always like what every consumer wants, but as long as no one can initiate force directly or through the state, we can secure ourselves, individually or in association with others, from undesirable influences.

Unsurprisingly, the natcons are dubious about globalism. That word means different things to different people, but the natcons don't like even what libertarians mean: the free movement of people, goods, and money across national lines without government impetus or impediment -- the division of labor writ large. Economists have long demonstrated that global welfare is best enhanced by that route. Significant, though incomplete moves in that direction over the last several decades have gone a long way toward wiping out absolute poverty and infant mortality.

The natcons, like the economic nationalists on the left, lament that "globalized markets allow hostile foreign powers to despoil America and other countries of their manufacturing capacity, weakening them economically and dividing them internally." This is the "hollowed-out America" claim. The problem with the claim is that American factories still produce an incredible volume of goods. What's changed is technology: many fewer people are needed to work in those factories because labor-saving computers and machines are far more productive than people working in jobs that not very long ago were condemned for their mind-numbing drudgery. Jobs that parents once hoped their children would never have to do are now looked to nostalgically by both the natcons and the Michel Moore left.

The Statement goes on:

Crony capitalism, the selective promotion of corporate profit-making by organs of state power, should be energetically exposed and opposed.

That sounds good, but the natcons will have to explain how their policies will avoid crony capitalism. Industrial policy, which is what the national conservatives really want, is an engraved invitation to well-connected business interests to the detriment of everyone else.

More could be said, but you get the idea. The Statement's embrace of free enterprise is hollow indeed. Government intervention, complete with tariffs, import quotas, immigration restrictions, a military-industrial-science complex, and subsidies -- all necessarily constituting de facto central planning -- would be rampant, as would be the lobbying frenzy for special consideration. It's no comfort to know that our rulers would be motivated by the national interest.

Friday, August 26, 2022

TGIF: Jefferson on Not Trusting the State

Regardless of written constitutions and the laws on the books, individual liberty is always at risk. And as liberty goes, so goes our capacity to live well, to achieve the good life as rational, virtuous social beings.

The danger comes from left and right, both of which aspire to have a body of elders impose narrow cultural and moral norms on everyone, overriding our right to think for ourselves. (Progressives and National Conservatives have a lot in common in that regard, even if they differ on what is to be imposed.)

This point about the fragility of liberty was well understood by the Irish politician, judge, and orator John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), who said: "The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

As often happens, variations of this insight have been attributed to other people, most famously Thomas Jefferson, who is widely and apparently erroneously thought to have said more pithily: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Curran has missed out on the credit he deserves.

At any rate, we have a problem. Although liberty is never safe from political ambition or even good intentions, most people are understandably absorbed in raising their families, earning their livelihoods, and just plain living. Thinking about liberty, much less exercising vigilance, has a low priority -- if it is on their agendas at all. I'm not finding fault; it's just a fact.

Hence the need for a degree of specialization. Libertarians to one extent or another specialize in keeping watch over liberty and drawing the public's attention to dangers from governments and nongovernment sources. These aren't entirely two separate categories because if an influential segment of the public comes to believe that liberty must be curtailed, such sentiment could find its way into the halls of power. For example, if enough people decide that offensive words or obscene images are equivalent to violent acts, politicians may take up that cause and prohibit so-called hate speech and the like. This has happened in Great Britain, where citizens can be visited by the police, fined, and compelled to take a sensitivity course for posting something on social media that allegedly made someone feel anxious. So far, thanks to the tradition of free speech and press recognized in the First Amendment, that does not happen in the United States. But we mustn't rest on our laurels. A violation could be just around any corner, and we can't be sure from which direction it will come.

Although Jefferson did not say, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance." we know he believed it. We know this because of his 1798 Kentucky Resolutions, which he wrote anonymously for the state legislature in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of that year. The Acts were passed by the Federalist party-controlled Congress under Federalist President John Adams. (Jefferson, who was not a Federalist, was the vice president at the time.) As one description of the Acts puts it:

The Resolutions by Jefferson and Madison were provoked by the Alien and Sedition Acts adopted by a Federalist-dominated Congress during the Quasi-War with France; those Acts gave the president the authority to deport any alien whom he thought a threat and made it illegal to criticize the president or the Congress. Dozens of people were prosecuted under the Sedition Act, with prosecutions targeted at newspaper editors who favored the new Democratic-Republican party – Jefferson’s party. Seeing such political prosecutions of free speech as a fundamental threat to the republic, Jefferson referred to this period as a “reign of witches."

Federalist support for the Acts was also fueled by Jeffersonian sympathy for the French Revolution. The government's fears about French influence in the United States had reached a fevered pitch.

In his Kentucky Resolutions -- a second, shorter resolution written by an unknown person passed in 1799 -- Jefferson invoked the principle that the Constitution delegated only certain limited powers to the national government and therefore the states individually could check that government whenever it broke through the limits. Hence, the document declared the Alien and Sedition Acts  "void and of no force" and requested their repeal. (Jefferson's draft called for nullification, but that language did not make the final document. It did make the second version, however.)

In making his case, Jefferson wrote something that more people need to understand, especially politicians and pundits who are sanguine about democracy. His document declared it is resolved:

that it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is every where the parent of despotism: free government is founded in jealousy and not in confidence; it is jealousy & not confidence which prescribes limited Constitutions to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power. [Emphasis added.]

Hammering the point home, Jefferson concluded: "In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution." How interesting that he used the word jealousy!! The dictionaries tell us that one meaning of that word is intense vigilance. Had he read Curran's words?

By the way, those words might have gotten Jefferson kicked off Twitter and Facebook.

For Jefferson, the idea that we can elect rulers and then leave them to the business of governing us was a recipe for tyranny, even if only the "soft tyranny" foreseen by Alexis de Tocqueville. (See my "'What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear'" for some of Tocqueville's sobering predictions of the harm that democratic governments could do to the people.)

I'll close by noting that, unfortunately, Jefferson was too trusting in the Constitution's capacity to bind those given power. (Remember that the Constitution did not prevent the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts less than a decade after its ratification. Think of all that's happened since.)

Indeed, no less an authority on the Constitution, James Madison acknowledged that any constitution must delegate implied powers; that is, powers not expressly allowed to the state: "[I]t was impossible to confine a government to the exercise of express powers;" he said, "there must necessarily be admitted powers by implication, unless the constitution descended to recount every minutiae." He said this during a House debate over what would become the beloved Tenth Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which reserves to the states or the people "the powers not delegated" to the national government. Madison, who is famous for saying the national powers were "few and defined," refused to allow the word expressly to be inserted before delegated. Progressivism isn't the root of the problem. (See my article "James Madison: Father of the Implied-Powers Doctrine." For a wider perspective, also see my America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

Hence, a constitution, no matter how good it looks, can't help but create a false sense of security about liberty, which is exactly what Jefferson was worried about in his call for jealousy and not confidence toward the state. Particular people will be empowered to interpret any constitution, and they, even if well-intentioned, are likely to see things differently from freedom-loving individuals.

As Lysander Spooner pointed out in an 1870 essay: "But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain -- that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Talking Over the Beefed-Up IRS

Scott Horton and I discussed the ominous changes in store for middle-income taxpayers under the Inflation Reduction Act. Listen here.

Friday, August 19, 2022

TGIF: The Coming New and Improved IRS

The brilliant people in the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress have decided that one thing America really needs is an Internal Revenue Service (!) fortified by 87,000 more employees and 80 billion more dollars so it can help reduce the inflation that currently menaces us.  

You don't believe it? Oh, ye of little faith!

How is that to be accomplished? By auditing rich individuals and corporations, of course, thereby harvesting tons of hitherto uncollected revenue and forcing the shirkers to pay their "fair share." (No one ever says how we know they aren't already paying it.) The law's advocates also say that with its outright tax increase on corporations and cutting of energy and health care costs, inflation will be lowered still more. I wouldn't take that too seriously.

You might suspect that the government's story is not exactly kosher -- and you would be right. Even though the Biden people insist that the IRS provisions of the just-enacted Inflation Reduction Act will leave people making less than $400,000 unscathed, nothing in the law guarantees that, and the defensiveness of the White House and congressional spokesmen seem to confirm that the nonrich are not safe. Last year the Congressional Budget Office said all taxpayers would face higher audit rates under an earlier, larger version of the Inflation Reduction Act. (It was then called Build Back Better.)

This stands to reason that all taxpayers will be at risk. The highest earners have battalions of the best tax lawyers and accountants who surely advise their clients how to (legally) avoid, not evade, taxes. (News flash: the tax code is complicated, even vague, and will become even more so under the new law.) When you combine that fact with the regrettably small number of really, really rich people, you have to figure that the newly beefed-up IRS won't be anywhere near able to squeeze out the expected sums without going after lower hanging fruit. That's the rest of us: additional audits of people of more modest means. (Just for the record: with the exception of any actual thieves, wealthy people also have a right to their money.)

How many times before have presidents and legislators promised to raise badly needed, deficit-shrinking revenue by stepping up IRS enforcement against the rich? It's how progressives lull the middle class into accepting always-increasing spending.

But strangely, the deficits never shrink and stay shrunk. So either the revenue estimates were unalloyed bunk or the government spent the additional revenue on new projects. I'm sure it was a combination of both. Surprise, surprise! Birds gotta fly. Fish gotta swim. Politicians gotta spend.

At any rate, the deficit and debt (monetized by the Federal Reserve, our inflation engine) have grown without relief. Isn't that likely to be the case this time? It's surely the way to bet.

According to Forbes, "Democrats say the legislation will raise close to $740 billion in tax revenue over the next 10 years and devote $300 billion of that money toward reducing the federal deficit." That's 2 percent of the deficits expected over the next 10 years. You should realize that last year's budget deficit was $2.77 trillion, the second highest after the 2020s $3.13 trillion. 

But let's remember that these revenue projections are really predictions about how people will behave -- and how much taxable income they will produce -- in an altered institutional environment. The prognosticators make their predictions with inherently dodgy computer models. Remember how well such models predicted the climate and covid catastrophe? In truth, we don't know how creative, entrepreneurial people will adjust to changing tax and regulatory conditions. Individuals discover things when they face new situations. They are not robots. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that corporations do not pay taxes. They collect them. Only people pay taxes. So which people pay the corporate income tax, which will go up under the new law? Economists have long known that the tax is paid by consumers through higher prices, employees through lower wages, and shareholders, most of whom are not wealthy, through lower returns to their retirement funds. The corporate tax is one of those great political deceptions that seems to be a permanent fixture of the landscape. By the way, taxes on savings and investment invariably constitute double and even triple taxation, stifling innovation and wealth creation. Thus the general welfare, and not only justice, suffers.

Will the Inflation Reduction Act really act to reduce inflation? No bloody way. Inflation is not merely a general price rise. That's only the symptom. The cause is an inflation of the money supply by the government's central bank.

When the government spends more than it collects in taxes, it borrows money to cover the budget deficit. The Federal Reserve will buy the government debt, creating money out of thin air to do so. When the conjured-up money is spent or lent, we have the proverbial more dollars chasing the same amount of goods and -- voila! -- a general rise in prices. The new money also will tend to push interest rates lower than the free-market level, which in turn will distort the calculations of investors -- interest rates are key signals to producers, after all -- resulting in unsustainable malinvestment. (This is one of the monumental theoretical achievements of the Austrian school of economics, featuring Ludwig von Mises's and F. A. Hayek's work on money and banking.)

It's even worse. This century's massive money creation has been accompanied by the depressed production of goods brought about by the economic lockdowns during the covid pandemic. It's not just more money chasing the same supply of goods, but a smaller supply of goods. Thank you, politicians throughout America, for your service.  

A real inflation reduction act would do nothing but slash spending -- assuming we think the government should spend anything at all. After all, it ultimately obtains its money at gunpoint, that is, by theft. Slashing spending means rethinking big government, that is, -- top of the list -- the warfare and welfare state. 

So the touted Biden achievement is the just same old snake oil in new packaging. The government is out of control, and I don't see how that will soon end. Taxation is a blank check for politicians. The income tax is especially bad because it requires all to account to the government for their income-earning activities under threat of penalty. This inquisitorial device ought to be seen as intolerable in a theoretically free country. (For more, see my book Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax.)

Friday, August 05, 2022

TGIF: About Those January 6 Committee Extravaganzas

I admit it: I watched nearly every moment of the House committee extravaganzas on the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. I did more than that. I was transfixed. I couldn't even multitask.

Were the mislabeled "hearings" beyond all criticism? Of course not. They were choreographed, but only mildly so; the production effort lent an orderliness that I appreciated. I accept the point that the presentations had nothing to say about FBI-informant intrigue if it took place. Such mischief has occurred in the past, and if credible allegations exist, they should be pursued vigorously. Of course, it wouldn't let off the hook anyone who followed the directions of an agent provocateur. The same goes for other government misfeasance and malfeasance apart from Donald Trump's.

Still, even given all that, I see no good grounds for dismissing the presentations as worthless partisanship. The reason ought to be obvious. The presentations enabled us to watch senior White House, Justice Department, and Trump campaign lawyers and other key staff describe Trump's horrifying complacency as he entertained himself before, during, and after the violent outburst. Gruesomely riveting!

One need not be a small-D democrat to be concerned about what took place on January 6, 2021. The source of rational concern is not only the target of the violence. It is the violence itself. We've seen a good deal of domestic political violence in recent years, and I'm confident that no good would come from more. On the contrary, to the extent that violence becomes an acceptable political tactic, we will be in deep trouble. As Leonard E. Read, founding president of the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote in "On that Day Began Lies":

Consider the mob. It is a loose-type association. The mob will tar and feather, burn at the stake, string up by the neck, and otherwise murder. But dissect this association, pull it apart, investigate its individual components. Each person, very often, is a God-fearing, home-loving, wouldn’t-kill-a-fly type of individual.

What happens, then? 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.

Apart from the direct threat from the violence, we must also consider the secondary threat: namely, that of the government's inevitable crackdown. If the violence becomes more widespread, average people will understandably demand safety, and the politicians will be only too happy to comply with less-than-discriminate force. A weak state response could prompt the emergence of a "strong leader," a Bonaparte, who promises to restore order forthwith.

This is why the peaceful transfer of power after elections is desirable. To be sure, representative democracy places a distant second to complete and authentic individualist, free-market liberalism, but it beats gangs fighting in the streets.

So think back now to January 6. Trump clearly lost the election. His 60 attempts to persuade judges that the election had been stolen had failed. (Many of the judges were appointed by Trump or other Republican presidents.) He was told repeatedly by senior officials that he had appointed, from the attorney general on down, including expert investigators in election security, that he had no case -- but to no avail. A conspiracy to perpetrate such an election fraud and its coverup would make any other alleged conspiracy look like child's play.

Undeterred, Trump merely brought in a small group of toadies led by the faithful Rudy Giuliani to press his worthless case. Trump insisted he actually won the election by a landslide and set out to gaslight the American people into thinking there was something to that claim. Considering the lack of proof and all the contrary information he had been given, we are entitled to conclude that Trump never actually believed that he had been reelected. This was no delusion; rather I suspect it was merely a grand Trumpian scam that would surely rake in lots of money; it was also a what-the-hell longshot at retaining power. He apparently didn't care about anything else. In other words, he was playing with fire. At best it was gross negligence.

When he got nowhere with his staff and the courts, he encouraged a mob, which he had every reason to think would be unruly, to gather in Washington, D.C., on the day that Congress was to certify the states' electoral counts. Trump and his small circle worked every angle, including encouraging supporters to fraudulently pose as alternative electors in their states and trying to convince Vice President Mike Pence that he could exclude Biden electoral votes or at least delay Congress's certification by sending the matter back to the states -- when no vice president has any such power. Pence deserves credit here. I shudder to think what might have happened in the streets had Pence slavishly done what Trump pushed him to do.

The mob assembled as Trump requested, and he lifted their hopes that they could "stop the steal." Informed that some supporters had weapons and so wouldn't go through metal detectors for Trump's speech, he told security to remove the detectors because "they're not here to harm me." Then he urged the mob to march to the Capitol. Tens of thousands did so, breaking through doors and windows and signaling that they meant to threaten or harm those who stood in their and Trump's way. Thwarted by the Secret Service in his wish to go to the Capitol, Trump went back to the White House and watched the show from his dining room.

Repeated pleas by his staff that he call for an end to the riot fell on deaf ears. On the contrary, he tried to turn up the heat by condemning Pence on Twitter for his lack of courage. When his supporters chanted that Pence should be hanged, he was heard to say that maybe those supporters were onto something. Late in the day, when he finally made a video appeal to the rioters, he couldn't resist telling them: "We love you.... You're very special."

All in all, this was a sad day that capped a sad few months -- again, not because democracy is sacred, but because violence is uncontrollably toxic. Does the record establish Trump's legal liability for incitement to violence? I am not qualified to say. Moreover, we who distrust political power must be wary of vaguely defined offenses that originate in speech.

But Trump does seem to have left himself open to charges related to his failure to secure the Capitol despite repeated desperate pleas and to his obvious attempts to obstruct Congress. It was at least a dereliction of duty. (I highly recommend Walter Olson's "The Jan. 6 Committee’s Findings Have Met the Appropriately High Bar for Prosecuting Trump.")

Mob violence isn't the only thing to be feared in this world, but it ranks pretty high up there.

Thursday, August 04, 2022

How Times Have Changed

It was once regarded as condescending to humor other people by pretending to accept their fictions about themselves. Today it’s regarded as a mandatory form of respect that is breached only by bigots.

Friday, July 29, 2022

TGIF: The Limits of Ideology

I have defended the idea of ideology per se and have disparaged the idea that anyone can operate without an ideology. The self-proclaimed non-ideological person is really one who has an implicit and therefore unexamined or underexamined ideology. No one really judges everything case by case as if nothing were related to anything else. We all have principles of some sort.

I have never implied, however, that ideology cannot be abused or pushed too far. It most certainly can be. One way to do this is to imagine that an ideology can be squeezed to produce complete answers to empirical, including historical, questions. That belief might be a central feature of fanaticism: the delusion that all questions are ultimately ideological. This is what gives the word ideologue a foul odor.

This is not the say that ideology has no empirical ingredients. We couldn't form concepts or use them to construct worldviews and strategies for achieving human well-being without using knowledge acquired from experience, starting with sense perception and introspection. We cannot work it all out in our heads. We cannot even make good moral decisions without information from the external world; one need not be an orthodox consequentialist to know that consequences matter. So Cartesian rationalism will not do. (Neither will it suffice to rely on an empiricism unguided by inescapable, self-validating a priori principles of logic and human action, which are indispensable to understanding and organizing sense perception. This is one of Ludwig von Mises's important contributions to social science.)

Two clues that a person thinks that ideology has all the answers are 1) the automatic assumption that the quantitative and nonquantitative facts about a matter surely must be consistent with one's "priors" and 2) the conclusion that conflicting data are either erroneous or corrupt.

There simply are no libertarian, socialist, progressive, or conservative answers to questions such as:

  • Are police shooting and killing more, fewer, or the same number of unarmed black people in recent years as compared to an earlier period?
  • Is the annual number of such deaths closer to 1,000 or 20?
  • Is the percentage of lethal police shootings of unarmed black people 0.18 or 18 percent of all murders of black people?
  • Have recent spikes in the murder rate followed reductions in policing in low-income black inner cities?
  • Do most residents of inner cities favor less, more, or the same amount of policing?
  • Whom do those residents fear more: the police or street criminals?
  • Do disparities in racial, ethnic, or sexual representation in various walks of life indicate bigotry and discrimination?
  • Do disparities in average group scores on standardized tests prove that the tests are biased?
  • What happens to the income gap between men and women when the raw data are disaggregated to permit comparisons of like situations?
  • Is the average warming of the global climate or increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide necessarily bad things?
  • Are there more than two sexes?
  • Do men and women on average display differences in temperament and preferences across a large range of activities?
  • Are the observed differences the outcome of pernicious socialization or do evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology provide reasonable explanations?
  • Do masks work and are vaccines safe?

Many more such questions could be listed. All I want to say here is that no ideology, however compassionate, can answer those questions. One must honestly look at the world to see what's going on, even if that requires leaving one's comfort zone. "He who knows only his own side of the case," John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, "knows little of that." To their credit, social scientists occasionally acknowledge their surprise when publishing findings that conflicted with their expectations. (Roland Fryer Jr., who researches the extent of anti-black violence by police, comes to mind.)

Why does this matter? Aside from simple honesty in truth-seeking, it matters because if more people took this point to heart -- if fewer people relied on ideology for empirical answers --  they might find some common ground with their opponents and then have more productive conversations. That wouldn't hurt, would it?

The alternative is what we see every day: the choosing of sides based on tribal criteria and the quick resort to ad hominem attack at the first sign of disagreement.

Friday, July 22, 2022

TGIF: Compete Liberalism

Many people formerly of the left, who have bid good riddance to their former political home, believe they can retain the mantle of authentic liberalism while ignoring its free-market component. They don't want socialism, and they appropriately dislike the right-wing. But they also can't abide the libertarian commitment to free markets either. So they declare themselves centrists void of ideology.

The problem with this approach is that the commitment to market freedom lies at the heart of authentic, classical liberalism, or libertarianism. Liberalism and pro-market enthusiasm go hand in hand.

The misstep I have in mind may stem from the fallacy that personal liberty is distinguishable from economic liberty. Note how many people who call themselves civil libertarians would reject the unqualified label libertarian. This fallacy in turn may be a legacy of the mind-body dichotomy, which holds that human beings are a union of material and nonmaterial "substances."

People under the sway of this view should understand that dividing human beings into mind (or spirit or conscience) and body, with the former more exalted than the latter, is a discredited idea. (Gilbert Ryle goes to great lengths to show this in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind.) People are conscious, self-conscious material beings who need to act and interact in a variety of ways in order to flourish. As Thomas Szasz put it, mind is a verb, not a noun. Thus, no matter what philosophers, judges, and legislators may say, no grounds exist for safeguarding so-called personal liberty (expression and religion, among others) more vigilantly than so-called economic liberty (buying and selling). There is only individual liberty. Or: whether money is involved or not, all liberty is personal liberty.

To see this point, one need only ask what could be more personal than how one chooses to earn a living. Freedom of conscience is sacred, but it is inseparable from the freedom to pursue one's projects in the material marketplace. Products are embodied ideas. Prices, someone once said, are arguments aimed at persuasion. Would one be able to operate in the marketplace without freedom of expression? I don't think so. Yet look at how the bifurcation of human beings leads to limits on and violations of speech stigmatized as commercial speech. These go beyond mere prohibitions on fraudulent claims. Please explain that, civil libertarian free-speech "absolutists."

Governments don't regulate markets; they regulate people. So much for the misguided notion that liberty comes in two flavors, with the "spiritual" being more exalted than the "material."

One reason for the rejection of free markets by freedom-minded people is ignorance of the economic way of thinking, which is acquired not innate. This ignorance is manifested in many ways, but here's a prominent one: the belief that society must choose between government-regulated markets or unregulated markets. What's wrong with this set of choices? Two things are wrong. It posits a false option -- scary unregulated markets -- and omits a real option -- self-regulating markets. (More on the latter in a moment.)

The phrase unregulated market in fact is a contradiction in terms. It is as inappropriate as the term society would be when applied to a collection of people that displays no order whatsoever. Societies have a general regularity of some kind. That's what the word means. Likewise, markets by nature are regulated.

But by whom or what? It's tempting to say they are self-regulating, but that would be only a convenient shorthand. What regulates free markets are free people acting as entrepreneurs, producers, investors, borrowers, lenders, and consumers. Market forces, which in one sense are impersonal, turn out to be people who are at liberty to, say, buy, and sell as they see fit. Hence, the necessity for individual freedom, including the freedom to acquire and use private property, which Marx said would be abolished when socialism's time came. (Can you imagine?)

It is the freedom to own things, trade, and compete, and the freedom to turn down what's on offer, that regulates (or restricts) participants in the market. It's what keeps sellers from charging $100 for an apple or employers from paying workers $1 an hour in dangerous environments. It's what prompts producers, guided by the price system, to step up when supply falls short of demand, and buyers to tighten up temporarily when demand exceeds supply -- with the result that consumers, who are the point of it all, remember, are better served despite life's ups and downs. But to be effective, market forces must not be tampered with by politicians and bureaucrats, however honorable their intentions may be, because the interventions will invariably harm its ostensible beneficiaries. (We see this unerringly with the minimum wage and price controls.)

It matters whether the government or "the market" does the regulating. Politicians and bureaucrats necessarily have limited knowledge and -- let's be frank -- perverse incentives, including career ambitions and the temptations of power. Their primary tool is the threat of physical force against the disobedient.

In contrast, market forces operate peacefully through the actions of countless participants, each with intimate knowledge of his or her own circumstances as well as bits of the socially scattered information about resource supplies, know-how, and the like. Force and fraud are forbidden and redressable. Bureaucratic regulation will tend to be irrelevant at best and inimical at worst to what people care about. Moreover, it will tend to foster business concentration by increasing the burdens on smaller firms.

We end up with a big impersonal bureaucracy and big business (bigger, that is, than what is good for consumers and employees). Indeed, it does matter who or what does the regulating.

Objections that the free market leaves some people behind or that it subjects society to abusive monopoly, long-term unemployment, and inflation miss the mark. Before markets and profit-seeking became widespread and respectable, the consumption gap between the rich and everyone else was enormous. It was the spread of markets (admittedly far from fully free) that introduced unheard-of mass production, which has steadily and radically closed the consumption gap and cut absolute poverty worldwide. A visitor from the not-so-distant past would be astounded at the living standard of people we today regard as poor. The many in the developing world who still lag behind desperately need a liberal individualist pro-property legal framework, freedom, and free markets, which would provide badly needed cheap and reliable energy powered by fossil fuels. (The snobbery of Western elites in this matter is atrocious.)

Further, I suspect that many semi-liberals are motivated not by moral and economic objections, but by aesthetic objections to the marketplace. They find competition, profit, and the pursuit of self-interest unattractive. Too bad: there is actually something beautiful about an institution that adjusts peacefully to people's wants, rewarding producers for serving people's needs. Adam Smith described the process in The Wealth of Nations, and later economists, especially those of the Austrian school, elaborated the description. As they have pointed out, competition is not antithetical to cooperation but is concomitant. Competition is what emerges when we are free to decide who we wish to cooperate with. In other words, one cannot be pro-choice in all areas of life without being pro-competition. That doesn't mean the market is everything in a free society, but it is something rather important.

Finally, we should say something about pollution, the emission of dangerous substances into the air and water. Authentic liberalism understood it as a trespass and therefore a violation of individual rights. The "polluter pays" principle is a liberal principle that pays tribute to private property. However, liberalism is ever-mindful of the abuse and corrupting influence of power. A government bureau that is tasked with enforcing property rights against bonafide polluters may easily inflate its mission in ways that impose great costs with little or no benefits. Bureaucrats may define a nonpollutant, say, carbon dioxide (which is plant food) as a pollutant and in the process harm the world's most vulnerable people by restricting or forbidding emissions. The challenge for any state and nonstate form of governance is to stick to real rights violations and to let technological and organizational innovators find the solutions in cases of real danger. That requires increases in wealth, not drags on its growth.

It is also important to realize that, as in so many other matters, the market contains internal systems to generate ways of handling pollution. Entrepreneurs can earn profits by doing just that. Pollution represents a waste of scarce resources: one firm's trash is another firm's cash. As Pierre Desrochers's has shown (here and here, for example), the history of market-oriented societies is filled with such cases.

Friday, July 15, 2022

TGIF: Social Order through Liberty

Human beings are self-actualizing social animals. We need to cooperate with others to flourish fully and (but?) we also need the freedom to make of ourselves the persons we wish to be; we need autonomy.

Can we do both liberty and social order? The answer is yes, and that is where rights come into play. I'll go with Ayn Rand's definition: "A 'right' is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context." Also, "Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival." Although rights theory is fraught with the potential for abuse -- many many counterfeit "rights" have been conjured -- it's difficult to abandon the concept.

Liberty and social order are often seen as in conflict with each other. The conservatives' fondness for the phrase ordered liberty. It is meant to suggest that liberty too easily becomes license and chaos. So we often hear that rights must be balanced against one another or against other considerations (such as state interest), indicating that all people could not possibly exercise their rights at the same time because that would produce intolerable social conflict. Hence the need for external limits.

But thanks to the work of genuine liberals -- that is, libertarians, we have good reason to reject this concern.

One of the great synthesizers of individual and social welfare was one of the most unjustly reviled political thinkers in history: Herbert Spencer. In discussing the human "tendency toward individuation in his 1851 (and first) book, Social Statics, Spencer wrote:

[The person] is self-conscious; that is, he recognizes his own individuality. . . . [W]hat we call the moral law—the law of equal freedom—is the law under which individuation becomes perfect, and that ability to act up to this law is the final endowment of humanity.... The increasing assertion of personal rights is an increasing demand that the external conditions needful to a complete unfolding of the individuality shall be respected. Not only is there now a consciousness of individuality and an intelligence whereby individuality may be preserved, but there is a perception that the sphere of action requisite for due development of the individuality may be claimed, and a correlative desire to claim it. And when the change at present going on is complete—when each possesses an active instinct of freedom, together with an active sympathy—then will all the still existing limitations to individuality, be they governmental restraints or be they the aggressions of men on one another, cease. Then none will be hindered from duly unfolding their natures.

"None will be hindered"? Even with "activity sympathy," how then can "an active instinct of freedom be reconciled with required social harmony? Spencer addresses the paradox:

Yet must this higher individuation be joined with the greatest mutual dependence. Paradoxical though the assertion looks, the progress is at once toward complete separateness and complete union. But the separateness is of a kind consistent with the most complex combinations for fulfilling social wants; and the union is of a kind that does not hinder entire development of each personality. Civilization is evolving a state of things and a kind of character in which two apparently conflicting requirements are reconciled.

It may sound odd, but Spencer anticipated “at once perfect individuation and perfect mutual dependence.” He wrote:

Just that kind of individuality will be acquired which finds in the most highly organized community the fittest sphere for its manifestation, which finds in each social arrangement a condition answering to some faculty in itself, which could not, in fact, expand at all if otherwise circumstanced. The ultimate man will be one whose private requirements coincide with public ones. He will be that manner of man who, in spontaneously fulfilling his own nature, incidentally performs the functions of a social unit, and yet is only enabled so to fulfill his own nature by all others doing the like.

This reminds me of Spinoza's belief that to be fully rational an individual must be surrounded by other rational free, individuals with whom he interacts respectfully through reason, persuasion, contract, and trade, not force.

Spencer, of course, is well known for what in Social Statics he called the law of equal freedom: "Every man has freedom to do all he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man.” This sounds good, and it is. But Murray Rothbard, in his discussion of the impossibility and hence senselessness of egalitarianism (in Power and Market: Government and the Economy), made an important observation about Spencer's law. Rothbard wrote:

This goal [equality of liberty] does not attempt to make every individual’s total condition equal—an absolutely impossible task; instead, it advocates liberty—a condition of absence of coercion over person and property for every man.

Rothbard pointed out that the terms equality before the law and equality of rights "are ambiguous and misleading. The former could be taken to mean equality of slavery as well as liberty and has, in fact, been so narrowed down in recent years as to be." He also wrote that the term equal is problematic in the study of human affairs because it suggests a unit of measure that does not exist. (For libertarianism conceived at equality of authority, see Roderick Long's "Liberty: The Other Equality" and "Equality: The Unknown Ideal.")

Finally, Rothbard wrote:

Spencer’s Law of Equal Freedom is redundant. For if every man has freedom to do all that he wills, it follows from this very premise that no man’s freedom has been infringed or invaded. The whole second clause of the law after “wills” is redundant and unnecessary. Since the formulation of Spencer’s Law, opponents of Spencer have used the qualifying clause to drive holes into the libertarian philosophy. Yet all this time they were hitting at an encumbrance, not at the essence of the law. The concept of “equality” has no rightful place in the “Law of Equal Freedom,” being replaceable by the logical quantifier “every.” The “Law of Equal Freedom” could well be renamed The Law of Total Freedom.

Rothbard credits the point to Clara Dixon Davidson, who in 1892 wrote in Benjamin Tucker's magazine, Liberty:

The law of equal freedom, “Every one is free to do whatsoever he wills,” appears to me to be the primary condition to happiness. If I fail to add the remainder of Herbert Spencer’s celebrated law of equal freedom, I shall only risk being misinterpreted by persons who cannot understand that the opening affirmation includes what follows, since, if any one did infringe upon the freedom of another, all would not be equally free. [Emphsis added.]

This leads to the conclusion that all people may be free to exercise their rights simultaneously without jeopardy to life-serving social order. No need for balancing rights exists. If all "ordered liberty" means is liberty that is consistent with social order, then we can rest easy so long as people think soundly about liberty. How surprising is this? After all, the very notion of rights stems from each individual's need to act in the world without conflicting with others. (This insight about rights theory has been called "compossibility" by the Georgist libertarian Hillel Steiner. For an opposing view to the Davidson-Rothbard argument, see this from Matt Zwolinski.)

This does not mean the boundaries between people's zones of freedom are always immediately clear -- far from it. Disagreements (both good faith and malicious) are inevitable. That's why, in addition to liberal customs, free societies will have contracts, formal associations, policing agencies, insurance, mediators, arbiters, and judges. Governance does not require government.

It seems that Benjamin Tucker's magazine motto (borrowed from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) had it right: "Liberty: Not the Daughter but the Mother of Order."

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Orwell Updated

Conformity is diversity. Exclusion is inclusion. Toleration is oppression.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Richard Cobden on the Link between Free Trade and Peace

I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate.

--Richard Cobden; Speech; Manchester, England; January 15, 1846

Friday, July 08, 2022

TGIF: Why Can't You Shout "Fire!" in the Virtual Public Square?

Almost 10 years ago the free-speech champion Trevor Timm, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the time and now with the Free of the Press Foundation, implored readers "to stop using the ‘fire in a crowded theater’ quote" to justify limits on free expression. Many people apparently need a reminder.

Timm wrote, "[Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes [Jr.'s]' quote has become a crutch for every censor in America, yet the quote is wildly misunderstood." To dispel the misunderstanding, Timm told the story behind the quotation.

The Court opinion containing the quote is from Schenck v. United States (1919), a notorious anti-free-speech case in which Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer had been convicted and sentenced to six months in prison during World War I under the federal Espionage Act for mailing 15,000 pamphlets urging soon-to-be-drafted men "not [to] submit to intimidation" and to "Assert your rights." The pamphlet did not advocate violent resistance but stated that the draft violated the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery.

The Court ruled unanimously against the defendants on the grounds that distributing the material was a "clear and present danger" during wartime. Holmes noted that the pamphlet would have been constitutionally protected in peacetime, but in 1917 the rules were different. To emphasize the point, Holmes wrote, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

Schenck stood as a precedent until 1969, when it was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Nevertheless, Holmes's trope is wheeled out today against almost anyone who expresses concern about the limitations on the free exchange of ideas on social networks, especially when the controversy concerns criticism of any aspect of "wokeism," for example, the ideologies underpinning "anti-racism" and "trans-genderism." If someone publicly expresses uneasiness at people being suspended from or kicked off social-media platforms for innocuous posts that come nowhere near threatening or inciting violence, the other side will likely quote Holmes to justify the punishment.

It should be too obvious to have to point out that Holmes's dictum is irrelevant to such episodes. Before we get to that, however, let's put on this on the record: although they may be under great government pressure to crack down on certain real or alleged misinformation and disinformation, the social-media platforms are private companies with the right to set their terms of use. But that does not mean having a low bar for expulsion is a good policy. Social networking, to the extent it is to have political value, ought to be an open forum. Kicking people off even for lying about election results or (justifiably) criticizing rules about permissible pronouns is not only obnoxious; it also makes a mockery of what the platforms themselves say they aspire to be.

With that out of the way, we can move on to the main course. None of the targets to which Holmes's trope is aimed bears any resemblance to the literal case of falsely shouting fire in a theater. We can break this down into two parts.

The first concerns the unreasonable shouting of anything, even "Chocolate!" in a theater, crowded or not. If I buy a ticket to a concert, play, or movie, I have at least an implicit contract with the theater owner that I will not disrupt the show (without a darn good reason) and spoil it for the other patrons. If that contractual term were not assumed, the owner would be defrauding all the customers. Would you buy a ticket to a show knowing that anyone in the audience was permitted to make noise?

Just as I cannot eat in a restaurant and refuse to pay by claiming that I never explicitly agreed to pay for the meal, so I cannot make a ruckus in a theater on grounds that I never agreed not to do so. We can go further and point out, as Murray Rothbard did, that even the theater owner may not unreasonably disrupt the show without violating the contract with his customers:  If he does, "He has thus welshed on this contractual obligation, in violation of the property rights of his patrons."

Rothbard's point is that freedom of speech is not some free-floating right. To make sense it must be rooted in property rights. No one has a right to make a speech in your living room without an invitation. The corollary, he points out, is that so-called public, that is, government-controlled, land presents insoluble conflicts. When demonstrators want to block a busy street during rush hour, whose rights should prevail: theirs or the drivers'.

As I say, this goes for any shouting. But let's move on to the issue of content. Falsely shouting fire adds potential injury or death to the insult because the patrons do not have the luxury of checking out the shouter's claim. Maybe it's a false alarm, but waiting to find out could cost them their lives. Obviously, if the shouter knows the place is on fire, he's done his fellow patrons a favor.

How does this relate to social media? Nothing anyone can say on Twitter can compare to the potentially deadly disruption that would occur with a false shouting of fire in a theater. Even if Donald Trump tweets a million times a day -- falsely -- that his landslide reelection in 2020 was stolen from him, the mechanism for harm just is not present. No one reading Trump's tweets, as obnoxious as they would be, would have to rush out of wherever he is merely to save his life and possibly endanger others as he does so. It's simply ridiculous to compare the two situations.

A tweet might offend people -- if they choose to take offense -- or it might hurt someone's feelings. But let's get real: that bears no resemblance to endangerment. But what if someone else reads the tweet and then feels motivated to commit violence? That person is an aggressor who is fully responsible for his actions. He must not be permitted to plead that the tweet caused or incited him to commit violence. He is an agent.

Rigid controls on social media cannot be justified on "clear and present danger" grounds. In other words, it's impossible to shout "Fire!" on social media, and we are justified in criticizing platform owners who insist on punishing their guests for what they say. It's easy enough to avoid your fellow guests whom you find obnoxious.

So let's finally put Holmes's trope to rest. It has no power to justify restrictions on expression that does not directly and immediately endanger others.