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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.