Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Proper Road to “Thick”

I will guess that, about as much as anyone in recent times, I have taken on the concept of “thick” within the context and discussion of libertarianism.  I will not rehash any of that in this post – for those to whom this is of interest, you likely know the story; for the rest, suffice it to say any appendage to the non-aggression principle would be considered thick.

At the same time, I have no doubt that for a society to survive and thrive, there is need for “thick” – what do people around here believe?  Some common understanding on issues that are not answered by the NAP is necessary.

Sheldon Richman is out with a very good piece – wonderful, in my opinion; I wish I wrote it.  Despite having tried on several occasions, I have never been able to explain myself on this topic as well as Richman has done.  It is entitled “Free-Market Socialism.”  Trust me, there is no oxymoron in this phrase.

In the piece, Richman connects how the individual becomes the social – fully in line with libertarian principles.  But instead of my paraphrase, here is Richman:

Libertarians are individualists. But since individualist has many senses, that statement isn’t terribly informative.

Virtually all libertarians observe the common customs of their societies, just as they conform to language conventions if for no other reason than they wish to be understood. I don’t know a libertarian who would regard this as tyranny.

As long as the “common customs” are not applied by a coercive monopoly, there is nothing wrong with this statement – it would be a reality in a libertarian world, if for no other reason than individuals would seek out community where they felt community. 

Further, however, the NAP does not answer every question of life – merely the question about when the use of force is acceptable.  I will go a step further: libertarians have not even agreed amongst themselves about the term “force” – or the applicability of the NAP to specific circumstances.

Is fraud “force”?  What about the applicability of the NAP to intellectual property?  Abortion?  Proper justice for a trespass?  I don’t think anyone can say these issues are “settled” within our community.

In fact, as one’s appreciation of the libertarian philosophy deepens, so does one’s understanding of the crucial behavior-shaping role played by the evolution of customs and rules—the true law—that have nothing whatever to do with the state. Indeed, these help form our very idea of society.

This is certainly a true statement for me.  When diving into the depths of some of the above mentioned topics, I have concluded that there may not be one “right” answer: if a community decides it wants to implement defense of intellectual property within their system of law, or define fraud as a violation – I can find no NAP-based reason to disagree (I will not delve into my reasons here, as this is well beyond the scope of this post).

Further, it seems clear that a libertarian world would allow for blatantly non-libertarian societies – as long as the members were free to leave.  If a group voluntarily decides to hold all property in common, have a field day – they cause me no harm.

The social is greater than the sum of the individuals – if it was not so, there would be no benefit in forming community.  Consider something as simple as the division of labor; try gaining the benefits of this invaluable process without voluntarily interacting with others.

Richman comments on prices – freely derived, necessary for a thriving society, determined by all…the result of countless individual decisions.  He discusses bankruptcy:

…no individual decided to put, say, the bookseller Borders, out of business. In an important sense, we did it collectively, but not at a mass meeting with people giving speeches and voting on whether the principals of Borders should keep control of the company’s assets. Rather, the demise of Borders and the transfer of its assets to others were the outcome of many individual decisions, most of which were not consciously coordinated. It’s just that enough people had preferences inconsistent with the company’s business plan. So the people who ran Borders were out, however much they objected.

In a free market, the people control the means of production – not in a communistic way, but a perfectly libertarian way; or, as Richman puts it:

In other words, the freed market would give traditional leftists what they say they want: a society in which free, voluntary, and peaceful cooperation ultimately controls the means of production for the good of all people.

No need for any “musts” or “should”: this is a road to thick that every libertarian could stand behind, without any concern about violating the NAP.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Enemy Within

Tuesday marked Armistice Day across much of the West – the last day of the Great War in 1918.  It goes by other names today, but the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month will always have one meaning to most.  Most, but not all – certainly not to those who died in the tenth hour solely for the desire to achieve symmetry.

There were parades, vigils, two-minutes of silence – all manners of remembrance.

I think it is worth considering what those veterans of the war that gave the world this Armistice thought – not about the war, but about the civilians cheering them on.  From “The Great War and Modern Memory,” by Paul Fussell:

It was not just from their staffs that the troops felt estranged; it was from everyone back in England.

Why would the soldiers feel estranged from those cheering them on, calling them “war heroes,” and offering all manner of praise and adulation?  One place to look is the news from the front – filed by correspondents sympathetic only to the official government narrative.  One such “kept correspondent” was Lord Northcliffe, publisher of the Times.  In an essay entitled “What to send Your Solider” he offered peppermint bulls’ eyes:

The bulls’ eyes ought to have plenty of peppermint in them, for it is the peppermint which keeps those who suck them warm on a cold night.  It also has a digestive effect, though that is of small account at the front, where health is so good and indigestion hardly ever heard of.  The open-air life, the regular and plenteous feeding, the exercise, and the freedom from care and responsibility, keep the soldiers fit and contented.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the life described by Northcliffe was not a life experienced in the trenches.  During the winter, men froze to death.  They wept in Gallipoli – not from fear, but because they were always so dirty – lice and dysentery were regular army issue.  Peppermint bulls’ eyes, indeed.

Well, how estranged is estranged?  The following should give some food for thought regarding what’s going on inside the mind of the next soldier you thank for his service:

The visiting of violent and if possible painful death upon the complacent, patriotic, uncomprehending, fatuous civilians at home was a favorite fantasy indulged by the troops.


Siegfried Sassoon, a veteran of the war, writes in “Blighters” that he:

…would like to see them crushed to death by a tank in one of their silly patriotic music halls, and in “Fight to the Finish” he enacts a similar fantasy.  The war over, the army is marching through London in a Victory Parade, cheered by the “Yellow-Pressmen” along the way.  Suddenly the soldiers fix bayonets and turn on the crowd:

At last the boys found a cushy job.

Sassoon did not neglect the politicians:

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal:
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament

There was the hatred of soldiers returning to the front from leave; according to Philip Gibbs:

They hated the smiling women on the streets.  They loathed the old men….They desired that profiteers should die by poison-gas.  They prayed God to get the Germans to send Zeppelins to England – to make the people know what war meant.

Keep this in mind the next time you consider thanking a war veteran for his “service.”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Sentence First! Verdict Afterwards

Queen of Hearts: Now... are you ready for your sentence?
Alice: Sentence? But there has to be a verdict first...
Queen of Hearts: Sentence first! Verdict afterwards.
Alice: But that just isn't the way...
Queen of Hearts: [shouting] All ways are...!
Alice: ...your ways, your Majesty.

Veale concludes his examination of the return to barbarism in war with the Nuremberg Trials that followed Germany’s defeat in World War Two.

Regarded as an isolated phenomenon, the initiation in 1945 of the practice of disposing of prisoners of war by charging them with “war-crimes” and then finding them guilty at trials in which their accusers acted as judges of their own charges, was one of the most astonishing developments in the history of mankind.

Regarded, however, merely as the last link in a chain of developments all entirely consistent with each other and all displaying the same general trend, the initiation of trials for “war-crimes” seems the natural and inevitable outcome of a war in which one side had officially adopted a policy of systematically slaughtering a hostile racial minority without regard to age or sex and the other side had officially adopted a policy of slaughtering the enemy civilian population by dropping bombs on the most densely populated residential areas in order to terrorise the survivors into unconditional surrender.  A struggle conducted in such a spirit could have no other sequel. (Emphasis added)

When considering the vaunted trials of Nuremberg through the lens of today, these seem as nothing terribly abnormal: the loser pays a price, war is hell, etc.  That the loser pays a price for actions no different than those taken by the winner I understand seems unfair.  But the idea that the loser pays a price – in this case, the trial of the military leaders – doesn’t seem out of place.

Veale, however, places this in context, and in the context of the brief period of two centuries in Europe where war was fought in a relatively civilized manner – the root of civilized warfare being that non-combatants were not to be targets of wartime violence.  The violations build, culminating in the bombing of civilian targets and now this concept of war-crimes trials – and more specifically, the method by which this process was put into practice in Nuremberg.

To the savage mind the natural and proper way to deal with a captured enemy in one’s power is to kill him… On reflection it will become obvious that a struggle waged in this spirit could end in no other way, whichever side won, but with a massacre of the leaders of the defeated side.

So why a trial?  Why not just do the losers in? Why not just publish a list of the wanted, and get on with the executions?  To answer these questions, an examination of the views of the leaders of the Allies is necessary as is an examination of the make-up and structure of the trials.

It would have been an easy matter to have created an impartial court….

There were many neutral countries, all with individuals who were highly qualified as jurists: Switzerland, Sweden and Spain are examples.  Instead, the jurists were drawn from the victors – the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

The only possible objection to having the charges against the accused decided by a court composed of neutral jurists was that such a court could not have been relied on to bring in exactly the verdict the victors required….

Further, neutral jurists would have followed the evidence brought by the accused that pointed to the similar actions of the victors – the actions for which the accused were under trial.

But the process had one advantage – it minimized the friction between and amongst the victors.  It resulted in trials for which the Queen from Alice’s Wonderland would have found satisfaction: the captured were sentenced from the outset; all that was left was to reach a verdict that conformed to the sentence.

…the war-trials were initiated as a compromise between two entirely irreconcilable points of view.

This irreconcilable situation was first introduced by Stalin in Teheran in 1943.  According to Elliott Roosevelt:

Stalin said, “I propose a salute to the swiftest possible justice for all of Germany’s war criminals – justice before a firing squad.  I drink to our unity in dispatching them as fast as we capture them, all of them, and there must be at least 50,000 of them.”

Within much of Eastern and Central Europe, Stalin did not require the agreement of his allies to put his desires into action (Stalin admitted as much when Elliott suggested that many of the 50,000 would be killed in battle).  But such was necessary in the areas controlled by others.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Making Lemons Out of…Lemons

… let us give due credit to the heroes of our time - Ben Bernanke, Mervyn King and those who stood by them against the mob of howling critics.

According to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, QE central bankers deserve a medal for saving society.  Saving society from the mess they made.  Talk about job-security.  Where to begin?

The final word on quantitative easing will have to wait for historians. As the US Federal Reserve winds down QE3 we can at least conclude that the experiment was a huge success for those countries that acted quickly and with decisive force.

How can the “final word…have to wait for historians” and at the same time AEP can “conclude that the experiment was a huge success”?  Ambrose contradicts this “success” call again later in his piece:

It is too early to judge whether even the Anglosphere can really throw away its QE crutches. The risk of a relapse is obvious as the commodity nexus flashes global stress warnings. We may need QE4 after all.

And he already knows how to spend it:

…let us inject the stimulus directly into veins of the economy money next time, using it to build roads, houses and an infrastructure fit for the 21st century.

Is it now deemed a success to continuously print money?  On what planet?  Under what economic theory?

But, let’s pretend that it has been a success, as Ambrose states (while somehow being able to leave the final judgment for historians, as Ambrose also states).  How is this success defined?

What we can conclude is that extreme QE enabled the US to weather the most drastic fiscal tightening since demobilisation after the Korean War, without falling back into recession. Much the same was true for Britain.

What fiscal tightening?  In 2007, the US federal government spent $2.7 trillion; in 2013, $3.5 trillion.  In 2007, the deficit (not the increase in total debt, but the deficit…I know, only the government can keep books this way) was $160 billion; in 2013, $680 billion.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tibor Machan: Insightful and Confusing

Tibor Machan was the subject of a recent Daily Bell interview.  Having grown up in Eastern Europe, in this interview he occasionally brings a perspective and insight on the issues addressed that many in the West today might not have; at times he seems purposely oblivious to context; mostly, his comments are completely indecipherable.

With that, let’s begin:

DB: That brings us to our larger topic of US imperialism and war….Let's begin by pointing out that since you grew up in a communist country, you tend to believe that US militarism is not as widespread or fierce as some think it is.

TM: For my money, the expansionist geopolitics is found mostly with Russia, China, Japan and so forth. What else would one call Putin's stance? But such generalizations are nearly impossible to ascertain as either true or false.

I agree that generalizations are not useful – however, they can be of advantage when speaking with an audience that holds a common understanding of certain terms.  Machan has contributed articles to The Daily Bell for years – he certainly must have some understanding of the context of the terms used within the community.  Machan seems to avoid this notion throughout this interview.

But what on earth are the specifics?  Japan?  This isn’t 1931.  What has Japan done since 1945 to deserve inclusion in this group?  China?  If China has made any substantial act of war in any region farther than 200 kilometers of its borders in the last couple of decades, I am not aware of it.

Russia?  Putin is no saint, but at worst whatever is happening in Ukraine is the offspring of many fathers – both east and west.  Even if one grants that Putin is an imperialist, does this automatically negate the possibility of any other imperialist regimes on earth?  Why deflect?

In any case, Ukraine is a lot closer to Russia than it is to any Western European (or North American) country.  Besides, Putin was instrumental in stopping the bombing of Syria a year ago.  That isn’t nothing.

Finally, to the extent states such as China and Russia gain influence in the world, it is and will be only because the United States government has so significantly abandoned any semblance of moral leadership.

DB: How has your thinking about natural rights and libertarianism evolved within the context of the West's continued militarism?

TM: This is one of those kinds of questions—"Have you stopped beating your wife?" "The West's continued militarism?" As far as I understand recent, modern geopolitics, there is no "continued militarism" in the West. Luxembourg? Hungary? Lichtenstein? France? Poland?

This is one of those “purposely oblivious to context” moments.  It is obvious the context in which DB is asking the question.  It is equally obvious that the United States (and other “Western” states such as Great Britain) have been quite militaristic in the last several decades – far more so than Japan, China, and Russia.  Machan has noted this in the past.  Why not in this interview?

TM: How about the USSR? Based on its ideology, the Soviet Union had to expand both territorially and so far as its belief system is concerned.

This is true enough – but again, not in the context of DB’s question – which was “continued militarism.”  Continued!  There is no USSR and hasn’t been for over 20 years; what is the USSR continuing?  It doesn’t exist!  Russia (as Machan apparently is not familiar with the distinction) – whatever the sins of its political leaders – has not fomented revolution in Mexico or Canada.

TM: Without such expansionism its imperial ambitions, going back all the way to czarist times, couldn't be sustained. Marx himself noted that in order to fulfill its destiny as the leader of international communism, modern Russia/the USSR had to act as an imperial nation.

Although muddled by the mixing of czars, Marxists, and whatever you want to label today’s Russia, this comment offers a glimpse into his insight; many in the West are not knowledgeable regarding Stalin’s actions and desire to lead Germany, France, and Britain into the Second World War as a means by which to spread communism in the west.  But Machan so far has mixed past and present (China, Japan, Russia, USSR) so confusingly that I have no idea what he is talking about.

DB: Why do you think the West has so many wars – and not against other Western countries but against terrorism and "Islam"?

TM: I disagree with your premise here.

Which premise?  Is it a disagreement about the term “West”?  The term “war”?  Lichtenstein and Luxembourg?  This is “purposely oblivious to context” – he certainly has noted the US aggression in the past.  Is it that the West (as the term is commonly understood) is not involved in “so many wars,” via some type of quantitative measure?  Machan is not so ignorant.  With which premise does Machan disagree?  He offers no answer.

DB: Is the state in a sense at war with the individual – and is that war advanced by non-domestic military action?

TM: The state is a collection of individuals with various more or less aggressive attitudes.

Machan is quite correct, and many of us that write critically about the state often either forget this or merely use the term “state” as a shortcut to describe the individuals that are taking action against individual, non-aggressive, freedoms.  Machan knows this (he has used this shortcut in the past), but instead of using this opportunity to shed light on his views, he avoids dealing with the question – a question behind which there is truth and an opportunity to educate. 

Does he not understand the context?  He has had no problem in the past speaking of the growing tyranny in the United States.  Why is he so evasive today?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rand Paul and Foreign Policy

Rand Paul gave a significant speech on foreign policy.  I blame Walter Block for my feeling the need to review the speech:

So, even if Rand Paul would impugn libertarianism, set back our movement (something I deny) he would still be preferable to Hilary Clinton. The latter would likely murder hundreds of thousands of innocents abroad, and cause the deaths of thousands of Americans who would be wearing those “boots.”  In contrast, Rand Paul is no Ron Paul. This cannot be denied. But, he is no Hillary Clinton either. Hillary will kill many, many more innocent people than will Rand. Isn’t it also part of the libertarian ethos (I am still assuming, arguendo, that Rand will blemish our freedom philosophy) not to murder innocents?

I believe this to be (at least directionally) true about Rand (forgive me, I will use the first name to distinguish from his father), just as I know it to be true about Obama as opposed to McCain/Hillary/Romney – any one of which would have bombed Russia and Iran by now (and Syria, although Obama found another route.  I am curious – his decision on ISIS came around the same time that the security breaches at the White House were made public, didn’t it?).

There are a thousand things about the state (a thousand points of dark?) for which a libertarian rightly can offer complaint, but – for me – one is paramount, and that is war.  In it one will find the sum of all other violations and these carried to the extremes.  If there is only one topic upon which a libertarian might focus, this one is about as important as any.

This is why I am sympathetic to Block’s point and therefore feel it worthwhile to review Rand’s speech.  Please note: I am not going to get into the terms “America,” “we,” “our,” etc., that Rand uses in the speech and that I will sometimes use as shorthand – I am already at 2700 words, this post is long enough.  Let’s just say, these are meaningless terms within this context as used by most politicians and others.

Russia slides backward vainly hoping to resurrect the Soviet Union.

Russia may or may not be doing this – I don’t know; but Rand mentions it without mentioning a thing about the role of NATO and the US on the borders of Russia that have contributed to the current situation.

In the Middle East, secular dictatorships have been replaced by the rise of radical jihadist movements, who in their beliefs and barbarity -- represent the antithesis of liberal democracy.

True again, and once again not a mention of the US role in any of this.

These challenges are in part consequences of failing to define our national security interest in a new era.

Perhaps this statement is a prelude to Rand’s dealing with the US role in the various trouble spots (spoiler alert: he barely does so).  Absent recognizing these truths, there can be no meaningful “foreign policy.”

Rand does not remove “war” from the toolkit of America’s foreign policy, as you would expect of anyone running for national office and wanting to win.  He offers some relatively meaningless boundaries: no wars “where the best outcome is stalemate”; no wars “when there is no plan for victory”; wars “when the consequences….intended and unintended….are worth the sacrifice.”

He offers one relatively important boundary: only wars “authorized by the American people, by Congress.”

If he sticks to the insistence of Congressional authorization (via a truthful dialogue, I might add), this no small thing; otherwise there is nothing he says about when America might go to war that Dick Cheney wouldn’t say.  Each one of the rest is a matter of judgment beforehand – and every President that went to war would say he didn’t intend stalemate, he always had a plan for victory, and the consequences were worth the sacrifice.

Now, on to the specifics:

The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.

What is a “war on terror”?  And why are these two statements juxtaposed?  Cannot America remain engaged with the world while ending its war on terror (whatever that term means, and more on this later)?  Of course, America – both the government (diplomatically) and individuals (commercially and for leisure) – can remain fully engaged globally without government actors dropping bombs in a dozen or so countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

…a recent report by the RAND Corporation tracked a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups.

I will come back to this later.

To contain and ultimately defeat radical Islam, America must have confidence in our constitutional republic, our leadership, and our values.

Why is this stated as if defeating “radical Islam” is an objective that has an outcome more likely than “stalemate,” that there can be any conceivable “plan for victory” and that there is any comprehension of the “unintended consequences”?  But again, I will come back to this later. 

Next comes one of those straddle-the-fence moments for which Rand has become well-known – even outside of libertarian circles:

Friday, October 24, 2014

White and Salerno on Gold and Banking

Joe Salerno has commented on an interview by Lawrence White, an interview on the topics of the gold standard and banking.  Salerno’s comments are here; White’s interview is in three parts: here, here, and here.  I will offer my two cents on comments provided by each of them – plus a few words regarding comments made by George Selgin in the feedback to Salerno’s post.

White makes points about the bought-and-paid-for nature of many academic economists, the myth that the instability in price of demonetized gold is proof of the expected instability of gold if/when monetized, the myth that the gold standard amplified business cycles, the superiority of banking free from government edict and government backing, the fragility of the “jerry-rigged” gold-standard of Bretton Woods (although he credits the designers as “well-meaning”), and the value in debunking the superiority of central bank managed money as opposed to free-market money.

On each of these points, I am in agreement (except the “well-meaning” part).

As to the seemingly growing interest in the gold standard and other alternate money regimes that are gaining exposure:

LW: Among the policy think tanks, the Cato Institute’s annual monetary conference has kept the fundamental issues alive for more than thirty years. I see their efforts expanding and reaching a wider audience.  The Heritage Foundation is now showing some interest.  The Atlas Network is now championing sound money. The Gold Standard Institute is growing in visibility.

To this point, Salerno takes some exception:

JS: A glaring omission in White’s answer is, of course, the Mises Institute, which held its first conference on the gold standard over 30 years ago.  Since that time it has campaigned tirelessly for the gold standard, devoting many of its conferences and publications to sound money.  Its associated academic economists and other scholars have published thousands of pages on the subject.

It is an inevitable, and unfortunate, situation regarding this feud between certain academic Austrians and the Mises Institute.  Inevitable, because on some levels certain of the differences can never be reconciled absent an abandonment of the position; unfortunate, because the two camps serve different, yet what could be complementary, roles.  I will expand on this feud, using this specific debating point.

White specifically started his sentence with the term “policy think tanks.”  While many scholars associated with the Mises Institute publish academic papers, contribute to economic journals, etc., I am certain that the term “policy think tank” cannot be applied to LvMI – nor do I believe the Institute would want to be burdened with that chain:

Think Tank: A think tank (or policy institute, research institute, etc.) is an organization that performs research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, political strategy, economics, military, technology, and culture.

I associate such a thing with an organization that seeks to influence government policy – what other “policy” are they thinking about while in the tank?  To my knowledge, most of those behind LvMI run as far away from government policy as possible – they are located in Auburn, Alabama, for goodness’ sakes.  White’s inclusion of Cato and Heritage offer compelling evidence of my view – these are certainly think tanks dedicated to influencing government policy.

For this reason, White’s narrowed definition would thankfully exclude the Mises Institute, therefore – on a technicality – Salerno has no reason to complain.  But not so fast: White offers examples in his response of influential organizations that in no way fit the definition of a “policy think tank,” for example The Atlas Network:

Our mission is to strengthen the worldwide freedom movement by identifying, training, and supporting individuals with the potential to found and develop effective independent organizations that promote our vision in every country.

We aim to cultivate, support, and inspire potential and existing free-market organization partners around the world. Currently Atlas Network serves more than 400 partners in over 80 countries worldwide.

This sounds like a well-organized meet-up group, not a policy think tank in the same vein as a Cato or Heritage.