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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Department of Defense Declares War on the Sun



Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Russia, China; terrorists, communists, Ebola.  Need a war? They have an enemy.

Not yet satiated, The Department of Defense has found a new one; Rachel Martin interviews Admiral David Titley.  Let’s leave the story-telling to them:

RM: The debate over climate change in this country has dramatically shifted over the years. The question is no longer whether climate change exists, but rather what can be done to slow its effects? And the U.S. Department of Defense is asking the same question.

I agree completely – there is no question that the climate is changing, much as has happened in every chapter of history.  Cold spells, warm spells, droughts, floods.  Almost like clockwork, the climate changes.

RM: This past week, the Pentagon released a report saying that rising temperatures pose an immediate threat to national security, and it outlined a plan to the crisis.

I guess the Navy has run out of wars to fight?  How is this a threat that the Navy can handle?

DT: So while I don't think anybody claims that climate change caused the Arab Spring, there's a lot of research that shows that it was probably one of the contributing factors.

Oh.  Blame it on the Arabs.  Those darn sun spots – they drive people crazy, I guess.  Perhaps when the entire world gets as hot as the Arabian Desert, we will all become terrorists?

The Admiral suggests that the battle for climate change will be fought in the Arctic.  Don’t worry, the interviewer is equally confused:

RM: Can you make the connection? Can you make the connection for me? Why would the U.S. military have to open up that front? Why would they be working in the Arctic?

DT: Oil and gas, I think many people know that some of the last greatest reserves of oil and gas are up in the Arctic.

So, the navy must protect access to oil and gas – one of the primary contributors (per the bogus science) of man-made global warming climate change?

RM: But how would the military respond? …What do you propose that the U.S. military be doing to combat climate change? Is there anything from a tactical level that can be done?

DT: Sure. So from a tactical level….

Tactical nukes – enough to lower the temperature a few degrees:

Nuclear winter (also known as atomic winter) is a hypothetical climatic effect of countervalue nuclear war. Models suggest that detonating dozens or more nuclear weapons on cities prone to firestorm, comparable to the Hiroshima city of 1945, could have a profound and severe effect on the climate causing cold weather and reduced sunlight for a period of months or even years by the emission of large amounts of the firestorms' smoke and soot into the Earth's stratosphere.

How about just lobbing twenty or thirty thousand warheads in the direction of the sun?  Knock a few hundred thousand square kilometers of the Sun’s photosphere out of commission, diminishing the area from which energy is released?  Call it “Operation Enduring Winter.”

Just kidding, he didn’t say this. 

Maybe they can attach a thermostat to the Sun.  Yeah, that’s it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

White House Confirms Air Drop Intended for ISIS



Apparently the US Air Force air-dropped some weapons in a region controlled by ISIS. 

An ISIS-associated YouTube account posted a new video online Tuesday entitled, “Weapons and munitions dropped by American planes and landed in the areas controlled by the Islamic State in Kobani.”

This must not be right – just because there is a video doesn’t prove anything:

The authenticity of this latest video could not be independently confirmed…

Exactly my point.

Let’s ask the question directly; it doesn’t get any more direct than straight from the top:

On Monday, White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the U.S. government was confident that the emergency airdropped supplies for the Kurdish forces near Kobani were falling into the right hands.

“We feel very confident that, when we air drop support as we did into Kobani… we’ve been able to hit the target in terms of reaching the people we want to reach,” Rhodes told CNN.

There you have it; the White House is “very confident” that the weapons “were falling into the right hands.”

(HT ZeroHedge)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Unit of Value or Unit of Measure



Answer first, analysis later: money is a perfect unit of measure; there is no such thing as a unit of value.

John Tamny is out with a piece suggesting that David Gordon, of the Mises Institute, inadvertently attacked Ludwig von Mises when Gordon reviewed Money, the book released last summer by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames. (HT EPJ)

I have, in the past, found much to agree with in Tamny’s writings, and some to disagree with.  I have agreed with him on topics that were disagreeable to some in the Austrian school.  Sadly, Tamny even prompted me to write one of the dumber posts I think I have ever written – or at least one aspect of my post was such (boy, I hate re-living that one…).

Back to the current Tamny piece:

What struck this writer as odd is that in lightly attacking Forbes and Ames, Gordon only succeeded insofar as he perhaps unintentionally revealed a strong disagreement about money with the intellectual father of the Institute which employs him, Ludwig von Mises.

I am not going to deal with the views of Mises on this matter, for two reasons: first, I don’t read enough of Mises directly to comment either way.  I have explained why this is so elsewhere, but in a nutshell: I want to work through problems of economics myself; if I later find that I landed where someone like Mises has previously landed, I feel pleased.  If I find I disagree with someone like Mises, I feel confident.  But for me, the journey is most important.

Second, if someone wants to challenge David Gordon on just about any topic, he better bring his lunch…and dinner.  Don’t let Gordon’s diminutive physical stature and mild manner fool you – not too far below the surface, one will find a mind more than capable of dealing with any challenge.  In any case, Gordon has already done this work.

In this piece, Tamny is mostly wrong.  He is also mostly wrong on the same issues upon which his boss and co-author of the subject book, Steve Forbes, is also mostly wrong.  Let’s walk through it….

Gordon has a problem with the Forbes and Ames assertion that money is merely a measure meant to facilitate exchange.

Again, I will leave the defense of Gordon to Gordon.  From this quote, the key open question is “measure” of what?  Tamny answers:

Rather than viewing money as a concept, meaning a measuring rod of value meant to foster the exchange of actual value…

There can be no such thing as “a measuring rod of value” if value is subjective.  Last time I checked, I think it still is.

Friday, October 17, 2014

For Every Question the Answer is War



Forgive a somewhat rambling post – several recent and not-so-recent events have prompted my thoughts here….

When I started this blog, I didn’t really have it in mind that I would write much about history – and that much of that history would focus on war.  Also when I started this blog, while I felt empathy with those who are victims in war – the non-combatants foremost – my further writing and reflection has brought this empathy into sharp focus.

I think the first revisionist war topic that I wrote about with some substance was the myth behind Pearl Harbor – in some ways a subject no longer controversial to even the professional supporters of FDR, although still a narrative than might result in a fist fight if questioned in the wrong crowd. Since then, the list of my work on this topic has grown rather long.

After several posts on the revisionist view of war history, I began to understand one reason I was drawn to this topic: war and the military is a god to many in the West, certainly in the United States.  It is supported by myths (the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor as a complete surprise, the bombs ended the war, the US brings democracy to the world, Germany started every war, blah, blah, blah); these myths deserve to die. 

In my own small way, I felt I could contribute to destroying these myths – I am satisfied if I feel I might have reached even one person with a post on this topic.

After some time, I began to put together something else: for a libertarian, war is THE issue.  Now, I don’t mean to suggest that to be a libertarian this must be so; I am suggesting that in war, every violation of freedom is to be found – whether on the (so-called) winning side or losing side.  Absent war, life for all would be much freer.

In war, everything about liberty and freedom hinges.  To begin: the life and death of the victims.  I recall reading, in the book Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism, by John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez:

If I may hark back to those charming debates of the 1950s, it has always seemed to me that red is better than dead because the red can choose to be dead but the dead cannot choose to be anything at all.

It is, of course, unarguable.  Not to get into an afterlife discussion (as you are free to advance yourself toward this end whenever you like), is there any separation from liberty more complete and permanent than death?  Yet, if one finds himself in a situation that he prefers “dead” to “red” (so to speak), he can always make this choice for himself.  “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Those alive are free to choose; those taken to death without a choice?  Not so much.

I was happy to find that once again, like on so many other topics, I found myself in a square occupied by Rothbard many years before.  I recall reading or hearing somewhere that Rothbard felt war was the paramount issue, the most significant issue to address by those of us who care about liberty.  I can’t find the quote (although, a read of this article, sent to me by a friend, will likely lead you to this conclusion).  I found another quote that at least somewhat comes to the same point:

It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society.
               Murray Rothbard

While this quote does not touch on the issue of death separating the victim from liberty on this earth, I have no doubt regarding Rothbard’s view on this matter.

This sounds so simple to me now; humbly I submit it wasn’t always so for me.