Category Archive: Justice
Comments Off on Car crashes and hockey fights — how safety mandates can make life more dangerous
Suppose you want to reduce deaths in automobile accidents. Should you make cars safer? Seems like a no-brainer, right? But consider: suppose instead of an airbag in your steering column, we put a six-inch dagger. If you hit something hard head-on, you get the dagger through your sternum.
That jerk tail-gating you on I-95 would give you more space if his BMW featured an ice pick instead of a soft, comfy airbag.
In fact, economist Sam Peltzman has found that while real mandated safety features in cars reduce the chance that a person in a car will be hurt in an accident, drivers then behave more recklessly, and thus increase the chances of accidents occurring.
This is what we call a “Peltzman Effect.” People respond to a safety regulation by increasing their risky behavior.
Peltzman Effects happen not only on the road but also on the ice. Hockey, both professional and amateur, has fallen prey to this sort of effect over the last few decades.
There are three factors that interact to determine player safety in any game, in ways that are hard to predict. The first is the inherent physical riskiness of the sport: zooming around on the ice with 11 other people is just more dangerous than swinging a golf club.
The second is rules and equipment: sometimes equipment evolves, and sometimes new rules dictate substantial changes, as in 1975 when the NHL required players to wear helmets with full face protection.
The third is behavior, the human element. It’s not surprising that this element is the hardest to predict.
We see a pretty clear Peltzman Effect in the behavior of NHL players responding to the 1975 rule requiring them to wear helmets with full face protection. Here’s the explanation from a medical journal:
The increased protection of the face through the compulsory wearing of helmets with full face protection, which was introduced in 1975, appears to have led to a more aggressive playing style perhaps because it is believed that the head, face, and throat are now at less risk. Many believe that, after the mandatory use of helmets with a full facemask, players developed a false sense of security and invincibility leading to excessive risk taking behaviour with a resultant increase in illegal and injurious activity. It is also interesting that increased high stick violation and the use of the full facemask as a weapon were noted … after mandatory use of the full facemask.… Other authors have even speculated that the mandatory use of helmets with full facemasks has increased the risk of neck [and brain injuries].
Hockey Fights — The Code
A similar kind of unintended consequence occurred after a 2003 rule change against fighting.
Players in professional sports are governed, not just by the official rules of the league, but also by what author Ross Bernstein calls, “the code,” the unwritten rules among players. Bernstein argues that for many years, the code of hockey fights actually reduced the level of violent danger in the game as a whole.
Hockey “goons” enforced norms against poking a star such as Wayne Gretzky in the ribs with the butt of your stick. The refs might not catch you, but if you bruised Gretzky you had to face a professional fighter.
Of course, your team would also defend you if you behaved within the code, and send up their own enforcer for the stylized combat. But if you broke the code, you had to fight, and you would likely be both hurt and humiliated.
So Gretzky skated free and had more of the assists and goals that fans paid to see, increasing the salaries even of the players on teams that the Oilers defeated. Hockey thrived because the stylized violence of goons was tolerated.
Then in 2003, the league cracked down, punishing fighting. This means there are fewer formal fights in the game.
But now code-breakers can more easily escape the retribution of the goons. One clear effect of the rule change has been an increase in hard checks on the open ice, and an overall increase in injuries.
Putting these factors together, we can see the unintended consequence of the change in rules and the change in equipment for behavior: more danger. Players can now fly in recklessly, using their (protected) faces to block shots and their shoulders to give hard checks. The shock of the impact is transferred to necks, spines, and joints. And there is no goonery to punish those who injure star players, so we see the paradox: more safety equipment and less fighting imply more injuries.
Peltzman Effects vs The Man of System
The reason for this discussion extends beyond hockey, of course. (Though I like hockey!) The point is that bearing Peltzman Effects in mind helps policymakers and analysts remember that we are talking about people — actual sentient creatures who react and respond, not billiard balls or chemicals in solution, whose reactions are predictable.
There is a tendency among regulators to act like Adam Smith’s “Man of System,” moving objects around on a chess board.
The man of system … is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.… He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles … are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably.
The “game” may be hockey or public policy; the insight is the same. Unintended consequences may reduce, or even eliminate, the good you hope to do with a policy change.
Comments Off on University athletes punished for bad thoughts
Last month, I criticized Harvard’s decision to cancel the remainder of its men’s soccer season because some members of the team created “scouting reports” on the women’s soccer team — reports that assigned women players numerical scores on the basis of their perceived sex appeal, and included photos of the women accompanied by vulgar descriptions and suggested sexual positions.
I objected to Harvard’s collective punishment of the team for the wrongdoing of some of its individual members, arguing that this was a violation of the liberal values that the university professes to uphold.
At the time, I regarded the matter as merely an unfortunate example of the contemporary academy’s penchant for virtue signaling at the expense of innocent individuals. I did not think that it carried larger implications. Subsequent events and subsequent reflection lead me to believe that I was mistaken.
The Suspensions and their Justification
The subsequent events are the flood of team suspensions for similar crude behavior by male athletes at various universities — e.g., Princeton’s swimming and diving team, Columbia’s wrestling team, Amherst’s cross country team. The subsequent reflection is on the nature of the students’ offenses and the purported justifications the universities offer for punishing them.
Consider the most recent example of this trend, the indefinite suspension of the men’s soccer team of Washington University in St. Louis. According to the Washington Post, the university “has suspended its men’s soccer team indefinitely while it investigates allegations that the 2015 team kept an online document of ‘degrading and sexually explicit comments’ toward women.”
In justifying this action, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori S. White stated,
Let me be clear: There is absolutely no place at Washington University for sexism, discrimination or harassment of any kind. This alleged behavior flies in the face of the university’s core values of community support, diversity and inclusion, and we are firmly committed to conducting a timely and thorough investigation to address this matter.
Doing Wrong or Thinking Wrong?
What is the nature of the offense that demands such a strong response? Ms. White declares that there is no place for sexism, discrimination, or harassment at Washington University.
Discrimination consists in treating others more harshly because of their race, religion, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, or membership in other protected classes. It is discrimination to refuse to hire or promote someone because of his or her membership in one of these protected groups, or to refuse to serve someone in a hotel, restaurant, or other business open to the public for such a reason — or, in the educational setting, to exclude someone from an educational opportunity on such a basis.
But the members of Washington University’s men’s soccer team were not engaging in any such actions. In fact, they were not interacting with the aggrieved women at all. This suggests that, whatever their offense is, it is not discrimination.
What about harassment? In the educational environment, sexual harassment consists in unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with the right to receive an equal educational opportunity.
This can come in two forms. The first is quid pro quo harassment, which occurs when a school employee explicitly or implicitly conditions a student’s participation or success in an educational activity on the student’s submission to unwelcome sexual advances. The second form is hostile environment harassment, which occurs when faculty, staff, or other students make unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or engage in other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile or abusive educational environment.
In the context of the Washington University soccer team, only hostile environment harassment can be relevant. But this form of harassment requires that the offensive verbal or physical conduct be communicated to the potential victims. In order for the conduct of some students to create a hostile environment for others, it must at least be known to those others. But the players’ offensive comments about their fellow students were secret and were not directed at or shared with the women students. This suggests that whatever the soccer players’ offense is, it is not harassment.
That leaves sexism. Sexism is an exceedingly broad term. It has been defined as
- the assumption that one sex is superior to the other and the resultant discrimination practiced against members of the supposed inferior sex,
- behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex,
- the unfair treatment of women because of their sex, and
- unjust distinction based on gender and made against one person or group in favor of another.
Now, it is not clear that creating an online document that contains degrading and sexually explicit comments toward women satisfies any of these definitions, but at least it is in the neighborhood. So the soccer players’ offense must be sexism, manifested by sharing among themselves vulgar and offensive sexual comments about fellow students.
Apparently, the players’ offense was that they thought bad things about some of Washington University’s female students, which they memorialized in a private online document. I’m not sure, but this seems to me to be a fairly good exemplar of a thoughtcrime.
Given the facts of this case, Ms. White appears to be declaring that there is absolutely no place at Washington University for bad thinking.
From George Orwell to Lewis Carroll
Next, consider the Alice in Wonderland quality of these proceedings. What punishments could the university assign to the men’s soccer team if its members behaved improperly? Cancelling its season would appear to be the harshest. But note that this is the action the university has taken “while it investigates [the] allegations.” University Provost Holden Thorp issued a statement saying,
We must respect the integrity of the investigative process and carefully review the findings as they become available; however, these allegations suggest an unacceptable culture within our men’s soccer program. We have no choice at this point but to put a halt to all team activities — indefinitely — while we conclude the investigation and determine the most appropriate next steps.
Does this remind anyone else of the Queen of Hearts’ dictum “Sentence first — verdict afterwards”? Does the provost really believe that he has no choice but to impose punishment before the investigation is concluded, and before “appropriate steps are determined”?
Notice also that it is the 2016 team that is being punished for the alleged bad behavior of the 2015 team. How would it feel to be a freshman on the 2016 team? How would it feel to be told that you could not play intercollegiate soccer because of what others did while you were in high school?
The provost felt compelled to cancel the men’s soccer season because the allegations made against the 2015 team “suggest an unacceptable culture within our men’s soccer program.” But why the emphasis on the program’s “culture”? If some members of the team violated university rules, why not bring them up on academic charges as individuals? Unless — of course — no rules have been violated.
Breaking Rules That Don’t Exist
Exactly what academic offense have the students committed? Is it a violation for students to keep a private journal containing degrading and offensive comments about their fellow students? What could the students be charged with? Is Washington University an Orwellian world in which wrong thinking can be punished?
If not — if the students who created the journal have not violated any specific university rule — and the university does not have grounds to sanction the individuals who actually engaged in the objectionable behavior, then on what grounds can it sanction the entire team?
The provost said the university had “no choice at this point but to put a halt to all team activities.” I disagree.
I think the university faced a clear and meaningful choice. With no grounds to punish individual students who engaged in conduct that the University found objectionable, the university could have pursued two distinct courses of action. It could have voiced its extreme disapproval of the students’ behavior, but acknowledged that a commitment to liberal values entails a commitment to tolerate offensive conduct that does not harm others, and then taken no action against the soccer team.
Or to publicly signal its virtuous commitment to “community support, diversity and inclusion,” it could abandon its commitment to liberalism and impose collective punishment on the team even though no individual had committed a punishable offense.
This presented what academics call a teachable moment — and, as an academic, I am deeply troubled by the lesson that Washington University decided to teach.
Given the way teenaged boys away from home and free from parental authority are wont to behave, I expect that incidents similar to the ones at Harvard and Washington University will continue to come to light. I sincerely hope the next institution presented with a comparable teachable moment departs from the course taken by Harvard and Washington University and instructs its students on what a true commitment to liberal values entails.
Comments Off on Finally, a libertarian defense of identity politics
McGill University’s Jacob T. Levy has an outstanding piece over at the Niskanen Center on the role of identity politics in the 2016 election and in the movement for liberty. In the piece, titled “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics,” Levy takes on the defense of identity politics by downplaying its role in electing Donald Trump and by making the case for advocates of liberty to incorporate identity politics into arguments for more individual freedom.
Identity Politics didn’t elect Trump
It seems that President-elect Donald Trump’s upset win in early November was just the evidence the anti-politically correct conservatarian crowd needed to prove that identity politics are bunk. Levy takes issue with that, writing, “…there is a powerful temptation to attribute the surprising and dramatic fact of Trump’s win to some issue about which one had some preexisting ax to grind.”
That Trump’s election was the inevitable backlash against the left’s decades-old deployment of identity politics doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and Levy makes quick work of it by looking at vote shares and shifting demographics:
Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.
Trump’s win was definitely unexpected, but it wasn’t a referendum on identity politics or political correctness, and Trump certainly wasn’t elected with a mandate. 74 million Americans voted for someone other than Donald Trump for President, compared to the 62 million who voted for him. Identity politics didn’t elect Donald Trump, but Levy goes on to make a case for why self-avowed liberals should incorporate it into their discourse anyway.
Identity politics are good for liberty
Levy makes the case that many libertarian pet issues, like introducing accountability to the nation’s police departments, reforming civil asset forfeiture laws, rolling back police militarization, are ultimately distillations of broader identity politics. Sure, you can advocate for these issues as a libertarian without invoking race, but given that the impetus for these liberty-destroying policies is bound up in the United States’ history of racism and white supremacy, adopting a tone at least sympathetic to identity politics would allow libertarians to make further inroads into communities that wouldn’t typically identify as libertarian. Levy writes,
It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.
As much as it might be a pain to hear, well-reasoned and logical arguments aren’t the best ways to convince people your position is the correct position. Sometimes, probably most times, it helps to appeal to the emotions of the person you’re trying to convince. To this end, Levy concludes his piece as follows, bolded emphasis mine:
As citizens of a liberal state trying to preserve it, we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them. Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.
Comments Off on How to be a light for liberty in the new year
With the beginning of 2017, what might be a “New Year’s resolution” for a friend of freedom? One answer is for each of us to do our best to become “lights of liberty” that will attract others to the cause of freedom and the free society.
For five years, from 2003 to 2008, I had the opportunity and privilege to serve as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. FEE, as it is also called, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read, with the precise goal of advancing an understanding of, and the arguments for, individual freedom, free markets, and constitutionally limited government.
One of the reasons that I accepted the position as president was that FEE had been influential in my own intellectual development in appreciating the meaning and importance of liberty from the time that I was a teenager, both through the pages of its monthly magazine, The Freeman and the books that it published and distributed at heavily discounted prices.
I wanted to assist in continuing the work that Leonard Read had begun at FEE, especially among the young whose ideas and actions would greatly influence the chances for liberty in the decades to come.
Self-Improvement Advances Liberty
In fact, it is now a bit more than forty years ago, in June 1974 when I was in my mid-20s, that I first attended a weeklong FEE summer seminar at its then headquarters in a spacious and charming mansion building in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
here were many impressive speakers at the seminar that week, including the famous free-market journalist, Henry Hazlitt, and the riveting Austrian School economist, Hans Sennholz.
But I must confess that I only recall the content of one of the lectures that week, delivered by Leonard Read, himself. He pointed out that many of us wish we could change the world in ways that we consider to be for the better. But changing the world can only happen through changes in the attitudes, ideas, and actions of the individual members of any society.
He asked, out of all the people in the world, over whom do you have the most influence? The answer, he said, is, obviously, yourself. Therefore, changing the world begins with improving one’s own understanding and ability to explain and persuasively articulate the case for freedom and free markets.
At one point in his talk, he asked that the lights be turned off in the classroom. In the darkness he slowly started to turn up the light of an electric candle that he held in his hand, asking us to notice how all eyes were drawn to it, however dim the illumination.
As the candle brightened, he pointed out that more and more of the darkness was pushed away into the corners, enabling us to see more clearly both the objects and the people in the room.
If each of us learned more about liberty, we would become ever-brighter lights in the surrounding collectivist darkness of the society in which we lived. Our individually growing enlightenment through self-education and self-improvement would slowly but surely draw others to us who might also learn the importance of freedom.
Through this process, more and more human lights of freedom would sparkle in the dark until finally there would be enough of us to guide the way for others so that liberty would once again triumph. And collectivism would be pushed far back into the corners of society.
Anything That’s Peaceful and First Principles
Central to Read’s philosophy of freedom was a commitment to first principles as the Archimedean point from which the logic of liberty flows. As Read explained in his book Anything That’s Peaceful (1964):
I mean let anyone do anything that he pleases that’s peaceful and creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver the mail, or educate, or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful. Limit society’s agency of organized force – government – to juridical and policing functions . . . Let the government do this, and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!
What are the “first principles” of liberty, and what do they imply?
Each Individual’s Right to His Own Life
Firstly, and most importantly, liberty means the right of the individual to live his own life for himself. The starting axiom of freedom is that right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property.
Either the individual has “ownership” over himself, or it must be presumed that the collective, the tribe, the group has the authority to dispose of his life and the fruits of his mental and physical labors.
If he does not have a right to his own life, then he is at the mercy of the wishes, whims, and coercive caprice of others who claim to speak and act with political authority in the name of “society.”
Only the individual knows what will bring happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning and purpose to his own life. If this is taken away from him, then he is a slave to the purposes and brute power of others.
Respect for the Equal Rights of All
Secondly, liberty means for each of us to respect the equal right of every other individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property. We cannot expect others to respect our own right to these things, if we do not, as a matter of principle, forswear any claim to their life and property.
To not recognize and abide by the reciprocity of respect for and defense of such individual rights is to abrogate any principle of human association other than force and plunder – the enslavement and spoliation by the intellectually manipulative and physically stronger of others in society.
On what basis or by what principle can we appeal not to be murdered, physically violated or robbed by others, if we do not declare and insist upon the right of each individual to his life, liberty and property, ours and everyone else’s, as a starting moral premise in society?
Voluntary Consent and Peaceful Agreement
Thirdly, this means that all human associations and relationships should be based on peaceful and voluntary consent and agreement. No one may be coerced or intimidated through the threat of force to act in any way other than he freely chooses to do.
Each of us only enters into those associations and exchanges from which we expect to be made better off, as we define and desire an improvement in our lives.
This does not mean that we often do not wish that the terms under which another is willing to trade with us would be more favorable to ourselves. But the fact that we may choose to exchange at some agreed terms that is minimally acceptable to ourselves as well as to the other person means that, all things considered, we anticipate that our circumstances will be better than if we passed up this trading opportunity.
The only time that it is clear that a trade or an association with others is not considered by us as a source of personal betterment is when we are forced or coerced into the relationship. Why would compulsion have to be used or threatened against us, if we did not view what we are being compelled to do to be an act or a commitment that we evaluate as making us worse rather than better off?
The Mutual Respect of Private Property
Fourthly, liberty means that each individual’s honestly-acquired property is respected as rightfully his, and may not be plundered or taxed away by others, even when majorities may think that some minority has not paid some supposed “fair share.”
What makes something the rightful property of an individual? When he has either appropriated unclaimed and previously unowned land and resources through their transformation in some manner brought about by his mental and physical labor, or when he has acquired it through peaceful and non-fraudulent trade with another in exchange for something he has to offer in the form of a desired good or his labor services at voluntarily agreed-upon terms of trade.
The use of force by either private individuals or those in political authority to seize such rightful property or compel its use or sale on terms other than those freely chosen and agreed to by its owner is, therefore, unjust and indefensible in a free society.
A Free Market of Goods and Ideas
Fifthly, liberty means respect for the free, competitive interactions of people in the marketplace of goods and ideas, out of which comes the creative and innovative energy of mind and effort that bring about rising standards of living for all in society.
The free market is the arena of human association in which each individual is at liberty to make his own choices and decisions as both producer and consumer.
Yet, as has been understood since the time of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, each individual, in his own self-interest, necessarily must apply his abilities in ways that take into consideration the circumstances and desires of others in society.
Since, in the society of liberty, no individual may acquire what he desires through murder, theft or fraud, he is left with only one avenue to obtain what others have that he wants. He must offer to those others something that he can produce or provide that those others value more highly than what they are asked to trade away to get it.
In the free market each receives in voluntary trade what they value more highly in exchange for what they value less highly. And each serves the interests of others as the means to his own end of the personal improvement of his self-defined circumstances.
Thus, the free market as a moral and starting principle eschews all forms of compelled self-sacrifice in the networks of human association.
Liberty and Limited Government
Sixthly, a society of liberty means a limited government, a government whose purpose is to protect each individual in his freedom and peaceful market and social affairs, and is not to an agency of political oppression or economic favoritism through special privileges and benefits that are given to some at the expense of others in society.
Compulsory redistribution of wealth and income, and regulatory coercions over the means and methods of production and the peaceful buying and selling of goods and services, are all inconsistent with the ideal of a society of free men and women, each secure in their individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly-acquired property.
These are not easy rules and ideals to live by, but they are what America was founded upon and made it originally great as a land of liberty – a land of both wide individual freedom and rising prosperity.
Winning Others Over to Liberty, One Person at a Time
They are, also, ideas not always easy to get others around us to understand and appreciate the way we see them. This gets us back to Leonard Read’s conception of self-improvement in our own understanding of what he called the “freedom philosophy.”
Our New Year’s resolution should be to do all that we individually can to better understand the principles of liberty, their logic, their moral rightness, and their convincing application to the political and economic issues of our day.
As we each become more enlightened and articulate spokespersons for freedom, we widen the circle of people able to persuasively draw others into that illumination of liberty. And step-by-step, one person at a time, the supporters and advocates of collectivism will be reduced and the proponents and enthusiasts for freedom will be increased.
Make it your goal, therefore, to bring at least one person over to the cause of liberty in 2017, and if we all do this we will have, at a minimum, doubled the friends of freedom in this New Year. If we repeat this same process of reasoned persuasion in 2018, that larger number can and will be doubled again. And, then, again in 2019, and 2020, and….
Through this means of peaceful persuasion the friends of freedom can become the majority in our own lifetime. All it requires is enough of us willing to try.
Comments Off on What should libertarians think about the Civil War?
Because of its emotional subject matter, lasting political legacies of race and slavery, transformative effects upon American constitutionalism, and sheer magnitude as the most destructive military episode ever to occur on American soil, the Civil War exhibits strong tendencies toward politicization in the modern era.
Unfortunately, bad history often accompanies this politicization, and libertarians are by no means immune from this tendency.
Two common interpretations of the Civil War stand out as particularly problematic:
- libertarian support for the Confederacy; and
- libertarian support for the Union.
The Problem with Pro-Confederate Libertarianism
The first and perhaps best known “libertarian” approach to the Civil War attempts to find sympathy with the defeated Confederacy because of its resistance to the federal government and northern military authority or its professed cause of free trade and political self-determination.
Some aspects of this position have intuitive appeal that produces sympathy for the Confederate cause: it professes outrage against a Union that is said to have conquered by force, trampled on the rights of states and individuals, unleashed a military invasion, suspended civil liberties, denied government by consent, elevated Lincoln to a “dictator,” and effected a lasting centralization of federal power. In this view, the Union cause and victory is the foundational work for the modern state and all that is anathema to political libertarianism.
This interpretation falters in what it neglects: slavery.
This is no small irony, either, as the anti-slavery cause was arguably the preeminent political occupation of libertarianism’s classical liberal antecedents. A continuum of classical liberal thinkers from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and J.E. Cairnes forged the main intellectual case against the slave system.
Abolitionism was also always a preeminent political cause of liberalism, extending from 18th-century statesman Charles James Fox to the 19th century’s Richard Cobden in Great Britain and strongly influencing such figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, and Frederick Douglass in the United States.
This is no small matter for the libertarian intellectual tradition either, for in sidestepping the slave question’s intimate connection to the Confederacy, pro-Confederate libertarians also inadvertently abandon what is perhaps the single most important and beneficial contribution that classical liberalism has made to the human condition: the abolition of slavery.
This is not to suggest that libertarian defenders of the Confederacy share its historical affinity for chattel slavery or the plantation system. Rather, they are guilty of turning a tin ear to the one unequivocally beneficial outcome of the war in the permanent destruction of American slavery.
The Problem with Libertarian Unionism
A smaller set of libertarians gravitate to a second common interpretation of the Civil War, defined primarily by its consequential outcome.
Unlike the pro-Confederate position, these libertarian defenders of the North are keenly aware of both the centrality of slavery to the conflict as well as the importance of the abolitionist cause to the liberal intellectual tradition. Standing as a direct antithesis to the pro-Confederate arguments, these faute de mieux Unionists recognize the inherent and fundamental contradiction between slavery and human liberty.
Their position embraces the Union victory on a consequentialist acceptance of the resulting emancipation of the slaves, and disavows any conceivable association between libertarian thought and a brutish Southern slavocracy, born of no other motive or purpose but to entrench and expand that pernicious institution — and deserving of nothing short of a violent and warring elimination by any means or justification.
The argument is both morally appealing and marked by its clarity, but it also suffers from its Manichean simplicity and a tendency to read an inevitable “irrepressible conflict” into the hindsight of the Civil War’s destruction.
This view recognizes slavery and celebrates its abolition, but it tends to neglect or even rationalize the war’s uglier features and consequences: a dramatic weakening of the constitutional federalism laid out in 1787, a rapid acceleration of the scope and power of the federal government, a precedent-setting assault on habeas corpus and expansion of presidential war powers that persists to the present day — and the horrendous destruction itself.
Measured by deaths alone, current estimates place the war’s military toll at 750,000 soldiers. Civilian deaths are more difficult to estimate, though the most common number given is 50,000. And perhaps most telling of all, between 60,000 and 200,000 slaves likely perished as a result of disease and displacement caused by the war.
Why a New Interpretation Is Necessary
Where then does this leave the conscientious libertarian in assessing the Civil War’s legacy?
To address the faults of both the pro-Confederate and pro-Union positions, I’ll offer two propositions for libertarians to consider:
- One needn’t be for the Union to be against slavery.
- One needn’t be for the Confederacy to object to the North’s prosecution of the war.
Stated differently, a morally consistent libertarian view of the war should strive to dissociate itself from the political actors that waged it, while also seeking to recognize its consequences, both positive and negative.
This much may be seen in the faults of the two views described above. Libertarians who embrace the Confederacy are more often than not reasonably aware of both the evils of slavery and the distinction between the abolitionist cause and the Union.
But they neglect the second rule; because of their distaste for the Union’s wartime policies, they stake their claim to a Confederate cause that, whether they admit it or not, thoroughly attached itself to the moral abomination of slavery.
And libertarians who embrace the Union are also usually aware of the objections one might lodge against its indulgences in unrestricted warfare, suspension of civil liberties, centralization of power, or any of the other charges often made against the Union’s wartime cause or its outcome.
But they thoroughly subordinate these objections to the greater moral purpose of emancipation — a focus that obscures all but the most simplistic reading of the war’s other political and constitutional consequences.
In each argument, the problem is not its primary emphasis, but the complexities it obscures or leaves out.
In place of both views, and in recognition of their deficiencies, libertarians might develop a better appreciation for the Civil War’s complexity by turning their analysis to the nature of the ruinous agency of the conflict itself.
War, whether waged to hold human beings in bondage or subjugate a political rebellion, is a consciously coercive action of the political state in its most expansive and direct form. And armed warfare, as both the Union and Confederacy came to discover across four destructive years, is horrifically messy, unpredictable, and destructive of human life and human liberty.
Military goals and political motives also matter, as they define the objectives of the armies and prioritize their execution. Thus, a military maneuver to capture an opposing political capital will take a very different form from one that eschews political objectives and seeks to maximize the liberation of slaves or the protection of civilians.
There may also be small glimpses of just action amongst individual participants in a far more ambiguous conflict. When the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson raised the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black unit composed of escaped slaves, there is little doubt that they were fighting for emancipation, even as larger Union war goals moved far more slowly on this objective.
There is similarly little doubt about the motive of some Southerners who fought for their homes and families as hostile armies marched through their states; even a handful of Confederates — Patrick Cleburne, Duncan Kenner — pressed their government (in vain) to consider emancipation as a means of securing independence.
These graces on the periphery tell us more about the conflict’s moral complexity than anything that may be found in its political objectives. History is not a Manichean struggle between pure good and evil; we are not served by filtering its conflicts through a dualistic moral lens.
Instead of looking for a “side” to champion, we are better served by recognizing that even amid the unbridled horrors of slavery and the devastation of war, there may still be a few who are fighting for something better than their country’s cause.
Comments Off on Liberalism reconstructed for a world divided
So 2016 is limping to an end with an assassination of an ambassador, another “inspired” attack on innocents at a Christmas market, and the formal election of a master crony-capitalist to the office of the presidency of the United States. We have angry tweets, mean tweets, and self-congratulatory tweets defining our age. But our age requires something different.
The liberal project must be reconstructed for a world divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, nationalist, and economic class. The liberal project has always been an evolving project, not fixed in time. It has taken on different meanings at different historical junctures. Now is no different, and to do the necessary reconstruction, there must be no divide between the humanities and the social sciences. Philosophy without economics is daydreaming, and economics without philosophy has no purpose, and both without politics are sterile intellectual exercises.
In this reconstruction, we may draw inspiration from Smith and Hume, Mises and Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, Nozick, etc., but repeating their answers to the problems of their day will not work. We live in the post-colonial and post-communist era, where the neoconservative project of a ‘world order’ has only exacerbated the social tensions that define our age.
This post is designed for one purpose — to encourage young scholars of classical liberalism — be they philosophers, political scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, etc. — to pick up this challenge and apply all their talents to be students of our civilization. If the best and the brightest don’t pick up the challenge because of academic conformity methodologically, analytically, ideologically, then the necessary reconstruction will not occur. Note I am not saying “restatement”, I am saying reconstruction.
My career as an academic political economist began with studying the history, collapse and transition from socialism in the former Soviet Union, it then switched to the institutional lessons to be learned from the failure of development planning in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This has led to studies on economic calculation and complex coordination; institutional infrastructure and economic development; endogenous rule formation and analytical anarchism; and social epistemology and comparative institutional analysis. But, these are at best inputs into a study that seeks to addresses the problems that plague our world and the reconstructed liberal project.
We have serious problems that require serious attention. Let’s get to work.
Comments Off on Why riots happen
After the Los Angeles riot in spring of 1992, almost every pundit in the country took a turn at explaining why riots occur. The conventional wisdom on the subject went something like this: certain dramatic events such as political assassinations or unpopular jury verdicts crystalize riots from social rage.
So to understand riots, one must understand the causes of social rage, usually said to be racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and why people who experience this rage manage it in such a destructive manner. The usual suspects include breakdown of the family, television, and a generalized cultural disorientation.
All of these explanations have some truth in them, but are evidently incomplete. First, they explain too much. The predisposing social conditions are with us all the time, yet riots are episodic.
Second, they explain too little. Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie.
Indeed, during the Los Angeles riots, anyone with a TV set could see that jubilation rather than fury best characterized the mood of the people in the streets. It is hard to credit that these exhilarated looters with their new VCR’s and cameras were protesting the jury system, the state of race relations in Southern California, or anything else.
They were, in fact, having a party. Moreover, many of those who risked life and limb opposing the more outrageous excesses of the rioters were themselves poor, unemployed, and victims of racism.
Conversely, a crowd is not an incipient riot merely because it assembles a great many people with the predisposing demographic characteristics. For example, every Fourth of July in Chicago’s Grant Park there is a fireworks display that usually attracts about a million spectators. In certain parts of the grounds, people are packed together like sardines, so that individuals substantially lose their ability to decide where to go. One goes where the crowd goes. Going against it is impossible, and even leaving it (unless one is near the edge) may be difficult.
Some people dislike the experience, but whatever its discomforts, the Fourth of July crowd at Grant Park is not a riot in the making. The crowd is big, it is loud, it is unmanageable, it is filled with people who have suffered from racial discrimination and economic deprivation, it has, in aggregate, drunk a lot of beer (which is legally for sale at dozens of kiosks at the event); but it is only a crowd, not an incipient riot.
Day in and day out in any big city, police blotters will reflect the existence of a fairly steady background supply of theft, mugging, arson, and homicide. But this jumble of criminal mischief does not amount to a “riot”; riots are the coordinated acts of many people. If they are coordinated, who coordinates them? Authorities looking for ways to explain why trouble has broken out on their watch sometimes ascribe exaggerated organizational powers to “outside agitators.”
While, as we explain, there is definitely a leadership niche in the ecology of a mob, it seems to become important only after the crowd has assembled. Riots are not, as a rule, plotted and scripted affairs.
It would be very difficult indeed to “stage” a riot. A person who set out to do so would encounter a series of difficult challenges. When should the riot be held? Where? How should the participants be notified? Once marshaled, how should they be instigated to behave in a way that would expose them to arrest? Trying to organize a riot as though it were a company picnic would quickly attract the attention of the police. And with the police watching, who would be brave enough to cast the first stone?
How, then, do riots begin?
Assembling the Crowd
When something happens that causes a large number of riot-prone people to mass spontaneously in one place, while police cannot mass at a correspondingly rapid rate, the cost of starting a riot, as any one participant would figure it before the fact, would begin to decrease dramatically.
It would decrease still more if it seemed to a prospective troublemaker that his own hopes and expectations about the potential behavior of the crowd were also the hopes and expectations of many of its other members, because in that case it would seem a better bet that if he did cast the first stone, many others would follow.
The most obvious way to get a riotous crowd to assemble is the occurrence of what could be called a “Schelling incident,” after Thomas Schelling, the great master of strategic theory. In The Strategy of Conflict (1960: 90) Schelling wrote,
It is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert. Overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority trying to prevent mob action.
In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone. The role of “incidents” can thus be seen as a coordinating role; it is a substitute for overt leadership and communication. Without something like an incident, it may be difficult to get action at all, since immunity requires that all know when to act together.
It is not crucial, in the generative stage of a riot, that the participants act literally simultaneously. What is crucial is that offenses occur rapidly enough to overwhelm the police. From the rioter’s viewpoint, there is safety in numbers. There comes a point at which the police pass from inadequacy to impotence. In the Los Angeles riot, the police actually pulled back from the trouble when it became obvious to everyone, including themselves, that there was nothing constructive they could do.
Certain kinds of high-profile events have become traditional “starting signals” for civil disorders. In fact, incidents can become signals simply because they have been signals before. What ignited the first English soccer riot has been lost in the mists of history; but they had become a troublesome problem sometime during the nineteenth century, as Bill Buford (1991) makes clear in quoting old newspaper accounts in his Among the Thugs.
Today, there is a century’s weight of tradition behind soccer violence. People near a football ground on game day know that a certain amount of mischief, possibly of a quite violent kind, is apt to occur. Those who dislike that sort of thing had best take themselves elsewhere. Certain people, though, thrive on the action — relish getting drunk, fighting, smoking dope; enjoy the whiff of anarchy, harassing and beating respectable people and vandalizing their property.
Such people — hooligans — make a point of being where the trouble is likely to start. The sort of “soccer fans” about whom Buford wrote were mostly interested in barbarian camaraderie, not soccer. Some of them do not even go inside the stadium, and some spectators do not watch the game but pass their time in petty thievery. Hooligans’ game is being a part of the crowd that congregates near a soccer stadium, belonging to and sharing its power, especially its power to flout the law.
A Schelling incident is not a signal that tells a person what to do. It is a signal that tells a person what other people will probably do. In the United Kingdom even an ordinary minor league soccer match might well be a Schelling incident. Buford gives several examples.
In the United States, that sort of game would not be — but having one’s team win a National Basketball Association championship increasingly seems to be. In Detroit in recent years, “Devils Night” (the night before Halloween) has become a springboard for multiple, independent, almost simultaneous acts of arson. These are examples, baleful ones, of how culture, habit, and tradition can overcome major organizational barriers to cooperative social endeavors and lower the cost of transacting business.
As word spreads of a conventional triggering event — whether it is shocking (like an assassination) or rhapsodic (a three-peat) — crowds form spontaneously in various places, without any one person having to recruit them. Each member of the crowd will know more about the intentions of fellow crowd members than people usually know about the intentions of strangers, because once a starting signal has been given, people know that a riot is impending. They gather into crowds because they want to participate and they know why the other people in the crowd, or at least a great many of them, have come.
Not every crowd threatens to evolve into a riot. In fact, the opposite is more often true: people bent on criminal mischief usually do not want lots of witnesses and possibly hostile bystanders around when they commit crimes. And so the psychology of the crowd’s members is crucial. A significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous. That is, there has to be a critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.
The Role of the Entrepreneur
For a riot to begin, it is necessary but not sufficient that there be many people who want to riot and who believe that others want to riot too. One more hurdle has to be overcome. Even in an unstable gathering, the first perpetrator of a misdemeanor is at risk if the police are willing and able to zero in on him. Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst — a sort of entrepreneur to get things going — in Buford’s account, usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it).
In civil rights, anti-war, or anti-abortion marches, it is probably pretty common to find participants eager to expose themselves to arrest in exchange for the chance to optimize the desired impact of their protest.
This sort of self-sacrifice is certainly rare in ordinary riots, where potential rioters’ behavior is consistent, we suppose, with something like the following calculation: “If somebody else gets the riot started, I can participate without much risk. But if I stick my neck out and nobody follows, I’ll be the only one arrested. So I’ll wait for somebody else to go first.”
If every would-be rioter reasoned thus, nobody would cast the first stone, and the riot would not ignite. This is a typical free-rider problem, as economists have called it. It is usually sufficient to prevent riots from occurring, even where there is a plentiful supply of disposed participants. Riots await events that surmount the free rider problem.
The entrepreneur will throw the first stone when he calculates that the risk that he will be apprehended for doing so has diminished to an acceptable level. The risk of arrest declines as a function of two variables — the size of the crowd relative to the police force available to control it, and the probability that others will follow if somebody leads. This latter point could potentially be tricky, because as we have noted, crowds will generally be inhospitable to the commission of violent acts. But it is possible for a crowd to telegraph its willingness to riot.
Buford’s account (1991: 81—85) of a soccer hooligan rampage in Turin furnishes an example. Members of the crowd marched themselves around in a spontaneous formation with a stilted, unnatural gait, chanting the name of their team. This unmistakable token of cohesion stopped well short of anything that the Italian police could plausibly charge as solicitation or incitement, but served to assure the members of the crowd that a critical mass had formed.
Sometimes a crowd will not clearly commit itself to riot, and in such instances an entrepreneur will take more of a risk getting things started. But if he has done his implicit calculations properly, once the first plate-glass window is broken, the looting will begin and will spread and continue until the civil authorities muster enough force to make the rioters believe that they once again face a realistic prospect of arrest.
The Formation of Action Nodes
As we saw in the case of Los Angeles, riots do not occur everywhere at once. Most of the homes and businesses in south-central L.A. and Koreatown (which cover a number of square miles) were untouched by the riot. Damage was concentrated at certain intersections and along certain strips, what we call “action nodes.” How did the rioters know where these action nodes were?
Schelling (1960: 54—58) again offers a framework for analysis by offering powerful evidence for the existence of focal points in social life. People who may never have met are nonetheless capable of coordinating their behavior under some circumstances. In one experiment, two people were instructed to think of a number between one and ten and told that both would be paid a reward if each arrived at the same answer. Subjects’ ability to psyche one another out far exceeded chance.
Perhaps even more surprising, certain open-ended questions can elicit a high amount of agreement. For example, in one experiment Schelling asked his subjects what they would do if they were simply told to go and meet someone in New York City on a certain day. Out of all the possibilities for when and where to meet, a majority, trying to intuit where and when other people would expect them to be, would have converged at the information booth in Grand Central Station at high noon!
Nothing paranormal is reflected in these experiments. Although it goes beyond what is definitely known to say what makes for a focal point, some features do seem to emerge pretty clearly from Schelling’s experiments. For one thing, uniqueness seems to be important.
When asked to pick a point on a map to await another person with the same map but with whom no meeting place has been arranged, many people will select a house on a map with one house and many crossroads, but will select a crossroads on a map with one intersection but many houses.
And, of course, uniqueness makes sense when selecting focal points. Even if both parties select a house in the latter instance, the chance that they will select the same house is small. If one of many houses is distinct, however, it may be selected by some participants — a single mansion may be selected as a focal point even on a map with many houses.
Another element that seems to figure in establishing a focal point is what could be called contextual prominence — for example, the number “one” in a series of numbers, or the center of a circular area or a mountain rising from a plane.
We cannot say how a resident of South-Central L.A. might go about selecting a focal point. In fact it seems consistent with Schelling’s experiments that there would have been a number of focal points, although substantially fewer than there were residents. For example, any of several major intersections, parks or schoolyards may have seemed the natural place for a large number of riot-disposed people to gather following the acquittals in People v. Powell (the original Rodney King beating case), which amounted to a Schelling incident at least in part because for weeks it had been advertised as such by TV and newspaper accounts of the trial.
One can hardly doubt that many residents of South-Central bent on making trouble arrived at places they expected to be “focal” only to find them largely deserted. But Schelling’s work implies that a substantial number of others would have guessed right — would have gone to a major intersection, Korean strip-mall parking lot, or other public space and found the crowd they had expected to find nearing its critical mass — waiting for some of the outliers from non-viable focal points to find their way to more promising locations.
But here is a problem. Those who selected a non-viable focal point — in other words, those who guessed wrong — would now have to find out where everyone else went in order to join them. How did they get this information? Los Angeles’ television stations’ aggressive news coverage of the disturbance from its very beginning seems to have played a key role.
Within minutes after the verdicts were announced in Powell, minicam crews were doing news “live from the scene,” letting everyone in town know where the trouble was. Innocents thus learned what neighborhoods to avoid; but non-innocents, who wanted to take part in the looting, also found out where to go.
Although inadvertently, the stations lowered the search costs for aspiring rioters. Without TV, other techniques would surely have been used by people trying to find out where to go in order to loot and burn with little fear of arrest. But the broadcast media are by far the best way to get accurate information to many people at once. Especially in spread-out places like Los Angeles, rioting would be less likely to occur if information about the location of viable focal points were harder to come by.
The Role of Reputation
Although the conventional “racism-poverty-lack-of-opportunity” explanation is overly broad and somewhat shopworn, we do think it useful in explaining the makeup of a riotous crowd. Racism and poverty would clearly merit social concern even if they had no connection to people’s disposition to engage in rioting. But these are indeed predisposing conditions. One seldom sees riots break out at a convention of orthodontists. Why?
Respectability — a reputation for behaving in a predictable, socially benign manner — is an extremely valuable asset for most people who live in the middle-class world. It is one of the key ingredients in career and personal success, and the need for it serves as a sort of performance bond to keep middle-class people in line. A person to whom respectability matters much should demand better odds before risking arrest and disgrace than would a football hooligan or a member of the American urban underclass or any other socially marginal character to whom respectability is of relatively little value.
Such a person has something that a middle-class person lacks — a great deal of nihilistic freedom of the “nothing to lose” variety. Such freedom, experience suggests, is a perplexing and often malignant possession. Any social policy that would materially improve the life chances of a potential rioter would concurrently raise the value of respectability to such a person, and thus dampen the incentive to participate in civil disorders.
This is not to suggest that reputation matters less to a hooligan than it does to an orthodontist. The question is, reputation for what. A valuable reputation among the thugs is a reputation for hard partying, physical toughness, “sticking by your mates,” and, above all, an ability to engage in predatory behavior without being arrested.
British football hooligans and members of American street gangs do not direct their aggressive behavior at members of their own group, but only at outsiders. Reducing these individuals’ disposition to violence would seem, therefore, to involve getting them to identify with the larger community — making them middle-class, in other words.
Alas, that is easier said than done. Many years of heavy social spending and a “war on poverty” have established that social and economic privations are very difficult to remove even in the long run, and in the short run can hardly be influenced at all. It follows, therefore, that riots are likely to be with us recurrently for the foreseeable future, and that the focus of public debate about riot management should concentrate on symptomatic remedies. Here, at least, some constructive ideas seem worth exploring.
Stopping a Riot
Once it gets started, rioting is difficult to stop by authorities as constrained as American police forces are. Indeed, two different kinds of constraints are important. The more obvious are the rules of constitutional law, which set stringent limits on how police officers may behave toward those whom they try to arrest. Second are the budgetary facts of life that guarantee that modem urban police forces will always be staffed well below peak load demand levels.
Both these constraints should affect the probability of riots occurring and their duration and severity if they do occur. Traditional deterrence theory teaches that in order to discourage crime at the margin, one or both of two things have to happen: either the probability of catching the offender has to be visibly increased, or the harshness of the consequences to the offender in case he is caught have to be tangibly enhanced.
In the case of riots especially, there is not much that police forces can do about either option.
It is hard to imagine that the public would be willing to staff the police department at levels sufficient to deal with a riot immediately if one should break out: it costs a city’s budget about $60,000 or more to add just one additional officer to the force. Nor will there ever be enough prosecutors to try every rioter that could be arrested, nor enough prisons to house them if convicted. Every rioter understands these practical constraints very well. They spell practical legal immunity so long as a riot continues.
If the police try to cover most of the serious action nodes that develop, they will be spread too thin to do much good anywhere. If they abandon some action nodes to concentrate on a few, the trouble can be stopped at the selected locations, but the procedure is like nailing Jell-o to the wall. The riot simply flows around the impediment and goes to locations the police have not covered. Until the National Guard arrives, quadrupling or quintupling available manpower and increasing the apparent risk of arrest, matters simply run out of control.
Of course, authorities prepared to resort to brutality can terminate riots promptly. Buford gives the example of how the Sardinian police militia smothered a soccer riot during the 1990 World Cup matches. Hundreds of rowdy English soccer fans had flown in on chartered planes, and were determined to find trouble. The police did not try to cover every action node at once; this would have left them outnumbered everywhere.
Instead, following textbook military strategy, they massed forces and surrounded first one, then another group of hooligans inglisi, rendering each in turn hors de combat by beating them senseless with truncheons. Few of the Englishmen actually had to be arrested (which would have been very time-consuming for the police). Nevertheless, because they were not allowed to innocently transpire through police lines to re-appear at some less well-defended action node, the riot soon collapsed.
No one would suggest that American police should emulate this style of riot control. And almost as objectionable for other reasons would be censoring television or radio news in order to impede the formation of action nodes.
The Supreme Court has often stated (although not often acted upon) the principle that censorship for compelling reasons of national security does not offend the First Amendment. Even if this tenet is defensible in wartime, it stretches the point considerably to apply it to riots. Clearly there would be serious danger of political opportunism if authorities were permitted to interdict the flow of news merely because they asserted a fear that riots might otherwise ensue.
Presently, every politically incorrect public manifestation would be subject to seizure or arrest. Such a thing actually happened in Chicago some years ago, when a gang of vigilante aldermen, on the unlikely premise that they were trying to forestall civil unrest, stormed an exhibition hall at the Art Institute and commandeered an oil painting that disparagingly portrayed the recently deceased Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor.
There is a third option, however, that might ultimately prove more palatable. According to our analysis, the proximate trigger of a riot is an entrepreneur’s calculation that he is unlikely to be arrested if he breaks a window. If as swiftly as they developed action nodes actually could be covered by the authorities, riots might not begin at all. Cities should consider how they might accomplish this objective.
Experience has shown that the National Guard is not well adapted to the mission of early containment of a riot. It takes the Guard several days to get into action because when it is called, it is not merely foot soldiers that are summoned, but their entire apparatus of logistics and command that must be mobilized as well.
Moreover, even the hint that authorities are thinking about calling out the National Guard could be seen as a provocative acknowledgement of a riot’s incipiency. Public appeals that the Guard be summoned may therefore amount to a sort of focal incident and do almost as much to choreograph the beginning of a riot as to deter its occurrence.
Of course, once it gets into action, the Guard does seem to pacify full-blown riots fairly swiftly. This fact suggests that sheer numbers of anti-riot personnel may be more important than tactics, training, or other variables in quietening civil unrest.
For this reason, cities might well consider the benefits of using a civilian auxiliary to reinforce and supplement the police force. Such a force could be deployed rapidly and demobilized just as fast once the trouble had died down because its command infrastructure, that of the municipal police, is always up and running. Of course it is out of the question for police departments permanently to maintain as many full-time officers as might be required by peak load demand.
An analogy might be drawn to volunteer fire fighters, who receive training, though far less than their full-time professional counterparts, to enable them to meet contingencies too remote to justify commissioning full-time personnel.
The original idea of the militia, as envisioned by the drafters of the United States Constitution, reflected something of the notion that ordinary citizens bore the final responsibility for the security of the communities in which they lived (Dowlut 1983: 93). When not burdened with a command and control superstructure, but simply used to supplement law enforcement resources already in place, a modem equivalent to the militia might well serve to stop trouble before it started.
According to our analysis, riots are apt to be a more or less recurrent, if unpredictable, feature of social life. It is odd that our law enforcement apparatus seems to be designed for a world in which riots do not occur at all. With some imagination, public administrators could ensure that these destructive episodes become rare indeed.
- Buford, B. (1991) Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
- Dowlut, R. (1983) “The Right to Arms: Does the Constitution or the Predilection of Judges Reign?” Oklahoma Law RevIew 36(1): 65—105.
- Schelling, T.C. (1960) The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
This article was first published in the Cato Journal in 1994 under the title “Understanding Riots.” © Cato Institute. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Comments Off on Rogue One and the Politics of Star Wars
Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebel Alliance got the plans to the first Death Star, setting up the iconic events of the original 1977 Star Wars film. In some ways, this is the best Star Wars movie since Empire Strikes Back. The story is strong and the characters compelling. In sharp contrast to the last four Star Wars movies, there are few notable plot holes. As Tyler Cowen puts it, in many ways “this is the real Star Wars movie that many of you have been waiting for.”
In a review for Vox, Todd VanderWerff points out that Rogue One is also notable as the first Star Wars movie to focus primarily on the morality and costs of war. It pulls few punches in that regard. Many characters we care about suffer and die, often in painful ways.
The awfulness of war is driven home by the fact that the heroic rebels in Rogue One are almost entirely ordinary people, with relatively ordinary abilities, rather than members of a Force-capable elite. Lead heroine Jyn Erso and her cohorts talk about how the Force is with them. But, with one marginal exception, none of them actually have the ability to use it as Rey or Luke Skywalker can. That makes their suffering — and their successes — more poignant and real.
Despite its many virtues, however, Rogue One perpetuates several problematic aspects of the portrayal of political issues in the Star Wars series. I don’t blame fans who prefer to ignore the politics and just focus on the excitement and fun. But the politics of popular culture are worth examining, if only because they often reflect real issues and may have an impact on real-world political attitudes.
What Are the Rebels Fighting For?
More than any previous Star Wars film, this one focuses on the rebels and their reasons for rising against the Empire. Jyn and several other characters are victims of the Empire’s cruelty and oppression, which give them obvious motives to oppose it. But while we see what the rebels are fighting against, we have almost no sense what they are fighting for. What kind of regime does the Rebel Alliance intend to establish if it wins? Neither this movie nor its predecessors tell us.
In Rogue One, we learn for the first time that the rebels are divided into radical and moderate factions. But it is not clear what, if anything, they disagree on, other than purely tactical issues.
It is almost as if the rebels simply assume that, if the Empire is bad, virtually any alternative government is likely to be better. Such thinking has often proven dangerous in the real world. The Russian, Chinese, Cuban, and Iranian revolutions are among the many revolts against oppressive governments that ended up installing regimes even worse than those they supplanted.
Many of the supporters of those revolutions backed them in part because they found it hard to imagine that anything could be worse than the terrible status quo. They turned out to be disastrously wrong. Even in democratic nations, voters often respond to a flawed status quo by backing “change agents,” without much consideration of whether the change they promise is actually likely to make things better.
Star Wars could have done a valuable public service by questioning this kind of thinking. But it instead appears to buy into it, or at least ignore its potential flaws. That’s a shame. Would-be revolutionaries in any galaxy would do well to consider why the regime they seek to establish would be any better than the old.
Rogue One also continues the Star Wars tradition of portraying democratic institutions in a negative light. Whenever we see the Old Republic Senate in the prequel movies and the Clone Wars TV series, it is almost always either paralyzed by gridlock or actively causing harm, as when it gives Chancellor Palpatine the emergency powers he ultimately uses to establish the Empire. The New Republic government in The Force Awakens is little better. Despite the painful previous experience of the Old Republic, it allows the forces of the Dark Side to build up a vast armada under its nose without taking any action until it is too late.
In Rogue One, the elected civilian leaders of the Rebel Alliance make terrible decisions that nearly lead to the rebellion’s demise. Such success as the rebels manage to achieve is largely due to heroic covert operatives and military commanders who disobey civilian orders.
Having written a book on the dangers of voter ignorance, I can hardly claim that democratic institutions are infallible. Star Wars’ bleak portrayal of democracy has some elements of truth. Still, history shows that institutional flaws are usually best addressed through institutional solutions, not by trusting in a few heroes or great leaders. Star Wars, like many movies and TV series, tends to prefer the latter, more simplistic approach.
That tendency is entirely understandable. It is much easier to tell an appealing story focused on heroic characters than one where well-designed institutions save the day. Star Wars would never have become a cultural icon if the Emperor were vanquished by the separation of powers or judicial review, instead of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Princess Leia. But, however natural, this aspect of popular culture still risks reinforcing some of the public’s more dangerous political instincts.
Not the Prejudice You Were Looking For
Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter offers a different political critique of Rogue One. Although the cast has been praised for its racial and gender diversity, he points out that the armed forces of the Rebel Alliance are overwhelmingly dominated by humans. If the rebels truly stand for equality against the “speciesist” Empire, “we should,” Carter writes, “have a rebellion that looks more like the galaxy.”
This criticism is not entirely fair. Although the leading characters in Rogue One are almost exclusively human, as are the Rebellion’s foot soldiers and combat pilots, there are several prominent nonhuman rebel generals, admirals, and political leaders. If humans are nonetheless overrepresented in the rebel rank and file, there could be many noninvidious explanations for that. Few armed forces are perfectly representative of the populations they serve, even in the most egalitarian and liberal democracies.
Star Wars does, however, perpetuate a kind of prejudice — just not the kind most of us are looking for. We may be sensitized to the evils of racism and sexism, but not the kind of discrimination most blatantly practiced in the Star Wars universe. Although the rebels seem to practice equality between races, genders, and intelligent biological species, they are largely oblivious to the oppression of droids.
Droids are at least as intelligent as humans, and clearly feel emotions, such as hope, fear, and pain. K-2, the main droid character in Rogue One, has personality, free will, and a mind of his own to an even greater extent than C-3PO and R2-D2. Yet neither rebels nor imperials see anything wrong with treating sentient droids as essentially the slaves of biological beings.
Much like many of the American Founding Fathers, the rebels are simultaneously freedom fighters and slave owners. Unlike George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the rebels don’t even seem to realize that there is a contradiction between these two roles. Rogue One is a bit more sensitive to this issue than previous Star Wars films, but still shies away from squarely confronting it.
The moral blindness here is not just that of the characters in the story. It is also shared by most of the audience, and perhaps most of the producers and writers as well. Unlike the shortcomings of democracy and revolution, this problem is not yet a significant issue in the real world. But it might well become so in the not too distant future. If one day we develop robots as intelligent and sentient as K-2, will we treat them as poorly as the denizens of the Star Wars universe have?
Rogue One is a powerful and well-told story. But it’s still worth considering the subtle, but disquieting flaws in its approach to political issues. The questions they raise may not be confined to a galaxy far, far away.
Ilya Somin is a law professor at George Mason University and the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government Is Smarter (Stanford University Press, 2nd ed. 2016). He previously discussed the politics of Star Wars here and here.
Comments Off on Indian Prime Minister’s shake down of private wealth
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned his country earlier this month when, out of the blue, he declared 85 percent of the nation’s currency notes null and void.
India’s two highest rupee notes — Rs. 500 ($7.50) and Rs. 1,000 ($15) — will no longer be legal tender, and will be replaced with redesigned Rs. 500 notes and new Rs. 2,000 bills. Indians can swap a relatively small number of old bills for new ones by the end of the year, but only at designated banks and with proof of ID. Anyone trying to swap large sums of cash that they can’t legally account for will be subject to investigation and legal action. And all the unswapped currency will stay with the government, a massive transfer of wealth from private citizens to the state.
Modi’s fans see this as an audacious move to smoke out untaxed “black money” from India’s informal economy, which constitutes anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the nation’s GDP. But in reality, this demonetization scheme is the equivalent of killing the patient to cure a headache. And it marks an end to India’s three-decade flirtation with market liberalization.
Modi was elected in a landslide on the slogan of “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance.” He promised to end babu raj — the rule of corrupt, petty bureaucrats who torment ordinary citizens for bribes — and radically transform India’s economy. But rather than tackling government corruption, he has declared war on private citizens holding black money in the name of making all Indians pay their fair share.
Tax scofflaw behavior is indeed a problem in India. But it is almost always a result of tax rates that are way higher than what people think their government is worth. The enlightened response would be to lower these rates and improve governance. Instead, Modi is taking his country down what Nobel-winning political economist F.A. Hayek called the road to serfdom, where every failed round of coercive government intervention simply becomes an excuse for even more draconian rounds — exactly what was happening in pre-liberalized India.
Last year, Modi went after black money stashed in Swiss banks, demanding that Indians with such accounts pay a 30 percent penalty and bring their money home or face a lengthy jail sentence. This scheme was a flop.
Next Modi offered Indians hoarding illegal assets amnesty from prosecution in exchange for paying a 45 percent penalty. But this flushed out only a small fraction of the expected haul, for the simple reason that the penalty was higher than the taxes people were trying to avoid.
So now Modi has ripped a dusty page from the playbook of communist dictatorships (Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba), military juntas (Myanmar, Pakistan), various other kleptocratic banana republics, and India circa 1978 — all of whom tried demonetization and failed.
The theory with Modi’s new scheme is that rich hoarders of illicit cash would simply forfeit their money rather than risk jail. Meanwhile, middle-class folks who work for legitimate businesses and poor laborers who have small cash savings would be free to legally swap old bills for new.
The reality is different. Yes, the rich have indeed gotten poorer. But the poor have been decimated. Call it trickle-down poverty.
About 600 million Indians don’t have bank accounts, many because they are poor and uneducated. Roughly 300 million don’t have official identification. It’s not easy to swap their soon-to-be worthless cash, which is a catastrophe given that they live hand to mouth. It is heartbreaking to see these people lined up in long queues outside post offices and banks, missing days and days of work, pleading for funds from the very bureaucrats from whose clutches Modi had promised to release them.
Modi hatched his scheme in complete secrecy, without consulting his own economic advisers or the Parliament, lest rich hoarders catch wind and ditch their cash holdings for gold and other assets. Hence, he could not order enough new money printed in advance. This is a massive problem given that about 90 percent of India’s economic transactions are in cash. People need to be able to get money from their banks to meet basic needs. But the government has imposed strict limits on how much of their own money people can withdraw from their own accounts.
Patients needing critical care are being turned away because they don’t have new bills, and hospitals won’t accept the old denominations. Old people are being forced to choose between food and medicine. Some farmers, living on the brink of financial catastrophe given their meager savings, have committed suicide as produce sales plummet. Industries dominated by small businesses that rely on private, off-the-grid financing from local money lenders and have no access to India’s meager official credit institutions are getting wiped out.
Modi insists the trauma is temporary and worth it because more Indians will be forced into the formal economy that can be tracked and taxed to fund vital infrastructure and boost growth. But that assumes that India’s bloated, corrupt, and inefficient government can spend other people’s money better than they can. In truth, the government will waste the new funds while rich people, whose wealth has been confiscated, will cut back consumption and lay off their employees.
But the biggest tragedy of Modi’s demonetization scheme is that because it does nothing to eliminate the underlying causes of black money — India’s tax burden that includes hidden levies such as bribes to bureaucrats — won’t disappear. People will simply park less of it in cash and more in harder-to-trace, non-cash assets such as gold and real estate, which already account for almost 60 percent of household savings. (Poor households have taken to buying jars of Tide to barter for goods and services, giving new meaning to the term money laundering.)
And you can be sure that Modi, who has already warned of further action before the end of the year, will go after gold and other assets next. He’s already raised excise duties on gold and requires jewelers to check the tax identification card of anyone purchasing gold worth over $3,000, echoing India’s notorious 1968 Gold Control Act that criminalized gold holdings by private citizens.
As for real estate, it’s possible that Modi might try a demonetization equivalent for illicit property called the E-Property Pass Book scheme. Essentially, all property ownership would be declared invalid for one year, with property sales banned. During that time, owners would be required to re-register their property in an electronic passbook linked to the equivalent of India’s Social Security numbers, by personally appearing before authorities and showing proof of ownership. Properties that are not re-registered would default to the government, just like unswapped black money holdings.
This is not boldness, but sheer conceit based on the misguided notion that people have to be accountable to the government, rather than vice versa. Over time, it will undermine the already low confidence of Indians in their institutions. If Modi could unilaterally and so suddenly re-engineer the currency used by 1.1 billion people, what will he do next? This is a recipe for capital flight and economic retrenchment.
The fear and uncertainty that Modi’s move will breed will turn India’s economic clock back to the dark times of pre-liberalized India — not usher in the good times (aache din) that Modi had promised.
Comments Off on Does inequality make us miserable?
One politically-charged topic that has gained national prominence in recent years is income inequality: the fact that there is an ever-widening wealth gap between the rich and the poor.
Libertarians have traditionally questioned whether wealth inequality warrants any concern at all — to say nothing of whether government intervention is justified to correct it. Indeed, classical liberals are usually much more concerned with the alleviation of poverty, rather than hand-wringing about who might have a larger slice of an ever-widening pie.
Inequality and relative deprivation
There is, however, another way of looking at inequality: specifically, though the lens of relative deprivation: the extent to which people believe that they (or a group to which they belong) are getting less than they deserve or should expect, relative to others. While absolute deprivation refers to the extent to which a person’s basic needs (food, clothing shelter) are met, relative deprivation refers to the extent to which a person “keeps up with the Joneses.” If my car is older than my neighbor’s car, my house smaller than my neighbor’s house, and my computer is slower than my neighbor’s computer, I might suffer from relative deprivation because I am in a comparatively disadvantaged position, — even if, in absolute terms, I am quite well off.
If the impact of relative deprivation on human wellbeing is significant, one might make the argument that growing inequality should be taken seriously, and possibly be addressed by government through redistribution. However, as I will argue, no psychological topic – including relative deprivation – lends itself to an easy policy fix.
A history of relative deprivation
The concept of relative deprivation goes back at least as far as Karl Marx, who observed that “our desires and pleasures spring from society; we measure them, therefore, by society and not by the objects which serve for their satisfaction. Because they are of a social nature, they are of a relative nature.” Elsewhere, Marx noted that “a house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut.”
More recently, relative deprivation has become a topic of interest to social psychologists. As early as the 1950s, social theorists were interested in how people evaluate their well-being relative to that of their neighbors. In one early publication, Faye Crosby proposed one of the first formal models of relative deprivation, which specified the various conditions under which a person might feel deprived of something (e.g., they must “lack a sense of personal responsibility for not having [it]”), as well as the emotional and behavioral consequences of that perception. Crosby argued that such consequences could range from personal stress to acts of violence against society (for example, rioting and looting).
Does relative deprivation matter?
Despite much theorizing and speculation, there is actually little empirical evidence that perceptions of one’s relative position in society have a palpable impact on overall well-being. For example, within the United States, the General Social Survey (GSS) contains data on both these questions from 1972 to 2014. While the two variables are correlated, the relationship is small; in fact, perceptions of one’s income relative to other Americans explains just 4% of the variance in overall happiness.
There are numerous reasons why the relationship between relative deprivation and well-being is so tenuous. First, relative deprivation intersects with another important theory in social psychology: social comparison. People do not only compare themselves with people who are better off (known as upward social comparison). In fact, there is evidence that, most of the time, we compare ourselves with those who are worse off (downward social comparison). Evaluating ourselves in light of those who are doing poorly serves an important psychological function: it makes us feel better about ourselves, even if we are not as well off as we would like. That is, it puts our problems in perspective.
Moreover, people are not apt to compare themselves to individuals they believe are not like them in critical ways. Our social comparison targets are usually accessible: when engaging in upward social comparison, we must believe that it is (or ought to be) possible for us achieve as much as the individuals to whom we are comparing ourselves. Those who are extremely wealthy whom we have never met, such as rock stars, celebrities, and Fortune 500 CEOs, are probably not good candidates for social comparison, at least for most of us. As such, the sort of inequality so heavily criticized by the populist left is less likely to trigger feelings of resentment than more attenuated levels of inequality between ourselves and people we know.
The value of upward social comparison
There is also a benefit to upward social comparison: by comparing our circumstances to those who are slightly better off, we can create an attainable set of goals for ourselves. In this sense, what is one person’s relative deprivation is another person’s motivation to succeed. If a salesperson sees that his coworkers are earning more commissions than he is, he would do well to seek their counsel. If I see that my colleagues have outperformed me in terms of publishing, teaching, and contributing to our field, a productive response is not resentment but imitation. Competition is healthy, and upward social comparison has (often under-recognized) benefits.
From a pragmatic perspective, we should also note that combatting human misery by reducing feelings of relative deprivation is a difficult task with a small payoff. For example, Thomas Piketty has argued in his book Capital in the 21st Century for a (probably impossible to implement) global wealth tax for the express purpose of making the very wealthy less so. An alternative approach with a much more favorable cost-benefit ratio would be to combat poverty by expanding economic liberty and creating prosperity for all. After all, there is abundant evidence that economic prosperity is strongly associated with happiness.
Comments Off on Over-Criminalization Nation — 5 Blood-Boiling Cases of Government Overreach
Every year the number of regulations, dictates, rules, decrees, guidelines, statutes, laws, and bylaws in the United States grows by leaps and bounds. Just look at the growth in the number of final rules contained in the Federal Register:
Now it seems we can’t go a week without hearing a new story about someone being punished, with fines or even jail time, for activities that would be encouraged in a free society. I’ve taken the liberty (pun intended) of compiling some of the more egregious examples of this trend for your reading pleasure (or displeasure).
1. Single mom faces possible jail time for selling $12 worth of ceviche to an undercover police officer.
Mariza Ruelas had her day in court in early November. Her crime? She sold a $12 plate of ceviche, an authentic Mexican dish, to an undercover cop on Facebook.
I know what you’re thinking: Why are police setting up stings to catch people selling food to willing customers over Facebook? Don’t they have actual crimes to investigate — like ones with actual victims? I wish I knew the answers to those questions.
2. Federal prosecutors threaten Aaron Swartz with a life-crushing sentence for downloading academic articles.
On January 11th, 2013, Aaron Swartz ended his own life, concluding one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in contemporary history.
In the months leading up to his suicide, Swartz had been embroiled in a legal battle with the federal government after prosecutors charged Swartz under the draconian Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. His crime? Downloading thousands of academic articles from the JSTOR database.
The CFAA is a particularly cruel piece of legislation, as it carries severe mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, resulting in Swartz facing up to 35 years in prison for a nonviolent crime.
Many legal observers at the time pointed out that had Swartz robbed a bank, aided al-Qaeda, or produced child pornography he would have faced a more lenient sentence.
Swartz’s story was detailed in great depth in the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy. The documentary was released under the Creative Commons — a nonprofit initiative Aaron Swartz himself was an early architect of — so you can watch it for free on YouTube.
3. Government claims ownership of all water, jails Oregon man for 30 days for collecting rainwater on his own property.
Way back in 2012 the libertarian blogosphere was abuzz over an egregious case of local government tyranny out of Oregon. Gary Harrington was sentenced to spend 30 days in jail for the crime of collecting rainwater using three reservoirs (that’s newspeak for “ponds”) on his property.
Oregon law states that all water is a public resource, to be owned communally by the collective population of Oregon, and as such any attempts to obtain or store water must first begin with applying for the proper permits to do so. Yes, really.
One of the reservoirs on his property had been there for 37 years, Harrington said. To add insult to injury, Harrington’s applications for permits were initially approved by the state’s Water Resource Department, but were rescinded after a state court reversed their decision.
As a result of this 1920s-era law, Harrington was ordered to turn himself in to the county jail to serve his 30-day sentence.
4. Maryland church ordered to evict homeless people from its property or pay a $12,000 fine.
No good deed goes unpunished in the Land of the FreeTM. In late 2016, Reverend Katie Grover was met with a $12,000 citation attached to the door of the Patapsco United Methodist Church in Dundalk, Maryland. The alleged crime was allowing several homeless people to sleep on the church’s property in violation of the county regulation prohibiting “non-permitted rooming and boarding.”
The church wasn’t even letting the homeless sleep indoors, rather they were just allowing a few homeless people to sleep on some of the benches located in the church’s yard.
5. San Antonio chef fined $2,000 for feeding homeless people.
In early 2015, the chef and founder of the not-for-profit food truck Chow Train, Joan Cheever, was cited by police officers for the outrageous crime of serving hot meals to the city’s homeless population.
The citation, which she received for transporting the food in a different vehicle than her licensed food truck, carries with it a fine totaling $2,000.
As is par for the course in these sorts of cases, there isn’t an observable wronged party. The only apparent “crime” here is the violation, unwitting or otherwise, of an arbitrary government dictate. In this case in particular, no one called the police requesting assistance. Cheever was doing what she had done for more than 10 years, except this time her charity stepped outside of the parameters set forth by an unelected bureaucrat at the city’s health department.
These cases brought to light a troubling trend unfolding in the US that couldn’t be summarized better than by the indispensable words of Ayn Rand, writing in Atlas Shrugged,
When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion — when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing — when you see that money is flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors — when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you — when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice — you may know that your society is doomed.
Hopefully the tendency to criminalize mundane activities or even charitable giving itself can be arrested before anyone else finds themselves on the business end of the growing regulatory state.
Comments Off on 13 books every well-rounded libertarian should read
There are books that every libertarian should read and books every libertarian has read, but those circles don’t perfectly overlap. Here are 13 diverse book recommendations for well-rounded thinkers.
Economic Sophisms – Frederic Bastiat
The great French liberal and economist Frederic Bastiat is best known for his pamphlet The Law — a scathing indictment of the threat that socialism poses to justice and the rule of law. But he produced another great work in Economic Sophisms, a collection of essays meticulously exposing and ridiculing the economic fallacies committed by his fellow deputies in the French National Assembly.
Sophisms includes his satirical “Petition From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns…and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting” to the French legislature, asking for the government to blot out unfair foreign competition from a cheaper source of light — the sun.
Ahead of his time in many fields, he ruthlessly demolished fallacious arguments for protectionism, socialism, and redistribution with wit, humor, and incisive analysis.
Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is one of the clearest introductions to the economic way of thinking and how it can be applied to a vast number of real world problems. Don’t be intimidated by its brick-like dimensions — it’s written with common sense and plain English. It’s highly readable and easy to digest in pieces, if you don’t finish it off in one sitting. If you get to the end and want more, don’t worry — you can continue “thinking beyond stage one” with Sowell’s Applied Economics.
Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure – Randy Simmons
Public Choice is the most important branch of economics for understanding how and why governments work the way they do. Public Choice is essentially the science of political skepticism: using economic analysis to examine how the incentives of democracy guide the decision making of politicians, bureaucrats, voters, and special interests.
Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics is the best and most accessible survey of Public Choice, explaining in clear and concrete terms just what things government cannot do — and what the consequences are when it tries to do them anyway.
The Problem of Political Authority – Michael Huemer
In this text, philosopher Michael Huemer exposes the shaky foundations of the most basic premises of government. Carefully tracing the implications of basic moral tenets that nearly everyone accepts, Huemer shows that the authority of the state is a chimera: there is no way to get from the ethical rules that govern how individuals should treat each other to a system that empowers a few people — “the state” — with the privileged moral position to issue coercive commands, while imposing on everyone else the moral duty to obey them. Huemer throws down the gauntlet and challenges the very notion of political authority — and with it, the special standard to which government actions are held.
The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan
The biggest reason why democracies choose bad policies is not selfishness, corruption, or lobbyists — it’s the voters themselves. Bryan Caplan documents the overwhelming empirical evidence that voters are not just ignorant about the most basic aspects of law, government, and economics, but they are also actively irrational in their preferences. In other words, voters are not just wrong but passionately and systematically wrong.
Worse, Caplan shows that these problems are inherent to the democratic system: voters have no incentive to be rational, well-informed, or coolheaded, and politicians have every reason to stoke prejudice and exploit voters’ ignorance. Limiting the scope of democratic power is the only sure way to limit the damage irrational voters can do.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
Everyone knows Adam Smith’s magisterial work The Wealth of Nations, but his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is essential for laying the ethical, psychological, and sociological groundwork for his later work in economics and philosophy. Today, Adam Smith is frequently demonized as the patron saint of greed and selfishness, but Moral Sentiments shows that Smith had a nuanced and deep understanding of human nature, our drives for virtue and vice, and the spirit and sympathies that help human beings thrive.
This book, published in 1759, was vastly ahead of its time in many fields, foreshadowing later developments in social science, moral philosophy, and social psychology. But it is also packed with deep and practical insights for any student of human nature. If you find Smith a little too daunting on the first attempt, Russ Roberts’ How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a short and friendly introduction to some of the insights in Moral Sentiments.
The God of the Machine – Isabel Paterson
First published in 1943, The God of the Machine was one of four books that emerged in the depths of World War II — along with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom — that launched the modern libertarian movement and helped turn the intellectual tide against collectivism.
At a time when socialism and fascism were conquering whole continents, Paterson set out a defense of individualism, the free market, and limited government that remains powerful and timely to this day. By tracing the role of individual freedom in the rise and fall of civilizations, the book re-centered the discussion of human history on its true subject: the individual.
No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority – Lysander Spooner
Legal theorist Lysander Spooner wrote this devastating critique of the U.S. Constitution in 1867. It remains one of the most thoughtful and hard-hitting criticisms of the American government and federal power. Spooner illustrates why the Constitution can carry no binding authority as a “contract” among “we the people.” At most, he argued, it could only bind and apply to the people who were actually alive at the time of its adoption, and then only to those who explicitly consented to its adoption. Therefore, breaking away from the union of states is “no treason.”
No Treason is also one of the most quotable individualist anarchist works. Any anarchist worth his or her salt knows by heart Spooner’s concise indictment of the Constitution: “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”
Radicals for Capitalism – Brian Doherty
Radicals for Capitalism is a weighty tome, summarizing centuries of classical liberal and libertarian history in one book. Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty goes to great lengths to capture the varying influences and factions within the broader libertarian movement. This book is an essential part of any collection on American political history, and friends of liberty will find a lot to learn and enjoy in its eyewitness histories and firsthand accounts of the motley crew that created and compose the modern American libertarian movement.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to study prisons for the French government, but he ended up making his most important contributions by studying America’s free society in action. De Toqueville toured the country for nine months, observing how U.S. political, economic, religious, and social institutions worked together to foster human cooperation, and how that process of cooperation led to a thriving social order.
As Daniel J. D’Amico explains, “America’s early and rapid rate of economic development and its functioning social order resulted from a life spring of vibrant civil society. Families, clubs, churches, and various community groups provided early Americans with diverse opportunities to practice the art of association.”
The text, first published in 1835, endures as an influential and insightful account of American society and culture — it has been called the best book ever written about America — but more importantly, it describes the principles underlying social order itself. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science,” De Tocqueville wrote, “the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein
This novel explores a futuristic society in which a lunar colony revolts against rule from Earth. It is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels of all time, but its compelling portrait of a dystopian future and discussion of libertarian ideas make it an essential part of a libertarian bookshelf. Characters in the book range in their politics from self-proclaimed anarchist to would-be authoritarian, and the novel touches on libertarian themes such as spontaneous order, natural law, and individualism. Harsh Mistress would go on to win various awards, including the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“The days rolled by in the camp — they were over before you could say ‘knife.’ But the years, they never rolled by; they never moved by a second.”
In this short novel, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lays out — in brutal detail — an ordinary day in the life of one prisoner held in Stalin’s Siberian gulags: the bitter cold, the pervasive hunger, the savage punishments, the powerlessness, despair, and fear. Solzhenitsyn himself spent ten years in the gulag for insulting Stalin, and his own personal experience sharpens the story with heartbreaking detail. Tens of millions were churned through the gulags and slave labor camps in the Soviet Union; more than one million people would die there. Ivan Denisovich helps to humanize an ocean of terror and human suffering that all too easily blurs into a pile of statistics.