Category Archive: Liberty

  1. The free society is an open society

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    He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither…” — Declaration of Independence

    “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” — Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987


    In my previous essays between the election and the inauguration, I discussed how we got here, and how we didn’t, as well as what’s distinctively worrying about the new style of politics. In the first week of the new administration, it’s worth noting that we saw an outpouring of an identity-based politics of protest against rising illiberalism and misogyny, an extraordinary level of public untruth repeated by a spokesman who showed signs of not believing what he was saying but being forced into it, and the continued surrender of Republican elites to the new order.

    I’m going to return to those themes in future posts; but given that the new administration is now in power, and it’s time to interrupt analyses of how and why, with discussions of what it is doing.

    The populist authoritarianism that is rising across developed countries, the United States very much included, is characterized by a zeal to harden borders. Trade and migration are, between them, the great villains of the modern populist imagination, surpassing even domestic dissent. And, unsurprisingly, the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency included sharp blows against both the gradually liberalizing international trade order that the United States has led since World War II, and the freedom of human beings to move from place to place in the world. The chaos of the administration’s cruel and poorly-planned action against border-crossing by those born in seven Muslim countries is emerging as the defining act of these early days. For an earlier generation of conservatives, a militarized wall on an international boundary symbolized the evils of Communism and Soviet domination in eastern Europe. Now, such a wall will be the symbol of the Trump era as a whole. The administration is moving astonishingly quickly to make the United States a closed society.

    Walls work in both directions—they keep people in, as well as out. The administration’s decision to suspend reentry for lawful residents who were abroad at the time of the order tells non-citizens in the United States—permanent residents, long-since admitted refugees or those granted asylum, spouses and students and H1-B visa holders doing highly skilled work that the country needs—that they travel outside the United States at risk of not being allowed to return. Even the eventual decision to allow permanent residents to re-enter on a case-by-case basis was presented as an exercise of agency discretion, not a disavowal of the tactic. The word of the United States isn’t good anymore—“permanent” resident now means something much less than that, and refugee status once granted might be revoked with no notice. Henceforth, peaceful, law-abiding residents will be much more afraid to leave the country. The barriers to letting people in thus act as a kind of cage to keep people in. Caged people aren’t free.

    I wrote in Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom that “The core of liberal ideas includes religious toleration and freedom […], the rule of law, and especially the control by law of the executive’s security apparatus through habeas corpus, procedural rights, and prohibitions on torture and extrajudicial executions, imprisonment, or dispossession[…], and the desirability of commerce and international trade.” (p. 87)

    Not only have all three elements of this core come under assault in Trump’s first week in office—they have come under assault specifically in association with his war on migrants: religious discrimination in migration, extrajudicial detention being carried in airports as we speak, and the idea of a 20% tariff wall on goods to pay for the physical border wall.

    Notwithstanding some current talking points, the new immigration restrictions are religiously discriminatory in both intent and effect. Rudy Giuliani has openly acknowledged that this was the policy crafted in order to get as close as possible to the ban on Muslim immigration Trump called for on the campaign trail, while maybe being able to legally get away with it. And the combination of the identification of seven overwhelmingly-Muslim countries as the source of the supposed security threat (though zero nationals of those countries—zero—have killed anyone in an act of terrorism on U.S. soil) with special exemptions for Christians from those countries turns the new restrictions into exactly what Giuliani’s account leads us to expect: a religiously-exclusionary act with a veneer of a security excuse.

    As Dylan Matthews argues, the liberal political theorist Judith Shklar’s essay “The Liberalism of Fear” helps us to see the centrality of resisting cruelty and lawless state violence to the liberal vision of the free society. (My first book aimed to apply Shklar’s insights to the political treatment of ethnic and cultural minorities; its title was a direct reference to the essay.) Until the end-of-week Muslim ban and abandonment of refugees, I would have said that the great horror of Trump’s first week was the mooted possibility of reopening black site prisons and his enthusiasm about torture—an enthusiasm he says he’ll reluctantly hold in check in deference to the views of some of his top appointees, though it’s hard to imagine his “deference” to these subordinates lasting forever.

    But the developing war on immigrants puts us squarely into liberalism-of-fear terrain now. Coercive border control is an especially central location for those fearful rule-of-law concerns. It routinely involves indefinite detention without legal counsel or trial. While intelligence agencies all too often exercise state violence without legal oversight, for those charged with border control it is a constant. This weekend, legal residents of the United States were prevented from boarding their planes home, or on arrival in the U.S., were physically detained without counsel or legal process.

    While at this writing the situation remains unclear, there are reports that even after judicial rulings against aspects of the new policy, border patrol agents were refusing to recognize court orders. Trump advisor Stephen Miller seemed to adopt an especially strong attitude of disregard for judicial oversight, maintaining that a court order neither “impedes or prevents the implementation of the president’s executive order which remains in full, complete and total effect.” And even before the Muslim ban was announced, the new executive orders on border control significantly expanded the arbitrary authority of immigration control officers to decide whom to deport, and insisted on a huge increase in those undocumented migrants—including asylum-seekers—who would be kept in indefinite detention. (Dara Lind at Vox, author of that latter piece, has been providing especially important and valuable coverage of these issues.)

    For four months, all refugee admissions will be suspended, from everywhere in the world, abandoning many to the repression and war from which they are fleeing. The refugee suspension has perhaps gotten the least attention in the U.S., as it lacks some easily-understood and high-profile features of the Muslim ban: both the religious discrimination and the exclusion from reentry of people who have already lived here.

    But it is no less cruel. People whose claim for refuge has already been judged valid, people who have already been “vetted” as posing no security risk, people fleeing war zones and repression from anywhere in the world, now find themselves locked out. This keeps refugee camps that much fuller, leaving that much less space for new people also fleeing. It further encourages very dangerous alternatives, such as families entrusting themselves to smugglers or to risky self-help in boats or on foot. Locking refugees out is a violation of international law; more to the point, it is monstrous, and renders the U.S. a kind of jailer for people at risk, keeping them locked in where they are now.

    In treating peaceful civilian migration the way states treat invading armies, coercive border control always involves a deeply suspect kind of lawless violence. These aren’t permanent features of political life. The system of passports and visas as required for international movement and migration is surprisingly recent. Open, document-less borders within Europe were closed as an emergency measure during World War I; the generalized world system of passports wasn’t imposed until 1920. The passport as a document was much older, but mainly offered protection to local subjects traveling abroad. It could confirm one’s identity, but was not normally a requirement for crossing frontiers.

    The liberal understanding of free societies and politics grew in part out of life in commercial medieval European cities—cities whose walls were to keep out armies, not civilians (or goods, as the cities were entirely dependent on trade). In the famous legal principle that governed those cities, “city air makes you free;” one who lived in such a city for a year and a day gained the freedom of city life against the oppression of the feudal countryside. The cities were proud of this, and grew by it.

    After enjoying open borders for half of its history, the U.S. has had a deeply unhappy series of experiences with border control. The first federal regulation on entry was a racist restriction on Chinese migrants, the second a similar de facto regulation of those from Japan. There have been recurring restrictions on the grounds of political beliefs. During the middle decades of the 20th century when U.S. immigration was most severely limited, Franklin Roosevelt turned away Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler on the grounds that they might include German spies—an approach that is all but indistinguishable from the contemporary conflation of those fleeing war and persecution in majority-Muslim countries with radical Islamist terrorists. (Many of those turned away then died in the Holocaust; and many of those turned away now may die in their home countries’ civil wars or despotic regimes.) And the long effort to prevent migration across the southern border has seen a constant expansion of intrusive police power, and an extension of border control authority deep into the territory of the United States, putting a majority of the American population in regions where border agents wield extra-Constitutional powers.

    Many people have gradually come to acknowledge the failure of a drug war focused on militarized border interdiction, and the cost in subjecting Americans to a domestic militarized police force trying to suppress supply of drugs for which there is demand. Such policies finally turned much of northern Mexico into a near-war-zone, with wealthy and violent drug cartels enjoying the profits of U.S. prohibition. (This is, of course, not unrelated to many Mexicans’ attempt to flee into the U.S.)

    We should expect no different from a war on immigration. A wall can’t stop the operation of supply and demand, whether for labor or for safe refuge; it can only enrich the illegal smugglers who learn how to defeat it. And hunting migrants peacefully living inside the U.S. requires constant invasion of everyone’s privacy and liberty, not just that of the migrants themselves. Every relationship from the workplace to the classroom to marriage is subject to regulation and prohibition: you may not employ, or teach, or marry whom you wish. But they’re also all subject to policing: who are your students? Have you checked your employees’ papers? Are you really married to your spouse?

    Far too many people seem to believe that the system of walls, cages, and lawless state action can be safely aimed only outward—against strangers, against those with no claim on the United States—and that the shift toward populist authoritarian nationalism at the border can be cordoned off from domestic liberty. Even if it were right (which it’s absolutely not), to disregard the cost to those strangers’ liberty—to lock them in their countries of origin, however tyrannical, violent, or impoverished they may be—that’s not how it works. A society can’t close itself off and remain free.

    This piece was originally published at Niskanen Center.

  2. 3 Oscar films for the radical individualist

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    Films are stories, stories have heroes, and heroism is almost by definition a celebration of the individual. Great films codify and reflect our greatest values back to us. Even antiheroes are instructive about their personal goals and flaws.

    But this year’s Oscar nominations offer up a few films with especially strong individualist themes.

    For an in-depth look at the individualist philosophy, one could do worse than Eric Foner’s even-handed overview, “Radical Individualism in America.” But, tl;dr, individualism places an emphasis on the rights of the individual and the pursuit of his or her happiness, rather than the prerogatives of collectives or states, as the core to a just and liberal society.

    Silence

    oscars. academy awards, silence,

    Martin Scorsese’s Silence, nominated for best cinematography, stars Andrew Garfield as a 17th-century Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano. He travels to Japan to rescue his mentor (Liam Neeson), a missionary. At that time, Christianity was illegal in imperial Japan, and anyone caught practicing the religion could be subjected to torture until they renounced their faith.

    Scorsese subjects us to multiple scenes of Japanese Christians put through torture to renounce their faith, with a mostly helpless Valignano doing his best to maintain the community’s morale. Ultimately, he is forced to watch five of his disciples brutally tortured until he personally renounces his own faith. He spends the rest of his days in Japan as an apostate priest, sadly sorting through foreign imports for any forbidden Christian iconography.

    The freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing is essential to a free society. Leave aside for a moment the immorality of torturing people because of their faith. Even if it weren’t wrong, it is nearly impossible to force someone to change their core beliefs. The viewer assumes Valignano has been broken by the torture he endured, but the last image we see is his dead hand clutching a contraband cross.

    Silence is an excellent, if difficult-to-watch, exploration of an individual pitted against the most extreme hostility of a larger collective.

    Hacksaw Ridge

    oscars, academy awards, hacksaw ridge

    Ayn Rand would have been proud of Andrew Garfield’s acting choices in 2016, because he stars in this next film as well — in fact, this performance has earned Garfield a nomination for best actor. Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Corporal Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

    Doss, a hardline pacifist, volunteers for military medical service at the outbreak of the Second World War. Although he undergoes, and excels at, the harsh training of boot camp, he refuses to touch weaponry or train on Saturday (the sabbath day for Seventh Day Adventists). His peers and superiors ostracize him, even going so far as to have him discharged for psychiatric reasons. He endures a savage beating, but refuses to identify his assailants.

    His refusal to handle weaponry as an enlisted soldier leads to his being arrested for insubordination. While in a jail cell, his fiancée begs him to plead guilty so he can be released, but Doss won’t compromise. He is ultimately vindicated and goes on to serve heroically as a medic in the Battle of Okinawa.

    Much like Silence, Hacksaw Ridge digs deep into the concept of religious freedom. But the religious part isn’t really the point so much as the freedom part. The liberty of the mind is a core individualist value. Thomas Paine once put it succinctly: “My own mind is my own church.” The liberal society is strong in large part because different people believe, and argue for, different ideas. Societal change is impossible without competing views butting heads.

    La La Land

    oscars, la la land, academy awards

    La La Land has a massive total of 14 Oscar nominations this year. The film is at once a throwback to the golden era of musicals and a reinvigoration of the genre.

    It’s wildly unlike the above films in tone. But it is also a fierce defense of individualism. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) both have big dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, and Sebastian wants to open a jazz club, in part so that he can protect the heritage of a genre that he thinks is growing corrupted by the pervasiveness of pop music.

    Like a lot of individualists, they’re both incredibly headstrong. Sebastian loses gig work because he constantly goes off preapproved set lists in favor of jazz improv. Mia is all-in on pursuing a dream career, one that results in failure for just about everyone who tries. But being headstrong is only half the story: they acknowledge their stubbornness and accept the consequences.

    Rebellion against societal norms carries costs for these types. They full well know it, and rebel anyway. In an earlier era, before the word was ruined, we called this romanticism.

    The claim that La La Land is about radical individualism may seem like a stretch, but it’s encoded deep within the film. For instance, Sebastian and Mia go on a date that involves first watching, and then recreating a scene from one of the great films about individuals confronting societal pressures, Rebel Without a Cause.

    Sebastian and Mia clearly love each other, but they ultimately decide not to compromise on their dreams. This is neither right nor wrong, but it does come with consequences. They could either have each other, or have their respective dreams realized. Call it the “pursuit of happiness,” even though the film’s ending is wicked sad.

    Here’s to the Individualists

    There is something to be said for the risk-taker, the visionary, the rebel. Ayn Rand, in “The Soul of an Individualist,” phrased it memorably:

    The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. But … they fought, they suffered, and they paid. But they won.

    This is perhaps even more true for the great heroes of film than it is for the great heroes of history, although “winning” is often more like getting a seat at Valhalla than actual victory.

    Great stories almost always emphasize the worth and moral dignity of the individual. This does not mean groups don’t matter, or that one should descend into solipsism. Individualism matters because you only get one life to live, and nobody is in a better place to make the most of it than you.

  3. What America needs most right now is more economic freedom.

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    The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.

    Joseph Schumpeter

    Global poverty is radically declining, but most people don’t know it. In 1990, 1.9 billion people — 37 percent of the world’s population, at that time — lived on less than $1.90 per day. This is known as “abject poverty.” Today, fewer than a billion people live in abject poverty — less than 10 percent of the world’s population. It’s a startling and unprecedented decline.

    When we extend our view further into history, it seems even more miraculous. Economist Brad Delong estimates world GDP per capita, and he finds that most humans, for most of their history, have lived on the equivalent of $100 per year — or less. It’s not until the seventeenth century that this number changes much at all and not until the twentieth century that growth really accelerates.

    We can see the impact of this growth in new inventions and innovations that have made us dramatically better off, and, as wealth grows, those new goods and services become available to ordinary people, like you and me. In 1820, 94 percent of the globe lived in a state of abject poverty; not only are we much richer these days, but we are spending our wealth in ways that would have been literally inconceivable then. Delong estimates that 75 percent of world expenditure today is for goods and services that did not even exist as recently as 1800.

    We take for granted the things that are readily available to us — things that our ancestors could not have dreamed of, like indoor plumbing, ovens, and flu shots. In 1800, it was very likely that contracting the flu could kill you; today, that is exceedingly less likely, even in the developing world. The reason is that global trade has unleashed the skills and talents of ordinary people, and when that happens, we have incentives to solve problems. As we solve our biggest problems, we make lifesaving innovations, and we make them cheaper, better, and increasingly accessible to even the poorest among us.

    Yet when you present this data, people are shocked. A recent study revealed that 70 percent of British citizens think the world is getting worse, and only five percent of Americans know that global poverty has halved in the past twenty years.

    This is concerning: our view of the world informs the kind of policies we will demand as voters. If we believe that the world has been made worse (or at least no better) by the decline of protectionism and the surge in global trade over the past four decades, we might agitate for policies that reduce trade and commerce. But given the facts about global poverty and inequality, we ought to advocate greater economic freedom.

    Economic freedom means that people are free to trade with others for what they need and want; that entrepreneurs are free to open businesses without overly burdensome regulations, bribes, or corruption; that the national currency is stable and keeps its value; that the burden of government is small relative to the size of the economy; and that property rights and the rule of law prevail.

    Economic freedom is the reason for the astounding acceleration of human progress and the rapid march out of poverty. Charity alone cannot substitute for real growth, and neither can government. If human flourishing is our goal, then we must concern ourselves with the type of political and economic systems that govern our daily choices. We must return to a society where economic freedom is championed.

    Just two decades ago, the US was a world leader in economic freedom, but that has been waning and, with it, the freedom to live our own lives and the prosperity that comes from that. In 2000, the US ranked second in the world in economic freedom — at the top and prospering, with lots of opportunities for everyday Americans. Today, we rank sixteenth, and we’re still falling. As we lose the necessary institutional arrangements for a free society, our ability to both contribute to and experience flourishing is diminishing.

    America is at a crossroads. For over two centuries, it has been a beacon of freedom and hope, representing a society in which anyone can use their gifts and talents to serve others. It has been a leader for other nations across the globe that aspire to emulate its progress. We can upend this losing streak and make advances toward greater personal freedom to live, work, and trade as we desire, or we can continue the decline and watch our growth vanish with it. The stakes are high, and we all must be at the center of the argument for greater freedom, because lives and futures hang in the balance. We live in amazing times globally, and we must fight to keep that progress moving forward in the US.

  4. What you should know about the Non-Aggression Principle

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    You’ve heard libertarians talking about it. You’ve seen the dank memes. But what exactly is the non-aggression principle? What does it do? And why does it get talked about so much?

    In this post, I’ll try to explain.

    There are many historical antecedents to the NAP, but libertarians usually trace its current formulation to Murray Rothbard, who put it as follows:

    The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.

    In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

    The nonaggression principle is sometimes (and confusingly) called an axiom, a practice which Rothbard also began. If we use the standard meaning of the word “axiom,” the NAP is no such thing: an axiom is a statement that is self-evidently true or that cannot reasonably be denied. An example of a philosophical axiom might be something like “I am aware of phenomena” or “modus ponens is a valid form of reasoning.”

    The NAP requires more argument than these. Although it may be foundational to libertarian theory – and thus axiomatic in a weaker sense of the term — the NAP clearly does not prove itself; just as clearly, reasonable people can and do deny it. Crucially, the NAP depends on the existence of a definition of aggression; if this definition of aggression is to encompass assaults not committed directly on the body, then the NAP also depends on a valid theory of property ownership. Neither of these is self-evident. Both are contentious topics in political theory about which libertarians offer a specific set of answers, but not everyone will agree with us.

    Note that we can’t use the NAP to establish that property may be justly held. Nor can we use it to establish the validity of a particular pattern of property ownership among many — that would be circular: ownership rights cannot acquire the condition of justice simply by asserting that their violation would be unjust.

    And yet property claims must derive from something; they seem all but inescapable. Claims about property are found even among animals. The earliest known forms of writing are tallies that were apparently used to keep track of possessions. Contrary to what some on the left may say, no human society appears ever to have been entirely without property.

    Indeed, even a wholly communist society would run on the assertion that the whole of the people is the collective owner of all property. By no means does communism lack property claims: on the contrary, its claims in this area are almost impossibly rigid and ubiquitous. How well such a society could instantiate these claims (and what results may come of trying) are different questions entirely. What matters is that even communist societies make claims about property constantly.

    If property claims are an inevitable feature of human society, as seems likely, then we cannot escape the question of what status these claims will have, whether collectively or in particular. We must ask not so much whether property is justified, but rather what its extent should be, which objects should be subject to property claims, and which entities within society should be the rightful possessors of what goods, and for what reasons.

    John Locke’s theory of property, which has frequently been invoked by classical liberals, holds that property began as a grant of the entire world, from God, to all of humanity in common. Property became private, Locke held, because property existed from the beginning to satisfy human needs, and because private property was apt to satisfy those needs more effectively. Individuals improve private property, a step which they tend not to take with a commons, and thus private property is more apt to the purpose for which property exists in any form.

    For those not satisfied by the Lockean account — myself included — David Hume offered a justification for private property that rests on its effects upon human beings:

    Who sees not, for instance, that whatever is produced or improved by a man’s art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? And that all contracts and promises ought carefully to be fulfilled, in order to secure mutual trust and confidence, by which the general interest of mankind is so much promoted?

    Examine the writers on the laws of nature; and you will always find, that, whatever principles they set out with, they are sure to terminate here at last, and to assign, as the ultimate reason for every rule which they establish, the convenience and necessities of mankind.

    Emphasis added. Societies in which property is privately held will cultivate useful habits and accomplishments in their members: property conduces to virtue. (Hume’s argument here is sometimes taken for a rejection of natural law altogether, but I do not agree. Although it relies on no supernatural justifications, observations about the nature of mankind may indeed form the basis for a type of natural law theory.)

    We might add to Hume the further observation that where property is held in common, individuals will often endeavor to live by the labor of others, using the common property as a means to their own ends. The efforts expended in pursuing this strategy, however, are not productive; they do not add to the stock of goods that humanity has at its disposal. In this sense, they represent wasted effort, and the waste is encouraged by the system of common property itself. Similarly, when property is not held in common, but when its tenure is doubtful or insecure, individuals will not exercise the industry needed to improve it for the long term, and this too impoverishes humanity in general.

    None of these considerations are likely to be terribly problematic to someone who has grown up in a society where private property predominates. We are used to the usefulness of property.

    But there is something about the NAP that is nonetheless politically important, because it serves as an indictment of much government action that is otherwise held to be morally acceptable. The NAP reminds us that theories of property in many of their most common and seemingly inoffensive formulations stand deeply at odds with the justifications for government action that are held by (perhaps) the vast majority of citizens in the modern world. That this vast majority simultaneously holds to something like a Lockean or a Humean conception of private property ought to trouble them enormously: such a conception may call into question the propriety of the state itself.

    As Rothbard put it, “The problem is not so much in arriving at [the NAP] as in fearlessly and consistently pursuing its numerous and often astounding implications.” This task has always been the work of the libertarian movement, and it has indeed brought us to some astounding implications, including the idea that taxation is tantamount to theft.

    Almost everyone has some theory of property, even if it’s a badly considered one. And almost everyone has a theory of what government ought to do. Pointing out that these theories are usually in conflict with one another is an important move, above all when government is apt to justify itself by arguing that it preserves property rights. Thus, the NAP’s importance is not that it founds a theory of property, but rather that it points out a conflict: considered as classes, theories of property and theories of government usually don’t get along too well. Actions that deprive individuals of property without their consent stand as exceptions to the rule of private property, a rule which most of us generally endorse. And yet “actions that deprive individuals of private property without their consent” are precisely what make governments function.

    Forcing people to confront this conflict in their intuitions isn’t trivial work by any means. Resolutions to the conflict may vary, but libertarians can almost be defined as those who refuse to grant special exemptions to the government when private property is at stake. It may be that particular government actions can be justified, but doing so will require a careful revision of our deeper ideas about private property. This sort of revision is almost never actually undertaken by the proponents of state action, and when it is undertaken, it is seldom to the satisfaction of libertarians. Even without fully adopting the libertarian program, others may do well to consider more carefully these conflicting intuitions.

  5. Baristas with BAs: The result of central planning for schools

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    In Kentucky, says scholar Caleb Brown, it’s easy to find a barista who has a bachelor’s degree, but manufacturing companies can’t find the machinists they desperately need — whose pay would start at $60,000–$80,000 a year.

    That slice of modern economic life comes from Brown’s Cato podcast conversation with Jim Stergios of Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute. Listening to it, I realized a problem with government schooling that I had never zeroed in on before. In criticizing government schooling, I have always focused on the failure of government schools to provide as high quality instruction as they would if they had to compete for students in a free market for education. But Brown and Stergios opened my eyes to another problem: government school systems fail to provide different kinds of instruction as appropriate to different kinds of students in different places and times.

    Mr. Stergios’s main concern is the insufficiency of technical and vocational education in America. He states that in Springfield, Massachusetts, for example, there are tens of thousands of jobs available, yet the unemployment rate there is high as compared to the rest of the state. “The mismatch between jobs available and people who are seeking work, in terms of their skills, is enormous.”

    Why? Why doesn’t our education system provide quality vocational and technical training that both businesses and underemployed people could benefit from?

    I blame it on central planning.

    Central Planning

    The failure of the American education system to provide instruction in skills needed in various businesses is just another case of central planning’s failure where free markets would succeed. In America today, schooling for the 88% of students who attend government schools is planned centrally by state departments of education or district boards of education, and central planners, whether of the whole Soviet economy or American “public” education, have neither the knowledge nor the incentives they need to plan well.

    Let’s start with the knowledge. How would state education officials find out what quantities of what kinds of vocational and technical training are appropriate in all the various different regions of a state such as Massachusetts? The podcast mentions “applied engineering” skills such as machining, along with skilled nursing, the knowledge of how to run a restaurant, and basic computer skills.

    We could also mention carpentry, plumbing, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), bookkeeping, inventory management, auto maintenance, and dozens of other trades and skills. How would state education officials decide what kinds of training to offer, where, in what quantities, and at what depth?

    They could conceivably poll the businesses in different locales, repeatedly, to try to collect this information and keep it up to date. It would be very difficult for the limited staff of the state department of education assigned to this task to gather and manage the mass of information about dozens of trades and skills, the need for which changes constantly with technology, the business cycle, demographic changes and other factors.

    Even with the best will in the world they could only do a poor job of this. They would face “the knowledge problem of central planning,” the inability of central planners to collect all the information they need to plan well.

    Free Market Education

    But think how it would work in a free market for education. Vocational/technical schools in an area, established by entrepreneurs who perceive, or think they perceive, a demand for such schools, would constantly try to discern the changing demand for different skills and know-how, and try to provide such skills and know-how to students they would recruit for their programs.

    Schools that satisfied a real need, and kept up with necessary changes, would flourish. Those that did not would fail.

    Perhaps a chain of such schools might emerge, adapting the offerings of each particular school in the chain to the needs of the area. Perhaps certain skilled craftsman would set up work-study relationships with high schools in the area, essentially paying students in on-the-job training for the students’ help with their work. Such relationships could also be formal apprenticeships.

    Even now, according to Jim Stergios, businesses come to established vocational and technical schools and offer to invest in the schools in return for the schools’ offering training in the skills they need. Think how much more of that there might be if students (and their parents) could choose what schools they would pay for what instruction.

    Why would high schools in the area agree to such work-study programs? To attract students.

    In a free market for education, no school would be guaranteed a chunk of the taxpayers’ money by the school district, as now. Instead, the parents would get to decide what schools their children attend, and therefore where their tuition money goes. Schools would have to win their customers by offering valuable instruction, and work-study instruction would surely be seen as valuable in areas where businesses need employees with those skills.

    As business conditions in a region changed, the vocational and technical schools and programs would have to change with it or lose money. Those innovators quickest to respond to a new need would be rewarded.

    Think what a world of difference there is between the knowledge that goes into central planning by a government bureaucracy and the knowledge that goes into decentralized planning in a free market. In the one, a few bureaucrats plan based on general, summary knowledge of circumstances in a region as a whole. In the other, many different people plan based on their own detailed knowledge of the particular circumstances of their own time and place.

    In the one, the government apparatus must approve any changes; in the other, the entrepreneurs just act. In the one, mistakes can go uncorrected and opportunities can go unperceived for a long, long time. In the other, mistakes are promptly punished with financial losses while getting it right is rewarded with profits.

    Good Intentions and Good Incentives

    Now what about incentives?

    Surely there are many government education officials who conscientiously wish to do what’s best for the students. But the fact remains that their incentive to do so is weakened by the fact that if they don’t do what is best for the students, they will get paid anyway.

    In government schooling, the tax money flows into the school system almost regardless of how well the school system satisfies actual social wants and needs. So why go to the effort of figuring out what curriculum changes might be valuable in different areas, testing them, rolling them out where parents and students value them (again, how would the bureaucrats really know that when the parents are not paying?), and shutting them down where they don’t really satisfy a public need? A public school system with funding guaranteed by the tax man just does not have to make that effort.

    In practice, according to Jim Stergios, this situation is actually much worse than what I have just described, in which the system makes no effort to discover and implement needed changes. According to Stergios, the system actively resists improvements in vocational and technical education they know — or have good reason to believe — would be valuable. Why? Because if they allowed the changes, the conventional schools would lose funding to the vocational schools, and the conventional schools are powerful enough to resist that.

    Stergios says of Massachusetts that

    Our district school system, the traditional public school system, believes that they own the children and they do not want to share the resources. [They consider it] their money, and so giving further options outside of their current network of schools, the district, is not something they are open to.…

    It’s hard to expand the number of choices in the Vo/Tech area simply because of that sense that the districts own the money. (emphasis added)

    Again, think how different things would be in a free market for education, where the parents own their own tuition money and decide where their children go to school. Then schools would have a strong incentive to find out and offer the kinds of instruction that would attract parents, students, and tuition dollars. And if more vocational and technical instruction would be valuable to society, as I believe it would, it would be offered, because educational entrepreneurs would have a strong personal incentive to offer it.

    Knowledge problems and incentive problems beset central planning of education as of every other sort of good or service. Markets — human freedom to exchange — solve those problems. We should free the market for education.

  6. Will President Trump kill capitalism?

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    For those who believe that capitalism has generated dramatic improvements in US living standards over the past two centuries, the first month of Donald Trump’s presidency has been chilling.

    President Trump appears incapable of understanding that free trade and immigration are crucial engines of growth and prosperity. Relatedly, the president is obsessed with saving American jobs and “putting America first” rather than fostering policies that promote economic efficiency (which is what actually puts America first). During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump ruled out reform of Medicare or Social Security, even though these programs threaten to bankrupt the economy absent major overhauls.

    Even worse than his misguided views on specific policies is Trump’s language. He exudes a preference for centralized command and control (“I alone can fix it”) rather than for unfettered competition and the survival of the fittest under true capitalism.

    President Trump shows no patience for the rule of law, instead chafing under the constitutional limits on his authority and disparaging judges, threatening elected leaders, and firing civil servants who challenge the legality of his decisions. This imperialist tendency, if not checked by the courts, Congress, and voters, will shove the US economy even farther down the slippery slope of crony capitalism.

    Double-Edged Swords

    To be fair, Trump has called for dramatic reductions in regulation, which if carried out thoughtfully could significantly boost free markets. Obvious targets include licensing restrictions and other barriers to entry; federal labor-market regulations such as minimum wages, overtime laws, and union protections; and some environmental, health, safety, and financial regulation. Yet “deregulation” can easily morph into protection for crony capitalists unless carried out by true advocates of free markets.

    Sensible reforms to Dodd-Frank, for example, could rightly reduce barriers to entry for small financial institutions. Repealing the entire set of regulations, however, could end up being a “free pass” for larger banks — believing they would get bailed out again in the next crisis — to resume the risky or speculative activity that helped spark the Great Recession.

    Careful reforms to aviation law could make business easier for US airlines, but limiting low-cost foreign carriers from flying to the US under the guise of “protecting American companies” (as many lobbyists have recently argued) would stifle free market competition and consumer choice.

    Similarly, President Trump has expressed sympathy for major tax reform, which could strengthen the economy by eliminating misguided deductions, exemptions, and credits while lowering rates in a revenue neutral way. But tax reform could end up being mainly tax reduction; given the projected path of US entitlement spending, such tax cuts would be a double-edged sword because of their impact on the debt.

    Thus pessimism about capitalism under President Trump is understandable. The president’s views, should they become policy, would likely expand crony capitalism rather than true capitalism.

    The Strength of Capitalism

    Yet history allows a more optimistic outlook. Few presidents have been true friends of capitalism, and many have committed “crimes against capitalism” as bad as or worse than those likely to occur under President Trump.

    Franklin Roosevelt introduced Social Security, tried to fix wages and prices under the NIRA, supported national wage, hours, and union regulation, and even attempted to pack the Supreme Court when it blocked his initiatives. Harry Truman tried to nationalize the steel industry because of a dispute with steel unions over wage increases. Lyndon Johnson created Medicare and Medicaid, Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls to combat inflation, and George W. Bush endorsed government bailouts of Wall Street banks and auto manufacturers. More broadly, the regulatory state has been growing consistently since the early 1900s and the New Deal.

    Calm reflection, therefore, shows that Trump’s proclivity to interfere with America’s economy has a long, depressing precedent.

    Yet despite centuries under assault, capitalism has more or less survived, and economic prosperity has continued to increase. The country would plausibly be richer with fewer regulations, less redistribution, a saner tax system, and greater openness to trade and immigration. But so far capitalism’s ability to spur innovation and entrepreneurship has outpaced the damage done by bad policies.

    In other words, presidents have been trying to weaken capitalism since the inception of the Republic, and capitalism has withstood the test. This history is no guarantee of future success; autocrats like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Pol Pot at least temporarily destroyed capitalism in their respective countries. And we may be living in a new regime, where leaders everywhere are hostile towards globalization and economic integration.

    Even so, capitalism—stronger than any border wall or immigration ban—remains a resilient and deeply American system. Trump would be wise not to bet against it.

  7. Donald Trump: The avatar of democracy

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    Many political commentators have accused Donald Trump of “undermining democracy.”

    This accusation appears to stem from Trump’s penchant for uttering obvious falsehoods. Over the past month, Trump has asserted that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast in the presidential election, that more people attended his inauguration than Barack Obama’s, that the murder rate in the United States is at its highest level in 47 years, that only 109 people were affected by his travel ban, that the media is not reporting on terrorist attacks, that a failed military raid in Yemen was a success, and that he lost the presidential vote in New Hampshire because thousands of illegal voters were bused in from Massachusetts.

    To the extent that I understand the argument that this behavior undermines democracy, it seems to run something like this. Trump’s assertions are almost entirely divorced from objective reality. By basing policy decisions on such patently false propositions, he is acting in a way that is inconsistent with the functioning of democratic government.

    Now I do not mean to be perverse, but this criticism seems completely wrongheaded to me. There may be many grounds on which to criticize President Trump’s actions, but undermining democracy is not among them. Far from undermining democracy, Trump appears to be perfecting it. I think that in his first month as president, Donald Trump has been the epitome of democracy.

    Allow me to explain.

    In our personal lives, most of us pay close attention to the facts of reality. We look both ways before we cross the street. When we drive, we stop at red lights and refrain from driving 90 miles an hour through residential streets. We consider how much money we make in deciding how much money to spend. We comparison shop, consider the prospects for return before making investments, perform regular maintenance on our cars and homes, and purchase automobile, life, health, and homeowner’s insurance. We don’t just walk up and take other people’s stuff.

    We do this because each of us would personally suffer the consequences of ignoring the facts of reality. Failure to look both ways means that we might be hit by a car. Reckless driving means that we might crash. Profligate spending means that we might go bankrupt. Failure to comparison shop, invest carefully, perform necessary maintenance, and purchase insurance means that we may suffer financial losses. Failure to observe property rights means that we may be punched in the nose.

    In contrast, in our political lives, most of us pay almost no attention to the facts of reality. When we engage in democratic decision making — when we vote — we indulge our imagination and vote for the way we want the world to be.

    We feel compassion for low skilled, low wage workers, so we vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. We are horrified by mass shootings at schools, so we vote to ban or restrict possession of guns. We are afraid of the effects of narcotics on youth, so we vote to prohibit their use, possession, and sale. We are concerned about the plight of the elderly and the poor, the quality of the public schools, and the readiness of the military, so we vote to increase social security benefits, wage a war on poverty, pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and increase the defense budget.

    Because voting one way rather than another imposes no consequences on us personally, there is little reason to consider the facts of reality when doing so. Thus, we vote to increase the minimum wage without considering the effects such an increase will have on those who run small businesses or whether it will increase unemployment.

    We vote for gun control measures without considering whether criminals or the mentally disturbed will actually be deterred by the need to obtain their guns illegally. We vote for a war on drugs without considering whether doing so will create a black market for drugs and the violent crime associated with the sale of banned substances, despite the nation’s experience with alcohol prohibition. And we vote to spend money on today’s elderly, poor, public schools, and military without considering the effects continual deficit spending will have on economic growth and the well-being of the next generation.

    Democratic decision-making is the realm of institutionalized wishful thinking. For any identified social problem, voters are free to imagine a simple solution for it untethered to the facts of reality. They may then vote for candidates who support their solution and feel good about themselves for doing so. If their preferred candidates win, they then consider the problem solved.

    If, after a while, the problem hasn’t disappeared, that is because of insufficient funding, or inadequate enforcement, or the influence of malign special interests, or the obstructionism of the narrow-minded or bigoted or hyper-partisan members of the opposing party. In a democracy, who wins elections is not determined by what is true. What is true is determined by who wins elections.

    Donald Trump is the apotheosis of democratic magical thinking. Trump has perceived the essence of democracy. He understands that for all practical political purposes, in a democracy, if enough people believe something, then it is true. And this insight has allowed him to sever the cord between political utterance and objective reality in a way his more benighted predecessors could not bring themselves to do.

    Donald Trump understands that in the realm of democratic governance, there are always “alternative facts,” as long as one can get enough people to accept them.

    During the campaign, Trump promised to make the country secure from terrorist attack by banning immigration from Muslim countries. He won the election. Therefore, it is true that the way to make the country secure from terrorist attack is to ban immigration from Muslim countries. A federal judge who denies this truth must be politically motivated.

    During the campaign, Trump promised to end illegal immigration from Mexico by building a wall across the country’s southern border and bring back manufacturing jobs by renegotiating trade agreements and imposing tariffs on goods made overseas. He won the election. Therefore, it is true that the wall will stop illegal immigration and economic protectionism will bring back manufacturing jobs. Those who deny such truths are purveyors of fake news or dishonest members of the media.

    I am opposed to Donald Trump’s policies because I find them to be both illiberal and ineffective. But I do not believe that Trump is undermining democracy. On the contrary, by recognizing that in a democracy the truth is whatever the majority believes it to be, Trump has merely taken democracy to its logical conclusion. Far from undermining democracy, Donald Trump is its avatar.

  8. Trump’s proposed wall and tax are folly

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    As a professional teacher of economics, I wish to go on record about President Trump’s proposal to build a wall to keep people from Latin America out of the United States, and to charge a 20% tax on imports from Mexico to pay for it. The idea is wrongheaded on both counts: they would harm citizens of the US as well as those of Latin America.

    The wall would cause harm because human beings are “the ultimate resource,” as Julian Simon taught us in a book by that name. Human ingenuity and creativity are the most valuable and productive forces known. They are at the root of our technology and productive enterprise. As long as people are free to use their ingenuity and creativity, and held responsible for their actions, they produce more than they consume. They generate net wealth which they exchange with one another.

    This means that in a free country, the more people the better. Our policy should be open borders for all who wish to live here peaceably and work. The proposed wall would reduce standards of living in America (not to mention those of would-be immigrants seeking a better life).

    An aside on jobs: yes, immigrants do take some jobs that people born in America might otherwise hold. But that does not mean fewer jobs for the American born. Why not? Because as long as people have unsatisfied needs and wants – that is, forever – there is work to do. People, the ultimate resource, discover new ways to satisfy unsatisfied wants, and they put themselves and others to work in doing so. Immigration and trade don’t reduce the total number of jobs, they just change the kind of work done.

    As for the wall itself, have we no better use for the tons of concrete and steel, the miles of roadway and electrical wire, and the years of human time and effort it would take to build, maintain, and monitor it? We would be dumping precious resources in the desert in order to deny ourselves the ultimate resource. It’s stupefying.

    As for the proposed 20% tax on Mexican imports to the US, that would reduce trade between the two countries by making Mexican goods more expensive to Americans (is that good for us?) and thereby reducing Mexicans’ earnings of dollars with which to buy American goods. And nothing is more important to human flourishing than trade. People in modern society produce not for their own consumption but for others’. The world economy is a vast system of cooperation in which everyone seeks to create goods and services for others and trades them for what he or she wants. To obstruct that cooperation by a tax on imports is to weaken the bonds of society. Our policy should be unqualified free trade.

    Trump’s proposed wall and tax are folly.

    This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.

  9. Rawls the Irrelevant

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    As editor of Cato Unbound, I don’t actively take sides. Here, though, I’m going to be a bit polemical. My thesis is simple: If you want to square libertarianism with social justice, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is probably not a book you should reach for.

    As the term is usually used, the advocates of “social justice” are not Rawlseans. You will not win them by quoting Rawls. You will not win them by thinking like Rawls. They know what they want, and Rawls isn’t it. Rawls is for the milquetoasts of the academy; social justice is radical stuff. Whatever their origins, the two have diverged, and there’s no sense denying it.

    (This leaves aside Rawls’ effect on libertarianism proper, which Todd Seavey has aptly described as “attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” The only way to improve would be to specify, more elegantly than I’m doing right now, that the free market is the washing machine, a durable good that benefits everyone; and Rawls is the soufflé, a fragile, delectable confection, enjoyed for half a minute by a well-stuffed class of elites.)

    Now we may certainly debate the merits of Rawls’ system (I say it’s flawed) but we should recognize that Rawls is tangential to the debate about libertarianism and social justice.1

    Rawls’ distinctive move in political theory was to recommend a shift in strategy. Those who are most concerned with the poor should reject both egalitarianism and utilitarianism, he argued. In their place he urged a maximin strategy, in which inequality of wealth would be tolerated, and even welcomed, on the condition that relative disparities in wealth always worked to the absolute benefit of the poor.

    I’d like to ask the libertarians who are keen on Rawls: Have you ever tried pointing out the absolute wealth of the American poor? Have you ever mentioned this fact to a progressive? And did their hair not immediately catch fire?

    A Rawlsean ought to love this report from the Heritage Foundation:

    For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.

    To a rounding error, this is what Rawls would demand. Note that the absolute wealth of our poor is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. It’s an accomplishment shared only by those countries that have adopted a significant measure of free market economics, or, at best, by a few others who piggybacked on the free market’s creative success while adding almost nothing of value themselves.

    The overwhelming majority of the poor in the United States enjoy technological wonders that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Outside the free market/liberal democratic synthesis, essentially no other social system has ever delivered as much — because almost none of them can produce a steady stream of new technological innovations in the first place, let alone distribute them to the poor.

    It takes remarkable upper-lip musculature to sneer in such circumstances. But some do manage. “Let Them Eat Cake,” says one progressive commentator about the report — hardly an outlier.

    Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.

    This really ought to count for something, but somehow it never does. And if giving the poor a lifestyle that would have been the merest science fiction in the 1960s doesn’t count for anything — then what on earth would?

    In one sense, the poor are entitled to as much as possible. And I mean that sincerely. Were I able, I would give every American a salary of $200,000 a year — in real terms, not inflationary funny-money. I would put everyone in today’s much-hated one percent. And why stop there? Let’s have free clothes from Prada. Free meals from Le Bernardin. And biological immortality. And a fully functional U.S.S. Enterprise. Because hey, why not?

    Where we could find all that wealth, God only knows. But the problems are technological, not philosophical. Nothing in justice forbids everyone from growing arbitrarily wealthy, provided they come by it peaceably and honestly.

    But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.

    The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.

    That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.

    The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.

    But you never make more cake by slicing it up differently. When cake goes to the hungriest, you don’t encourage baking; you encourage whining about hunger. How do you make more cake? Even the baker can’t answer that question in any detail. It’s a product, so far as we can tell, only of the market process, of specialization and gains from trade, of local knowledge and market discipline.

    That discipline now yields a productivity unheard of in all of human history. That’s something we and the Rawlseans both might learn from. But it’s not a thing beloved by the advocates of social justice.

    1 On that tangent: I find Rawls incompatible with libertarianism in part because Rawlsean thinking is too quick to bless the status quo. It is, as I suggest above, too conservative for libertarianism, which ought to be a radical political movement. Libertarianism should always begin at or near the question, “Why is there some government rather than no government?” Libertarians may be anarchists or minarchists, but they should never take government as either a matter of course or as one of indifference.

    This piece was originally published at Libertarianism.org. It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kogelmann’s piece here.

  10. Presidents for life and the problem of democracy

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    What does it mean to have a “real” democracy?

    In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez received the overwhelming majority of votes (sort of legitimately) and then changed the rules so he could stay on as president for life and appoint his successor.

    But, technically, Venezuela is a democracy.

    In Russia, even term limits did little to diminish Vladimir Putin’s power during the four years that he passed the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev. He exploited the ambiguity in the constitution to stay on as prime minister during that time and sought reelection in 2012 — over huge protests decrying the corrupt electoral process.

    But, technically, Russia is still a democracy.

    We often associate democracy with rights protections, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the power of the people to elect their representatives (who handle the rest). It may be surprising to hear that only the last is technically part of democracy, while the other crucial elements of a free society are part of something more specific: a liberal democracy.

    Democracy itself is merely a power structure: the people have some form of participation, end of story.

    So despite the myriad of problems in regimes like Venezuela’s and Russia’s — poverty, unrest, food shortages, and a volatile economy, to name a few — they are democracies.

    Protests alone won’t solve the problem.

    Creating a democracy is actually fairly easy. You need a group of people in a society willing to forcefully assert their political rights, a few elites to run the place, and some voting booths.

    We see and have seen countless revolutions started with the hope of achieving democratic ends. Keeping it, however, is the real trick.

    The Arab Spring started out with grand ambitions, the people shouting “bring down the regime” in a unified voice of opposition to the sclerotic governments all over the Middle East and North Africa. As Robert Gates notes in his autobiography, however, “the history of revolutions is not a happy one. Most often repressive authoritarian governments are swept out, and power ends up in the hands not of moderate reformers but of better-organized and far more ruthless extremists.”

    And we saw that play out in all but a few countries. The military now runs Egypt. Libya, Iraq, and Syria all suffer through civil wars and unstable governments. And in many countries, the leaders used excessive force, hoping to punish those who threaten their rule — and providing a chilling example to any future dissenters.

    Democracy itself is an incredibly unstable system of government. It is subject to the whims and caprices of the people, who often ask for and sometimes demand changes that fundamentally undermine the system.

    Liberal institutions can protect us.

    This is why many countries seek to create or maintain liberal democracies. The liberal element contains all of the important protections we tend to associate with the power structure called democracy. That’s where we get the separation of powers, the economic rights, and most importantly the rule of law.

    How do these work? The separation of powers provides each of the different branches of government with a certain amount of independence. Undermining this independence is part of maintaining an illiberal democracy. In Egypt, the military has passed laws that diminish or destroy rights. According to Human Rights Watch, “These laws have, among other things, effectively banned protests, legalized emergency police powers, and expanded military court jurisdiction over civilians, leading to the imprisonment of thousands of people.” In Russia, politicians avoid accountability by relying on the corrupt judiciary to prosecute journalists who dare to question government policy.

    Then there is the rule of law. The most fundamental element of any free regime is the requirement that the government provide clear laws that apply to everyone — including those in government. While it does not stop all abuses, it does provide an avenue for redressing abuses. While it does not protect every individual equally, it establishes the firm commitment to this ideal.

    It is these elements that provide liberal countries with the assurance that their governments will always work for them and when they (inevitably) fall short, there are ways to call the politicians to account.

    But liberal institutions are not enough.

    Importantly, the rule of law relies on everyone knowing the law and everyone abiding by those laws. And this is one of the fragile elements of a liberal system.

    Constitutions merely provide the outline or framework for how the people who run the government should interact and what should happen if they encroach on other branches. It outlines how the people should hold the government accountable and what they can do if the government fails them. There is not an automatic enforcement mechanism for liberal democracy.

    For example, the Russian constitution guarantees a free press, and yet many journalists wind up in jail or worse when they question the government.

    A liberal democracy is not a machine that will run itself: it is run by people. The people in government have to act in the way delineated in the Constitution, and the citizens have to hold them accountable. Without the people to enforce the rules created by the Constitution, it is nothing more than words on a page.

    So if we want to create and preserve societies that are stable and free — if we want to protect ourselves from strongmen like those that afflict Russia or Egypt — we need everyday citizens to understand and defend the liberal ideal.

  11. The bell curve of anti-slavery

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    For years, I’ve read essays in which students seem to think that on the eve of the American Civil War all people were either abolitionists or slaveholders. But abolitionists and slave-holders were actually at the far ends of the bell curve of the United States’ population.

    Most Americans occupied an ambiguous middle, between pro-slave and anti-slave views, but not necessarily owning slaves or calling for outright abolition. In fact, during the 1850s, the real debate was about curtailing the expansion of slavery, not ending it in the near term.

    Abolitionism is one of the complex historical topics that is always over-simplified in textbook accounts of history. The conventional story is that William Garrison was the avant-garde of an abolitionist movement radiating out of New England in the 1830s. By the 1860s, much of the northern population had come over to his side. From this view, the liberal victory over slavery came from the relentless social pressure of the abolitionists.

    In reality, though, there were a variety of anti-slavery positions in antebellum America.  Let’s focus on just four of them. We know that William Garrison argued for immediate abolition, and justified it on moral and social grounds. But the North Carolinian Hinton Helper opposed slavery for its supposed economic inefficiencies and called for gradual abolition, partly through initiatives that would settle emancipated slaves abroad. Abraham Lincoln’s political opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, took the most moderate view on slavery with his belief that if each state could determine its own laws on slavery, the institution would slowly die out. Finally, we can add the libertarian Lysander Spooner, who argued that slavery was antagonistic to natural rights and the Constitution. Spooner called for vigilantes to punish slaveholders.

    This matrix helps us to explore and argue a variety of anti-slavery positions. In classroom debates on this topic, a surprising number of students gravitate towards non-Garrisonian positions. They might find the economic arguments against slavery more convincing, or a radical approach more compelling. Through this process, and in their own struggles to choose a position in the matrix, students learn something about the difficult decisions that faced the anti-slavery contingent alone.

    They also learn about the value of liberal debate. Conventional wisdom is that the force of the radical abolitionists won America over and ended slavery. But in my view, the decades of debate about slavery were necessary to push society towards accepting slavery’s demise. The most famous example of moderate and somewhat more radical positions engaging in civil debate is the Lincoln-Douglass debates of 1858. But a very active source of debate was on the east coast, where immediatists, gradualists, and colonizationists argued over the proper form of abolitionism. Although many Americans became stronger defenders of slavery when faced with calls for its abolition, in the long run, the anti-slavery movement grew because we had a liberal enough society to allow for debate. Gradual, moderate anti-slavery views were a stepping-stone towards abolition.

    Liberty develops in fits and starts, and there is no guarantee that it will succeed. When studying history closely we learn that seldom is there one force or idea that is wholly good or wholly bad. But by recognizing the varieties of antebellum anti-slavery ideas, we see that the general thrust of the period was towards increasing freedom.

  12. America has a bad case of “Whataboutism”

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    A number of folks I respect have gone full Never Trump, and a few have come out in support of the administration, to varying degrees. But quite a few of “us” have rejected full-on support or opposition, lapsing into what I’ve come to think of as “But What About….?”-ism. This phenomenon was pointed out by Washington Post journalist Radley Balko, who said in January:

    Maybe at this point, stuff like pointing and laughing at liberal/media hypocrisy, crowing about political correctness, invoking “Obama/Hillary did it too” arguments, mocking social justice groups who fear Trump—maybe these should no longer be our main priorities. Maybe this is the time to start directing most or all of our energy at the people who actually hold power now, and who are threatening to do some very unlibertarian things with it.

    I have to say, this brought me up short. I had just been tweeting or writing something about Obama’s executive order stranding Cubans. And now the Left is fully bent out of shape over Trump enacting policies that are not all that different from Obama’s! Y’all didn’t get upset about Obama (or Bush, or Clinton) issuing all those executive orders. You’re a little late to the party; ha! I win!

    But my man Radley Balko ruined all that. Because he’s actually right. The Economist wrote about “whataboutism” in 2008 to describe the long-time Soviet, and later Russian, tactic of answering a criticism of their actions with “Oh, yeah? What about….” and then some observation about the U.S. and its own bad actions in Vietnam, Latin America, or more recently in Iraq. Or, even more recently, in Ferguson, MO.

    Notice what Whataboutism does: It changes the subject and tries to establish a moral equivalence: that the actions being criticized are like previous actions not (sufficiently) criticized by the current critic (or even, in the case of Ferguson, MO, perpetrated by the critic). The point of Whataboutism is to impeach the moral authority of the critic. What Whataboutism never does, and cannot do, is evaluate the moral claim that was the actual center of the original point.

    So when Never Trump folks bring up

    My first thought is, “But what about Obama’s record on suppressing whistle-blowers and attempting to control agency communications?” And in a way that’s fair enough, because Obama was extraordinarily aggressive about using the “Espionage Act” against American media and whistleblowers. After complaining about the incursions on free speech, the press, and other basic freedoms for eight years of Obama (and, by the way, eight years of Bush) we may be entitled to a few days of “Whataboutism.”

    But we’re done now. It’s time to take things on their merits, without changing the subject or feeling smug about liberal surprise and anguish at losing the election. If you actually support Mr. Trump, then that’s fair enough — you’re entitled. But if you don’t, then stop pretending that opposition mostly involves mocking the new allies who have finally awakened to the dangers of concentrated state power.