Sheldon Richman

TGIF: Hear, O Israel — Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death

An older generation of Americans, including Jewish Americans, admire the colonists who resisted the British king and parliament in the late 1700s. Jewish Americans go further and admire the Judeans who revolted against the Greeks and Romans (twice) in antiquity.

So isn’t it peculiar that they do not applaud the similar Palestinian resistance to Israel’s domination? The most we get from U.S. politicians is Bernie Sanders’s weak statement about putting conditions on the massive aid to Israel, which is in political disarray because its ruling competition wants to subordinate the independent judiciary.

To appreciate the Palestinian resistance and daily Israeli attempts at suppression, watch the Mondoweiss video “On the Brink: Jenin’s Rising Resistance” (video and transcript). It begins like this:

Male Voice: “Palestinian health officials say at least nine Palestinians have been killed.” Female voice (Yumna Patel): “It was the bloodiest few [almost five] hours the West Bank had seen in years.” Male voice again: “More than a hundred military vehicles entered the camp [on Jan. 26 this year].” Female voice again: “Ten Palestinians [including two teen-aged boys and a 61-year-old woman sitting in her home] were killed in a single Israeli army raid. Dozens more were injured. Palestinians described it as a massacre, and it all took place in an area of less than half a square kilometer.”

According to host Patel, “The Jenin refugee camp is home to over 15,000 Palestinian refugees, the descendants of those who were forced out of their homes by Zionist militias in 1948, during the creation of the state of Israel.” Jenin is also home to “armed resistance groups who routinely confront Israel soldiers during army incursions into their camp,” On this latest raid Palestinian medics with the Red Crescent were kept by Israeli forces from administering aid.

Contrary to what you may have heard, this is not “antisemitism,” a word used to describe disparate things in different places throughout history, including criticism of Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians that goes back well over 100 years.

“In 2002,” Patel says, “in the midst of the Second Intifada, the Israeli army launched a massive invasion of the Jenin refugee camp following a number of suicide bombings inside Israeli territory. During the invasion, the army killed more than 50 Palestinians and destroyed more than 400 homes in the camp, displacing more than a quarter of the camp’s entire population. More than 20 years later, the effects of the 2002 invasion are still felt in the camp today.”

This is about individual rights and personal autonomy. “During January’s [this year] raid, Mohammad al-Sabbagh witnessed his family home being destroyed for the third time.” Also, “During the army raid on January 26, 21 years after his father was killed, Ziad al-Sabbagh barricaded himself alongside his comrades inside his family home during the army’s assault. Though he made it out alive, he was arrested by Israeli forces. And the al-Sabbagh family home was once again destroyed.”

“It’s death or freedom,” says one fighter. That sounds like Patrick Henry, who purportedly said, “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (March 23, 1775, St. John’s Church, Richmond, Virginia, speech at the Virginia convention.)

The unconscionably inhumane treatment of the Palestinians is either consistent with what are called Jewish values or it is not. If it is, well then… But if it is not, then why has it gone on 56 years after the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights were taken militarily (to be annexed in law or in fact) and 75 years after a group of Europeans declared the existence of Israel (no borders specified) and the Palestinians who managed to stay in Israel, despite the catastrophe (Nakba) of their brethren being driven from their homes, were made no better than second-class citizens (if that), subject to all sorts of government and quasigovernment mistreatment and discrimination? So much for Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised that “it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” (This took place following a UN General Assembly recommendation that Palestine be divided, with more than half given to Jewish Europeans even though Jews were a minority of the Palestinian population and the UN had no right to partition the land.)

“Back in 2002,” Patel says, “the army framed the deadly invasion of the camp as a defensive measure to prevent future attacks against Israeli citizens. The raid on January 26 was justified for the same reasons. But the residents say that Israel’s frequent raids over the years have only created more resentment and motivated more people to take up arms.”

Jamal Hweil told Patel: “Any person who wants to know the truth has to ask, is the resistance a result or a cause? The cause is the presence of the occupation. The cause is the existence of the [refugee] camp and the displacement of the Palestinian people and the persistence of the refugee issue. The cause is the presence of an occupation of our lands. Resistance isn’t the cause. Resistance is the result.”

As a young Jenin Brigade fighter told Patel: “The world must know that we are not terrorists, as the [Israeli] occupation claims. We are fighters in the name of God. We came out of our mothers’ wombs into this world to fight this occupier, who has stolen our religion, our customs, our traditions, and who has killed our fathers and our brothers. The world needs to know we aren’t terrorists. The occupation is the only terrorist in this world.” He continued:

What pushed me towards resistance are my own personal convictions, from what I’ve seen in my life. We were brought up as kids in the middle of this, every day an army raid, every day an operation, every day someone is arrested, everyday youth are executed, women are executed. The occupation enters the camp and the city without differentiating between the old and the young. It will kill whoever is in its way.

Says Patel: “The Jenin Brigade was started in 2021 by fighters affiliated with the Islamic Jihad movement but has since evolved to include fighters from a number of factions in the camp. The new cross-factional model has since inspired the birth of other groups outside Jenin, who spread messages of Palestinian unity against Israeli occupation.” [Emphasis added.]

“It’s a message,” Patel says, “that hadn’t been heard in years, and it has appealed primarily to young men, who have grown increasingly disillusioned with their own leaders after decades of political infighting and a stalled peace process.” [Emphasis added.]

As one fighter says, “When this generation witnesses this frustration, when it sees a dead end on the political horizon, when it sees the worsening economic conditions, what do you expect from these youths?”

Ammar Izz al-Din told Patel: “Enough of the ‘negotiations.’ These negotiations have brought us nothing. Since I was born I’ve been hearing about negotiations, and it’s all been for nothing. You can’t negotiate with Israel.”

I’m not endorsing violence, but this despair is Israel’s — its rulers’ and most of its people’s — fault; they have all refused to address the Palestinians’ legitimate grievances. The former head of the World Zionist Organization, Nahum Goldmann, wrote in his 1969 autobiography that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, told him that were he an Arab, he wouldn’t talk to Israel’s founders because “We had taken their country.” (And let’s remember how the Israelites came to possess all of Canaan in the first place, according to the book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible.)

A day after the latest Israeli raid, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem whose grandfather was killed by an Israeli settler in 1998, “killed seven people inside an illegal Israeli settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.” He was killed at the scene. Yet the government of Benjamin Netanyahu cracked down, Patel reports, “announcing sweeping measures that rights groups warned amounted to collective punishment…. At the same time, Israeli settlers in the West Bank carried out a series of ‘revenge’ attacks against Palestinians, burning people’s homes and cars, hurling rocks at Palestinian vehicles, and even shooting at Palestinians with live ammunition. It was reported that in a single night, settlers carried out close to 150 attacks against Palestinians and their property.”

Why care about this? Because the U.S. government, influenced by the Israel lobby (Rep. Ilhan Omar was essentially right when she said it was “all about the Benjamins;” for some politicians it is), gives billions in military aid to Israel every year. And Netanyahu, with his eyes on Iran as a world, threatens to start a war or to goad America. into starting it.

It may be worth a reminder that the prophet Hosea (4:1-2, 6-7, 9) said, “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood…. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee…. As they were increased, so they sinned against me: therefore will I change their glory into shame…. and I will punish them for their ways….”

And Jeremiah (32:42), “For thus saith the Lord; …I have brought all this great evil upon this [‘my’] people.”

And Ezekiel (7:8) says, “Now will I shortly pour out my fury upon thee [‘Israel’], and accomplish mine anger upon thee: and I will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense thee for all thine abominations.”

I’m not saying this, and I don’t buy it. But it’s in The Book!

Admittedly this is a god who reportedly ordered genocide against other Canaanites and was angrier at the children of Israel for worshiping other gods than for anything else. But the remnant of anti-Zionist Jews (bless their hearts) such as the American Council for Judaism interpret unfaithfulness to include a failure to act justly. and idolatry as the placement of the Jewish state above all else. It is ironic that Israel does not heed its own foundational, if allegorical, texts.

Thomas Jefferson’s statement concerning American slavery, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, comes to mind: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just….”

Of course the reason for Israel and Jewish Americans to behave justly toward the Palestinians is not Yahweh’s wrath. It’s justice itself!

As I wrote in Coming to Palestine

Realization of the [Zionist] dream of a Jewish state logically entailed the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians, who by the common standard of justice were legitimate owners of their land. Those who remained were made third-class citizens or even worse in an apartheid state. The countless micro offenses against those individuals were compounded by a macro offense: the destruction of their flourishing culture, communities, and country….. [H]ere’s one thing advocates of universal freedom and justice can say: The rights of the Palestinians must not be plastered over by irrelevant claims about the Jewish State’s right to exist.

TGIF: Which Way — Capitalism, Socialism, or Something Else?

Big questions are being thrashed out these days. One of the biggest is this: do we want capitalism or socialism? Unfortunately, the online discussions I’ve witnessed have been, to put it as politely as I can, terrible. (For an example, see this one between Reason senior editor Robby Soave and political commentator Briahna Joy Gray, cohosts of The Hill‘s online show “Rising.”)

Let’s start with the words themselves. We’re in a linguistic mess. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that nearly everyone has his own definition of capitalism and socialism. So when people get together to hash things out, they ought to begin by saying what they — the discussants, not the words — mean. That doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable demand.

It’s pointless to debate what words “really mean.” There are no platonic definitions. Language is usage, which is what dictionaries have traditionally reported on. and word usage changes. So we should dispense with that conversation or else time will be wasted.

As I say, we’re in a linguistic mess. Bernie Sanders is the country’s best-known “democratic socialist.” Asked during one of his campaigns what democratic socialism is, Sanders said something like, “It’s an economy that works for everyone.” Real informative, Bern. Thank you very much.

The fact is that most younger Americans today seem to think that socialism is just a bigger welfare state. For example, they would probably say socialism would include Medicare for all, a program in which the government would pay everyone’s medical bills through taxation. But that’s not what socialist ideologues have traditionally had in mind. For Marx and his socialist predecessors, socialism meant the abolition of private property, money, and hence the market: the state would own the factories, hospitals, and other means of production. I don’t think most people who call themselves socialists today favor that.

How about capitalism? As I wrote some years ago, as the word is used, capitalism

designates a system in which the means of production are de jure privately owned. Left open is the question of government intervention. Thus the phrases “free-market capitalism” and “laissez-faire capitalism” are typically not seen as redundant and the phrases “state capitalism” or “crony capitalism” are not seen as contradictions. If without controversy “capitalism” can take the qualifiers “free-market” and “state,” that tells us something. [I discuss the many problems with the word capitalism here.]

It tells us that the word itself is a muddle. The word capitalism has been called an “anti-concept,” a term I associate with Ayn Rand, who wrote:

An anti-concept is an unnecessary and rationally unusable term designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concept. The use of anti-concepts gives the listeners a sense of approximate understanding. But in the realm of cognition, nothing is as bad as the approximate….

But the word capitalism is worse than an anti-concept because it’s not merely approximate; it contains contradictory elements. As philosopher Roderick Long writes:

Now I think the word “capitalism,” if used with the meaning most people give it, is a package-deal term. By “capitalism” most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by “capitalism” is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term “capitalism” as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.

And similar considerations apply to the term “socialism.”…

Ironically Rand, like Ludwig von Mises but unlike F. A. Hayek, favored the name capitalism for her “unknown ideal.” But Rand, again like Mises, left no doubt about what she meant. The other day I caught a YouTube short of Rand talking about capitalism in which she said she meant “real, free, uncontrolled, unregulated, laissez-faire capitalism, not the mongrel mixed economy we have today.” (I prefer self-controlling and self-regulating to uncontrolled and unregulated, but let that go. See my “Regulation Red Herring.”)

If people define their terms before plunging into the debate, the time will likely be more fruitfully spent. If I were in such a discussion, I would insist that the issue is not whether we really have capitalism, but whether we, individually, are fully free, politically and legally, to produce, consume, invest, and exchange in unmolested self-regulating markets.

And I would ask the self-described socialist if he favors the abolition of property, money, and markets. If he says no but favors Medicare for all, housing subsidies, and regulatory agencies, I would say he sounds like an advocate of a mixed economy in which markets exist but are routinely manipulated by state personnel aiming to effect outcomes they believe that voluntary exchange will not achieve.

As for the actual socialist, I’d start by saying what H. L. Mencken said:

The chief difference between free capitalism and State socialism seems to be this: that under the former a man pursues his own advantage openly, frankly and honestly, whereas under the latter he does so hypocritically and under false pretenses.

People with an overwrought sense of romance love the phrase, which Marx did not originate, “From each according to his ability, to each according to  his need.” But how does that not describe a nightmare world? Under socialism, would each individual freely decide what he thinks his abilities and needs are? (What is a need?) If so, central planning is out of the question. So some presumptuous person or bureaucracy with dictatorial powers would make those decisions. Oh happy days! The promised withering away of the state is about as likely as an honest politician.

I can’t see that socialism has anything at all to be said in its favor. Even Benjamin Tucker, the prominent American free-market anarchist, who was seduced by the valueless labor theory of value, said, “[State] Capitalism is at least tolerable, which cannot be said of Socialism or Communism.”

What the free-market advocate must not do is let his interlocutor get away with claiming that “our capitalist system” is the free market. When, for example, Briahna Joy Gray says, as she did in the discussion I linked to above, that homelessness or (undefined) inequality is capitalism, she must be called to account with a question: “But are people free in the market?” Considering how thoroughly government bureaucracies at every level encumber necessarily win-win voluntary exchange, it can’t be the free-market order that’s causing homelessness. Coercive corporate power, which Gray and her ilk see as the prime culprit in so many ills, derives from coercive political power and cannot exist without it — thus, it’s what I call the most dangerous derivative.

Influencing the language is like herding cats. Nevertheless, I’d love to come up with a single word ending in ism for what free-market champions favor. We could simply say, “the free market,” “laissez-faire capitalism,” or Adam Smith’s marvelous term “the system of natural liberty,” but they seem clunky in some sentences. “Individualism” has its virtues, but it’s not quite on point in this context because markets are founded on social cooperation and the division of labor. “Enterpriseism” is contrived, although it makes the point. I’ll keep working on it.

For Further Study

Sheldon Richman, “Capitalism versus the Free Market” (video), Future of Freedom Foundation, 2010.

Sheldon Richman, “Capitalism and the Free Market, Part 1 and Part 2, Future of Freedom Foundation, 2010.

Sheldon Richman, “Is Capitalism Something Good?” Foundation for Economic Education, 2010.

Sheldon Richman, “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone,” Counterpunch, 2011.

Roderick T. Long, “Corporations Versus the Free Market, Or Whip Conflation Now,” Cato Institute.

Roderick T. Long, “Rothbard’s ‘Left and Right’: Forty Years Later,” 2006.

TGIF: Immigration Foes, What’s the Beef?

If people are going to hate on immigrants, they should at least get their stories straight. Do immigrants take our jobs or do they sponge off us through welfare? Today, let’s talk about jobs.

Recently I was listening to Spiked‘s Brendan O’Neill interview Batya Ugar-Sargon, the left/right-populist assistant editor at Newsweek, when I heard say: “The elites love low-wage slave labor imported by the cartels to work service industry jobs, that they would rather have cheap labor than have to pay more for it.”

This is nutty working-class populism in its most uninhibited form. Ungar-Sargon would have us believe that people who risk life and limb thinking they’re choosing to escape political-economic hellholes to achieve better lives for themselves and their families in America are just modern-day Kunta Kintes! They’re not people; they’re imports! That might come as news to them.

Ungar-Sargon is talking about both legal and so-called illegal immigrants. Interestingly, though, it seems to have escaped her notice that the only immigrants who could potentially be treated like slaves are those branded illegal by the U.S. government. They are vulnerable to abuse precisely because they have to keep themselves out of the clutches of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Legal immigrants can call the cops. Being put on ice has a different meaning these days.

A bit later in the interview she said,

Black Americans have paid a huge price for our essentially open border for the last 40 years. Over and over businesses would much rather hire illegal immigrants than hire black Americans, and so they’ve literally paid for up to 40 to 50 percent of wages just sacrificed on the altar of progressive pieties about importing people from failed socialist states. They’re very angry at that.

That 40-to-50 percent claim astounded me because I’ve never heard anything like it before. Neither have the two experts I asked, guys who know the immigration-related statistics as well as anybody and better than most. In their view, Ungar-Sargon made it up. She did not tell O’Neill where she got the statistic, and — shamefully — he did not ask.

I wonder why Ungar-Sargon singled out black Americans. She claims to reject identity politics in favor of class politics. Is she pandering? Since biology provides no genetic basis for categorizing people by skin tone or other such features — since the human species does not consist of three to five genetically distinct groups called “races” — who does Ungar-Sargon or her anonymous source include in the category of “black Americans”? But I digress.

Ungar-Sargon sounds like Bernie Sanders, a strong contender for the least impressive person in American politics, who says he opposes open borders because “the Koch brothers” favor it. That may be a reason, but it’s not a good one. What else does he oppose because a rich person favors it? Brushing teeth after meals?

Ungar-Sargon, Sanders, and the others in this camp have their own version of the alt-right’s replacement theory, don’t they? The “cartels,” she tells us, want to bring “slave labor” to America to replace native workers simply to save money. They want the people’s (mis)representatives to stop this at all costs. But this is nonsense. Immigrants, especially ones without government papers, do jobs that Americans think are beneath them, particularly when the government supports them.

Make no mistake about what this position says: natives have a superior, if not the only, claim to the opportunities available through voluntary exchange in America. “They take our jobs” is an assertion of a native-only property right in jobs that has no rational basis in morality or economics. It’s an ugly “blood and soil” sentiment, which does not suit a free society. Not only that, it cruelly relegates people born elsewhere to lives of misery, poverty, and oppression — needlessly so because immigration, like every consensual transaction, is win-win. So keeping immigrants out not only hurts them; it also hurts us! Immigrants not only consume; they also produce and even start businesses and hire people, natives included.

True, if an immigrant is hired in America, natives who hoped for that job will be disappointed. But that sort of “negative externality” is a feature of life, not of immigration. People lose jobs in the short run through innovations in technology and business organization, not to mention fickle consumers. Who would outlaw innovation or consumer freedom on that count? The fact is, as history demonstrates, people who are thus harmed will benefit after a brief adjustment to change — if the government keeps out of the way.

But let’s also understand what Ludwig von Mises meant when he wrote in Human Action, in the section he called “The Harmony of the ‘Rightly Understood’ Interests”: “The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier.” In other words, mass markets with their economies of scale and falling costs of production, provide everyone with an ever-greater abundance of affordable goods and services. It was, after all, the emergence of the market order that led to mass production for the first time in history.

What Mises was saying about consumption obviously applies to production too because it’s the flip side of the coin. Producers hire workers. The availability of a larger labor force furnishes entrepreneurs with opportunities for new and better enterprises that could not have existed with a smaller workforce. Products and services that were beyond reach yesterday are available today. In a society unencumbered by government intervention (unlike the one we have), the increasing demand for jobs more or less creates its own supply.

As for wages, let’s see what a bona fide expert says. George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan (with illustrations by Zach Weinersmith) addresses the matter in their graphic nonfiction work, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.” Opponents of free immigration should hold their tongues until they are prepared to answer Caplan’s multidimensional case.

As for wages, Caplan writes:

Even economists who emphasize the negative effects of immigration on native wages report small — and mixed — effects. [George] Borjas and [Lawrence] Katz … estimate that, in the long run, extra Mexican migration from 1980-2000 reduced U.S. native dropouts’ wages by a grand total of 4.8%, and college graduates’ wages by 0.5%. They also conclude, however, that Mexican immigration increased the wages of native high school graduates by 1.2% and those with some college by 0.7%.


Immigration increased labor demand through two channels — one obvious, the other subtle. The obvious: More immigrants means more potential customers. The subtle: Since migration increases foreigners’ productivity [a very important point! –– SR], they have more resources to offer in the marketplace. As a rule, sellers profit from more and richer customers.


How can native workers possibly profit when labor supply rises? Through specialization and trade. When the supply of low-skilled workers goes up, so does the demand for higher-skilled workers to manage them. When non-English-speaking immigrants increase the supply of cooks and dishwashers, this increases the demand for English-speaking waiters.

“But,” Caplan’s stick-figure interlocutor asks, “won’t all these low-skilled immigrants depress our country’s average standard of living?”

Caplan replies: “Almost certainly. But there’s no need to worry. Your fears rest on the dreaded … ARITHMETIC FALLACY!” He illustrates the fallacy by asking us to imagine that a group of little kids enters a room full of NBA players. The average height of the group will shrink, of course, but has anyone actually shrunk? Of course not.

“The lesson: When the makeup of the population is changing, averages are deeply misleading. The average can easily fall, even though everyone is better off!” Understanding basic statistics is necessary simply to protect yourself from number-wielding fraudsters.

So, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Bernie Sanders, Brendan O’Neill, et al., stop losing sleep over what will happen to native workers if we respect the universal natural right of everyone, regardless of birthplace, to seek a better life. Beyond the very short run, treedom benefits everyone. To appreciate this point, economist Caplan notes that if people worldwide were free to move to where they would be most productive, world output  “could easily double.” He writes, “estimated gains range from 50 to 150% of gross world product.” In other words, “economically, open borders is like getting an extra … seventy-five Manhattans a year.”

Respecting everyone’s liberty doesn’t cost. It pays — big time!

TGIF: Fins Left, Right, and Center

Th[e] central question is not clarified, it is obscured, by our common political categories of left, right, and center.

–Carl Oglesby, Containment and Change

You got fins to the left, fins to the right
And you’re the only bait in town.

–Jimmy Buffett, “Fins”

Champions of individual liberty and its prerequisites can’t help but be disheartened by today’s political landscape. For decades the Respectable Center has delivered perpetual war, domestic surveillance and secret police, a national vice squad on steroids, uncontrolled spending, soon-to-be-insolvent “entitlement” programs, sky’s-the-limit borrowing, Fed monetization, alternating inflation and recession, at-best-sluggish economic growth, impediments to economic mobility, and other bad things.

That’s what the “adults in the room” have given us, and that’s what they will keep on giving us. The remarkable improvement in living standards that has reached virtually all levels of American society has occurred demonstrably in spite of, not because of, the government.

No wonder many people are looking for an alternative. So what about the most prominent alternatives? Those would be the nihilist identitarian left and the angry populist, or class-oriented, right and left. The outlook is no less good there.

We can dispatch the identitarians quickly. This is the group whose members think that what matters most about people is their membership in tribes defined by unchosen incidental characteristics. Actual liberals — those who favor individualism and individual freedom  — can muster no enthusiasm for a program that holds the pseudoscientific category of race, the reality-based categories of sex and sexual orientation, or the abused and worse-than-worthless category of gender as central both to personal identity and social status.

So let’s turn to right and left populism. Class leftism may seem promising, but when class analysis comes from ignorant prejudice against commerce and contract, it’s fraught with danger. Class populists (left and right) have never learned that the bogey “corporate power” requires the state‘s power and can’t exist without it. I call it “the most dangerous derivative.” (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.” For an alternative, pro-market class analysis, see Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition.”)

If populism simply meant the rejection of rule by elites, what sensible person could object to it? Over the last few years we’ve seen what elites with political power can do when they control public health.

Unfortunately, we cannot judge political movements only by what they oppose. What do they favor? Aye, there’s the rub. The populists on both sides will say they favor freedom and democracy, but those two standards clash with each other. If the majority rules, what happens to the minority’s rights and freedom? The populist might concede that some matters ought to be beyond the reach of the majority — political expression, for example — but what and how many matters? The committed democrat will want to keep those matters to the barest minimum — in the name of freedom. It’s a scam.

So again, what about the freedom of the minority, the smallest of which is the individual? Populists evade the question by resorting to what the classical liberal Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.” In his 1819 essay, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Liberty of the Moderns,” Constant pointed out that our notion of liberty has changed since antiquity. For the ancients, liberty consisted exclusively of the freedom to participate directly in the political process. As Constant went on:

But if this was what the ancients called liberty, they admitted as compatible with this collective freedom the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community. You find among them almost none of the enjoyments which … form part of the liberty of the moderns. All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion. The right to choose one’s own religious affiliation, a right which we regard as one of the most precious, would have seemed to the ancients a crime and a sacrilege. In the domains which seem to us the most useful, the authority of the social body interposed itself and obstructed the will of individuals. Among the Spartans, Therpandrus could not add a string to his lyre without causing offense to the ephors. In the most domestic of relations the public authority again intervened. The young Lacedaemonian could not visit his new bride freely. In Rome, the censors cast a searching eye over family life. The laws regulated customs, and as customs touch on everything, there was hardly anything that the laws did not regulate.

The world of 1800s modernity, Constant continued, had a different notion: liberty consisted not only of the freedom to participate in governance but also of the right to live a private life, including the right to use one’s property unmolested. As he put it:

First ask yourselves, Gentlemen, what an Englishman, a French-man, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word “liberty”. For each of them it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.

Clearly, the populists subscribe to the ancient notion of liberty, and they may not take umbrage at that statement. Whether left or right, they prefer the coercive communitarian politics of antiquity to the individualism and voluntaryism of Enlightenment liberal modernism.

So no wonder they support restrictions on imports and exports, which interfere with our freedom to trade with whoever is willing to trade with us; immigrant restrictions, which interfere with non-Americans’ freedom to improve their situation and Americans’ freedom to associate with them in all kinds of fruitful ways; and antitrust prosecutions of private tech companies, which interfere with freedom of enterprise and private property.

In each case the populists reject the proven bountiful spontaneous order of markets in favor of collectivist answers both to real and imagined problems. That is, instead of opposing government policies that create and exacerbate problems that are mistakenly attributed to free trade, the free movement of people across arbitrary national borders, and Big Tech as such, they propose that “we” directly address those problems at the ballot box and in the halls of Congress and the offices of unaccountable regulatory agencies. It’s social engineering plain and simple.

However, contrary to populist fantasies, there is no “we” that actually rules. For one thing, who is to be included in — and excluded from — the “we”? That’s a political, not a metaphysical, decision. At best, it’s an exercise in question-begging.

Moreover, the voters’ diverse views and feelings are always filtered through politicians and bureaucrats, whose frame of reference is partly defined by well-connected special interests. Those are the people who will say what if any products we may buy from and sell to non-Americans; which non-Americans we may and may not socialize with, hire, sell to, and rent to; and what disfavored private companies may do with their own assets.

In other words, populism in the end resembles elitism — except, as Bryan Caplan argues, at least elites tend to be more economically literate than the masses and so might be “the lesser poison.” In public opinion polling, the more-educated respondents are more likely to be favorable to trade with foreigners and immigration. Caplan credits elites with watering down the masses’ most extreme demands for protectionism and closed borders, if not quashing them entirely. As he once tweeted, “Elites’ problem isn’t being ‘out of touch’ with masses. Elites’ problem is denying how irrational masses really are.” For any card-carrying populist, this is heresy. (See Caplan’s book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. I review it here.)

To their credit, the populists of left and right support free political speech (although they erroneously apply the same standard to the government and to private firms) and oppose foreign military intervention. But this group — which comprises such otherwise diverse people as Batya Ungar-Sargon of Newsweek, Glenn Greenwald of System Update, Brendan O’Neill of Spiked, and Tucker Carlson of Fox News — would have the government spend the savings due to a noninterventionist foreign policy domestically rather than leaving it in the pockets of the taxpayers, who after all are the ones who earned it through the production of wealth for consumers.

Contrary to the populists, the alternative to democracy is not some flavor of authoritarian elitism. It’s what’s F. A. Hayek called the market order, which is rooted in individual freedom — in a word, libertarianism.

TGIF: Games Politicians Play

Except for the civic religion on ostentatious display at the annual presidential state of the union address, one can hardly think of a reason for the tradition at all. It’s not as though we learn something substantive or even hear a truthful material claim. (Yes, it could be useful in launching a president’s reelection campaign.)

I’m sure someone somewhere has pointed out that democracy is not only a religion but also the opiate of the masses. When too few people could swallow the silly claim that the head of state represented the applicable deity, a new way was needed to assure the people’s enduring acquiescence in their own subjugation. What better way than by having them believe that the power rested in their own hands? They had only to use it wisely (that is, by choosing those whom history if not Yahweh had ordained to rule). If they didn’t, the fault was theirs alone. Thus no need for revolution or regicide. They needed only to traipse to the polls when called and participate more conscientiously in the collective exercise of their sovereignty. Helping to articulate and then loyally abiding by the General Will was the essence of freedom, after all. So stop complaining and participate civically!

The rest follows. The rites and holidays serve to remind us of our purported awesome power. Each year, then, the president goes before a joint session of Congress to report on the state of our union, with the cabinet (minus one) and the august justices of the Supreme Court duly assembled. The presidential box is graced by people who, for some very poor reason, allow themselves to be politically exploited by the occupant of the White House.

From there, it’s all pretty routine, and Joe Biden stuck to the script. Take his boast about creating a record number of jobs, shrinking the deficit, controlling inflation, and the like. We’ve heard it countless times before. If something has gotten worse, say, crime, vow to make it better but accept no responsibility.

Never mind that the job growth (attributable to enterprise) was predictable with the waning of the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors beyond the power even of the Oval Office. Never mind that huge budget deficits loom as far as the eye can see — Washington is addicted to spending our money — and that the debt limit has again been reached and will soon be raised. The sky’s the limit, you know. That justifies forecasts of more Fed inflation and malinvestment, then recession and involuntary joblessness.

Never mind that the federal budget line labeled “interest on the debt” continues to increase and will tower over ever more spending categories. Never mind that Biden’s Buy American policy means that the government will intentionally spend more of our money than necessary in procuring materials for infrastructure projects it should have nothing to do with anyway. (And leave foreigners with fewer dollars with which to buy what politically unfavored Americans make.)

Never mind that newly proposed price controls and regulations will lower the living standard of everyone, lower-income people included. And never mind that “illegal” immigrants aren’t the problem with the welfare state or the source of fentanyl. (That would be the misnamed war on drugs.)

Mind none of that. Just jump to your feet multiple times and applaud. That goes even for you good folks at home — just in case your smart TV is watching you back. (I’m just sayin’.)

I did enjoy the lively give-and-take that went on when Biden said that “some Republicans want Social Security and Medicare to sunset.” Republicans were heard to shout back, “No!” and “Liar.”

That’s another game they all play: pretending that Social Security and Medicare won’t crash — sunset is too gentle a verb — on their own without any help from Congress. Both programs will be insolvent in the short term. The implicit crash provision was built into the original legislation in the 1930s and 1960s.

But before the people had a chance even to wonder if the chief executive was indeed lying, he engaged in classic misdirection by saying, “Let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors.”

Everyone — yes, everyone — got to their feet and applauded. He might as well have said, “Let’s all agree that the law of gravity has been suspended!”

The Republicans of course have their own overlapping game. They brand themselves as the party of limited government (but not of limited military or surveillance) and fiscal responsibility and expect us to pay no attention to the small men behind the curtain who spend oodles of our money just like their opponents do. They are bad wizards and bad men. Since raising taxes would go against the brand, they are, despite their incessant squawking, secret agents of deficit spending, which means inflation and recession. Of course, many Republicans — MAGA and the other denominations — thrill to the words Buy American and to any industrial policy as long as the prefix strategic is attached. That’s music to their ears. And they don’t want immigrants polluting the culture or labor market. The populists of left and right are substantially of one mind.

How reassuring that it’s business as usual in old D.C. Thank goodness the adults are back in charge. The civic religion can proceed with its rituals mostly intact.


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