We live in dangerous times — and not just medically and economically. Government executives all over the world — with a few honorable exceptions — are exercising autocratic power, that is, power without legislative or constitutional authority, in the name of stopping the spread of the coronavirus. With respect to these orders, due process is absent. All around the U.S., governors and local authorities have decreed shutdowns of arbitrarily defined “non-essential” businesses and lock-downs. Curfews have been imposed.
The content of these orders may make sense, depending on the locale and scope, One size probably won’t fit all, but avoiding restaurants and staying at home surely make sense for many people. It’s the process — the exercise of autocratic power without due process — that should concern us. Liberty is not only being curtailed now; precedents are also being set. We could be visited by the ghost of pandemic past in the future.
Fortunately, we have seen some resistance to these orders and talk of legal challenges, but nothing widespread. I have not yet heard of any complaint reaching a judge. This is probably because people have their eyes are on the intent of the orders — containment of the virus — and not the process. The old saying “When you’re up to your eyeballs in alligators, it’s hard to remember you’re there to drain the swamp” seems pertinent, and I understand that. But liberty is too important to put on a shelf without even a squawk.
As the liberal order evolved over many centuries, it placed great weight on protection against arbitrary, autocratic rule over person and property: due process, speedy trial by jury, habeas corpus, and so on. These things aren’t much on most people’s mind these days. That may be understandable, but the rest of us need to keep squawking about them.
Knowledgeable people (Bill Gates among them) had warned for years that governments were ill-prepared for serious pandemics. The US government was not just ill-prepared; it also maintained regulatory obstacles — in the name of public health — to others who were willing and able to act.
I’d say the case for statelessness looks better all the time.
Anyone who thinks the coronavirus pandemic destroys the case for open borders hasn’t thought the matter through terribly far. Bryan Caplan explains here. Just to give a taste, in the name of excluding viruses from our shores, the government would have to stop immigration even when no pandemic was in progress since pandemics can’t be counted on to announce themselves in advance. Moreover, tourism, commercial visits, and trade would have to be abolished too. And — yikes! — so would American travel abroad unless Americans were willing to leave home and never return.
One last thing: since we have nothing even close to open borders, Caplan writes, “How much protection have 98% closed borders given us against the pandemic? The answer: Virtually none…. The sad fact is that even very low absolute levels of international contact have been more than sufficient to spread infection almost everywhere on Earth. The marginal cost of higher levels of contact is therefore minimal.”
Liberty is a necessity, not a luxury — even during serious pandemics.
Libertarian political philosophy, as a practical matter, does not offer a prefabricated set of solutions to collective problems. Rather, it’s a liberty-based approach to ameliorating collective problems that begins by acknowledging (among other things) the dispersion, incompleteness, and tacit dimension of relevant knowledge. Thus, the approach favors decentralization, competition (in ideas and services), and choice about what trade-offs to make and with whom to cooperate. Perhaps ironically, to succeed, individualism requires and produces the collective intelligence that only markets embody.
Libertarians have always acknowledged that emergencies — severe extraordinary conditions of limited duration — can justify actions that would be unacceptable under normal circumstances. This doesn’t mean that all the rights-based rules disappear, only that some measures are deemed permissible that otherwise would be beyond the pale. Danger, however, lurks in this principle, requiring eternal vigilance.
For example, if someone collapses unconscious in the street, you may do things intended to help him without his consent. This does not justify a general policy of paternalism. Another common hypothetical is that of the person caught in a life-threatening blizzard in the wilderness who happens on a cabin (which, let us say for simplicity’s sake, is unoccupied at the time). To save his life, the stranger breaks in, builds a fire, and eats the food. No reasonable person would fault him for not first seeking permission of the owner. What happens after the emergency passes is an interesting topic for discussion — should he offer compensation? should the property owner demand and accept it? — but let’s not get into that now. (Yes, the hypothetical could be made far more complicated than mine, but that’s also for another time.) Yet this cannot justify the abolition of property rights.
We might call those situations micro emergencies. They affect one individual or a few, while other people may experience nothing extraordinary at all. So what about a macro — society-wide or global — emergency — a widespread epidemic, let’s say? I can’t see why the principle of emergencies would not hold. The aim of ethics (politics being a subset) is human flourishing, not blind slavishness to duty.
Unfortunately this might mean that in today’s world — where a dangerous communicable disease threatens to overwhelm the medical system — governments would reasonably have freer rein to do things than they have in normal times. Most people would expect that to be the case and, moreover, would want it that way. I say unfortunately not only for reasons obvious to libertarians but also because the existence of the state has over a long period impeded and even forbidden the gradual spontaneous emergence of alternative, protean, voluntary public-health and mutual-aid institutions that would be better suited to responding to pandemics (and other disasters) than the centralized collection of politicians and bureaucrats we call the state. To see the point, you need only meditate on the leading government public-health agencies’ prolonged botching of the matter of coronavirus testing. (Although it’s been stretched nearly beyond recognition for obvious public-choice reasons, public health is a legitimate concept in light of the existence of serious communicable diseases.)
That we must regretfully do without those alternative institutions in the present emergency (although not entirely) should teach everyone a lesson for the future. But what can we do now? A libertarian who says he would “push the button” and at once abolish the state (or in the case of a limited-government libertarian, merely eliminate the welfare state) has little of value to say today. Does he think that alternative voluntary institutions would spring into existence? Institutions — and the constellation of customs and expectations they embody — need time to grow. I’m not saying that people working together consensually wouldn’t do much good on their own in the meantime — they are doing so now — but the limits in the short term would be significant.
Besides, no such button exists, so why would we even talk about it? A radical scaling back of the state at this time would not find widespread support, so even if it could be pulled off, it would quickly be reversed because, like it or not, most people regard the (welfare) state as legitimate, even if they have objections to various parts of it.
So we’re stuck with the state as it is in this emergency. Where does that leave us? Some restrictions on normal activities will be regarded as reasonable, targeted quarantines, for example. That doesn’t mean we should suspend judgment and accept every restriction the politicians or bureaucrats come up with. (What’s with the curfew? Where’s the necessary connection with banning gatherings?) An emergency is no time to abandon one’s critical faculties. Nevertheless, things that would and should be condemned in normal times will reasonably be deemed acceptable — with regrets — even by libertarians for the duration of the emergency. Exactly what all those things might be I’m in no position to say with any confidence. A reasonable restriction could certainly be pushed too far. How far is too far? It’s not always clear, although we’ll often know it when we see it. We will be in an improvisational mode for some time to come — which is why decentralization, competition, and openness to information from far and wide should be the rule of the day. (See this.)
Of course, libertarians have a critical public role at this time. First, we should never cease to point out that much of what the government has done to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic has been in the nature of suspending restrictions on private conduct essential to responding in this emergency. The loosening of restrictions regarding trade, medical practice (including testing and tele-medicine), vaccine development, occupational licensing, and more demonstrates how routine and commonly accepted government activity has dangerously hampered the private sector’s ability to anticipate and react to the pandemic. (Unfortunately restrictions on the price system, specifically, anti-price-gouging laws, are still in force. Trump has reinforced this.) When this is all over we must not let society forget how government stood in the way. What grounds could possibly exist for reinstating those restrictions that threatened our lives during the pandemic? They and others should be permanently repealed.
Second, we ought to be showing people that markets work in emergencies and that we need them more than ever. When hand sanitizer (which was not in common use a few decades ago) ran short, distilleries started making it. Hanes turned from making underwear to making masks. I’m sure other examples could be found. What if the whiskey and underwear industries had been shut down as nonessential? No bureaucrat can know all of the “nonessential” production required to support “essential” production. F. A. Hayek’s insights about the market solution to the ubiquitous “knowledge problem” are more important than ever.
Our very lives depend on entrepreneurship, which is alertness to overlooked opportunities to improve people’s well-being by transforming scarce resources from a less-valued to a more-valued form. Profit is not the only thing that motivates entrepreneurship, particularly in emergencies, but we must not discount its vital role. Thus “people before profits” is a false dichotomy that has devastating consequences, especially for the most vulnerable. (Profits from rent-seeking, that is, government favoritism, is what we should condemn.) When markets are free, serving others is profitable. Thus Trump should not use the Defense Production Act to command manufacturing. The price system is a faithful guide to action that helps others. Let it work. A corollary: globalization, the kind that is unguided by governments, is good and is saving lives now. The welfare-enhancing division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, Adam Smith wrote.
Besides suppression of the coronavirus we need the production of wealth, but only savings and investment through markets can produce new wealth for everyone (as opposed to special interests only). Government produces only the illusion of wealth by conjuring up apparent purchasing power through money creation — raising the price of what’s already been produced — and moving existing resources around — inevitably creating fertile ground for cronyism, pork-barrelism, and electioneering — while consuming a large share in the process. Everyone will pay a huge price for the government’s promiscuous fiscal and monetary “stimulus” — which could conceivably be far worse than the coronavirus.
To state the obvious, we must find the best balance of mitigation of the spread of the virus and economic activity, which itself is required to conquer the disease. We have no grounds for confidence that politicians and bureaucrats can find this balance. Decentralization, with many information-generating centers, is indispensable. And let’s not forget that “the vulnerable” include not only the medically vulnerable but also the economically vulnerable. (Also see this.)
Unfortunately, American governments have shut down much market activity. (Strangely, “socialist” Sweden has not shuttered businesses and prohibited gatherings.) So what can we do now? I’m persuaded that mass testing would pave the way for the resumption of more or less normal market activities, for it would identify those who have the virus antibodies and thus constitute no danger to others. (See this and this.)
Third, advocates of liberty and respect for people should demand that the U.S. government end all economic sanctions against other countries. In normal times, economic warfare is crueler than cruel since it deprives blameless people — not rulers — of food, medicines, and other necessities. Can you imagine what sanctions are doing now?
Fourth, libertarians should demand that any government emergency spending ought to come first from the so-called national-security budget, which, if you count everything, comes to over a trillion dollars a year. Liquidating the empire should be the order of the day. It’s always been bad for Americans’ and other people’s health.
Fifth, we libertarians must teach our fellow men and women about what Robert Higgs has named the “ratchet effect.” This is the well-documented phenomenon that extraordinary, intrusive government measures adopted during a crisis do not go away entirely once the crisis ends. (For details, see Higgs’s classic, Crisis and Leviathan: Critic Episodes in the Growth of American Government.) We can’t let the extraordinary become ordinary.
Sixth and related, libertarians must help people to understand that measures adopted during a bona fide emergency are unacceptable in other circumstances. Politicians and bureaucrats might enjoy their expanded powers in a crisis and so might try to invoke them under more typical conditions — but we cannot let the bar be lowered.
We must not let our society come to see restrictions on individual liberty as the new normal. This is an emergency, and we must not forget it.
Critics of the free economy often complain that the market fails to “behave” as economic theory predicts. Hence the voluminous literature on “market failure” (which sparked a substantial public choice literature on “government failure” and the need for comparative institutional analysis).
But critics also fault the free economy for behaving exactly as the theory predicts. Hence the outcry against “price gouging” during natural and manmade disasters.
The market is damned when it works and damned when it appears not to.
Price gouging is the common pejorative for sharp price increases when, as a disaster looms, the demand for consumer goods — such as gasoline, batteries, and bottled water — rises abruptly. The phenomenon is so widely despised that many states and localities have outlawed or limited such price spikes.
Those spikes are predicted by economic theory. The law of supply and demand anticipates that an increase in demand relative to supply will (other things being equal) cause the price to rise. During Hurricane Harvey, $20 a gallon for gas and $99 a case for water were reported.
What upsets people is that the law kicks in at full force when the demand for gasoline, batteries, and bottled water is especially acute. An impending disaster prompts consumers to stockpile goods for fear that they will not be able to buy them later. Because conditions are abnormal, competition can’t be counted on immediately to limit price increases.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton expressed what many people feel: “Unfortunately, in the wake of the damage from storms and flooding, we … see bad actors taking advantage of victims and their circumstances.” As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida, state Attorney General Pam Bondi declared she had “zero tolerance. If you are a bad business going after our citizens, we’re going to go after you with everything we’ve got.” To owners of offending convenience stores, she promised to “pull your franchise.”
Appearances of exploitation can deceive, however. Let’s begin with the obvious: so-called price gouging arises during impending emergencies in which, by definition, no good alternatives exist. People who condemn gouging imply the choice is between plentiful supplies at low prices and plentiful supplies at high prices. But the first alternative is not available. The real choice is between no goods at a low price and some goods at a high price. Government threats do nothing to increase the supply — but they may well keep the supply from increasing, making a bad situation even worse.
Bondi told CNN that charging $30 for water is wrong because “there’s plenty of water throughout this country.” But water in other states could do Texans and Floridians no good unless someone chose to transport it to the hurricane zones. Policy makers need to ask themselves whether people in other states are more or less likely to do so if they risk prosecution for charging too much. The answer is obvious. Why would anyone take extraordinary risks if they couldn’t charge much more than they could charge at home? We may wish that people would risk their lives for strangers, but how many of those who condemn price gouging undertake that risk themselves?
If the objective is to get badly needed supplies to people in need, it would be better to take human nature as we find it and accept that the profit motive is the most powerful inducement we know for getting goods delivered to those who need it. How comforting is the knowledge that, although people will go without those goods, at least no price gouging occurred?
When critics rail against gouging, they often appeal to the virtue of charity and call on everyone to sacrifice for those who face extraordinary hardship because of emergencies. However, those critics fail to understand that the law of supply and demand encourages the very sacrifice they call for. When prices spike, consumers naturally cut back on their purchases, forgoing what they regard as the most trivial uses of goods. By doing so, they leave more for others — which is what the gouging critics say they want. If prices remained at the old, lower level, consumers at the front of the line would buy more than they would have at higher prices, leaving less for those at the back of the line. We have no reason to think the poor have better access to goods when the government imposes price ceilings.
Note also that if profit-seeking entrepreneurs in other states moved goods to afflicted areas, even consumers in unaffected areas would be encouraged to cut back. Thus the sacrifice would be spread throughout the country.
Limited supplies might go further by restricting purchases through an honor system for consumers or through arbitrary limits on purchases, but neither of those alternatives would bring new supplies to the marketplace.
The question remains: do we want to feel good, or do we want people to have the goods they need?
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.
Laws against so-called price gouging — that is, price spikes during emergencies — violate our natural right to engage in voluntary exchange at mutually acceptable terms. As economics has long taught, price ceilings that defy market forces make the affected goods vanish from the market. Instead of a product being available at a price more-than-X, it is instead unavailable at a price less-than-X. Small comfort for the consumer. (Try to find masks and hand sanitizer on ebay or at the supermarket.)
Here’s another way to look at those laws: they violate freedom of speech (expression) and hence the First Amendment. Civil libertarians should be up in arms.
How can those laws violate the First Amendment? It is rather simple. The market’s price system is a communications process, a means of expression. In the market, people’s demonstrated preferences with respect to scarce resources are translated into highly usable information in the form of prices. Typically, when the quantity demanded for something rises, so does the price tend to rise. (Other things equal, as the economists say.) And vice versa. Adam Smith explained this beautifully in The Wealth of Nations. (See my article “The Market Is a Beautiful Thing.”) Through the price system consumers (without realizing it) tell producers what to produce and in what quantity. And producers use it to tell us when we need to economize (that is, buy the product only for our subjectively most important purposes, leaving some for others). This is important because we live in a world of scarcity. To produce more of good A, we might need to produce less of good B. If we want the market to be sensitive to consumers’ priorities, we’ll want the price system to be free of political and bureaucratic molestation. It’s as simple as that.
It follows, then, that if price controls — such as law against so-called gouging — are enforced, our voices are muffled if not silenced. That violates our freedom of expression and thus the First Amendment. When the price of hand sanitizer is bid up during a pandemic, the higher price is like a broadcast summoning producers to bring more product to the market. Laws against price spikes are like the gagging of consumers. It’s true that empty shelves are also a form of communication, but unfortunately, price controls also remove the incentive for people to produce more of the goods that are suddenly in short supply. Prices are the irreplaceable tool of economic calculation, as Ludwig von Mises spelled out a century ago in his case against central planning.
No good comes from stifling the market — that is, from interfering with peaceful cooperation.
Jeff Tucker’s “In a Disease Panic, the Free Market Is Your Friend” ought to be atop everyone’s reading list. As libertarians well know, people who are under the delusion that government is a creative element in society, rather than a predator, will never let a good crisis go to waste. (Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, put it just that way.) The historian and economist Robert Higgs has documented the history of exploitation of crises to expand power and consume liberty in America in his classic, Crisis and Leviathan. We can see this process on vivid display with the outbreak of the coronavirus, or COVID-19.
What propels the expansion-through-crisis process is the belief that only government can respond effectively to the crisis. Most people, busy with their lives, don’t know enough about economics and politics to see the flaw in the statist’s case. By and large, and through no real fault of their own, they operate at a primitive level intellectually. Plus they take for granted what they’ve enjoyed all their lives: the increasingly accessible abundance of necessities and luxuries, which even a couple of generations ago would have made people green with envy. That is all the result of the fact that, despite all the obstacles, government has not managed to abolish markets, the price system, and entrepreneurship.
Enter Jeff Tucker’s article:
The truth is that the market loves you right now, more in the midst of a disease panic than ever before. It would love you even more if companies were not being browbeat by government into curbing sales of essential items. Let the prices of sanitizer and masks rise and you draw more into production and distribution. Throttle the market and you reduce supply.
The market would have loved you more had the Centers for Disease Control not failed to authorize private companies to test for the virus. It was only after the aggressive protests of the governor of New York that the CDC gave in and let people do what they wanted to do….
In a disease panic, we are learning, people lose their minds and stop thinking clearly about things that matter. They also reach out to authority to save them. All of this is expected. And it’s very sad. Even sadder is how the unscrupulous power mongers among us use such times to enhance the power of the state over our lives and claim it is for our own good.
Libertarians need to speak up — now more than ever.
However you feel about democracy, it can’t fix what’s wrong with socialism.
In theory, modern representative democracy — unlike ancient Greek direct democracy — means that people vote for so-called representatives to fill various executive and legislative government offices. Those officials then enact and enforce rules that people are expected to obey under threat of fine and/or imprisonment.
In theory, socialism has mostly been understood as direct government economic planning through public, that is, state, ownership of the means of production. In no real sense can a public own — meaning control — factories, farms, etc. In reality public ownership means control by the collection of politicians and bureaucrats called the state. Thus socialism until recently has been understood to entail abolition of private property, money, and markets. Competition, cooperation, and exchange give way to monopoly, command, and compliance.
(For the record, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, socialism in some circles was an umbrella term for any “left-wing” alternative to [state or political] capitalism. Thus some left individualist anarchist libertarians, such as Benjamin Tucker and his compatriots, embraced the term while joining with other nonstate socialists to oppose corporatism, or neomercantilism, the alliance of state and favored business interests. In a linguistically more perfect world, socialism would denote the opposite of statism. In that sense, market anarchism is socialism because the arena of decision-making is society — the network of voluntary relations — rather than the state — the network of coerced relations.)
These days, at least in America, socialism no longer means only formal government ownership of the means of production and central planning. (It’s useless to complain: like it or not, words “move” and always have.) By socialism, Bernie Sanders and his followers intend it to mean a much bigger welfare state: “free” medical care for all, higher education, etc. Sanders says his models are in Scandinavia, but those are not socialist countries; rather they are highly market-oriented welfare states. At least these days, Sanders does not propose to abolish private property and markets. He does propose, of course, to interfere with market relations through taxation and decrees such as minimum-wage legislation. He seeks not to abolish markets but to forcibly modify their outcomes more to his liking. (Not that he deserves praise for that.)
Socialism (in the older sense) and welfare-statism, along with other forms of interventionism, for all their similarities and common shortcomings, are not identical, as Ludwig von Mises noted. (For the common shortcomings, find a copy of Israel M. Kirzner’s classic essay, “The Perils of Regulation: A Market Process Approach.” Also see Kirzner’s “Competition, Regulation, and the Market Process: An ‘Austrian’ Perspective.”) For example, Medicare-for-all and free college would be better described as welfare-statist because, as envisioned, the government would not own all the hospitals and colleges or employ the doctors, nurses, and teachers. The services would be regulated by bureaucrats and paid for by the taxpayers whether they like it or not.
I hasten to add that the difference I’m alluding to between socialism and interventionism is not moral but economic and institutional. Whether politicians and bureaucrats direct our behavior directly though government ownership or indirectly through regulation of nominally private arrangements makes little difference morally. Either way, our rights and freedom are violated.
Leaving the distinction between socialism and interventionism aside for now, let’s understand that socialism, however defined, would not have its intrinsic flaws eliminated by placing democratic in front of it, that is, by having officials elected. The reason is simple. If socialism were to have any chance of delivering on its extravagant promises, politicians, bureaucrats, and the public would have to know things that they could not possibly know. Here I invoke the rich critique of centralized power provided by Mises and F. A. Hayek.
Mises showed, beginning a century ago, that the abolition of markets — which would necessarily include the elimination of authentic money prices — would bring chaos because the prices generated by people’s marginal decisions about scarce resources in markets are indispensable for economic calculation. Calculation is important because resources are scarce and we don’t want to waste them. Prices, which contain vital information, guide action throughout society. Without them, no one could make smart economic decisions for himself, much less for an entire society.
Hayek emphasized that central planners necessarily would be ignorant not only of prices but of the scattered, incomplete, and ever-changing underlying knowledge about supply and demand, including subjective consumer tastes. Specifically, he showed that much of the information that generates prices is not explicitly known data even to the relevant actors; we all possess tacit knowledge that influences our actions when we face unanticipated alternatives between two or more goods or courses of action. Not only is it the case that central planners could not know this information; we could not convey it to them even if we had a timely way to do so. Economic planning without true prices is like flying in a fog without instruments. The choice is between free pricing (which requires private property, markets, and free exchange) or what Mises called “planned chaos.”
Relevant to this discussion, Kirzner, in The Perils of Regulation, showed that a regulatory state would suffer from a similar “knowledge problem” as socialism. The regulators could not know what they would have to know to efficiently regulate an “economy” that accorded with the preferences of the individuals they ruled. Their ignorant interventions would distort prices, leaving the hampered economy less able to serve us. (In reality, there is no “economy”; there are only people who trade goods and services. We are the economy that demagogic politicians seek to regulate.)
So we ask: how could the knowledge problem be solved by democracy? As individuals, voters may know much about their own and their families’ situations, but how much do they know about their neighbors’, not to mention the rest of the country’s. I am certainly not qualified to choose among candidates offering competing plans for how much steel, aluminum, etc. should be produced next year and at what price, what kind of cars should be manufactured, or how much wages should rise. Are you? Freed markets (unmolested by politicians) do this reasonably well. And unlike politicians, markets constantly correct for errors.
Clearly, democracy cannot fix the economic flaws of socialism or interventionism. It can’t fix the moral flaws either. However you define socialism — unless it’s in the Tuckerite sense — it must entail state interference with peaceful cooperative interaction. (I reject the bogus distinction between personal and economic activities, just as I reject the distinction between personal and economic liberty. What’s more personal than our decisions about what to buy and sell?) Whether the intrusive government officials are elected or not makes no moral difference. Just as no autocrat ought to be able to tell me what peaceful actions I may and may not engage in, so no politician appointed by 50 percent plus one of voters ought to be able to tell me what I may and may not do.
I suppose the adjective democratic is meant to convey that the advocate wants socialism without the nastiness that Castro et al. brought with them: including the jailing in labor camps of various “undesirables” and enemies of the revolution, such as gays and independent-minded librarians. (It seems odd for Sanders to praise Castro for his literacy programs when the dictator also expressly rejected freedom of the press.) But as Hayek pointed out in The Road to Serfdom, what begins as democratic socialism may not stay that way. It could become autocratic socialism as the legislators talk endlessly about how exactly the economy should be planned or guided. After all, even if everyone believed that the government should plan society, it wouldn’t follow that everyone agreed on the plan’s details. So at some point an impatient president might decide to put a stop to the idle chatter and take matters into his own hands through executive order.
Democratic or not, socialism and interventionism are unfit for human beings.
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.
If you’re like most people, you don’t go around killing or assaulting others. You probably would never think of torturing, raping, kidnapping, or confining your fellow men and women. I doubt if you’d think that stealing or vandalizing their belongings would be a good thing. And I’m sure you’d never dream of stopping people from pursuing their chosen occupations.
Taking this a step further, I’ll also assume you wouldn’t think these actions would be fine as long as you had the endorsement of a bunch of other people, specifically, if more people expressed approval of such an actions than disapproval.
Now if all that is true, guess what: you are on your way to being a libertarian. Don’t retreat from it. No, embrace your inner libertarian. It’s a good thing to be. We often hear about the need to respect, tolerate, and even love humanity. That’s nice but abstract. Humanity consists of individual human beings. So when you begin to make the admonition about loving humanity concrete, you can’t help but start with: 1) don’t murder individuals; 2) don’t hit or otherwise abuse individuals, and 3) don’t touch individuals’ stuff without asking. You may want to go beyond those rules — we have much to gain from peaceful cooperation, importantly including trade of all kinds — but that is the starting point, the bare minimum. Don’t tell me you love humankind if you can’t endorse those rock-bottom don’ts.
Why do most of us live by those prohibitions? Most likely it’s because we have a sense that this is simply the right way to be. We realize that other people are essentially like ourselves, and so we should let live because we want to live. We can take different paths to this conclusion, but most of us get there. It’s not difficult to figure out. Kids do it, even if they occasionally need guidance.
Unfortunately, when the matter of the government arises, suddenly a disconnect occurs — which is strange because the government is just a group of people. It’s not an entity but an institution, a group of people who relate to one another and to a larger population in an ongoing and more-or-less formally defined way.
But if a government is just people, we ought to expect the don’ts set out above to apply, no? Many people, alas, don’t see this. (Government education is largely to blame.) They exempt from those rules anyone thought to be acting in an “official capacity.” But why? And shouldn’t the burden of proof be on those who advocate a double standard of morality, one for the ruled and another for the rulers?
Don’t reply that democracy makes it all right. We’ve already seen that you and I wouldn’t abuse someone else if we could muster the support of a lot of people. Why would the situation differ if people formally voted?
You may be thinking that “officials” can do things to other people that you and I may not do because government exists to protect us. Fair enough. Let’s talk about defense, self and otherwise.
You may properly use proportional force against someone if necessary to protect yourself or other innocents against aggression. Not only that: you may hire others to protect you or band together with others for mutual defense and aid of other kinds. Nothing wrong with that.
But note: those whom you engage for such a purpose are still subject to the rules the rest of us follow. They may not, under the rubric of defense, commit offenses against innocent people. If they do, they ought to be treated as any of the rest of us would and should be.
Obviously, the individuals who comprise the government are not held to this standard. They routinely use force against people without even the pretense of protection of innocents. Take taxation. If you, having threatened or hurt no one, don’t surrender the money the people who comprise the government demand, they will not take no for an answer. If you decline, they will send armed agents to seize your belongings and maybe even lock you up in a cage. Should you resist those armed agents, they may kill you with impunity for “resisting a lawful arrest.”
You and I can’t treat other people that way. Wherefore the double standard? Needless to say, the power to tax is the root of all other government power, which some people then grab to gain wealth that would be impossible to obtain through voluntary exchange.
Once you explicitly grasp the implicit rules you already live by, you are a long way toward being a libertarian. All that’s left is for you to realize that those rules apply to everyone, even those who shroud themselves in the mantle and mystique of the state.
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.
Anyone old enough to think about “America’s” role in the world ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. For example, one ought to be able to argue firmly against U.S. intervention in other countries without feeling obliged to downplay or deny the real crimes that the tyrant du jour has committed. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.
I can see the temptation here. Many people believe that all one needs to do to establish a case for intervention is to portray the target as egregiously bad. Consequently, a noninterventionist may think that the easiest way to rebut the interventionist is to deny the claim that the target is as bad as “they say.” But this is a lousy, shortsighted, and ultimately self-defeating move. For one thing, it implies that intervention would be acceptable if the target were that bad. Unsurprisingly, it’s better to stick to principle.
The principle of foreign nonintervention has nothing to do with the record of the foreign government in question. It is perfectly coherent to identify Ruler X as a brutal dictator and to oppose a U.S. government action aimed at regime-change and nation-building. Thus the noninterventionist has no need to blunt the move toward intervention by misstating or obscuring facts to make the targeted ruler appear less bad than he really is. If someone is puzzled by the statement “The ruler is as horrible as you say, but that is no justification for intervention,” it’s the noninterventionist’s job to straighten that person out because he clearly misunderstands the nature of noninterventionism.
The world is full of egregiously bad rulers — as distinguished from merely garden-variety bad ones — but when the matter turns to U.S. foreign and military policy, the appropriate question is, “So what?” As I say, the case for nonintervention doesn’t rest on the target’s record. So noninterventionists should have no trouble identifying Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro (among many others) as egregiously bad guys while also opposing U.S. government action against them.
Noninterventionists should also be able to state, assuming of course it is true, that a particular bad ruler is not as bad in every respect as the interventionists say without being smeared as an apologist for that ruler. For example, we can note that Assad, although a brutal dictator, has protected religious minorities, such as Christians, from the fanatical Sunni Muslims, such as al Qaeda and the late Islamic State. (Assad himself is a member of a religious minority, the Alawites, which is in the Shia branch of Islam.) Acknowledging Assad’s record of protecting minorities does not make one a fan, much less a tool, of the Syrian ruler. Similarly, one ought to be able to point out that U.S. sanctions are partly responsible for Venezuela’s problems without being accused of defending or overlooking Maduro’s authoritarian state socialism, which by nature will always harm the very people it is perhaps intended to benefit.
Thus the case for nonintervention is independent of Assad’s policy toward minorities and the consequences of U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. (Those sanctions should end.) Nonintervention stands on its own merits.
I find it necessary to discuss what ought to be obvious because recently I’ve seen people committing these fallacies: a few noninterventionists have appeared to suggest that a potential target of U.S. intervention, Maduro, isn’t really so bad, while some interventionists have accused noninterventionists of being soft on some demonstrably horrible rulers.
Another fallacy I’ve encountered is the equation of noninterventionism with nationalism, specifically with a belief that national borders are sacrosanct. The fallacy here is in thinking that the libertarian case for nonintervention rests on a reverence for national boundaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Noninterventionism and open (i.e., essentially abolished) borders go hand in hand.
So why the iron rule against nonintervention if borders are not sacrosanct? Albert Jay Nock and Murray Rothbard both answered this question: as long as we live in a world of states, to minimize the harm, we are obliged to keep the state we labor under on, as Nock put it, as short a leash as possible. This is true in domestic policy, but it is even more urgent in foreign affairs since presidents have frightening and acutely lethal autonomy in that realm. We should need no reminder that when the U.S. government intervenes in a foreign conflict, it makes things worse — much worse — especially for noncombatants. So nonintervention is motivated not only by a wish to keep the state as small as possible, but also to minimize bloodshed by abstaining from exacerbating other people’s conflicts. Bluntly put, we must keep states from clashing. It’s got nothing to do with a reverence for borders.
In the harsh light of 21st-century American foreign policy, we can see that the cause of nonintervention has never been more urgent. Let’s not burden it with irrelevant considerations.
Americans’ free-speech and other rights are being violated by state laws aimed at stifling the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Movement against Israel’s illegal rule of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both conquered over half a century ago. Twenty-eight states have enacted anti-BDS laws or executive orders that prohibit state agencies and state-financed entities, such as colleges, from doing business with any person or firm that hasn’t pledged never to boycott Israeli goods.
Appropriately, these laws have come under fire as violations of both free speech and the right to engage in boycotts, which consist of peaceful decisions not to buy products of a particular origin.
The latest case to hit the news is concerns journalist and filmmaker Abby Martin and the state of Georgia. Martin explained the case in a January 11 tweet:
After I was scheduled to give keynote speech [about the media, not about BDS] at an upcoming @GeorgiaSouthern [University] conference, organizers said I must comply w/ Georgia’s anti-BDS law & sign a contractual pledge to not boycott Israel. I refused & my talk was canceled. The event fell apart after colleagues supported me.
Georgia’s State Senate passed an anti-BDS bill which states that “a company or individual seeking a procurement contract worth at least $1,000 with any state agency would have to certify playing no party in a boycott of Israel.” When making his claim for passage on the floor of the Senate, Senator Judson Hill cited companies like HP and Motorola as examples of companies that use Israeli technology, and stated that boycotting any products or companies that were developed in Israel goes hand in hand with discriminating against the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole. [Emphasis added.]
One would be hard-pressed to show that boycotting Israeli goods discriminates against all Jewish people. Many Jews support BDS and condemn Israel for its brutal mistreatment of the Palestinians. Sen. Hill merely repeated the pro-Israel smear that anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism, which is patently absurd. As for BDS constituting discrimination against the people of Israel — perhaps it does (except for Israelis who oppose the occupation of Palestinian territory and support efforts to end it). But why don’t Georgians and other Americans have a right to do that? It’s a peaceful decision to not buy certain products, and it violates no one’s rights.
Martin’s exclusion from Georgia Southern is under legal challenge by her, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF).
At least one other legal challenge on this issue has succeeded on constitutional grounds, and similar laws are now in the courts. Regarding the successful case, MPN Newsreports,
In 2018, Bahia Amawi, a Houston-based children’s speech pathologist who worked with autistic, speech-impaired and other developmentally disabled children, lost her job after she refused to sign a similar document. Amawi had been at her job for nine years previously without a problem. CAIR took up Amawi’s case and managed to overturn every Texas boycott law on the grounds of their unconstitutionality and she is now free to return to work. They appear confident of a similar victory in Georgia.
Quoting a previous case, federal district Judge Robert Pitman ruled that the Texas anti-BDS law “threatens to suppress unpopular ideas” and “manipulate the public debate” on Israel and Palestine “through coercion rather than persuasion.” Judge Pitman added: “This the First Amendment does not allow.”
This issue ought to be a no-brainer. By what right does a state government require contractors, including speakers, to sign what is in effect a loyalty oath to Israel (or another other country)? That those laws have passed state legislatures and been signed by governors is more evidence of the influence — dare I say power? — the Israel lobby routinely wields in American politics. The lobby along with the Israeli government works overtime to destroy the BDS movement and discredit the activists who participate in it. (See my “The Art of the Smear — The Israel Lobby Busted.”)
To address an objection (which I’ve already seen), anti-BDS laws are nothing like antidiscrimination laws that prohibit state agencies and state-funded entities from contracting with firms that practice racial, ethnic, religious, or sex discrimination. As long as states exist (hopefully for not too much longer) they will surely tax everyone without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, or sex. Therefore, it is wrong for the state — or tax-financed entities — to discriminate in hiring, contracting, etc., on the basis of those incidental characteristics. The liberal principle of equality before the law demands such nondiscrimination. But one cannot move from that reasonable principle to other kinds of conditions on contracting, particularly conditions that infringe the right to free speech (say, advocating BDS) or peaceful action (say, boycotting for any reason).
Finally, a word about BDS itself. The movement aptly models itself on the effort to boycott, divest from, and sanction South Africa during its apartheid days. Israel has deprived the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of their rights since the war of 1967. Gaza is a prison camp under a long-standing Israeli blockade, punctuated ever few years by full-blow military assault. Peaceful protesters in Gaza have been shot by Israeli military snipers from outside the prison fence, killing hundreds and wounding tens of thousands. The Palestinians in the West Bank have no rights and are subject to military surveillance and Jewish-only settlements and roads, as well as separation wall that snakes through the territory. It is naked apartheid in that Jews have full rights while Palestinians are treated like nonpersons. Meanwhile, Israeli officials, encouraged by the Trump administration, have been moving toward formal annexation of key parts of the West Bank. Thus, no mystery surrounds the selection of Israel for boycott and divestment. (The Palestinians inside Israel, 20 percent of the population, are treated no better than second-class citizens, which is not surprising since Israel bills itself as the state of the Jewish people everywhere, not the state of all its citizens regardless of religion or ethnicity.)
I have no problem with the B and the D, and I applaud those who refuse to do business with companies and individuals associated with the oppression of the Palestinians and who liquidate investments in Israeli firms. That’s a proper and peaceful exercise of their rights. But we advocates of liberty should draw the line at S — sanctions — because we should on principle reject the state’s power to impose sanctions on anyone. Sanctions punish people who don’t wish to boycott the targets. But the right to boycott logically entails the right not to boycott. Also, if the state has the sanction power, it will surely use it against targets we wouldn’t want targeted.
I propose a different S instead: Strip Israel of its $3.8 billion annual military appropriation.
TGIF — The Goal Is Freedom — appears occasionally on Fridays.
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