What the Love of Power Trumps

What the Love of Power Trumps

How interesting that the people most worried about Trump’s authoritarian personality demand draconian government responses to the pandemic. Love of power must trump fear of Trump.

What the Love of Power Trumps

An Economy Cannot Be Crippled

Lockdown doesn’t cripple “the economy.” It cripples people who are trying to live. Strictly speaking, there’s no economy. There are people interacting in particular ways regularly.

TGIF: Is Socialism Good in Theory?

TGIF: Is Socialism Good in Theory?

This is an expanded version of something I wrote for The Freeman, October 2003, during my tenure as the editor.

Socialism has been mortally discredited on economic grounds, thanks to Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, and history. But for many people it has not been discredited on moral grounds. You can tell this by how often people say that while socialism doesn’t work in practice, it is good, even beautiful, in theory. (Even Thomas Sowell has said that.)

Strange notion—that a theory which doesn’t work in the world can somehow still be good. Where else is it to be judged? William Graham Sumner, I believe, pointed out the contradiction: there must be a good theory that explains the system that does work in practice, but that theory would conflict with the other theory also held to be good. So we end up with two good but conflicting theories. Something is wrong.

Moreover, one would think that a theory whose consistent realization requires gulags, secret police, and terror would be morally disqualified even if by some weird standard it “worked.” (Notice that Mussolini gets no break for having the trains run on time–as well he shouldn’t.)

I guess the people who say socialism is good in theory really mean they regret that it doesn’t work without the attendant unpleasantness. Why should that be regrettable? The typical answer is that in socialist theory people are not acquisitive or self-regarding; they are more concerned about others. (Right.) The regret about socialism turns out to be a regret about human nature.

Leaving aside the facts that the taint on self-interest is assumed not established and that one prospers in free markets by competitively and imaginatively attending to others, is statement regarding socialism socialism and self-interest valid? Originally socialism promised a superabundance of goods—so much of everything that no one would have to do without anything. That would make sharing unnecessary because scarcity would be abolished. Wasn’t that an appeal to acquisitiveness, even gluttony? To be sure, socialism’s miserable record in providing for consumers compelled its advocates to discover the “age of limits,” but that was only to make a virtue of necessity.

Socialism of course did promise to reconstruct humanity, but the message was always mixed. It promised to subordinate individuals to the service of society while also liberating them to be fully themselves—free of the necessity to make a living. Leon Trotsky wrote that “Communist man … will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.”

But the nice Bolshevik also said, “In a country where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced by a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.”

Was the new Socialist Man to be a self-centered achiever or a group-centered worker bee? It was never clear how both could be accomplished.

Maybe all that people mean when they lament socialism’s impracticality is that the theory held out hope for an end to material inequality. As intellectual historian Ralph Raico reminded us, it didn’t exactly do that. Marx promised only “to each according to his need.” He never said we all have the same needs. Besides, it is markets not socialism that have achieved essential material equality. As George Mason University Professor Donald Boudreaux has written:

Do a mental experiment. Imagine resurrecting an ancestor from the year 1700 and showing him a typical day in the life of Bill Gates. The opulence would obviously astonish your ancestor, but a good guess is that the features of Gates’s life that would make the deepest impression are that he and his family never worry about starving to death; that they bathe daily; that they have several changes of clean clothes; that they have clean and healthy teeth; that diseases such as smallpox, polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, tetanus, and pertussis present no substantial risks; that Melinda Gates’s chances of dying during childbirth are about one-sixtieth what they would have been in 1700; that each child born to the Gateses is about 40 times more likely than a pre-industrial child to survive infancy; that the Gateses have a household refrigerator and freezer (not to mention microwave oven, dishwasher, and radios and televisions); that the Gateses’s work week is only five days and that the family takes several weeks of vacation each year; that each of the Gates children will receive more than a decade of formal schooling; that the Gateses routinely travel through the air to distant lands in a matter of hours; that they effortlessly converse with people miles or oceans away; that they frequently enjoy the world’s greatest actors’ and actresses’ stunning performances; that the Gateses can, whenever and wherever they please, listen to a Beethoven piano sonata, a Puccini opera, or a Frank Sinatra ballad.

In short, what would likely most impress a visitor from the past about Bill Gates’s life are precisely those modern advantages that are not unique to Bill Gates–advantages now enjoyed by nearly all Americans.

And while we modern Americans focus on how much more money Bill Gates has than the rest of us, our time-traveler would likely find the differences separating Gates from average Americans to be much smaller than the gargantuan differences between his own preindustrial life and that of today’s ordinary Americans.

He would also likely find the wealth differences between ordinary Americans and the richest Americans trivial compared to the differences between most preindustrial folk and the royalty who ruled them.

Moreover, as Michael Cox and Richard Alm have shown, the number of hours it takes the average worker to earn enough to buy virtually anything has shrunk dramatically over the decades. (Using work time as the standard avoids the problem of comparing prices in the light of inflation.) This progress is even more dramatic than it seems when you consider how much better goods are today.  And let’s not forget all the things that average earners own that did not exist in, say in the 1970s, the passing of which many state socialism oddly seem to lament.

As Cox wrote in an update to his and Alm’s 1999 work:

At the average wage, a VCR fell from 365 hours in 1972 to a mere two hours today. A cellphone dropped from 456 hours in 1984 to four hours. A personal computer, jazzed up with thousands of times the computing power of the 1984 I.B.M., declined from 435 hours to 25 hours. Even cars are taking a smaller toll on our bank accounts: in the past decade, the work‐​time price of a mid‐​size Ford sedan declined by 6 percent.

Simply put, we get more and better services from our products for less and less toil–in other words, we get lots of stuff for free. The great liberal Frédéric Bastiat explained this in the first half of the 19th century in his magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, especially chapter 11, “Private Property and Common Wealth.” (I discuss this in my book What Social Animals Owe to Each Other, chapter 18.) 

The ugliness of socialist theory now comes into focus. Under individualist and free-market theory (and practice) each person is free to determine his own needs and, through the division of labor and voluntary exchange, to produce what’s required to satisfy them. (As the Spanish proverb has it, “Take what you want and pay for it.”) Under socialist theory the individual’s needs are determined and “satisfied” collectively, i.e., coercively. Dissent and venturing out on one’s own are not options. As Trotsky chillingly acknowledged, everyone is an employee and tenant of the collective—that is, the state.

It’s a mystery why anyone would find that theory beautiful or regret that it doesn’t work.

TGIF–The Goal Is Freedom–appears occasionally on Fridays.

What the Love of Power Trumps

The Criminal War against Iraq

I haven’t read the book yet, but I recommend this review of Robert Draper’s How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq by James North at Mondoweiss.

Indisputably, George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, based on lies and cooked “intelligence,” was the worst, most consequential foreign-policy move by an American president in recent history. The Middle East, the United States, and the rest of the world will suffer its effects for many years to come. This is not just a work of history, based on 300 interviews. North writes:

The Iraq tragedy is relevant today. On September 14, Donald Trump made up a new threat from Iran, and tweeted: “Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met by an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” Trump sounds unhinged—until you recall that just this January, he provocatively ordered the assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani—and got little resistance from either the mainstream U.S. press or the foreign policy establishment. Cowardly group-think didn’t end with Iraq.


What the Love of Power Trumps

Stephen F. Cohen: A Rare Voice of Sanity Gone

One of the saddest pieces of news is the death of Stephen F. Cohen at age 81. Cohen, who taught at Princeton and NYU, was an eminent scholar of the history and politics of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. He spent his last years warning against the years-long bipartisan effort to prosecute a new cold war against Russia, with special attention to what has unfortunately come to be known as Russiagate, the groundless allegation, debunked by only a few heroic thinkers, that Trump is an agent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who–fiction has it–is Stalin-reincarnate intent on reconstituting the Soviet Empire. (Putin has also been called, absurdly, a “new Hitler.”)

Cohen’s last book was War with Russia?, in which he warned that the new cold war could easily turn hot and even nuclear, thanks to Russiagate and U.S. imperial policy in Ukraine and Syria. His analysis is impeccable–not to mention frightening. “I think this is the most dangerous moment in American-Russian relations, at least since the Cuban missile crisis,” Cohen said.

I won’t go into detail about Cohen’s final intellectual battle because the indispensable Caitlin Johnstone has done the job admirably. I’ll close with her words: “In a world that is increasingly confusing and awash with propaganda, Cohen’s death is a blow to humanity’s desperate quest for clarity and understanding.” And, I would add, peace.

What the Love of Power Trumps

Trump and Netanyahu’s Plan B

Trump and Netanyahu first tried to bribe the Palestinians into capitulating to the Israeli imposition. But the two men failed. So now they are executing Plan B: bribing the Arab states’ rulers to give up even the pretense of championing the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel. In that, the two are succeeding.

What the Love of Power Trumps

Complying with Mandates

It’s utterly conceivable that the government might mandate that we do (or not do) what we already ought (or ought not) to do, seeing as how social animals owe things to each other. In such cases, refusing to engage (or abstaining from engaging) in the mandated (or forbidden) behavior because the government has mandated (or forbidden) it is just wrong, edgy individualist rationalizations notwithstanding. Needless to say, I should have started this post with “Needless to say….”

What the Love of Power Trumps

The Choice We Don’t Face

Despite what some people suggest, our choice today is not between black lives and private property. Quite the contrary: respect for black lives logically entails respect for all persons, their possessions, and their peaceful projects. The first property right is self-ownership: one’s property in oneself. (The abolitionists called slave traders and owners man-stealers. Get it?) Do the rioters not know that black people also own shops and other businesses? Or are those owners considered acceptable casualties in the struggle? And have those owners been asked to consent to that demeaning status?

Further, no one has spelled out the practical connection between rioting and looting on the one hand and the achievement of respect for black people by the police on the other. Far from an obvious connection, the disconnect is clear. If society faces a choice between civil unrest and Hobbes’s Leviathan, I have no doubt which one most people, including most black people, will choose. That situation will hardly usher in a blissful time of respect for black people’s or anyone else’s lives by the police.


Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism

by Scott Horton

Book Foolssm

No Quarter: The Ravings of William Norman Grigg

by Will Grigg

Book Foolssm

Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

by Scott Horton

Book Foolssm

Coming to Palestine

by Sheldon Richman

Book Foolssm

The Great Ron Paul

by Scott Horton

Book Foolssm

What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

by Sheldon Richman

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