TGIF: No One Has a Right to Make Immigration Policy

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says “no one has a right to immigrate” to the United States. “We determine as Americans,” he says, “what type of immigration system benefits our country. When you’re doing immigration, it’s not for their benefit as foreigners. It’s for your benefit as Americans. So if there’s legal immigration that’s harming America, we shouldn’t do that either.”

I’d turn that around and say that no one, including a state legislature, has a right to forbid or restrict immigration, the peaceful movement of individuals from outside to inside America. That doesn’t mean that landowners cannot set rules for who enters their own property. That is not immigration policy.

We’re talking about a political concept. You can see this in DeSantis’s words “We determine as Americans.” Apart from immigration, “we” do not “determine as Americans” who can and cannot come to my home. I do that as the owner. Normally I need no one’s permission to invite or exclude. (It’s more complicated in the business context, where association can be legally required rather than forbidden.) But if the person I wish to invite lacks the government’s permission to be in the country, then it’s a different story. That’s not a natural limitation on a normal and natural right. It’s the result of a decision by a group of politicians, a decision that may well conflict with what many people want to do. How dare the politicians interfere?

DeSantis says that a good immigration policy should benefit the country, or “Americans.” It’s hard to miss the conservative collectivism in theory and elitism in practice. The collectivism lies in what appears to be decision-making not by individuals, but by a purported entity, namely, the “country.” What about dissenters? They don’t matter. What counts, presumably, is the Rousseauian general will. Dissenters must be forced to be “free” by going along with the majority. In theory the majority rules.

But the elitism lies in the fact that majorities don’t really rule. They pick the officeholders (although not the bureaucrats), but what happens next can hardly be called rule by the majority because what the majority may want on a given issue must pass through a very thick filter before it becomes enacted. That filter is administered by special interests inside and outside of the government that typically have preferences that can differ vastly from the majority of voters. To keep the people in the dark about this, those interests not only lie and propagandize, but they also obfuscate and use other tactics to make it difficult for the people to know what the government is really doing or to change it if they find out. (Charlotte Twight’s Dependent on D.C.: The Rise of Federal Control over the Lives of Ordinary Americans spells out the theory and history of this.)

The upshot is that DeSantis’s position — which is widely shared on the right and left– is incoherent. “America” does not and could not make immigration policy. Democracy is a facade that blocks our view of reality.

But even if “America” could make the policy, it would be unjust, not to mention self-defeating, to block or restrict immigration. No one, not even a majority of congressmen backed by a president, has the right to tell individuals, wherever they were born, that they cannot consensually enter other people’s property to live, rent, buy, work, or otherwise associate peacefully. Even if a lot of people band together, they can have no right to block free exchanges between Americans and foreigners. A group cannot have any rights that its individual members do not have. Zero multiplied by any number is still zero. So “America” has no right to keep immigrants out. The right to move about while respecting other people’s rights is universal, and anyone is innocent until charged and proven guilty. The Declaration of Independence speaks of rights that precede government as belonging not only to Americans but to all people. Those rights include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What’s so hard to understand about that?

The idea that the country ought to control immigration should disturb advocates of individual liberty. According to classical liberal principles, a country is not a country club with a membership committee. Rather, it’s a free association where individuals and their associates may live and prosper in peace. And they are left in peace unless they harm other people’s bodies or steal or damage their belongings. If one of them wants to sell to, rent to, employ, or befriend someone whom others regard as an outsider, no one has a right to interfere.

If anyone does interfere, he’s not only interfering with the “outsider”, he’s also interfering with “insiders.” It can’t be otherwise, as political scientist Chandran Kukathas points out. Kukathas “put[s] freedom at the centre of the immigration question. At stake are the liberty of citizens and other residents of the free society and therefore the free society itself. To put it simply, immigration controls are controls on people. and it is not possible to control some people without controlling others. More to the point, it is not possible to control outsiders (aliens, foreigners, would-be immigrants) without controlling insiders as well…. The conclusion … is that if we value freedom–as we should–we ought to be wary of immigration control.”

Going further, Kukathas challenges the view that society is “made up of members“ and that it’s “some kind of unit comprised largely of people who belong together in some way, and whose belonging entitles them to determine who may or may not become a part of that unit, or indeed even enter the geographic space or territory it occupies.”

“The thought running through this book [Immigration and Freedom],” he writes, “is that membership is an ideal that is not only overrated but also dangerous from the perspective of freedom. It is at odds with the idea of people living together freely, for it subordinates that freedom to an altogether different ideal–one that elevates conformity and control over other, freer, ways of being. If we are to live freely, we must be able to relate to one another not as members but as humans.”

Where there are members, there must be nonmembers — which licenses the politicians to do unlimited mischief. The young century has taught this lesson well.

DeSantis and all others who think “America” can forbid or restrict immigration without violating the natural rights of both foreigners and Americans, or without reducing all our own well-being, are knowingly or unknowingly mistaken. Once again we’re being ruled by presumptuous social engineers, cheered on by unreflective supporters.

TGIF: Ducking Hayek

May 8 marked the 124th anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, the 1974 Nobel-winning economist of the Austrian school. (He died in 1992.) That makes it a good time to acknowledge one of his many contributions, his epistemic case for the free and competitive market order. It’s well-suited to the information age.

One of Hayek’s best-known articles was published in 1945 in the American Economic Review: “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order). He got right to the point:

What is the problem we wish to solve when we try to construct a rational economic order? On certain familiar assumptions the answer is simple enough. If we possess all the relevant information, if we can start out from a given system of preferences, and if we command complete knowledge of available means, the problem which remains is purely one of logic. That is, the answer to the question of what is the best use of the available means is implicit in our assumptions….

This, however, is emphatically not the economic problem which society faces…. The reason for this is that the “data” from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society “given” to a single mind … and can never be so given.

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is … a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.

This is an important matter of course. In a world of scarcity and incomplete knowledge, where much vital information is not “data” at all but unarticulated “knowing how,” we don’t want resources and labor services used in just any old way. Rather, we want them put to the best use in the eyes of diverse and fickle consumers — and at the lowest cost possible so can we have more goods and more choices. We also want inevitable errors in production to be readily discovered and corrected. Finally, in a division of labor we want coordination to be as easy as possible.

Can we have all that? Fortunately a solution is available.

Thus Hayek wrote:

Fundamentally, in a system in which the knowledge of the relevant facts is dispersed among many people, prices can act to coördinate the separate actions of different people in the same way as subjective values help the individual to coördinate the parts of his plan….

We must look at the price system as such a mechanism for communicating information if we want to understand its real function….  The most significant fact about this system is the economy of knowledge with which it operates, or how little the individual participants need to know in order to be able to take the right action…. It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement.

He illustrated the point by describing how consumers and producers tend to economize on a material (he used tin) when the price goes up, even though only a few people know why the price has gone up. The price rise will encourage people to use less and or to use known substitutes and even discover substitutes. Others will be induced to search for new supplies of that material using new technology. Innovation will result. An economy run by politicians cannot approach this process.

What the price system accomplishes when left free is no mean feat. It makes longer and more prosperous lives possible for everyone. In a world of eight billion people, the unsexy price system is literally a lifesaver on a mass scale. Keep that in mind when politicians and activists call for interference with production and commerce.

We can’t acknowledge Hayek’s contribution without also paying tribute to his teacher Ludwig von Mises, which Hayek indeed did in other articles. For example, “Professor Mises’ [1920s critique of socialism] represents the starting point from which all the discussions of the economic problems of socialism, whether constructive or critical, which aspire to be taken seriously, must necessarily proceed.” Hayek, who had favored socialism before he met Mises, also wrote that Mises’s “central thesis could not be refuted.” (Hayek, “Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem,” in Individualism and Economic Order.)

Hayek was referring to Mises’s 1920 pathbreaking paper, “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth,” and his 1922 book, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Mises’s fundamental point, which logically precedes Hayek’s later addition, was that without real, honest market prices for all inputs, the economic calculation required for rational and efficient mass production would be impossible. And, he went on, you can’t have honest market prices without private ownership and markets in resources and producer goods. (The Marxists sought the abolition of private property.) Flourishing and even life itself thus depend on prices and their prerequisites — prices that cannot be ascertained or even generated except in the market, where producers and consumers act according to their personal and often improvised preferences, make unpredictable discoveries about what circumstances they prefer, and choose among real, not hypothetical alternatives. Bureaucrats and economists cannot simulate this process, no matter how powerful their supercomputers are.

This critique was devasting to all forms of socialism (including fascism), and history has proved Mises and Hayek correct. Remember, socialism was supposed to be the all-around better way to deliver prosperity to all.

Many people who should know better pretend that Mises and Hayek never found these flaws in socialism. Shame on them. As for others who say they favor socialism, what’s concerning is not that they’ve heard Mises’s and Hayek’s critiques and answered them, but that they have never heard them at all! Enter the libertarians.

Libertarianism Should Not Be Hostile to Women’s Liberation

A young college woman is raped by a man. No justice is found because the rapist is an otherwise “promising young man” with a future ahead of him. His victim is merely a blip on his sterling professional conduct. Those who witnessed or were aware of the rape pretend as though it never happened. This is the catalyst for the plot of the movie, Promising Young Woman. The victim commits suicide and her friend seeks revenge. The film’s title is a play on the phrasing used anytime some young men are accused of rape, as though masculine potential is an important assessment of worth when weighed up to what they may have done. The movie is an indictment on culture and systems as they are experienced and understood by some women, particularly those who have suffered and witnessed such injustice. The film uses actors that depict “nice guys,” an important aspect when the victim is twisted as being considered “willing” or “deserving” of her trauma.

The film asks whether when a person of importance or with a likable personality rapes or assaults a woman, are we able to overlook this “flaw”? Norman Mailer is considered by many as a terrific writer, but also an abusive man with bigoted views which he was not shy about expressing. Mailer also nearly murdered his wife when he stabbed her with a pen-knife. This vicious attack did not minimize his frequent guest appearances on television shows or his esteem as a writer. As a literary institution, such an assault is often viewed as quirky charm. (His wife did not think so.)

In a 1967 television appearance discussing his book Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson is challenged by one of the gang members whom he had spent time with for research. During the exchange, the bikie mentions an incident where Thompson was beaten by a member. “You got into a man’s personal argument…this is what happened, Junkie George was beating his old lady…” The audience broke out in loud laughter and continued to do so as the story was told. Thompson in this instance was the outlier, the man who found domestic violence horrible. The laughter could have been from an episode of The Honeymooners as Jackie Gleason threatens his wife, ‘One of these days Alice…” Back when men “ruled” the household.

In the article “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too,” author Alyssa Royse centered on the defense of one of her friends who admitted to raping a sleeping woman. Because the rapist is a “nice guy” and a familiar among her friend group, a defense is rallied and moral exceptionalism is conjured. The piece is written as an attempt to validate and justify the actions of a rapist, because he is a friend. The victim’s status is secondary; they are a stranger. It’s a telling example of how many are able to dismiss the deeds of a celebrity, a colleague, or a family member regardless of what horrible actions they have committed. For promising young and important men it is an exemption that at times has concealed deeds and flushed their victims away. When someone likable does bad things, few want to believe that they are capable of doing them. Women have made false claims (though not as frequently as is often believed), but rape and assault also goes vastly unreported.

Recently, Cindy McCain has admitted that many around her knew the real nature of Jeffrey Epstein and his exploitation of girls and women, including her deceased husband, senator and presidential nominee John McCain. Now that it can no longer harm her husband’s career, the admission is safe to share. Many were well aware of what Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby had been doing for years. It was only after he was dead that Saville was outed, and for Cosby after he was a faded star. Fame, status, and importance is a power in itself that allows such men to get away with committing terrible deeds.

Among some conservative and apparently libertarian elements, there is a belief that culture needs to restore a certain fundamentalist traditionalism, a depiction of the nuclear family structure led by a God-fearing male figurehead. Anything outside of such is considered an aberration, and some have argued anti-liberty. Just like the New Right’s reactionary anti-feminism in the 1980s, mostly American conservatives have raised their phalluses again in a call to arms to stop the threat of women’s liberation. No room is left for nuance, and anything outside of a romanticized traditionalism is pariah.

Leaked footage of conservative commentator Steven Crowder’s conversation with his then-pregnant wife Hilary unveiled a man who is abusive and domineering. Hilary has since filed for divorce, with Steven complaining about her right to do so (Texas is a “no fault divorce” state). Most grown ups understand that in a relationship, one party is not a prisoner to the other. Some however feel that a woman is obligated to remain married unless in extreme circumstances. There is no shortage of “bros” coming to Crowder’s defense.

There is a growing danger in a narrative that determines sex and gender roles based on selective segments of history. It is a collectivist logic that imprisons individualism and steers away from merit and ability, let alone desire or aspiration. Individual liberty assumes a diverse landscape. It can be both feral and orderly. The 1950s Telly family and those found on advertising pamphlets from the days of President Eisenhower are fictions. Living that caricature may be some people’s dream. But it’s also a nightmare that many had to endure. Not all women wish to be subjugated to this life, and should they choose a different path this does not make them an enemy or a threat to the family as an institution. A young woman’s promise is not in the fertility of her womb. She may have other ambitions and preferences.

If strangers generating memes are the motivation to have children and get married, then one needs to question their own moral framework. If men who preach familiar units are themselves incapable of non-abusive relationships, it reveals a reality that exists outside of the illusion. The strange marriage of libertarianism and American conservatism is a dangerous rejection of individual liberty and hinders the international potential for the philosophy of freedom. Inviting a particular type of American conservatism to bed is globally prohibitive and reactionary in a brief moment of “woke” hysteria. The Culture War has become one that burns with reckless disregard, alienating individuals who seek liberty and the antiwar message while simultaneously embracing those who do not. It also seems to ensure that insecure men gain a status that any free market of merit and deed would otherwise deny them.

Women are not servants or second class creatures. It’s not a lefty, feminist ideal to acknowledge this. Intelligent, independent and capable women are not a threat to masculinity. In fact, the existence of such women can inspire one to be a better man. It’s the desire to suppress, bully, and ridicule women and condemn them to a place of marital type-casts that exhibits a lack of positive masculinity. It does not make one an “Alpha” to gang up on OnlyFans “Thots” or dismiss a woman’s views on social media’s by giving her a “rating” based on her physical appearance. This shows both cowardice and weakness. The belief that certain roles and relationships are unnatural come from a place of bias and lack of imagination. Women’s liberation has a different meaning to a lady in rural India than it may for a female in Silicon Valley.

Culture is not something that needs to be mandated by government or laws. It’s oftentimes inspired by example. Masculinity is a utility of being accountable, reliable, tough, and consistent. It’s not an aesthetic of cigars, suits, and denigrating others to enhance status. Masculinity is also Ted Bundy, My Lai massacre, the Rape of Nanking, and Epstein Island. Masculine and feminine are neither positive or negative. Being a male does not make one manly or the most capable in every and any given situation.

The advent of women’s liberation has not destroyed the family unit. If your family unit required a woman to be obligated or trapped, was it worth saving in the first place? A free market will reveal where women, or any gender or sex for that matter, should go in accordance to individual capability and ability. Laws and regulations only maintain a status quo and create imbalances.

To challenge those who would protect rapists and abusers is not a whimper into feminism, it’s a moral position. One can understand that masculinity can have a ‘toxic’ element to it. Many women are aware that there is a “female curfew,” not because of any law but because experience and awareness guides a decision to avoid walking alone at night. This does not mean that those women adopt an “all men are evil” logic. It does however provide a wider understanding as to how some individuals experience the world because of who they are. For many females, this is the world that they live in and they are becoming wary of a push for a fundamentalist culture that breeds a male entitlement to their bodies and minds.

In a social media age where Andrew Tate and other manosphere social media accounts surge in popularity, comment sections gorge with males celebrating the narrative that non-virginal women or those with a “body count” (number of sexual partners) are tainted, sluts, inferior, or soiled. Sharia Law, once a pariah and moral panic on the right, is now praised as “based.” There is an entitlement of claim by these kinds of men over female autonomy, physically and spiritually. It seems that the “promising young woman” only exists so long as she’s virginal, servile, and with a fertile womb for men of a certain demographic to possess.

“The issue that united the anti-slavery and feminist movements was a demand for the right of every human being to control his or her own body and property.”- Wendy McElroy

In the coming years, those inside the American-influenced realm of political philosophy will become ensnared in an ill defined Left vs. Right tug for power. Usually focused on party politics, the same voices will claim that pragmatism will save the day and for now the rightwing are allies in the cause of liberty. The Right has never been right on liberty. But that is not praise of the Left either. Liberty should not be a Left vs. Right scale, it should not be linked to any political party, and it certainly is not the domain of the United States and what is trending there. It’s dangerous to elevate a man above a woman based upon myths and tradition.

Liberty is diverse; not all women want or need a man. Not everyone wants marriage or a family, let alone are suited to have one. How you may view the world differs from how others may see it. It should not need saying, but no does mean NO, and that includes a right to say no to a certain rigidity of relationships. Freedom does not just mean “free from government,” but also freedom from overbearing men.

TGIF: Free Markets and the Pursuit of Happiness

For some time now I’ve thought that many people’s antagonism to the market is motivated not by moral or economic objections but by aesthetic criteria. (I discuss this in What Social Animals Owe to Each Other and here.)

By that I mean they simply find market relations — involving private property, contracts, profit, competition, and “impersonal forces” such as supply and demand — unattractive, even ugly. They wish society had nothing to do with such relations, which they (mistakenly) believe have displaced the cozy cooperation and communalism that marked an earlier golden age. They long to return to the beautiful but lost Garden of Eden, where markets don’t exist and people can be human again. They make just two errors. First, they misunderstand the market. For example, competition and cooperation go together. And second, the longed-for Eden never existed. Before human beings transformed the earth, nature was a cruel master. People weren’t always so nice either.

The aesthetic rejection of markets could explain why we libertarians have made little progress in persuading people that crony capitalism is significantly different from the free market. The people who find markets ugly don’t care whether businesses get favors from the government or not. That’s not what matters to them.

Something underlies this revulsion at the market and the freedom it entails: self-interest, or what the critics would call selfishness. It’s also been called the pursuit of happiness. (Of course, Ayn Rand, who held that the pursuit of self-interest is entirely proper embraced the word selfishness at least for the shock value. See her book The Virtue of Selfishness.) The aesthetic rejection of markets may rest on an aesthetic reaction to self-interest. The line between ethics and aesthetics can be blurry.

So we must ask, with Ayn Rand, what’s wrong with self-interest? It is not a good answer to say that self-interest means exploiting other people, defrauding them, and even physically hurting them. But this assumes that self-interest is entirely subjective or actually requires the domination of others. That’s nothing more than a confession. It’s not proof. Because someone says something is good doesn’t make it so. And why would self-interest require domination? (For Rand it emphatically did not.)

Like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we can ask in all innocence, What’s wrong with self-interest? It doesn’t seem a priori bad. On the contrary, you get only one life. Why not make the most of it in all sorts of ways? Put that way, most people would agree.

It will not help the critic’s case to equate self-interest with greed, which is never defined. It’s just a lazy slur.

Rand’s Objectivism justified rational egoism and political economy from a metaphysics and an epistemology of reason. She did not think that people could be won over to freedom and free markets if they were hostile to reason and egoism, that is, the principle that one’s own life is one’s highest value, the value on which all others depend. That makes sense to me.

And that raises a question: if the pursuit of self-interest (happiness) were to lose its stigma, which it has at least part-time for many people, would opposition to the freedom and free market disappear? And if so, how can we remove the stigma?

It won’t be enough to argue, as many market advocates do, that in markets people altruistically service one another. It’s true that in voluntary transactions both parties. benefit But market opponents will scoff that since the motive for this “service” is self-interest, not self-sacrifice, it doesn’t count.

Fortunately, we can try to destigmatize self-interest by invoking a pillar of Western civilization that for centuries was held in high esteem. I mean more than using Jefferson’s great term in the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness. I have mind the ethics of personal flourishing, or eudemonia, bequeathed by the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle. The work of Benedict Spinoza in the 1600s inherited many of its virtues.

For Aristotle, the path to happiness in the sense of the good life is to live according to one’s nature as a rational/social being. Reason is in the driver’s seat in individual and social matters. This suggests a society based on individualism, persuasion, and trade rather than collectivism, force, and domination. (The Greek philosophers’ politics, however, left much to be desired.) The virtues we associate with the ancient Greeks — such as justice, prudence, moderation, and courage — described this way of living intelligently.

Reason and cooperation don’t just get rational people what they want; those things are what rational people want because that’s the human way of living. (I’m taking guidance here from philosopher Henry B. Veatch’s Aristotle: A Contemporary Interpretation and Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics and from philosopher Roderick T. Long’s Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand and “Economics and Its Ethical Assumptions.”)

Here is a common-sense ethics of rational self-interest that most people could sign on to. It might erode the stigma of selfishness. It’s worth noting that In his Nicomachean Ethics, book 9, chapter 8, Aristotle defended — of all things — “self-love.” He wanted to show that, contrary to popular opinion, the person who most loves himself is the one who lives intelligently in pursuit of happiness, which Aristotle regards as noble. He wrote:

We blame, it is said, those who love themselves most, and apply the term self-loving to them as a term of reproach: and, again, he who is not good is thought to have regard to himself in everything that he does, and the more so the worse he is; and so we accuse him of doing nothing disinterestedly. The good man on the other hand, it is thought, takes what is noble as his motive, and the better he is the more is he guided by this motive, and by regard for his friend, neglecting his own interest.

But this theory disagrees with facts, nor is it surprising that it should. For it is allowed that we ought to love him most who is most truly a friend, and that he is most truly a friend who, in wishing well to another, wishes well to him for his (the other’s) sake, and even though no one should ever know. But all these characteristics, and all the others which go to make up the definition of a friend, are found in the highest degree in a man’s relations to himself; for we have already seen how it is from our relations to ourselves that all our friendly relations to others are derived….

Those who use self-loving as a term of reproach apply the name to those who take more than their due of money, and honour, and bodily pleasures; for the generality of men desire these things, and set their hearts upon them as the best things in the world, so that they are keenly competed for. Those, then, who grasp at more than their share of these things indulge their animal appetites and their passions generally—in a word, the irrational part of their nature. But this is the character of the generality of men; and hence the term self-loving has come to be used in this bad sense from the fact that the greater part of mankind are not good. It is with justice, then, that we reproach those who are self-loving in this sense.

That it really is to those who take more than their due of these things that the term is usually applied by the generality of men, may easily be shown; for if what a man always set his heart upon were that he, rather than another, should do what is just or temperate, or in any other way virtuous—if, in a word, he were always claiming the noble course of conduct, no one would call him self-loving and no one would reproach him.

And yet such a man would seem to be more truly self-loving. At least, he takes for himself that which is noblest and most truly good, and gratifies the ruling power in himself [reason], and in all things obeys it. But just as the ruling part in a state or in any other system seems, more than any other part, to be the state or the system, so also the ruling part of a man seems to be most truly the man’s self. He therefore who loves and gratifies this part of himself is most truly self-loving.

Again, we call a man continent or incontinent, according as his reason has or has not the mastery, implying that his reason is his self; and when a man has acted under the guidance of his reason he is thought, in the fullest sense, to have done the deed himself, and of his own will.

It is plain, then, that this part of us is our self, or is most truly our self, and that the good man more than any other loves this part of himself. He, then, more than any other, will be self-loving….

The good man, therefore, ought to be self-loving; for by doing what is noble he will at once benefit himself and assist others: but the bad man ought not; for he will injure both himself and his neighbours by following passions that are not good.

Note that Aristotle says that living rationally (nobly, egoistically) —  — “assists others” as well as himself. Think about the producer and merchant who do so much good for others. But that obviously is not the reason to live that way. The reason is that it is the human way to live and therefore the way to flourish.

I’m not saying this will persuade anyone with an aesthetic aversion to the market. It certainly won’t persuade one who lusts for power over others. But we’ve got to do something to remove the stigma from self-interest. Otherwise, we’ll never see a truly free society.

TGIF: Politics Corrupts Money

Money does not corrupt politics. Politics corrupts money. Politics as we know it is inherently corrupt; it’s the way to select government officials,  who then use the legalized threat of physical force, and force itself, to make peaceful people do or not do things against their will. Since that’s so, public problems cannot be solved by yet another measure to restrict people from spending their own momney to support candidates for office or lobby elected officials. At most, it will drive any influence to less-visible forms.

Money in politics is a favorite complaint of populists across the political spectrum. Superficially it seems to be a problem. No one likes that money might count most in determining who is elected and what policies are enacted. Candidates and policies ought to be judged on merit. The popular solution is to strictly limit spending on campaigns, even by independent political-action committees, and to somehow limit lobbying by (some) interest groups and individuals after the campaigns. But those touted reforms seem undemocratic on their face. If in theory democracy is the rule by the people, why can’t the people spend their money to influence “their” government? Sure, some people have more money than other people, and strongly motivated concentrated groups have an advantage over the unorganized masses, but how can that be changed without violating liberty? Maybe the focus ought to be on what government has the power to do.

Campaign and lobby finance is not as simple as the advocates of control insist it is. This is not to say that money has no relevance ever. Let’s remember that the essence of government is to dispense wealth taken under threat of force from its producers. Voluntary exchange is not its modus operandi. This is so even when the government does what might be construed as generally welfare-enhancing, such as building roads or defense. As H. L. Mencken wrote in A Carnival of Buncombe, “[G]overnment is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.” Any power the politicians have to help their friends at the expense of others rests entirely on the power to tax.

On the other hand, the influence of money on politics is a complicated matter and easily overestimated. Considering the size of government largesse — the federal government will spend $5.8 trillion this fiscal year — economists have wondered why so little money is “invested” in politics. “The discrepancy between the value of policy and the amounts contributed strains basic economic intuitions. Given the value of policy at stake, firms and other interest groups should give more,” write Stephen Ansolabehere, John M. de Figueiredo, and James M. Snyder Jr., drawing on research by Gordon Tullock. (This is also helpful.) Campaign-finance restrictions don’t solve the puzzle.

The reason interest groups and wealthy individuals do not give more could be that too many other things garble the connection between cost and benefit. The joints are loose. Safer investments are available. Ask some wealthy aspirants to the White House, such as former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Texas Gov. and Treasury Secretary John Connally, who in 1980 famously spent $500,000 of his own money in his quest for the Republican nomination and bagged one delegate.

Outspending an opponent, or having wealthy supporters, is no guarantee of success. Hillary Clinton knows. A candidate still has to appeal to inscrutable voters in the center under shifting circumstances, and that process has many moving parts. The same goes for lobbying. Money can get someone access, but before a measure is enacted, Its potential sponsors will need confidence it won’t backfire at the next election.

We should also ask whether people with money corrupt politicians or do people with money donate to politicians who already agree with them. The deep pockets might put money into primary candidates, but there’s no guarantee of success. Small donations can add up and free media can make a difference.

It’s easy to fool the voters, to be sure, but there are limits, especially when countervailing winds blow. Rich individuals and organizations on the other side of an issue are also free to spend their money on candidates and lobbying — and they do. The progressives’ “good guys” can outspend the so-called “bad guys.” Alex Epstein, author of Fossil Future, notes for example that the anti-fossil-fuel lobby, which includes oil companies that are hedging their bets, far outspends the few defenders of fossil fuels. Moreover, bashing big business (with justification or not) can get politicians grass-roots donations that make up for the lack of interest-group donations.

The much-hated 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling empowered unions and other incorporated nonbusiness organizations, as well as for-profit corporations, to spend money independently in support of candidates. A ban on political spending, the Supreme Court, said, is an unconstitutional ban on speech, which it certainly is. Critics of this ruling often say that corporations should not be regarded as persons. That’s sophistry. Corporations are associations of persons with free speech rights.

Then there’s the problem that politicians have the power to extort donations from the so-called privileged. Some years ago a book called Money for Nothing: Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion, by Fred McChesney, showed how politicians can attract support from businesses merely by publicly talking about the need for new regulations. In effect, the politicians say: “Support me or I’ll ruin your business.” How much money do businesses donate in self-defense? Departures from the free market harm consumers too, so this is hardly something to welcome.

Another consideration is that even though Congress has repeatedly passed restrictions on campaign finance, many people think it has not been enough. This is despite the obvious point that limits protect incumbents since challengers are often less well-known. I suspect that the futile restrictions are intended to pave the road to exclusively tax-financed campaigns. Wouldn’t forcing people to pay for campaigns violates freedom of conscience?

But the deepest problem of all is that the advocates of stricter controls want to eat their cake and have it too. They say they want democracy but not rule by the people. These advocates say they trust the voters to elect the right politicians but really think the voters are simpletons who vote according to how many times they’ve seen an ad on television.

Here’s the knockout punch to the money critics: if they really don’t want money to influence politics, they should favor prohibiting the government from dispensing favors of any kind, full stop. No one takes their money to a boarded-up shop.

If voters are merely puppets of big spenders, then maybe democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, people face perverse incentives in the political arena (stemming from the impotence of any one vote and the dispersion of costs) that they don’t face anywhere where an individual’s decisions are decisive and costs are fully borne. Thus we’d be better off shrinking the political arena as much as possible.


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