What’s Our Best Bet in 2024?

Did you see what Donald Trump said about Ukraine?

At a CNN town hall on Wednesday evening, the former president and current candidate announced:

“If I’m president, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours. I’ll meet with Putin, I’ll meet with Zelensky, they both have weaknesses and they both have strengths, and within 24 hours that war will be settled. It’ll be over…I don’t think in terms of winning or losing. I think in terms of getting it settled so we stop killing all these people and breaking them.”

When CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins asked Trump if he wanted Ukraine or Russia to win this war, he responded, “I want everybody to stop dying. They’re dying, Russians and Ukrainians. I want them stop dying. And I’ll have that done in 24 hours, I’ll have it done. You need the power of the presidency to do it.”

That’s a damn good answer. And a much better one than anyone in the Biden White House has presented for why we’ve spent over a hundred billion dollars to fight a war with Russia.

These corporate press stand-ins never explain what “victory” conditions look like for Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky has said his aims include the recapture of Crimea and the decapitation of the Russian state.

But should those be America’s war aims? Should America even be a participant in this Eastern European war? I don’t think so. And I doubt you think so either.

We are eighteen months away from the 2024 United States presidential election, and none of us can say with certainty who will win.

Will Donald Trump return to the Oval Office? Will Joe Biden receive a second term? Will Ron DeSantis or even Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tip over expectations?

My organization, Bring Our Troops Home, does not endorse or campaign for political candidates, so I don’t have a say in those results.

But I am confident, whomever is elected, that a president does not have the power to single-handedly defeat the War Party; the swamp is too deep, the DC bureaucracy too hostile.

The future of our Constitution will not be decided by a single election, but by a decentralized movement which can stop our next endless war before it starts.

The Defend the Guard Act would keep your state’s National Guard out of unconstitutional wars that haven’t been declared by Congress.

I’ve already gotten this bill introduced in 24 states, passed through multiple committees and even the Arizona Senate.

So whenever you’re watching a town hall on the news, or listening to a clip of a presidential debate on the radio, or reading an article about a new campaign update—remember that you have the power to change U.S. foreign policy in your own backyard first.

Have you called your state representative and state senator and told them to sponsor a Defend the Guard bill?

Have you asked your family and friends to make that same call?

Have you joined one of our phone banking operations?

Have you written a letter to the editor of your local paper about Defend the Guard?

Have you shared Bring Our Troops Home content and Defend the Guard material on your social media?

Most importantly, have you joined our supporters’ group and made a financial contribution to the cause?

In my opinion, Defend the Guard is the most important cause happening in these United States. And every morning I wake up wondering what more I can do to make it successful. You must have the same mindset.

Enlist in the Defend the Guard movement so that no matter who wins in 2024, the War Party is still defeated.

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.

Bannon, Guo, Yan: Where a Populist Right Idol Gets His Funding

As we roll into the 2024 political season, you can rest assured the political right will be posturing more and more against China, while rightfully calling for an end to Ukraine aid. This trend was highlighted by a long line of recent Republican congressional and senatorial candidates (Joe Kent, Blake Masters, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz, etc).

The left side of the political spectrum is hardly better on China, but the focus of this article is not to criticize the left, as most readers are surely aware of the domestic and foreign horrors of the Biden administration. Instead, it’s worth putting a spotlight on the strange compromises of the populist right and some of its most prominent figures, including how top donors might affect commentary and reporting on foreign policy—namely as it relates to China, where media mogul Steve Bannon has repeatedly called to “take down” the “regime.”

Even a casual observer of American politics has likely heard much about China and its dreaded Communist Party (CCP), with U.S. officials regularly citing misdeeds ranging from “organ harvesting,” the “Uyghur genocide,” flooding American streets with deadly fentanyl, and the notion that the Tik-Tok video-sharing app is a surveillance program designed to corrupt America’s youth (some lawmakers seek to ban it outright).

While some of these claims may contain seeds of truth, many of the scare stories surrounding Beijing ring hollow, with hawks often presenting dubious evidence—or none at all.

Steven Bannon, one of the loudest critics of the Chinese Politburo, served as Donald Trump’s White House Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor in 2017 before resigning from the administration. He has since attracted a large audience with his popular Bannon’s War Room podcast, where he frequently rails against China.

Bankrolling Bannon

Bannon has found a close ally in a gentleman who has gone under a number of aliases: Guo Wengui, Miles Kwok, Guo Haoyun—or, as he is most commonly known, Miles Guo.

Guo is a billionaire in exile from China, who at the height of his career boasted a net worth of $2.6 billion, ranking 74th among China’s richest people in 2014, according to the Hurun Report.

Guo was exiled from China for numerous reasons, and was considered “Highly Destabilizing” by Beijing.

The government in Beijing has levied a series of allegations against Guo, who faces some nineteen major criminal cases, having been accused of “bribing a top Chinese intelligence official, kidnapping, fraud and money laundering,” among other things. 

Guo initially left China in 2014, fearing he would face corruption charges. Though he claims he “didn’t take a penny of investment from the banks,” a legal battle with the Pacific Alliance Asia Opportunity Fund revealed that Guo borrowed some $88 million from the Asia-based company between 2008 and 2011 and never paid it back.

Guo also operated a cryptocurrency scheme under three separate companies in 2020, and was ultimately slapped with a $539 million fine by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission due to a lack of disclosure and “commingling the proceeds from two unregistered securities.”

In addition to these allegedly dodgy business dealings, Guo was also accused of sexual assault by a former personal assistant in 2017, not long after he applied for political asylum in the United States. While Guo denies any wrongdoing, the victim outlined her allegations in an interview with the Associated Press, claiming she was raped several times over a period of two years and that Guo “demanded sex from female employees as a test of their loyalty.” Her identity has not been publicly disclosed.

So what does all this have to do with Steve Bannon?

Guo has come to be known as Bannon’s financier, reportedly paying him at least $1 million for his “strategic consulting services” in 2019, following a separate loan to the right-wing pundit for $150,000.

Guo also publicly pledged to donate $100 million to a Bannon-led charity, the Rule of Law Society, a body created in 2018 to “investigate Chinese corruption,” according to The Washington Post.

Moreover, the yacht on which Bannon was arrested for fraud in 2020 belonged to Mei Guo—Miles Guo’s daughter—although according to a lawsuit filed last year, she never operated the craft and spent very little time on it. When the yacht was dropped off for service at YACHTZOO in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, manager Russel Stockil denied ever speaking to her.

“Ms. Guo appears to be a woman in her twenties, has introduced no evidence that she exercised dominion and control of the Lady May, and provided no confirmation that she came into possession of the Lady May, other than as a ruse to shield the Lady May from being levied upon by her father’s creditors,” the lawsuit said, referring to the yacht.

Some of the people that Guo had allegedly defrauded in his home country were fellow party dissidents, an interesting turn given Guo’s frequent calls to bring an end to Communist rule in China. Weijian Shan, the co-founder of Pacific Alliance Group who remains a vocal critic of Beijing’s approach to COVID to this day, was one of Guo’s former financiers who now accuses him of fraud. 

Bannon and Guo also created the “New Federal State of China,” a self-styled “government in exile” aiming to overthrow the Communist Party. The project spawned the Himalaya Advisory Organization, which seeks to establish a new Chinese constitution mirroring “the democratic and legal systems of the West,” and also designated the CCP as a “terrorist organization.” Its founding declaration, a 26-page document outlining its aims, can be found in full on Guo’s website, Gnews.

Bannon has also flown on jets that are closely tied to Guo, specifically a private Bombardier Global Express which was used to cart him around under the aegis of his non-profit, Citizens of the American Republic, in October 2018. The group raised $4.5 million that year alone as a “social welfare” organization, which is not required to disclose its donors.

Guo has recently filed for bankruptcy, now claiming his net worth is between $50,000 and $100,000—down from $2.6 billion—and that he carries liabilities worth up to $500 million.

Guo’s record of fraud appears to have continued. In March, he was arrested for orchestrating a “fraud conspiracy” worth more than $1 billion, with U.S. authorities seizing $630 million in ill-gotten proceeds—slightly more than the $50,000 claimed to his name just one year prior.

Science for Sale?

So who else is on Guo’s payroll?

Formerly of the University of Hong Kong, Dr. Li Meng Yan is a Chinese virologist who went on a recent media tour on Fox News and other outlets claiming the Chinese government “intentionally released” COVID-19 “all over the world,” with Fox’s Tucker Carlson presenting Yan to viewers as a brave insider blowing the whistle. Her credibility has previously come under question, however.

In 2020, Yan published a scientific paper entitled “Unusual Features of the SARS-CoV-2 Genome Suggesting Sophisticated Laboratory Modification Rather Than Natural Evolution and Delineation of Its Probable Synthetic Route,” which asserted COVID-19 was genetically engineered. The paper received heavy criticism upon peer review, with fellow virologists arguing the research “ignored the vast body of published literature” on the subject, according to National Geographic.

Thepaper was funded by none other than the Rule of Law Society, the Bannon organization founded with Guo’s massive $100 million donation in 2018. Though Bannon has since left the group’s board, the Chinese businessman remains listed as its “founder,” “promotor [sic]” and “spokesperson.” 

In a 2019 defamation lawsuit against Guo, the plaintiffs alleged the Rule of Law Society was “created to promote certain for-profit endeavors of [Guo’s] under the guise of advocating for greater human rights and democracy in China,” claiming the operation was primarily a money-making venture and that Guo misled donors about how their funds would be used. These non-profits were each operated directly from Guo’s residence.

Another associate of both Guo and Bannon, China hawk and YouTube host Wang Dinggang, also promoted Yan’s controversial scientific work. 

When Yan fled Hong Kong in April 2020—allegedly in fear of her own safety due to her criticisms of the CCP—it was Guo who bought her first-class ticket to the United States, The New York Times reported. Her political activity against the Chinese government in the states began soon after.

Yan appeared on Fox News for the first time in July 2020. During her 13-minute segment, she claimed Chinese officials had “concealed evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus,” and accused professors at the University of Hong Kong of taking part in the cover-up. She cited no evidence, and was later criticized by her former colleagues in a lengthy statement:

“Dr. Yan Limeng was a postdoctoral fellow at HKU. She has left the University.

While HKU respects freedom of expression, Dr Yan’s past or present opinions and views do not represent those of the University.

HKU notes that the content of the said news report does not accord with the key facts as we understand them. Specifically, Dr Yan never conducted any research on human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at HKU during December 2019 and January 2020, her central assertion of the said interview.

We further observe that what she might have emphasized in the reported interview has no scientific basis but resembles hearsay.

HKU does not act on hearsay and we will not further comment on this matter.”

So what does all this mean? 

While there is no definitive proof that Guo intended to defraud other Chinese billionaires and funnel the proceeds to Steve Bannon, he does appear to have grown rich as a real estate mogul in China, acquired additional wealth through loans, and then took off with the funds under heavy suspicion by the Communist government. 

As a fugitive in the United States, Guo has written massive donations toward the loudest advocates for regime change in Beijing. With a clear financial incentive to oust the current rulers of the People’s Republic, Guo has helped to galvanize a wave of Sinophobia and belligerent right-wing commentary regarding China in the United States, even paying to manufacture “scientific” studies in his quest to further discredit the CCP. This effort will be used to empower the new Cold War with Beijing launched in earnest by President Barack Obama and ramped up by his successors, and many unsuspecting viewers and listeners will be lulled into a sense of complacency as 2024 frontrunners—whoever they will be—bring us closer to a hot war.

At the time of writing, Guo has been arrested and his apartment burned down. No one was harmed in the blaze, and the Fire Department of New York and the FBI both declined to comment.

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.

TGIF: Has Libertarianism Passed Its Sell-By Date?

Ron DeSantis, who could be the next president of the United States, made his views frighteningly clear: “We understand that freedom is not just about the absence of restrictions…. I think we have to understand that the threats to freedom are not simply as a result of what happens in legislatures. Yes, you’ve got to win those fights. The left is trying to impose its agenda through a wide range of arteries in our society, including corporate America.”

On another occasion he said, “Fighting for freedom is not easy because the threats to freedom are more complex and more widespread than in the past. The threats can come from entrenched bureaucrats in D.C., jet-setters in Davos, and corporations wielding public power.”

Why do I call this frightening? Because DeSantis, although he started his political career as a limited-government advocate, has abandoned that position for an activist conservatism that is becoming more prominent. He has gone from budget hawk to culture warrior. (He has long been a war hawk, though lately he’s voiced doubts about the U.S. proxy war against Russia.)

He is especially eager to use the power of the government, as he has shown in Florida, to fight woke cultural positions from public schools to private corporations like Disney. I raise this not because I think the champions of woke culture are right — far from it — but because DeSantis is perfectly willing to build up the government to face down forces that themselves have looked to government to impose their preferences on people. He’s done it as governor of Florida (often ineffectively), and we have every reason to think he’d do it as president.

Whether he knows it or not, DeSantis is voicing an old and mistaken objection to the laissez-faire libertarian philosophy. It’s an objection I’m hearing more frequently from right and left. It is that the philosophy of indivdiudal liberty and constrained government — the original liberal project — has become irrelevant. There’s some dishonesty here because it implies that the critics once found that philosophy relevant. But never mind that.

Why isn’t it relevant? Because, they say or imply, it does not address new threats to freedom. Here’s why that’s an old complaint: for decades people who opposed free markets but remained attached to other parts of classical liberalism (freedom of conscience and toleration) liked to say that Adam Smith made his case for the “system of natural liberty” back when the government was the only threat to the individual and the separation of economy and state was the only answer. But now things have changed, those critics continued, because the new threat is no longer the government but the corporations. Today’s right has broadened the list of threats to include academia, the old mass media, the new digital-age media, and other institutions. (I’ve critiqued that old case before.)

What both forms of that objection miss is that the new threats are derived from the old one. It’s “the dangerous derivative.” Just as “corporate power” would be impossible without government power (see Adam Smith’s view), so those other forms of power would be impossible — or certainly much less formidable — without government power. If you look closely, you can see this principle in horrifying action with the housing bust and financial fiasco of 2008. (See my “Wall Street Couldn’t Have Done It Alone.”)

What explains this principle of derivation? It is the government’s exclusive “legitimated” power to initiate force: the assumed authority to give orders compelling people who have violated no rights to do some things and not do other things. Only individuals who hold certain positions in government use compulsion legally. Try collecting charitable donations by force from your neighbors or preventing them from drinking alcohol or using heroin. You’ll soon see the police, which of course are personnel of the government.

In those circumstances the people with the power — of taxation most prominently but hardly exclusively — inevitably will use it to subsidize some members of society and impede others. For libertarians and classical liberals, this is the root of class conflict. (Marx’s version was a distortion of the liberal insight.) This will happen in a representative democracy, where providing goodies is crucial to assembling voter blocs, but it also happens in autocracies, because autocrats cannot go it alone.

Without secondary access to government power, private crusaders would be unable to impose their preferences on society. Conservatives miss this point and do not see the government as fundamentally flawed. They see something they don’t like and immediately look to the government to stop it. In the process, they enable their opponents to use power against them later.

Why can’t the conservatives see that without such access, those who aspire to force their dubious preferences would have to resort to persuasion, which apparently is what they don’t want to do? If the government could not finance education, social and hard science, and other influential stations in society — money that always comes with strings — the link between opinion shapers and power would be broken. Those institutions would change from state-succored monopolies or oligopolies to competitive enterprises that would have to prove their worth every day because people would be free to take their money elsewhere. The revolving door between those institutions and government agencies would be blocked, preventing the rotation of activists from nongovernment institutions to bureaucracies where they can shower benefits on their pet causes.

Taxation is merely one way that this perverse situation comes about. The power to regulate peaceful conduct is key. When the social networks complied with “suggestions” from government personnel about deleting or suppressing inconvenient posts, the network executives knew they were at the mercy of the regulatory state. Social networks were not the only sort of firm that thought it prudent to comply with government requests.

Since government power remains the exclusive source of private institutional power, the government still should be the target of those who champion liberty. It is just wrong to think, as DeSantis and others do, that we need to increase the government’s power to protect liberty. Even seemingly innocuous measures, such as the legislative prohibition of wierd subjects in schools, will necessarily be vaguely written and precedent-setting for causes that conservatives oppose. (Decentralized control of schools, if we can’t have a separation of school and state immediately, would be better.) We should never forget Robert Higgs’s lesson about the “ratchet effect”: government easily grows, but it is tough to shrink it.


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