Politics

TGIF: Why Can’t You Shout “Fire!” in the Virtual Public Square?

Almost 10 years ago the free-speech champion Trevor Timm, with the Electronic Frontier Foundation at the time and now with the Free of the Press Foundation, implored readers “to stop using the ‘fire in a crowded theater’ quote” to justify limits on free expression. Many people apparently need a reminder.

Timm wrote, “[Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes [Jr.’s]’ quote has become a crutch for every censor in America, yet the quote is wildly misunderstood.” To dispel the misunderstanding, Timm told the story behind the quotation.

The Court opinion containing the quote is from Schenck v. United States (1919), a notorious anti-free-speech case in which Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer had been convicted and sentenced to six months in prison during World War I under the federal Espionage Act for mailing 15,000 pamphlets urging soon-to-be-drafted men “not [to] submit to intimidation” and to “Assert your rights.” The pamphlet did not advocate violent resistance but stated that the draft violated the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery.

The Court ruled unanimously against the defendants on the grounds that distributing the material was a “clear and present danger” during wartime. Holmes noted that the pamphlet would have been constitutionally protected in peacetime, but in 1917 the rules were different. To emphasize the point, Holmes wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

Schenck stood as a precedent until 1969, when it was overturned in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Nevertheless, Holmes’s trope is wheeled out today against almost anyone who expresses concern about the limitations on the free exchange of ideas on social networks, especially when the controversy concerns criticism of any aspect of “wokeism,” for example, the ideologies underpinning “anti-racism” and “trans-genderism.” If someone publicly expresses uneasiness at people being suspended from or kicked off social-media platforms for innocuous posts that come nowhere near threatening or inciting violence, the other side will likely quote Holmes to justify the punishment.

It should be too obvious to have to point out that Holmes’s dictum is irrelevant to such episodes. Before we get to that, however, let’s put on this on the record: although they may be under great government pressure to crack down on certain real or alleged misinformation and disinformation, the social-media platforms are private companies with the right to set their terms of use. But that does not mean having a low bar for expulsion is a good policy. Social networking, to the extent it is to have political value, ought to be an open forum. Kicking people off even for lying about election results or (justifiably) criticizing rules about permissible pronouns is not only obnoxious; it also makes a mockery of what the platforms themselves say they aspire to be.

With that out of the way, we can move on to the main course. None of the targets to which Holmes’s trope is aimed bears any resemblance to the literal case of falsely shouting fire in a theater. We can break this down into two parts.

The first concerns the unreasonable shouting of anything, even “Chocolate!” in a theater, crowded or not. If I buy a ticket to a concert, play, or movie, I have at least an implicit contract with the theater owner that I will not disrupt the show (without a darn good reason) and spoil it for the other patrons. If that contractual term were not assumed, the owner would be defrauding all the customers. Would you buy a ticket to a show knowing that anyone in the audience was permitted to make noise?

Just as I cannot eat in a restaurant and refuse to pay by claiming that I never explicitly agreed to pay for the meal, so I cannot make a ruckus in a theater on grounds that I never agreed not to do so. We can go further and point out, as Murray Rothbard did, that even the theater owner may not unreasonably disrupt the show without violating the contract with his customers:  If he does, “He has thus welshed on this contractual obligation, in violation of the property rights of his patrons.”

Rothbard’s point is that freedom of speech is not some free-floating right. To make sense it must be rooted in property rights. No one has a right to make a speech in your living room without an invitation. The corollary, he points out, is that so-called public, that is, government-controlled, land presents insoluble conflicts. When demonstrators want to block a busy street during rush hour, whose rights should prevail: theirs or the drivers’.

As I say, this goes for any shouting. But let’s move on to the issue of content. Falsely shouting fire adds potential injury or death to the insult because the patrons do not have the luxury of checking out the shouter’s claim. Maybe it’s a false alarm, but waiting to find out could cost them their lives. Obviously, if the shouter knows the place is on fire, he’s done his fellow patrons a favor.

How does this relate to social media? Nothing anyone can say on Twitter can compare to the potentially deadly disruption that would occur with a false shouting of fire in a theater. Even if Donald Trump tweets a million times a day — falsely — that his landslide reelection in 2020 was stolen from him, the mechanism for harm just is not present. No one reading Trump’s tweets, as obnoxious as they would be, would have to rush out of wherever he is merely to save his life and possibly endanger others as he does so. It’s simply ridiculous to compare the two situations.

A tweet might offend people — if they choose to take offense — or it might hurt someone’s feelings. But let’s get real: that bears no resemblance to endangerment. But what if someone else reads the tweet and then feels motivated to commit violence? That person is an aggressor who is fully responsible for his actions. He must not be permitted to plead that the tweet caused or incited him to commit violence. He is an agent.

Rigid controls on social media cannot be justified on “clear and present danger” grounds. In other words, it’s impossible to shout “Fire!” on social media, and we are justified in criticizing platform owners who insist on punishing their guests for what they say. It’s easy enough to avoid your fellow guests whom you find obnoxious.

So let’s finally put Holmes’s trope to rest. It has no power to justify restrictions on expression that does not directly and immediately endanger others.

The People Crafting U.S. Policy Aren’t in America

In a piece of news that shocked the mainstream media, but which shocked no one familiar with the academic industry writ large, retired U.S. Army general John Allen was forced to resign as president of the Brookings Institution after it was revealed the FBI was investigating him for lobbying on behalf of the Qatari monarchy.

Of course, the real news, scarcely noted by The Washington PostNew York Times, or any other purported paper of record, is that Allen was only really in trouble because he hadn’t fulfilled the pro forma legal requirements for those lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign agent or government.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), under which such activities are regulated, includes several exceptions that allow for such activities without declaring a conflict of interest. Think tanks, a misnomer if ever there was one, operate under an “academic exception” that allows for engagement in “bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or the fine arts.”

Anyone who has ever picked up one of the many deadly dull social science journals where actual, bona fide empirical academic work is done knows this constitutes perhaps a fraction of what think tanks almost daily churn out.

Rather think tank commentary, touted as objective analysis, is regularly featured or cited by publications and outlets as apparently diverse as The Wall Street Journal and NPR.

Of course, think tanks are hardly alone. As Ben Freeman, a specialist on foreign influence on U.S. policy, has documented, such democratic bastions of liberal values as the UAE and Saudi Arabia donate hundreds of millions, even billions, to universities around the country.

Of course, from a libertarian perspective, who is to say who should be giving money to whom and for what? Further, FARA’s provisions are so nebulous that virtually anyone could be targeted for virtually any reason, an obvious opportunity for unaccountable federal officials to impinge on Americans’ civil liberties.

But the blatant hypocrisy of it all is what really stands out, as the same universities and think tanks regularly decry the apparently perfidious influence of countries like China, which they breathlessly warn uses our “open institutions” for its own gain. Should any of their number dare to go off message and report, for example, on the well-documented and wholly negative influence of countries like Israel on U.S. foreign policy, they are tarred as anti-Semites, racists, or foreign agents themselves!

The truth is the powerful Israel and Saudi Arabia lobbies have been able to steer U.S. policy in directions clearly at odds with the best interests of the American people for decades. Unsurprisingly, perhaps nowhere has the deleterious effect of their money been more felt than in US policy toward Iran, with the Saudis, Israelis, and Emiratis dumping literally billions of dollars into attacks on a country the United States should have normalized relations with decades ago.

The Uyghur lobby is another such interest group that enjoys an open door in Congress and the op-ed pages of prominent papers—this while its nakedly paramilitary arm advocates the violent overthrow of the Beijing government! And what are we, or foreign governments like China, to think when the parent organization of such extremists, the World Uyghur Congress, takes funding from the US government itself?

We aren’t supposed to think about it at all.

Just like we aren’t supposed to question any of the other nakedly self-serving policies. Who, for example, is surprised to learn there is a large and active Ukraine lobby in Washington? That has paid off handsomely, with our government now handing over $130 million daily to Kyiv with little to no oversight.

And of course, most maddeningly, any critically thinking American who even dares to question the US government’s obviously dangerous and counterproductive policies, bought and paid for by literal foreign agents, are themselves accused of being in the pay of Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran.

Never mind that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

Again, the American people aren’t expected to think at all, only to stay in line and keep the money flowing.

This is the sad state of foreign policy in America, and it happens right out in the open.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

TGIF: Parents Should Govern Their Kids’ Education

How clear are these opening words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?

Judging by the U.S. Supreme Court’s many ventures into this area, we’d have to say not very clear at all. There’s a lesson in that. Constitutions don’t interpret themselves. People do, and the line between interpreting and making law is not as bright as we’re told.

The latest Court decision in the matter, Carson v. Makin, is instructive in that regard. The 6-3 decision — Republican appointees made up the majority, Democratic appointees the minority — struck down Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a program that provides tax-funded tuition assistance to all parents who live in school districts that do not provide “free, public” secondary education. That’s over half the districts. Maine, according to the Court, is the most rural state in the country. Who knew?

Under the program, those parents can spend the money at another district’s school or at an academically accredited “nonsectarian” private school. The plaintiffs, two families, argued that this restriction violates both the Free-exercise clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment, along with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. district and appellate courts had sided with the state.

The six justices of the majority held that the exclusion of sectarian schools violated the guarantee of the free exercise of religion despite the fact that religion permeated the regular curriculum. (Remember, these were state-approved schools academically.) But the minority justices said the exclusion violated the prohibition on the establishment of religion because the money would go to schools that used it to teach their particular faiths. It was establishment clause v. free-exercise clause.

So who is right? Can that question be answered? Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion and the dissenting opinions by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor point to many Court precedents that seem to support their conflicting positions. But the precedents aren’t much help because one can always say that an earlier case differed in an important way from the current one.

Leaving aside one’s background philosophy, all of the arguments seem plausible and consistent with the constitutional text. One might appeal to historical materials, but my hunch is you can find disagreements there too. There’s a lesson in all this, one captured by legal scholar John Hasnas in “The Myth of the Rule of Law.” (A discussion of Hasnas’s paper is here.)

Hasnas’s point is that considering how statutes and constitutions are written and the contradictory case law, judges and lawyers can start at Point A and reach virtually whatever destination they wish. Each individual’s compass will be ideological. This, Hasnas insists, is not the notion of the rule of law taught in grade school or law school, but the rule of men and women. He writes:

The fact is that there is no such thing as a government of law and not people. The law is an amalgam of contradictory rules and counter-rules expressed in inherently vague language that can yield a legitimate legal argument for any desired conclusion. For this reason, as long as the law remains a state monopoly, it will always reflect the political ideology of those invested with decisionmaking power. [Emphasis added. Hasnas favors judicial competition, or polycentric law.]

So what are we to make of the ruling? I’ll cut to the chase before doubling back. Consistent with Hasnas’s thesis, both the majority and the minority think its path is consistent with a desired religious neutrality. The majority holds that neutrality lies in not excluding religious schools from Maine’s program because all eligible parents would be treated the same, while the minority holds that neutrality requires excluding religious schools.

Truth be told, I prefer the ruling to the Court’s alternative, but let’s get clear on some preliminaries first. The root of the conflict that produced this case is government schooling itself. Ironically, the early government-school movement presented the misnamed “public school” as the way to prevent conflict over religion. How’s that worked out, Horace Mann? (See my book Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families.)

Simply put, any government involvement in education infringes the liberty not only of parents but also of nonparent taxpayers, who are forced to support the government’s schools. And let’s be specific: government involvement violates freedom of conscience and not just material property rights. Even before the dawn of wokeness, many taxpayers disliked how the government schools taught even unobjectionable subjects.

The case against government schooling is bolstered by the well-known fact that coercive monopolies are inherently bad deals. They deliver poor quality at unnecessarily high prices. As bureaucratic organizations, they are interested in preserving their perks rather than serving their ostensible “customers.”

So it’s no coincidence that the government’s schools are rotten; the more marginalized the community, the more rotten they are. This is a disgrace because the education establishment has sabotaged poorer people, many of whom suffer the legacy of long-standing official injustices, and kept them from ensuring better lives for their children. If you want to understand intergenerational poverty and cultural shortcomings, think “public schools.”

What we should strive for, then, is parental free choice in a competitive education marketplace. Competition is the universal solvent. (James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, among others, have demolished the claim that poorer people would be worse off in a free education market.)

As more people have come to understand the benefits of free choice, they have proposed steps by which parents could take their kids out of the rotten system. Unfortunately but understandably, reformers have supported incremental changes that still left the state and local governments with a huge amount of power over schooling. I say “understandably” because a proposal to replace government schooling with a free and competitive marketplace (which would include nonprofit institutions) is a hard sell in the current context, although it may be getting easier. One objection to the incremental approach, besides continued government compulsion, is that the radical approach would be shelved in favor of the more-attainable program.

At any rate, various programs — vouchers, tuition tax credits, third-party scholarship tax credits — were set up to help parents escape to some extent the clutches of the school bureaucracy. The Maine program was different because it was only for children living in school districts without secondary schools. In effect, the state told parents they could take the money that would have been spent on a local high school and use it at the accredited school of their choice. The only restriction aside from its being state-accredited was that it be nonsectarian. That seems unfair to religious parents, who regard their religious faith as integral to their education even in secular subjects. Why should they be taxed to support a system they disapprove of?

That’s why I prefer the ruling to what the dissenters wanted. They think that allowing parents to buy education from schools that will “use public money for religious purposes” violates the establishment clause. That strikes me as the weaker argument. How does letting parents have that choice “establish” religion? Maine did not set up a state church.

It all depends on how one interprets that clause. (This problem plagues the Constitution. See my America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.) In his dissent Breyer says there is “play in the joints” between the establishment and free-exercise clauses, leaving “wiggle room” in which states can “navigate the tension created by the Clauses and consider their own interests in light of the Clauses’ competing prohibitions.” Loose joints and wiggle room hardly provide good guides for legislative dos and don’ts. Roberts counters that a “State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.” I think that makes more sense.

Breyer writes, “Maine thus excludes schools from its tuition program not because of the schools’ religious character but because the schools will use the funds to teach and promote religious ideals.” That supposed distinction enables him to embrace earlier decisions that permitted tax money for religiously affiliated institutions, but is that distinction meaningful? Can there really be a church-affiliated school that does not promote its faith to the pupils? The state legislature thought so and in theory permitted parents to spend the money on the former sort but not the latter sort. That sounds more like a word game to protect its statute from court scrutiny. The Court majority didn’t buy it.

My arguments here assume the existing political context, which of course I want to see changed. As long as state schools, state curriculum requirements, and compulsory attendance exist, fairness requires that parents — who pay income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes one way or another — be free to direct the money to the schools of their choice. “School choice” is a pale substitute for real freedom, and it will always come with unjustifiable conditions, but it still may provide children an exit from intolerable situations.

If we must err, let’s err on the side of the parents’ freedom of choice. Let’s face it: the taxpayers would be coerced to support something they disapprove of no matter the outcome of this case, a point overlooked by the dissenters, who are concerned only when people are forced to support religion.

Let’s also push, then, for a wider freedom of choice. No one should be forced to finance schools (or anything else for that matter). Taxation taints everything. The right to choose is far more radical than most people think.

In sum, it is entirely reasonable to disagree with Justice Sotomayor, who wrote in her own dissenting opinion that the majority in this case “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.” The First Amendment doesn’t mandate a “wall of separation.” (Jefferson most famously used this metaphor in a letter.) Rather, it seems to say only that Congress may neither establish religion (as, say, in England) nor interfere with anyone’s free exercise thereof. The Court long ago applied this and other applicable provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states via the 14th Amendment. (The establishment clause originally also meant that Congress couldn’t interfere with the established churches in individual states at the time.)

It’s hard to see how Maine has either established religion or interfered with its free exercise merely by “giving money to parents” (Sotomayor’s words) that they can freely spend on schooling. Contrary to Sotomayor, the ruling does not “require[] States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars” because Maine did not have to set up a tuition-assistance program. The ruling simply says, echoing an earlier case, that if a state does so, it cannot forbid parents from choosing schools that mix religion with their regular curriculums. In other words, all it does is let parents spend the money that would otherwise have gone to a government school at the accredited schools of their choice.

Sotomayor also writes: “If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens.” I ask: so what’s wrong with that? Government has no business subsidizing people. If it wants them to have more money, cut and abolish taxes.

 

TGIF: Free Exchange Is Win-Win

With the possible exception of the political class and its cronies, most of us would be healthier, wealthier, happier, and freer if the public knew how to engage in “the economic way of thinking.” The late Paul Heyne, who wrote a popular textbook by that name (now in its 13th edition thanks to Peter Boettke and David Prychitko), summarized the economic way of thinking by writing, “All social phenomena emerge from the choices of individuals in response to expected benefits and costs to themselves.”

I think of Heyne’s title whenever I encounter an example of failing to understand this. Unfortunately, our society is rife with examples and resulting bad government policies, which tells you a lot about why we suffer periodic hardships like the current inflation. The lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic were a spectacularly tragic example of the failure to engage in the economic way of thinking.

Other instances of that failure are so thoughtless as to be ludicrous. Take the wealthy business owner who donates a large sum of money to a worthy cause. The fallacy occurs when the donor or someone else inevitably says that the charitable act was motivated by a wish to “give something back,” presumably to society or the community.

What’s wrong here? It suggests that the donor wants to show gratitude for his fortune by reciprocating. But that makes no sense because the donor’s wealth was not the result of people handing over money as a favor and getting nothing in return. Those people were customers, not donors. They bought something they wanted and must have liked the terms of exchange. So there is nothing to pay back. (I have in mind only people operating according to just-market principles: no force, fraud, or favors coercively provided by politicians.)

In the marketplace, profits come from voluntary exchange, which requires that buyers and sellers freely choose to transact business. Why would they do that? They do it because each party expects to benefit — to be made better off — by giving up something they own for something that they would rather own. This is clear with barter, but it’s equally true when one party trades money. Money, a medium of exchange, expands the opportunity for exchange by enabling people to get what they want even when they don’t have the particular items that their available trading partners want.

When Smith trades a sum of money to Jones to acquire shoes, Smith demonstrates that he prefers those shoes to anything else he might have feasibly used the money for, including holding on to it. Jones demonstrates the opposite preference.

Unfortunately, since they are fallible, Smith or Jones (or both) might realize later that he made a mistake. That’s life, but it does not change the fact that at the moment of exchange, both sides expected to gain. If they are right, they have a happy win-win, or positive-sum, situation. Both sides profit, not just the one who obtains money because both come out ahead. (The competitive quest for profit has brought us liberal return policies, so the fallibility problem long ago became much less severe. John Stossel likes to point out that at the supermarket, both checkout clerks and customers typically thank each other.)

Free exchange produces mutual gain. If we could quantify the gain (we can’t), we would say that after the exchange, the two people have more total value between them than they had before the exchange. This is remarkable, considering no new stuff was created by the transaction. Possession of the product and the money simply changed hands.

To put it qualitatively, we can say that through the exchange, both parties climbed higher on their respective value scales, giving up a subjectively lower-ranking value for a subjectively higher-ranking one. (What counts is how the parties evaluate things.) For this to occur, we need first, two parties with different preferences and, second, freedom, including property rights. Before you can justly trade something, you must own it.

In light of the two-way gain through free exchange, the wealthy seller has no reason to “pay back.” He is successful because he provides value to his customers, who are happy to exchange their money.

It’s too bad that people who earn fortunes justly are made to feel guilty about their success. (Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises did their best to teach honest producers they had nothing to be ashamed of.) We consumers never feel guilty about the profits we reap. Why should the sellers?

TGIF: The Libertarian Solution

“What’s the libertarian solution to social or economic problem X? How about problem Y or Z?”

No libertarian needs to wait long before hearing such questions. But strictly speaking, the libertarian philosophy offers no solutions to specific problems. That’s not what it does. It is not itself a solution. Rather, it describes an institutional environment in which imaginative people are free and motivated to discover innovative solutions to individual and collective problems.

That environment has moral, cultural, economic, and legal dimensions, all grounded in self-ownership, respect for others, property, competition, persuasion, and consent, as opposed to government authority, monopoly, decree, and coercion. The cultural dimension is especially important, though often unappreciated. Widespread resentment toward other people’s success, for example, is literally deadly, not only for those targeted but for society at large, especially those at the bottom.

Thus when a libertarian says freedom or the free market will solve a particular problem (if politicians stand aside), what sounds like an impossibly oversimplified response is actually highly complex. In contrast to the politicians’ boasts, note the humility here. Confidence in market problem-solving is confidence in free human imagination dispersed among countless individuals throughout society. Who can say who will come up with the solution? No one. That in part is why we need everyone to be free.

The unique grounding of the libertarian environment has far different built-in incentives for problem-solvers than any state-based alternative. State problem-solving is characterized by centralized bureaucracy, artificial knowledge constraints, nonconsensual financing (taxation) that precludes feedback, profligacy (producing the disruptive knowledge distortions of debt and inflation), and significant unaccountability. In contrast, social- or market-based problem-solving is characterized by multiple knowledge centers, competition, consensual financing, and the profit motive. In that environment proposed solutions are subjected to intellectual and product competition, which yields better knowledge than other arrangements. F. A. Hayek called competition a “discovery” process. I think of it as the universal solvent.

In the market, problems are potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs, and as we know, the profit motive is potent. The entrepreneur’s job is to figure out where and how resources are used suboptimally relative to what people (not politicians) want most. Solving a problem often requires shifting scarce resources and labor from one purpose to another.

How can anyone know what’s the best way to go? Entrepreneurs find clues to that question in market prices, which is why the price system is so important and must not be tampered with by politicians and bureaucrats. If an entrepreneur is correct when thinks he can buy a quantity of resources and hire labor at one price per finished-product unit and make something people will want to buy at a sufficiently higher price, he will earn a profit. That’s a sign the enterprise solved a problem for its customers. Profit in the free market (absent government intervention) is a reward for success. It’s not a dirty word.

Indispensable to the entrepreneurial function is the consumers’ freedom to accept or reject offers as they see fit. Both responses communicate vital information to the problem-solvers. Coercion, the government’s way of doing things, sabotages the function.

The freedom-based process is vital in our world of scarcity, trade-offs, and imperfect knowledge. Improvement is always possible, and imperfect knowledge is not the only reason. Another is that people’s preferences change. What they wanted yesterday they may not want tomorrow, especially if something new comes along. A third reason is that the array of resources changes, with new materials, technologies, and organization methods proving superior to the old. Government restraints on this process do a disservice to people trying to improve their lives, especially those who have yet to “make it.”

In contrast to entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats can’t look for price discrepancies (since government “services” are not priced in the market) and wouldn’t profit from them in any event. Government officials instead respond to constituencies (relatively small well-connected interests generally) who lobby for “free,” that is, tax-financed, stuff. Since most of the benefits bestowed by the government are concentrated on relatively small interest groups with much riding on their single purpose, while the costs are dispersed among the mass of unorganized taxpayers and consumers without a single purpose, the interest groups usually prevail. (Think of quotas and tariffs on imports. A few domestic producers are usually able to dominate a much larger group of consumers.)

Moreover, when politicians and bureaucrats promise to solve a problem and fail, they rarely suffer any consequences since they are able to blame the private sector. (Inflation is blamed on greedy businesses, not on the real culprit: government borrowing that is monetized is by the Federal Reserve.) Spotting that misdirection requires one to engage in the economic way of thinking, but most of the public has no idea what that means. (Frédéric Bastiat in the 19th century illustrated this in “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Unseen.”) This political trick works so well that government officials can easily turn failure into bigger budgets and more power. The game is rigged against the people, who pay twice: through the tax system and by having to forgo real the solutions that entrepreneurs would have discovered had the government kept its hands off the resources.

Nothing better indicates the superiority of market solutions to state solutions than the fact that market solutions will vary according to local knowledge and preferences. In contrast, state solutions tend to be one-size-fits-all.

No one has ever suggested that the libertarian environment for solving problems is perfect. People aren’t infallible, so the private consent-based approach can’t be either. Trial-and-error is inescapable but also indispensable. Yet the last time I checked, politicians and bureaucrats were people too. (No, really!) The difference is that people are operationally smarter in a free, decentralized, and competitive environment where they encounter feedback and face the clear consequences of their choices. That’s exactly what is lacking in the political environment.

One final note. In a world of scarcity (however much technology loosens its limits), solving problems always entails costs. As Thomas Sowell teaches, in a sense, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. What we all strive for in life is an overall improvement; in effect we exchange situations we don’t want (all things considered) for ones we do want. That’s the natural condition, which politicians and bureaucrats cannot improve on. But as we can readily see, they certainly can make things much worse.

 

It’s Time for Joe Biden to Exit the Ring

President Biden often looks like a punch-drunk old fighter sent into the ring once too often. At this point, the only thing lower than Biden’s approval numbers is his energy level. Is Uncle Joe too old to rebound?

At this point, Biden is running on little more than fumes and righteousness. In his televised antigun speech Thursday night, Biden proclaimed that he expected most people “to turn your outrage into making this issue [assault weapons] central to your vote.” Biden’s histrionic spiel was far more likely to turbo-charge gun owners than gun banners and could be another coffin nail for Democratic candidates in middle America. Biden perennially tells audiences that banning assault weapons is justified because the Second Amendment didn’t permit Americans to own cannons—a falsehood that even The Washington Post has repeatedly derided.

Inflation is the top issue by a wide margin for Americans nowadays. Biden’s inflation will soon have inflicted a 10 percent cut in the purchasing power of Americans’ paychecks. But Biden is indignant at criticism of his policies. When Peter Doocy of Fox News asked about the impact in January, Biden called him “a stupid son of a bitch.” In a March speech to Democratic members of Congress, Biden raged at being blamed for inflation: “I’m sick of this stuff!…We have to talk about it because the American people think the reason for inflation is the government spending more money. Simply. Not. True.”

Biden first tried to blame greedy corporations for inflation and then began railing about “Putin’s price hikes.” Didn’t work. Last week, The Washington Post revealed that Biden now blames White House aides who “were not doing a good job explaining the causes of inflation and what the administration is doing about it.” But his aides have a hell of a challenge when Biden boasts “a gallon of gas is down 14 percent today”—as he claimed based solely on a happy fantasy on March 9. Even wackier? Last Friday, Biden boasted that Americans feel more “financially comfortable,” thanks to his policies.

Biden won in 2020 in part because he promised in the final debate: “I’m going to shut down the virus.” Biden bet his presidency on covid vaccines. When their efficacy faded, Biden dictated a “jab or job” ultimatum to more than a hundred million Americans. The Supreme Court rebuffed most of that mandate but not before the omicron variant was causing a million new cases a day and obliterating Biden’s covid victory boasts. Last month, the White House predicted up to a hundred million new covid cases this fall—after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted that almost half of covid fatalities now are among the fully vaxxed. In lieu of more reliable vaccines, Team Biden is pressuring social media companies to crack down on “disinformation” that casts doubts on presidentially ordained injections.

Biden has a long DC reputation for trampling the facts. His first presidential bid collapsed in the late 1980s, thanks to his brazen plagiarism of a British politician. But the Democrats in 2020 were desperate to find someone who could defeat Donald Trump. Their verdict: “He’s a pathological liar, but he’s our pathological liar.” During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden was shielded by a phalanx of media allies and former government honchos who helpfully buried issues such as the damning revelations of Hunter Biden’s laptop (first exposed by the New York Post).

But, regardless of how often Biden flees back to Delaware, he is in the limelight far more than during the campaign. He struggled to find his way off stage after a speech, and the video of him attempting to shake hands with invisible people on stage was jolting. A decade ago, Biden seemed mentally quick and verbally agile in battering Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) in the vice presidential debate. But Biden’s verbal and mental struggles make that stellar performance seem like a thousand years ago.

The Biden White House discloses little or no verified medical information on the president’s health, mental or physical. Instead, Biden’s apologists in the media insist that he is doing fine—the same way that much of the press corps covered for President Woodrow Wilson after he was debilitated by a stroke.

Last month, The Washington Post reprinted a column by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein demanding that Americans “Stop Smearing Biden’s Mental Capacity.” Bernstein described doubts about Biden’s acuity as “one of the many ugly things that’s happened during Joe Biden’s presidency.” Bernstein rests his defense of Biden on the trustworthiness of the Washington elite: “To believe that Biden is impaired requires a belief in a massive conspiracy…by thousands of people.”

Like the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—a Bush scam to justify a war that was supported in lockstep by most of the media and the Washington establishment? Or the notion that the Federal Reserve flooding the nation with increasingly worthless currency is good for America—another beloved myth embraced by the Beltway?

A poll last month showed that 53 percent of Americans doubted whether Biden was “mentally fit” for the presidency. Who knew that antigeezer prejudice would explode during Uncle Joe’s reign? But even 51 percent of senior citizens doubt Biden’s mental competence for office. That the official scorekeepers ruled that Biden won eighty-one million votes in the 2020 election is supposedly the only proof of “competence” that matters.

Perhaps there is only one proof of Biden’s mental capacity that matters in Washington: he is delivering the conflict with Russia that the Democratic Party has craved since Hillary Clinton made anti-Russia agitation a linchpin of her 2016 presidential campaign. Biden’s hysterical denunciations of Vladimir Putin have endeared him to DC insiders itching to drag this nation into a military conflict that they know most Americans would not support if the full facts and risks were presented to them. The White House, State Department, CIA, and Pentagon have provided almost zero credible evidence on how the military conflict between Russia and Ukraine is proceeding. Instead, Biden has been the front man for a fairy tale that pretends that providing almost unlimited U.S. government aid and weapons to a corrupt regime in Kiev will create a historic victory for democracy everywhere. But Russia’s unjust invasion and atrocities against civilians do not purify a Ukrainian regime that has been abusing its own people for decades. In effectively opposing any peace talks between Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Team Biden has simply assured more pointless deaths on both sides.

Biden is a listless president surrounded by aides with broken compasses. Biden’s worst pummeling could occur if Democrats lose control of Congress in November. Republican committees will be investigating an array of potential abuses of power that Team Biden has successfully buried (at least according to media scorekeeping) so far. Unless Biden can make it a hate crime to attach “I did this!” stickers to gas pumps, his support will keep draining away every time Americans fill up their tanks.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

TGIF: Heartless Immigration Restrictions Need Replacing

Some elements of the right-wing are spreading the fear that Democrats are engineering a take-over of America by replacing white voters with nonwhites through liberal immigration policies. It’s come to be known as “the great replacement,” and in its ugliest form, it is said to be a Jewish conspiracy. Remember the sickening chant at the 2017 right-wing Charlottesville rally: “Jews will not replace us”?

I wish this fear-mongering could be ignored, but since a few fanatics have committed violence apparently to prevent the “great replacement,” it needs to be discussed.

Why would anyone lose even one wink over this alleged plot? For one thing, even if such a plan existed, the Democrats can’t possibly know how future citizens will vote or even if they will vote. Why assume they will follow the Democrats’ orders, as the right-winders expect? In recent years, some Republicans have done fairly well with Latino voters. As long as conservatives talk about the nonwhite population as though it were a group of obedient children rather than moral agents, they needn’t wonder why they don’t win more votes in those communities. Just a thought, but maybe people who are energetic and entrepreneurial enough to leave their impoverished homes for a shot at greater opportunity, despite the risks, ought to be wooed, not alienated by political activists who pay lip service to individual enterprise.

Regardless of whether some Democratic politicians and left-wing activists think they can carry out the alleged plot or whether their statements praising America’s changing ethnic composition are merely quoted out of context, who cares? True freedom-lovers favor whatever ethnic composition results from the freely chosen actions of sovereign individuals — both current and aspiring Americans. Freedom’s champions also favor progressively shrinking government power so that no one — regardless of ethnicity — can impose his or her values on others. (Strictly speaking, one value should be imposed on others, the liberal value summed up by the phrase live and let live. In other words, aggressive physical force is illegitimate.)

It would be nice if someone prominent in American politics would say to the conspiracy theorists: “Who needs replacement conspiracy to explain the need for open borders? We already have a perfectly good reason to open the gates: immigrants not only help themselves by coming here, but they also improve our society and the whole world.”

But don’t hold your breath. Does a Democrat walk the land who favors unrestricted immigration? Please let me know.

On the contrary, some Democrats have their own replacement conspiracy theory about those who favor free (or at least freer) immigration. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the economically illiterate darling of the left, says he opposes open borders because “the Koch brothers,” by which he means anyone who favors freedom of movement (that is, libertarians), want cheap labor to replace more expensive American labor. It never occurs to politicians like Sanders that open-borders advocates might just favor individual liberty. Isn’t it interesting how much the right and left have in common?

Tucker Carlson leads the right-wing media in “exposing” the great plot to create a new electorate through immigration. His trope is revealing: “Look, if this was happening in your house, your parents adopted a bunch of new siblings and gave them brand-new bikes, you would say to your siblings, ‘You know, I think we’re being replaced by kids our parents love more.'”

It doesn’t get more ridiculous than that. First of all, would you say that? Second, in what respect do new arrivals get better “bikes” than those who were born here? Third, why does the government give anyone “bikes”?

The most revealing bit is Carlson’s analogizing the country to a family with the government as parents. It seems that the godfather of American conservatism isn’t Edmund Burke, but Sir Robert Filmer. (John Locke’s liberalism was a response to the monarchist Filmer.) According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

Filmer believed that the state was a family, that the first king was a father, and that submission to patriarchal authority was the key to political obligation. Making a strained interpretation of scripture, typical of his time but ridiculed by Locke, he pronounced that Adam was the first king and that Charles I ruled in England as Adam’s eldest heir. Filmer represented that patriarchal social structure which characterized Europe until the Industrial Revolution.

So let’s get serious. Drawing on contemporary data, history, and sound social theory, George Mason University Professor Bryan Caplan shows that every one of the common fears about free immigration —  lower wages, a bigger welfare state, radical cultural change, authoritarianism, etc. — are either concocted wholesale or outrageously exaggerated. So stop worrying! (See this interview with Caplan and check out his graphic nonfiction book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.)

By the way, enacting immigration controls in the name of staving off authoritarianism is a cruel joke because controls on immigration necessarily are controls on whomever the state chooses to define as a citizen.

Instead of favoring heartless restrictions on people’s freedom to move, why don’t people who worry about immigration instead call for limits on government power so that fewer areas of life are controlled by politicians beholden to blocs of voters? Conservatives must have their own sort of welfare state in mind.

Whose Libertarian Party?

This last weekend, the Mises Caucus, a coalition within the Libertarian Party, was elected to all national positions within the party.

For some, Mises control caused consternation:

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Aaron Ross Powell is a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a premier libertarian think tank.

For others, jubilation:

img 1494

Clint Russell is a podcaster that grew his audience to 3.5 times Powell’s in a little over a year, primarily via anti-lockdown/COVID content.

This article will explore the underlying dynamics of why this has happened and where the Libertarian Party can go from here.

The Two Types of Libertarian

Let’s look at two archetypes of a Libertarian. But before we do that, a quick aside on ethics and cognition.

Some Libertarians believe that it is rationality that caused them to adopt their beliefs. My view is that while logic may have played a role, the evidence is strong that humans have rather innate ethical intuitions, and mostly use reason to justify them. Occasionally, reason can be used to overrule our intuitions, but this is difficult and rare. For a longer exposition on this idea, explore the work of Jonathan Haidt. For a succinct example, consider how great everyone thinks their arguments on abortion are and how rarely they actually change anyone’s mind.

A compassionate Libertarian holds an ethical impulse oriented towards equality, egalitarianism, and tolerance. They were attracted to Libertarian philosophy because free markets really do make everyone better off. They are big on immigration because they see many people worse-off that could have a much better life in America. They are nearly universally socially progressive and place primacy on social issues like sex work and LGBTQ rights because they see these as minority groups that are suffering injustice or harm. This archetype opposed the Mises Caucus.

An individualistic Libertarian holds an ethical impulse towards personal freedom and against authority. They were attracted to Libertarian philosophy because they find the state deontologically evil in how it exerts itself. They cared a lot about mask mandates because the idea of state violence being used to stop something as basic as seeing each other’s faces felt viscerally wrong. They love free markets, but care more about free markets because of how they will personally benefit. They may or may not be socially progressive, but even the progressive ones are unlikely to place primacy on social issues. This archetype supported the Mises Caucus.

The quintessential compassionate Libertarian is an economist that likes to talk about how open borders would triple American GDP. The quintessential individualistic Libertarian is a small-scale entrepreneur or trade-worker that likes to chant “end the Fed.”

These are not exclusive categories; any given Libertarian may be 20% of one group and 80% of the other. Either way, compassionate Libertarians used to control the Libertarian Party, but individualistic ones took it over.

The Cause of the Divide

Of the Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians, the Libertarians are the most likely ones to believe that politics is about policy. This belief is humorous because despite the divide between the two sides getting so heated, there aren’t that many policy matters the two groups actually disagree on! Both groups want to end every war, substantially cut taxes, have unfettered trade, end the drug war, etc.

While there are some matters of policy disagreement, the actual cause of the divide is about what is emphasized by the Party and how that will be perceived by others, particularly others close to them.

Compassionate Libertarians are more likely to be found working white-collar jobs in larger companies. When the Party says something that many people disagree with, they get concerned about how they will be judged by the people that know they are a Libertarian. So compassionate Libertarians tend not to like messages like this one:

img 1495

Individualistic Libertarians were less likely to have a problem with this, either because they have a disposition that is more tolerant to saying things that are true but unpopular, or because they have a life position where they are less affected. On the other hand, individualistic Libertarians tend to not like messages like this one.

img 1496

Individualistic Libertarians disliked this tweet because they saw it as pandering, ineffective, and unrepresentative of what Libertarians believe. Compassionate Libertarians liked this tweet, because they saw it as making their political philosophy more socially acceptable.

Finally, one repeated criticism I’ve seen of the Mises camp is that they just want to be edgy, but I think this is false. They may be slightly more edgy for the reasons described above, but what is edgy is just as much driven by the milieu of each camp.

Where Libertarians Can Go

Many people in both camps of Libertarians feel that the other camp can’t be worked with. I’d like us to try to be exceptional and use our logic to overwhelm that impulse. Political parties succeed when they allow different coalitions to work together to achieve success.

My strongest request is that both camps recognize that there are people with vastly different personalities and dispositions that want similar political changes. If we can’t work with people so close to us on actual policy preferences, we have no hope of ever achieving them.

For the individualist libertarians, my requests are:

  1. Be humble in your victory and attempt to rebuild relationships that may have been damaged over the last year. You are the victor, it’s your job to be magnanimous.
  2. Appreciate that even the libertarians you regard as blue-pilled or soft are on your side and are frequently doing strong intellectual work that backs up the ideas you know are true.
  3. Accept and encourage the inclusion of at least some messaging appeals to the other camp. Even if you regard it as cringe and definitely not based.
  4. Work as hard as you can to make the Libertarian Party larger and more effective than it ever has been. Otherwise, you will be regarded as failures.

For the compassionate libertarians, my requests are:

  1. Accept that your loss happened. At least give the new group in control a chance to succeed before publicly attacking.
  2. Appreciate that even the libertarians who you may regard as crude, conspiratorial, or insensitive mostly want the same things you do. And that there are a lot of these people.
  3. Accept that there may be messaging from the new party that you don’t love. Focus on amplifying the messaging you do agree with. Attempt to show the messaging you prefer works better and complain privately if you’re not getting it.
  4. Assuming you meet request one, do not leave the Party. Work to recruit more people who agree with you or to convert those in the Party to your camp, because it’s important both camps are represented.

There’s no force on earth that can stop an idea whose time has come, except for ourselves.

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