On Consumerism, Corporatism, Time Preference, and Modernity

Consumerism

Capitalism is often blamed for consumerism. It is almost a certainty that whenever leftists run out of other arguments, they will make an argument related to consumerism. Consumerism is almost universally despised by people who have higher ideals, so it is easy to point out consumerism and then act as if it is an argument against capitalism. One reason for this is that socialism, the other major economic system in the modern world, eventually leaves people with nothing to consume, so capitalism is an easier target. But socialists make multiple critical errors in blaming capitalism for consumerism. While it is certainly true that capitalists benefit from a consumer culture, and that the capitalist system will not be toppled when people are attracted to consumer culture, this does not mean that capitalism as a system of free enterprise and private property is by necessity a cause of consumerism or oriented around consumerism. Furthermore, the capitalist class itself will be subject to consumerism and themselves be as hurt by it as anyone else.

When we look at why people engage in consumerism, we can see several major trends that cause consumerism. The first is having a corporate structure when it comes to enterprise. This means that for there to be consumerism there must be people who advance consumerism. There would be no consumerism if there were no beneficiaries of consumerism, and honest businesses do not need consumerism. Corporations are not honest businesses, as they hide behind a legal fiction created by the state. Without corporate structures, which are entirely constructed by the state, there is no party who would advance consumerism. Second, there must be people who are willing to engage in consumerism. Whereas people who have their lives figured out and have purpose beyond themselves do not turn to consumerism, these must be people who have nothing better to do than to consume. Such people see their lives as a series of capital transactions in which they seek immediate gratification. Consumerism cannot develop within healthy societies where people have cares beyond their own immediate interests. Third, consumerism requires that these people have money, as they cannot consume without first gaining access to a sufficient amount of capital. Thus, consumerism requires an abundance of consumer goods and services. Fourth, there must be a high social time preference within the society because people need to seek immediate gratification to value consumerism instead of being personally disgusted by engaging in consumerism. Finally, it is not only necessary that people have personal abundance, but that the capital structures that produce consumer goods are well-maintained. These capital structures will be maintained when people consume, but high time preferences will necessarily cause a form of stagnation, as there is insufficient investment to facilitate growth.

Corporatism

It is undeniable that the modern economy is largely driven by giant corporate structures, and it is similarly undeniable that these corporate structures are based on making as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. Making profit is not inherently bad, but it is necessary to account for time preferences. The strategy used by megacorporations once they have attained their status is not to build up a honest reputation and a good name as valuable providers of quality services, but rather to profit in the moment and then leverage this profit for future gain. This is why many corporations operate in debt; they hope that they can be propelled by their profit and obtain investors by providing the potential for returns. This has much to do with the nature of corporations. Corporations are entities partially separate from the people and property legally represented by them. They shield people from personal responsibility, which creates a wide range of perverse incentives. If businesses were fully accountable, then there could not be such a large amount of corruption within them or such a high time preference by them. Without the ability to sustain debt through lack of responsibility, businesses would have to lower their time preferences.

Not only does the state indirectly advance predatory business practices in allowing corporate structures to take shape, the state also directly allies with corporations. Whereas attempting to create a corporation without involving the state will have no effect, incorporation is a government program and a corporation is a public-private partnership. Furthermore, politicians are funded by corporations, and corporations get special benefits from the state as a return on their investment in political connections. The result is that the state has been overtaken by corporate power, and the two work symbiotically in order to enhance their parasitism upon the rest of society. The largest corporations need their licenses, privileges, regulations, and other such competition-stifling measures to maintain their position, while the state needs to have control over the economy to maintain its position. Corporations are the only entities that can truly ensure that the economy is not outside the state. The entire modern political system is based on a mutual reassurance between corporations and the state, and separating the two at this point will cause an economic collapse.

At the highest level of business, the image of the humble CEO or board manager who does what needs to be done is a misconception; the people who run megacorporations are not the most virtuous people. Big business is not oppressed, and is not some heroic figure from an Ayn Rand novel who is fighting against the state for the freedom to compete in the free market. Rather, through regulatory capture, big business uses state power to oppress small businesses and individuals who seek to compete with them. For these reasons, the corporation is a fundamentally anti-capitalist institution.

Time Preference

There are the situations in which the state directly incentivizes high time preferences. People who are struggling financially are far easier to control than those who are financially secure. By contrast, when people save money and accumulate wealth, they are less influenced by the state. The state can make use of this to artificially create and expand a consumer culture by inflating away savings. This is done by printing fiat currency that loses its value over time, then watching people impoverish themselves by using that currency. People may have an abundance of consumer goods, but they are constantly struggling financially and feel as if they are much poorer than they are. These reckless spending habits that are bound to impoverish the spenders are extremely beneficial to the state and the politically connected corporate elites. Furthermore, the state can tax people more on their purchases if they spend beyond their means. It will also create more possibilities for taxing artificially successful businesses when they inevitably expand due to the calculation with inflationary currency being favorable towards them. However, this is unsustainable and always results in an economic contraction. Unfortunately, the state can also exploit this by picking winners and losers, bailing out favored megacorporations, creating new social welfare programs, and expanding the grip of central banking over the economy.

Having high time preferences also leads to an economy based on debt, in which people spend more than they have, and both governmental and private institutions support this spending. Banks earn most of their income from this overspending and from people who are unable to pay them back in full. Due to this over-reliance on debt, the population as a whole is saddled with debt that can feel impossible to ever pay off, which can cause them to lose their motivation in life. The population will be easier to control by both the state and the banks that run this debt-based economy, as the agencies who provide the debt for the economy are the agencies who make the reliance on debt possible. Easy debt also leads to price inflation, as there is more market demand without a corresponding increase in market supply.

People get addicted to debt when they need to spend more than they have. However, this results in a problem when a person’s available collateral shrinks in comparison to their debt. They will eventually hit a wall where they can take no more debt unless and until they pay off their old debt. This is a debt trap in which people must repeatedly take on new debt to pay off old debt, all while interest accumulates and clearing their debt is impossible. This keeps people from being able to prosper, and the number of people trapped under such a burden is increasing. This, in turn, causes much greater class divides, as lower-class individuals who do not keep a store of capital that they can use for various ventures will be unable to make profitable investments. They will always be subject to one boss or another and will never experience true independence.

None of this is the fault of a capitalistic economy, but rather the high time preferences exhibited by the consumerists. On the contrary, capitalism is the most benevolent aspect of this situation, as it punishes the destructive habits of consumerism. These people are stuck in poverty not because of capitalism, but because of their own consumption habits amplified by state interference. Their lack of advancement is not an unfair punishment, but rather a sign that they should change their ways. This requires a particular mindset of growth and improvement that is most often stunted by public education and the degenerate culture which most people inhabit. This mindset requires that people actually trust the market signals they receive instead of seeing capitalism as a repressive entity. Escaping poverty requires a willingness to do what must be done instead of waiting for someone else to provide a handout. People who blame capitalism for holding them down while engaging in mindless consumerism are as children who eat too much candy, become ill, and also complain that they have too little candy.

Modernity

The modern society allows people to live a life without meaning. It removes church as a higher spiritual goal, community as a higher social goal, family as a higher personal goal, and even denies the importance of individual goals that a normal person might have. Through the lens of modernity, it is better to remain free and untethered rather than have a family. Looking out for one’s own interests at an individual or group level is derided as selfishness that ignores the greater good of society or hateful racism. By society, modernists do not refer to the disaffected small villages or the impoverished sections in urban communities that are in the greatest need of strong and healthy communities. Instead, they almost exclusively refer to a central state and imply that people are only worthwhile when they work for the state or when they work for nothing of value. They only see the state as a representative of society, with the only acceptable substitute to focusing on the state being pure hedonistic nihilism. Ironically enough, this mindset is most often heard coming from people who oppose capitalism on the basis of it being anti-social.

People are thus left without a greater meaning to work towards. They are left not providing for themselves, their family, or something else they hold dear. People are left as freely floating agents who are reduced to nothing other than consumers, and material pleasures are the only things that allow these people to tolerate the otherwise meaningless lives that they lead. They are not some great paragons of modernity, but rather embody the lowest state of rot and decay.

Conclusion

Consumerism is caused by progressivism, corporatism, and impatience. Capitalism is nowhere near the root cause of consumerism. Free enterprise and private property do not create such a propensity to consume over doing more meaningful things. The reason why consumerism is such a prevalent phenomenon is not because there is too much capitalism, but because people lack self-restraint or purpose and are encouraged by the state to live in such a manner.

Eliminate The Debt Ceiling

The United States debt ceiling is a limit placed on the amount of money that the federal government can borrow. This is done by placing a cap on the amount of national debt that can be issued by the US Treasury. About 99.5 percent of the debt is covered by this ceiling, but $238 million in United States Notes and $74 billion owed by the Federal Financing Bank as of September 2016 are not covered.

Because the ceiling applies to the total national debt rather than to annual deficits, and expenditures are authorized by separate legislation, the debt ceiling does not directly limit government spending. As the Government Accountability Office explains, “The debt limit does not control or limit the ability of the federal government to run deficits or incur obligations. Rather, it is a limit on the ability to pay obligations already incurred.”

When this occurs and the ceiling is not increased by legislation, the Treasury must resort to “extraordinary measures” such as suspending investments into federal employee retirement funds or exchanging Treasury securities for non-Treasury securities. Should such measures be exhausted before Congress agrees to raise or suspend the ceiling, a default on at least some of the national debt would occur. Most mainstream economists believe that this could cause an economic depression as well as a financial crisis.

Whether the nature of this ceiling should be altered and whether such a limit should exist at all are subjects of debate among economists and political commentators. This article will overview the history of the debt ceiling, make the case that it should be eliminated on both practical and moral grounds, and deal with common objections to elimination.

History

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution gives Congress sole authority to borrow money on national credit. Between 1788 and 1917, Congress would pass legislation to authorize each bond issue by the US Treasury, with the particular amount specified in each legislative act. This would authorize specific loans in some cases, while in other cases the Treasury would be given discretion over which type of debt instrument to issue for specific purposes. Except for a short time in late 1835 and early 1836, the federal government has continuously had a national debt. Although there were parliamentary procedural rules concerning debt limits, there was no debt ceiling in the current form until 1917.

In 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment and the Federal Reserve Act both became law, which greatly expanded the taxing and spending capabilities of the federal government. As originally defined, the Federal Reserve was not allowed to purchase debt instruments from the US Treasury because members of Congress understood the fiscal danger that could arise from granting such permission. The desire for financial flexibility regarding American involvement in World War I led Congress to pass the Second Liberty Bond Act of 1917. This Act allowed the Treasury to issue bonds and take on other debt without specific Congressional approval, and allowed the Fed to purchase Treasury instruments. The debt ceiling was created as part of the deal to pass these changes, and took the form of limits on the aggregate amount of debt that could be accumulated through each category of debt, such as bills and bonds.

In 1939 and 1941, Congress passed the Public Debt Acts, which establish an aggregate limit on nearly all federal debt. Since then, the mechanism for raising the debt ceiling has been to amend these acts. The 1939 Act consolidated the separate limits from the 1917 Act into one limit, while the 1941 Act raised the debt ceiling to $65 billion, eliminated the tax exemption of interest and profit on government debt, and consolidated almost all government borrowing under the US Treasury. The Act was amended to raise the limit in each of the next four years, then the limit was reduced from $300 billion to $275 billion in 1946. Increases resumed in 1954, and there have been 72 increases and four decreases since then, with no decrease since 1963. As such, the debt ceiling has usually been a mere formality. After the Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 created more opportunities for Congress to hold debates and hearings on the federal budget, the debt ceiling became less useful as a budgetary tool.[1] From 1979 to 1995, the Gephardt rule was in effect, which was a parliamentary rule that deemed the debt ceiling raised whenever a budget was passed, effectively nullifying the debt ceiling during that time. This rule was removed during the resolution of the 1995-96 government shutdown.

Treasury first implemented extraordinary measures on December 16, 2009 to avoid a government shutdown. Due to the lack of normal annual budgets during the Obama administration, Congressional Republicans used the debt ceiling as leverage for deficit reduction in 2011. This nearly caused a sovereign default, with Standard and Poor’s downgrading the United States credit rating and the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping 2,000 points in late July and August. The Government Accountability Office estimated that this incident raised borrowing costs for the government by $1.3 billion in 2011, and the Bipartisan Policy Center extrapolated this estimate to $18.9 billion from 2011 to 2020. The debt ceiling was reached again at the end of 2012, which led to the Treasury adopting extraordinary measures again, as well as far more absurd measures being proposed.

On February 4, 2013, President Obama signed the No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013, which suspended the debt ceiling for the first time. This lasted until May 19. During that time, Treasury was authorized to borrow to the extent that “is required to meet existing commitments.” On May 19, the debt ceiling was raised to $16.699 trillion to accommodate borrowing performed during the suspension and extraordinary measures were resumed. In order to avoid a default when extraordinary measures were exhausted on October 17, the debt ceiling was suspended a second time until February 7, 2014. On February 12, the Temporary Debt Limit Extension Act suspended the debt ceiling until March 15, 2015, at which Treasury used extraordinary measures yet again. The debt ceiling was suspended again on October 30, 2015 until March 2017, and the suspension has been extended until the time of this writing.

Before And After

To begin making the case against the debt ceiling, let us consider the effect that having a debt ceiling has had on the national debt, which will show the effectiveness of the debt ceiling at reducing government spending over the long-term. Records begin in 1790, with the debt at the beginning of that year at $71 million. The debt grew to $127 million in 1816 from the War of 1812, then was steadily paid off until reaching zero in 1835. It would never be paid off again, growing gradually starting in 1836, then up to $68 million in 1851 as a result of the Mexican War. The next low was at $29 million in 1857. The Civil War caused an unprecedented debt, going from $91 million in 1861 to $2.77 billion in 1866, an increase of 2,962 percent. The next low was $1.55 billion in 1894, just before the Spanish-American War and other expansionist endeavors. The gradual growth during the early 20th century was accelerated by World War I, going from $3.06 billion in 1915 to $27.39 billion in 1919, an increase of 796 percent. Recall that the debt ceiling was instituted in 1917, with a national debt of $5.72 billion. The debt would be gradually paid off during the 1920s, reaching the next low of $16.8 billion in 1931. The debt grew again during the 1930s to fund government programs aimed at curtailing the Great Depression, reaching $48.96 billion in 1941. World War II ballooned the debt to $269.42 billion in 1946, an increase of 450 percent from 1941. The debt would never go below $250 billion again, gradually increasing past $300 billion in 1963. The Vietnam War accelerated the debt to $620.43 billion by 1976. In 1982, the national debt exceeded $1 trillion and has grown every year since 1958. On September 8, 2017, the debt passed the $20 trillion mark. Note that these figures do not include unfunded liabilities, which in recent times have become much larger than the official figure.

From 1790 to 1917, the debt increased by 7,946 percent, or 7.34 percent per year. From 1917 to 2017, the debt increased by 3,398 percent, or 8.5 percent per year. By this measure, the debt ceiling appears to be somewhat counterproductive for restraining spending, as the national debt has increased an additional 1.16 percent per year since its inception. However, one must be wary of cum hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning. National debts are influenced by a great multitude of variables, and attributing this change to a single cause would be fallacious. The larger role played by the United States on the world stage, with the attendant expenditures on military presence and foreign aid, contribute a great deal to the debt, as do social welfare programs, which were nearly nonexistent before 1917.

Now And Later

To make a stronger case, we must consider the current effects of having a debt ceiling versus the likely effects of eliminating it. In the process, we will make use of the neoreactionary concept of formalism. This is the idea that in human affairs, official reality should match actual reality, the underlying power dynamics should be brought into the open, and accounting practices should be honest.

The recent history is that the debt ceiling is always raised to avoid running into it. Starting in 2013, the practice has become to suspend the ceiling entirely. It goes without saying that a ceiling which is always raised and can be made to disappear is not really a ceiling at all. The effect of this is for the state to continually take on more debt rather than pay its bills properly. This is politically convenient, as it allows politicians to bribe voters with the fruits of the labor of their unborn descendants while avoiding the backlash that inevitably results from austerity measures. To call this a Ponzi scheme is an insult to Ponzi schemes, as all of the beneficiaries and victims in those scams are willing investors. A private sector Ponzi scheme involves no inter-generational debt slavery or other forced participation.

Although even the most ardent deficit hawks are loathe to be blamed for a sovereign default, the threat that a default will occur in this manner spooks investors needlessly. As mentioned earlier, the Dow Jones dropped 2,000 points in response to the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. If investors are convinced that a default may happen in spite of the apparent unwillingness of politicians to cause a default, then the markets will be sent into turmoil for no good reason.

Eliminating the debt ceiling would be a change that moves official reality closer to actual reality on several counts. First, the opponents of fiscal restraint know that those who would use the debt ceiling as a tool to reduce government spending will always cave before a default, even if they do cause the occasional partial shutdown of government functions. For this reason, their bluff is always called and they lose the hand by playing the debt ceiling card. Removing this card from the deck not only takes away an ineffective option, but forces reformers to seek out other methods which may be effective.

Second, eliminating the debt ceiling would signal that the federal government has no interest in paying off its creditors. It should be obvious enough that an entity which increases its debt burden every year for 60 years does not have fiscal responsibility as an objective, but the Treasury seems to have no shortage of lenders, especially because the Federal Reserve serves as a lender of last resort. Note that because the federal government monopolizes law, declares itself immune from suit, and has the firepower to repel those who would seek to collect by force, it is not accountable for the national debt in an absolute sense. Accountability thus becomes an indirect, external affair which would be aided by the consequences of signaling the aforementioned truth to the world.

The admission of no intention of paying off the debt, which is essentially an admission that a default will eventually occur, would make interest rates rise. This would be necessary in order to compensate investors for the fact that they may lose their principal, or at least take a haircut on it at some future date. Aside from the obvious benefit to savers, who would see financial progress for the first time in over a decade, the increased spending on interest on the national debt would force a combination of tax increases and spending cuts in other areas. This would make current supporters of government programs pay more for them up front through taxation and inflation, constrain the pathologically undisciplined federal government, and reveal the true priorities of the power elite when decisions about whom to tax more and which expenditures to cut are taken. As such, it both brings the underlying power dynamics into the open and makes accounting practices more honest.

Objections

At this point, let us consider some likely objections. First, there is the possibility that having no debt ceiling would cause the debt to grow even faster. The above examination of the history of the national debt suggests that this objection is ill-founded, as the annual percentage increase has been higher with a debt ceiling in place. But even if it is true that eliminating the debt ceiling would accelerate the growth of the national debt, this is not necessarily bad. The faster the debt accelerates, the sooner the events described in the previous section will occur, meaning that the current unsustainable dynamics will be replaced earlier than they otherwise would.

A second objection is that this course of action may cause an economic collapse. This is entirely possible, but again, not necessarily bad. The end of the United States dollar would result in either a monetary reform and/or the replacement of government fiat currencies with something more sound, such as a gold-backed currency or a cryptocurrency. Because the US dollar is the world reserve currency, the US government can abuse its economic system more than other governments can. Losing this status would be another step toward forcing the government to behave more responsibly, as it would curtail the amount of debt that can be issued by reducing foreign demand.

The resulting collapse of the bond market leads to the third objection that this would cause a great amount of hardship. However, one must remember that the investors in government bonds have bought instruments which are funded by extortion and debt slavery. From a moral standpoint, those who lose on such investments deserve to lose. That being said, this course of action does not actually cause the collapse; rather, it makes the inevitable collapse occur more quickly.

Conclusion

The debt ceiling was created with the intention of limiting the ability of the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to behave irresponsibly as they were allowed to provide more liquidity to fund World War I. But over the past century, quite the opposite has happened. The national debt has grown significantly faster than it did previously, and is now on a path toward default which is not reversible given current political realities. Eliminating the debt ceiling may seem like a counterproductive maneuver, but it would do much to formalize the true nature of the American fiscal situation. The only real debt ceiling is that established by lenders and creditors. When they deem a borrower to pose too much of a default risk, they stop lending and call in their debts, thus forcing the debtor to behave responsibly. The sooner this happens to the United States government, the better.

References:

  1. Kowalcky, Linda W.; LeLoup, Lance T. (1993). Congress and the Politics of Statutory Debt Limitation. Public Administration Review. 53 (1): p. 14.

Book Review: The Art Of Invisibility

The Art of Invisibility is a book about methods of maintaining privacy and anonymity in an age of surveillance by American hacker and cybersecurity analyst Kevin Mitnick. The book gives advice on every aspect of modern technology which could expose one to nosy neighbors, identity thieves, law enforcement, and other sources of unwanted attention. The book is divided into sixteen chapters which advise the reader about various measures that can be taken to improve security.

The introduction begins with the revelations made about the NSA’s activities by Edward Snowden, then discusses the information that is publicly available about most people with very little searching required. The first chapter is about password security and security questions. Tips are given for choosing a strong password, using a password manager, creating answers for security questions, and using multi-factor authentication. The second and third chapters cover surveillance of email and phones. Mitnick covers the concepts of metadata, encryption, and social engineering. He explains how the Tor browser and MAC addresses work. He discusses several current and historic methods of wiretapping phone conversations and pinpointing the location of a phone, then explains how a burner phone may be used to obtain some privacy.

Chapter 4 is about the functionality and use of encryption to thwart eavesdroppers. This is discussed in the context of text messages, cell phones, and computers, each of which is remarkably vulnerable without it. The next chapter begins with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which is now being used to prosecute anyone who deletes browser history that federal prosecutors wish preserved. Mitnick makes the obvious recommendation of not collecting such history in the first place, then instructs the reader on how to do so. He then discusses how Internet browsers track a user’s location and how this may be countered. The chapter concludes with the dangers of connecting devices and cloud storage.

The sixth chapter details various tactics that websites use to track users, such as scripts, single-pixel images, cookies, and toolbars, then offers advice for stopping them. The chapter ends with a basic overview of Bitcoin for overcoming some current legitimate uses for tracking. The dangers of sharing an Internet connection make up the seventh and eighth chapters. Mitnick teaches the reader how to set up an Internet connection that is difficult for malicious users to find and use. Next, he discusses several cases in which webcams were used to spy on people, including underage students. The phenomenon of ransomware, in which a user’s files are encrypted by malware and can only be decrypted by paying an extortionist, concludes Chapter 7. After this comes the pitfalls of public computers and Wi-Fi connections. Lessons on avoiding man-in-the-middle attacks, using virtual private networks, resetting one’s MAC address, and more are found in the eighth chapter.

The second half of the book opens with examples of photo metadata being used to locate people, then tells how to delete such information and prevent it from being created. Mitnick then gives advice on how to get unwanted photographs of oneself removed from websites, though it may not always work. The dangers of posting sensitive personal information on social media or otherwise sharing it with strangers is discussed. The extent to which corporations track commentary on social media is detailed through examples of students found publicly discussing standardized test material. The absurdity of minors facing criminal charges for possessing nude photos of themselves is used to illustrate the potential dangers of Instagram and Snapchat. The chapter finishes with privacy problems that can come from using dating sites and mobile apps.

Mobile device tracking is the subject of the tenth chapter. Mitnick writes about the third-party accessibility of information recorded by fitness-tracking devices as well as the trackability of people through the GPS features of their devices. He also shares an interesting episode of social engineering combined with tracking in which he surprised a careless driver who almost killed him with a stern warning supposedly from the DMV. The use of drones and facial recognition to erode privacy come later in the chapter, along with some prototypical countermeasures. The next two chapters detail how cars and home appliances can be used to track people, then show people how to turn off many of these features. Doing so will deprive users of some convenience, but that is the general cost of privacy and anonymity.

Chapter 13 applies the information discussed in previous chapters to the workplace. The insecurity of copiers, printers, and other such office appliances is highlighted so as to warn readers not to use them for any purpose that one would not want one’s employer or any hacker to see. Videoconferencing and remote file storage systems are covered in the last part of the chapter, with advice given for increasing security on them. The fourteenth chapter details the myriad ways in which government agents violate privacy and interfere with private electronics and communications, then advises readers on how to protect themselves while being aware of the laws in various countries. Also included here are the privacy concerns with hotel keys, supermarket cards, and airline boarding passes should they fall into the wrong hands.

The fifteenth chapter is mostly about the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, describing the mistakes that led to his capture. Devices that masks geolocation, and could thus have hidden Ulbricht from law enforcement had they existed in 2013, are mentioned. The final chapter lays out a step-by-step guide to achieving as much anonymity online as possible.

From beginning to end, Mitnick shares a wealth of information with just the right amount of personal anecdotes and other stories to keep the reader engaged. The Art of Invisibility is an excellent reference that deserves a place on the bookshelf of all who care about online privacy and personal security until enough time passes to render the information within obsolete, which may be on the order of decades.

Rating: 4.5/5

The Case For Judicial Corporal Punishment

The modern penal state is geared towards keeping its prisoners institutionalized, which is to say totally conditioned to the rhythms, desires, and goals of the penal state itself. This process supports the penal state, for institutionalized men and women usually commit more crimes once they return to the outside world. While low intelligence and poor impulse control can explain many cases of recidivism, they cannot explain all cases.

The state and its private prison contractors make more money off of full bunks and crowded cells. Ergo, stringent laws and the growth of the criminal justice system benefits the state at every level. For liberty to exist, this prison-industrial complex must be destroyed. The simplest method for accomplishing this is to return to the pre-modern punishments that the prison-industrial complex replaced. For more serious crimes, exile and outlawry could be reintroduced. For lesser offenses, a return to judicial corporal punishment is a superior alternative to the dehumanizing penal state. Let us explore the history of judicial corporal punishment, make the case for bringing back such punishments, and deal with likely objections.

A History of Violence

In the opening passage of his influential book Discipline and Punish, left-wing philosopher Michel Foucault characterizes pre-modern punishment as a gory spectator sport:

On 2 March 1757, Damiens the regicide was condemned ‘to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris,’ where he was to be ‘taken and conveyed in a car, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds’; then, ‘in he said cart, to the Place de Greve, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses’…”[1]

The brutal evisceration of Damiens was meant to purge the body politic of one man’s infection. In Foucault’s telling, pre-modern punishment was personal and designed to be didactic (thus the importance of the punishment being seen). Pre-modern punishment was also based around the monarch. For instance, Foucault talks about the ceremony of punishment and how pre-modern kings usually spoke of crime as an assault on them, the office of the sovereign, and, by extension, God. Modern leaders, by contrast, usually speak of crime as aassault on and debt owed to society.

Such public humiliation was not confined to the Old World. Prior to the American Revolution, public executions and lesser punishments such as branding were undertaken by colonial authorities acting on behalf of both the British king and their colonial charters. In Puritan Massachusetts, “scolds” and “brawlers” were placed into the cucking stool. Most commonly associated with witchcraft trials, cucking stools were simple machines whereby guilty parties were repeatedly dunked into “purifying” waters. Elsewhere in colonial New England, bickering couples or fornicators were sentenced to the pillory, where, side-by-side, they were subject to the violent whims of the community that they had angered with their “ungodly” behavior. Property crimes in colonial New England prompted similarly harsh treatment. Those who committed tiefen, or the theft of livestock, food, or clothing from farms, had their ears removed. Counterfeiters suffered the same fate until new laws were established in 1806. Arsonists typically met with a noose.[2]

Popular history has remembered the Puritans as stern and superstitious provincials who saw the Devil peeking around every corner. However, they were a law-abiding society that utilized sharp punishments because of their unusual mixture of theocracy and republican virtue. Namely, every New England citizen was encouraged to spy on each other in order to ensure good behavior. If one local man left his barn door open or if a local woman talked too much, then the delicate covenant with God could be broken. Puritans protected this covenant like they protected their homes against Indian raids—with violence and prejudice.

The colonial South differed very little from New England in terms of its approach to corrective justice. 17th century Virginia saw criminals branded or mutilated in some way. As for prisons, the first one in American history may have been the English ship Susan Constant, the very same vessel that carried Captain John Smith and the Jamestown settlers to the New World.

The Coming of Prisons

British officials were bitten by the criminal justice reform bug early in the 18th century. As a result, James Oglethorpe, who was concerned about debt prisoners in Great Britain, was given control over the Colony of Georgia, North America’s largest penal colony. Here, work and the fresh air became substitutes for dank dungeons or “barbaric” practices like branding or mutilation.

During America’s push westward, physical punishment carried on in much the same way as it had in the 17th century. Horse thieves were hung by vigilante committees, while lynching parties tended to do the work of judges and juries. The lynching parties in the rural South tended to have a racial character, with whites killing black men under charges of rape or engaging in sexual improprieties with white women.

Back on the East Coast, criminal justice reform moved towards a supposedly more humane model of punishment. As was the case in England, American Quakers led the charge for prison systems that were designed to change the behavior of their inmates. From the late 18th century onward, America’s prisons became correctional institutions where wardens attempted to guide their charges to better lifestyles through work, contemplation, and isolation.

For Foucault, the linchpin to this new prison system was the Panopticon—a cyclopean tower that stood in the middle of a ring of prison cells. From this guard tower, prison officials hoped to direct the behavior and thought patterns of their prisoners. He writes,

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary…”[3]

The power of the Panopticon lies in the fact those within the purview of its vision can never be sure if they are being watched. Even if no one is controlling the tower, most prisoners will act as if someone is observing them. The theory of the Panopticon can today be found in the United Kingdom, where closed-circuit television cameras abound on almost every street corner. In the United States, not only is the NSA busy spying on everyone, but technology companies like Google and Facebook use their power to discourage “wrongthink” concerning political issues.

However, as powerful as the Panopticon is, it would have never been born without the Enlightenment and America’s transition from a limited monarchy to a constitutional republic. Rather than seeing crime as an offense against one person (the sovereign) or against a limited community, crime became seen as an offense against the entire society (the demos). It thus became cruel to subject criminals to customized punishments and important that criminals be kept away from the masses. The modern penal state does just that, but the process of creating a separate culture of prisoners actually rationalizes criminality. Criminals were once those who trespassed against divine authority, but criminality is now a profession that has a finishing school called prison.

Peace Through Force

The modern penal state has only been successful in producing more criminals. This is part of its business model, so in order to find a superior alternative, we must do away with the modern penal state. In its place should be private citizens and municipal authorities which do not receive any money from the federal government. Rather than operate contemporary prisons, these communities would subject criminals who have been convicted of serious crimes to flogging, branding, or other such corporal punishments. The most incorrigible criminals would be subject to execution or exile as an outlaw rather than life in prison. Lesser offenses would merit restitution to be performed in a different sort of prison that those which are common today.

It should go without saying that children should not be subject to judicial corporal punishment. Just as using physical violence at the individual level of the parent to discipline children violates the non-aggression principle, so too would the use of communal violence. Instead, every effort to reason with children and teach them virtue must be made. It is only after all such efforts are exhausted to no avail and a disobedient child grows into a criminal adult that they should feel the sting of the lash.

The practitioners should ideally be those aggrieved by the criminals; otherwise, the administrators should be the natural leaders in the community. Because one of the largest problems in modern culture is that the true nature of reality is hidden from the masses, the new corporal punishments should be performed in public, with all citizens encouraged to witness the acts and hear the reasons for them. Bringing back pre-modern punishments would show everyone that violence is disgusting and only righteous when used to deter aggression.

Another added benefit would be that criminal trials and punishments would be an expedited affair. Currently, the average time of criminal trials, whether for misdemeanors or felonies, is anywhere between three months and several years. In the proposed system, trials would be faster, primarily because one of the key components of this system would be a streamlined criminal code. There would be less crimes on the books, for libertarian theory only considers crime to be those offenses which victimize or threaten a person or property. For example, simple possession of drugs or engaging in prostitution in secret would be considered vices rather than crimes, to merit the attentions of the beadle rather than the policeman.

Along with faster trials and more efficient punishments, a return to pre-modern methodologies of punishment would curtail the demand for prisons. At best, only medium-sized jails would be needed to temporarily house those awaiting trial. And since life imprisonment would no longer be an available sentence, there would be no need for “supermax” correctional facilities that cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year. There would only be two options for the most hardened criminals: death or banishment from society.

Objections

As with an earlier proposal for private security, the first likely objection is that bringing back pre-modern punishments would incentivize vigilantism and the madness of crowds. Liberals will claim that such a proposal all but guarantees a return to lynching and racial injustice. Although there is no guarantee that every community would act perfectly rationally, every liberal must answer this question: is it better to have injustice on a small scale or on an industrial scale? Would community-organized punishment really be that much worse than the current penal state, which has seen millions of men pass through its doors thanks to pointless drug laws? The critic would also be conflating racial injustice with the methods of punishment being used, when the two are separate issues. Furthermore, the proposal is not to abandon a judicial structure in favor of vigilantism, but to reintroduce corporal punishment into a judicial structure.

Another possible objection is that the mentally or physically unfit would be subject to corporal punishment. This can be resolved by barring the mentally or physically unfit from certain punishments, although both could still face an array of pre-modern punishments, including permanent house arrest, banishment, and even cruel execution. Doctors and other medical professionals would play a key role in determining whether someone is fit for punishments such as flogging or branding.

A third objection would be that the proposed system would not deter crime. After all, there has never been any conclusive proof that the death penalty deters crime. Indeed, some of the most hardened criminals may even have a death wish. But this may have more to do with the current practice of capital punishment rather than its effectiveness in all cases. Capital punishment in America is a drawn-out process that often sees inmates waiting on death row for decades. Some famous criminals, such as Charles Manson and members of the Ripper Crew, were sentenced to death, but had the good fortune to be housed in liberal states that discontinued capital punishment. A pre-modern regime would not give criminals the chance to languish away in government-subsidized cells complete with food, showers, clothing, televisions, and other amenities. Similarly, rather than be injected with toxins or shocked with thousands of volts of electricity in secret death chambers, criminals would be publicly humiliated in view of all of society. Such an attack on personal pride and vanity would strike a deep cord in most criminals.

Fourth, some will condemn the use of corporal punishment as anti-libertarian, or at least counterproductive. As noted above, such arguments are correct when applied to children, but for adult aggressors who inflict bodily harm upon others, these are merely aesthetic and utilitarian concerns which play no role in libertarian theory. As Murray Rothbard writes,

“In the question of bodily assault, where restitution does not even apply, we can again employ our criterion of proportionate punishment; so that if A has beaten up B in a certain way, then B has the right to beat up A (or have him beaten up by judicial employees) to rather more than the same extent.”[4]

This comes not out of concern for efficacy or even deterrence, but out of concern for logical consistency.

Finally, the greatest objection to this proposal in America is the Eighth Amendment, which outlaws “cruel and unusual punishment.” While this amendment was written with the good intention of restraining the state, it prevents the punishment from fitting the crime in the event of cruel and unusual crimes. One could also argue that the entire concept of a prison is cruel and should be unusual. Furthermore, cruelty done in the name of justice is not immoral. While it may be cruel to brand a criminal for horse thievery, the original act of theft may have been just as cruel, if not more so, especially if a family depended on that horse for its livelihood.

Conclusion

The current penal state institutionalizes bad behavior and encourages recidivism in the form of social ostracism and limited economic prospects. By contrast, a pre-modern approach to criminal justice, even with its attendant violence, does more to discourage repeat offenders and the marginally criminally-minded. Better yet, a pre-modern system would do away with lengthy trials and the specter of long, taxpayer-funded waits on death row. Punishments would be quick, vicious, and public, thus increasing the likelihood of deterrence.

Such a system would have no need for the central state. All trials and punishments could be carried out at the local level. Judges, bailiffs, juries, punishers, and executioners could all be local residents. The holding cells would also have little need for federal funding, for local resources are generally enough for temporary housing before trial. A pre-modern punishment regime would decrease crime, cut out the vampiric state and its bloated penal system, and put authority back into the hands of municipalities.

References:

  1. Foucault, Michael (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Random House. p. 3
  2. Mofford, Juliet Haines (2012). “The Devil Made Me Do It”: Crime and Punishment in Early New England. Globe Pequot Press.
  3. Foucault, p. 201
  4. Rothbard, Murray (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Humanities Press. p. 89

Guns Are The Only Bulwark Against Tyranny

On October 5, the New York Times published an opinion column by Michael Shermer in which he argues that the rule of law is a bulwark against tyranny, but guns are not. In this rebuttal, I will show on a point-by-point basis that he has made an erroneous case while committing numerous logical fallacies, and that the opposing view is correct.

“In the wake of the Las Vegas massacre — the worst in modern American history, with 58 dead and some 500 wounded — the onus falls once again to those against gun control to make their case.”

Shermer uses the qualifier “modern,” but does not bother to define it. It seems that to him, events like the Wounded Knee Massacre, in which agents of the United States government murdered 300 members of the Lakota Sioux tribe, including 200 women and children, do not count because they occurred before some arbitrary cutoff date. Ignoring such events is also convenient for the arguments he will make later. That the onus is on the gun rights side rather than the gun control side is simply asserted and may be simply dismissed.

“The two most common arguments made in defense of broad gun ownership are a) self protection and b) as a bulwark against tyranny. Let’s consider each one.”

Another common argument that Shermer ignores is the right to own property in general, of which the right to keep and bear arms is part and parcel. But that would require him to deal in a priori logic, which does not appear to be his strong suit.

Self-Defense, Crime, and Suicide

“Stories about the use of guns in self-defense — a good guy with a gun dispensing with a bad guy with a gun — are legion among gun enthusiasts and conservative talk radio hosts.”

This is because such events happen regularly, to the tune of at least 338,700 events in America in between 2007 and 2011. As will be explained below, this is a low estimate.

“But a 1998 study in The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, to take one of many examples, found that ‘every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides and 11 attempted or completed suicides.’ That means a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a criminal assault, an accidental death or injury, a suicide attempt or a homicide than it is for self-defense.

A 2003 study published in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, which examined gun ownership levels among thousands of murder and suicide victims and nonvictims, found that gun-owning households were 41 percent more likely to experience a homicide and 244 percent more likely to experience a suicide.”

It is curious that Shermer could not find and cite any more recent studies to support his case, but let us deal with his evidence, such as it is. All such studies suffer from two fatal flaws; they cannot count the number of crimes which did not occur because a potential criminal either saw a gun or believed a gun was present and chose not to offend, and empiricism cannot provide information about counter-factuals. For instance, criminals who have been killed by defensive uses of guns may have otherwise gone on to commit scores of murders, but they were prevented from doing so in this timeline. Without guns, other weapons would be used to commit homicides and other crimes, such as knives, bombs, and vehicles, as occurs in countries where firearm ownership is rare and difficult. That there is a difference between a legally justifiable shooting and a morally justifiable shooting further complicates matters.

Furthermore, Shermer implies that all suicides and accidents involving guns are bad, which is not the case. A person who has a short amount of time to live and will be in excruciating pain for the entirety of that time may decide that nonexistence (or going to whatever afterlife the person believes in) is better than existence as a terminally ill person. In such a case, a self-inflicted gunshot wound can act as a form of euthanasia compared to the protracted suffering which would otherwise lie ahead. (And because many governments still violate the sovereignty of their citizens over their own bodies by prohibiting physician-assisted suicide, these are cases of bad people with guns being defeated by good people with guns, albethey in a different manner.) The tragedy in such a case is not the gun death, but the terminal illness behind the gun death.

Another case can occur during an armed conflict. A person whose position is being overrun by enemy forces may commit suicide to avoid capture, interrogation, and torture at the hands of the enemy. Historically, many women did this to avoid becoming victims of war rape and many people with valuable knowledge did this to keep themselves from being tortured into divulging important information to the enemy. In such cases, a self-inflicted gun death can be the best of a multitude of bad options. Though these situations are unlikely inside of the United States, they are not impossible.

Third, a person whose brain does not function properly can come to believe that putting a bullet through one’s skull has some effect other than ending one’s life, or that self-preservation is not a worthwhile endeavor. While there are many cases in which intervention is needed and the death of the mentally ill person would be regrettable, there are some people who have a chronic and incurable mental condition. A strong desire to end one’s life in the absence of terminal illness or an impending worse fate is a mechanism of natural selection to eliminate organisms which are not sufficiently fit to reproduce and take care of the next generation.

On the subject of accidental gun deaths, some cases are best prevented by education of gun owners, but others are a mechanism of natural selection. The gun owner who handles his guns haphazardly or maintains them improperly can remove himself from the gene pool when the gun either shoots him or fails catastrophically in his hands. The gun owner who is a parent and fails to secure his guns around young children is less likely to get to be a grandparent, great-grandparent, and so on. At any rate, accidents are the fault of people, not guns.

With regard to the claim that gun-owning households are more likely to experience a homicide or suicide, to say that this is because guns are present is a cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Additionally, Shermer neglects to mention studies that show a decrease in violent crime as gun ownership has increased. Perhaps he realizes that such data would undermine his narrative. The aggregate is a wash; there is no clear correlation one way or the other.

“The Second Amendment protects your right to own a gun, but having one in your home involves a risk-benefit calculation you should seriously consider.”

The Second Amendment’s utility in this regard is questionable at best, and Shermer’s empirical arguments are highly suspect, but the idea that the decision to have a firearm in one’s home involves a risk-benefit calculation is technically correct.

Tyranny and Rebellion

“Gun-rights advocates also make the grandiose claim that gun ownership is a deterrent against tyrannical governments. Indeed, the wording of the Second Amendment makes this point explicitly: ‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’ That may have made sense in the 1770s, when breech-loading flintlock muskets were the primary weapons tyrants used to conquer other peoples and subdue their own citizens who could, in turn, equalize the power equation by arming themselves with equivalent firepower. But that is no longer true.”

Shermer unintentionally makes a strong argument that the right to keep and bear arms should be greatly expanded. In order to “equalize the power equation,” let us repeal the National Firearms Act of 1934 to remove taxes on certain categories of arms, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 so that private citizens can own a nuclear deterrent, the Gun Control Act of 1968 to eliminate licensing of arms dealers and manufacturers, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 to decriminalize private ownership of machine guns manufactured after that date, and numerous other federal, state, and local measures that further restrict what kinds of weapons may be owned by private citizens.

“If you think stockpiling firearms from the local Guns and Guitars store, where the Las Vegas shooter purchased some of his many weapons, and dressing up in camouflage and body armor is going to protect you from an American military capable of delivering tanks and armored vehicles full of Navy SEALs to your door, you’re delusional.”

Shermer follows in the pattern of most other leftists in straw-manning the nature of a violent uprising to overthrow the state. No one seriously believes that a single individual is capable of going up against the armed forces of a nation-state and emerging victorious. Instead, such an effort would require a few percent of the civilian population to use self-defense against agents of the state just as they would against common criminals. Nor is it necessary to achieve the sort of victory that one nation-state would enjoy against another in a war in order to succeed in such a revolution. A sustained effort of decentralized, anti-political, guerrilla attacks need only make the prospect of being a government agent within a certain territory too dangerous of an employment option to be worthwhile, thus physically removing the state from that territory without the need to meet the state’s forces in regular warfare. Note that even a single instance of government agents being killed can greatly reduce oppression, at least in the short term.

As Shermer suggests, a state is likely to deploy its military domestically in an effort to put down such a rebellion. If the rebels are competent, they will blend into the general population when they are not actively engaging their opponents. Thus, using military hardware against the revolutionaries would cause many civilian casualties, especially in the case of area-effect weapons. Just as drone strikes that kill innocents overseas cause more people to join terrorist organizations today, the state’s response to the rebels would cause more people to join the rebels to try to avenge their fallen friends and family members. The state would also damage the infrastructure that it needs to operate in order to maintain public support and carry out its functions.

Shermer seems to believe that military vehicles and personnel are invincible juggernauts that the average citizen could not hope to defeat. This is quite false, as many resistance movements have conclusively proven. Military vehicles are quite vulnerable to ambush in close quarters. Improvised explosives can destroy or disable them, as can large amounts of fire, such as from multiple Molotov cocktails. Aircraft are harder to deal with if the rebels present them with a target and cannot keep them grounded, but drones can be hacked and thermal evasion suits are not terribly difficult to build. Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. All vehicles need to be fueled, controlled, and maintained, and all offensive vehicles need to be armed. Someone must perform each of those tasks. Someone must deliver the resources for both those tasks and the personnel involved. Those people are far more vulnerable than the vehicles themselves.

While leftists tend to deride such suggestions as pure fantasy, anyone who has bothered to seriously think through such possibilities knows that they are not, including high-ranking United States military personnel who are responsible for preparing plans for such scenarios.

“The tragic incidents at Ruby Ridge, in Idaho, and Waco, Tex., in the 1990s, in which citizens armed to the teeth collided with government agencies and lost badly, is a case study for what would happen were the citizenry to rise up in violence against the state today.”

That these are not useful case studies for the possibility of rebellion against the United States government has been demonstrated in the previous section. One must also consider the difference made by Timothy McVeigh. Although his actions cannot be defended from a deontological perspective, the Oklahoma City bombing appears to have had positive consequences with regard to how the state handles armed resistance. By the standard of Ruby Ridge and Waco, the Montana Freemen standoff in 1996, the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and the Malheur standoff in 2016 all should have ended in mass casualties. But because McVeigh made such massacres costly for the state in terms of blowback, responding to such armed standoffs with overwhelming deadly force has become unpalatable.

Government Failure

“And in any case, if you’re having trouble with the government, a lawyer is a much more potent weapon than a gun. Politicians and police fear citizens armed with legal counsel more than they do a public fortified with guns. The latter they can just shoot. The former means they have to appear before a judge.”

The previous two sections clearly refute the idea that the politicians and their agents can just shoot the public. As for citizens armed with legal counsel, they are going into a government courtroom, of government law enacted by those very politicians, presided over by a government judge, funded by taxes that the government extorted from them via the guns carried by those very police. This is a conflict of interest of astronomical magnitude that would never be tolerated in any situation that does not involve the state. The idea that a lawyer is a much more potent weapon than a gun for resolving trouble with a government is thus risible at best.

“A civil society based on the rule of law with a professional military to protect its citizens from external threats; a police force to protect civilians from internal dangers; a criminal justice system to peacefully settle disputes between the state and its citizenry; and a civil court system to enable individuals to resolve conflicts nonviolently — these institutions have been the primary drivers in the dramatic decline of violence over the past several centuries, not an increasingly well-armed public.”

The correlation between declining violence and the civil society he describes does not establish a causal link, so Shermer commits another cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. He also assumes that the state is necessary to provide these essential services. In fact, the opposite is true. Rule of law is the idea that people should be governed by laws rather than by the arbitrary decisions of rulers. A state is a group of people who exercise a monopoly on initiatory force in a certain geographical area. People who have a monopoly on initiatory force necessarily have a monopoly on the enforcement of laws. This means that they can choose the nature of the law and the enforcement thereof. Thus, in the presence of a state, those who wield state power rule the law and not vice versa. Therefore, the only possibility for rule of law, as well as the peace and justice that follow from it, is to have no state.

The civil society Shermer describes has its own set of intractable problems. First, the professional military may protect its citizens from external threats, and the police may protect civilians from internal dangers, but this is the security of a farm animal rather than the security of a free person. The state uses its military and police to prevent exploitation of its subjects by other powers only so that it may monopolize their exploitation. And should this monopoly decline and fail, the citizens will be less secure than they were before its inception. The criminal and civil courts cannot perform their functions correctly due to both the conflict of interest explained in the previous section and the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

“States reduce violence by asserting a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, thereby replacing what criminologists call ‘self-help justice,’ in which individuals settle their own scores, often violently, such as drug gangs and the Mafia.”

The goal of those who wish to create a superior form of social order should be a reduction of aggression, which does not necessarily entail a reduction of violence because aggressive violence may be reduced by overwhelming displays of defensive violence. That being said, government agents murdered over 200 million people in the 20th century, which is hardly a reduction in violence compared to pre-modern conditions.

Shermer then presents a false dilemma between a state monopoly on criminal justice and a vigilante free-for-all, completely ignoring the possibility of market provision of criminal justice through competing private businesses. He also neglects the fact that drug gangs and other organized crime make much of their income through goods and services which do not involve aggression against people or property but have been outlawed by the state regardless. Without state interference in the economy, much of the economic activity which currently involves violent dispute resolution between criminals would instead involve peaceful dispute resolution between legitimate business interests.

Finally, given that the state monopoly on force creates a system in which justice for the crimes of its agents is functionally impossible coupled with anarcho-tyranny, there are cases in which “self-help justice,” better known as vigilante justice, is superior to no justice at all.

“Homicide rates, for example, have plummeted a hundredfold since 14th-century England, in which there were 110 homicides per 100,000 people a year, compared with less than one per 100,000 today. Similar declines in murder rates have been documented in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. (American homicide rates are around five times higher than in Europe, owing primarily to the deadly combination of guns and gangs.)”

Again, this does not tell us why homicide rates have fallen. Better economic circumstances and declining exposure rates to toxic substances that increase aggressive behavior also contribute to declining violence. That guns and gangs are primarily responsible for the higher homicide rate in America is simply asserted and may thus be simply dismissed.

“There’s no question that tyrannical states have abused the freedom of their citizens. But it is no longer realistic to think that arming citizens to the teeth is going to stop tyranny should it arise. Far superior are nonviolent democratic checks and balances on power, constitutional guardians of civil rights and legal protections of liberties.”

There is indeed no question that tyrannical states have abused the freedom of their citizens. What Shermer fails to understand is that all states are necessarily tyrannical and must abuse the freedom of their citizens in order to perpetuate their operations. The idea that it is no longer realistic to think that arming citizens to the teeth is going to stop tyranny should it arise has been thoroughly refuted above. Nonviolent democracy in the context of statism is a contradiction of terms because the state rests upon a foundation of aggressive violence, and democratic forms only pour gasoline upon the fire by setting part of the citizenry against another part. Checks and balances do not really exist in practice, as the various parts of a state apparatus invariably come to conspire together toward their common goal of dominating the society under the leadership of the most powerful branch of government. The Constitution itself and the laws passed under it are similarly useless as guardians of rights and protections of liberties because the very powers they are supposed to limit (if we ignore the fact that the Constitution expanded state power far beyond what the Articles of Confederation allowed) are in charge of their interpretation, enforcement, and amendment.

Conclusion

Shermer’s case is deeply flawed from beginning to end. His cherry-picked studies fail to demonstrate his case, as studies with opposing findings exist and the aggregate is inconclusive. He makes unfounded assumptions regarding self-defense and suicide, has thoroughly failed to understand the use of self-defense against the state, and presents a view of civil society that is starry-eyed and naive. Contrary to Shermer, the only bulwark against tyranny is the credible threat of forcible removal of tyrants from power, and this requires the possession and use of guns.

On Citizenship And Casual Totalitarianism

This article expands upon an essay found in Libertarian Reaction.

There are many statists who actively fight against totalitarianism. This may not seem inherently contradictory, but the key to understanding totalitarian ideology is completely ignored by them. The very machinations of the state require totalitarian control over the population. To say that there can be a state without totalitarianism is a contradiction. Totalitarianism originates largely from early fascist theory but has similarly been associated with authoritarian communism. This seems simple enough; a state that attempts to control all parts of society is totalitarian, while a state that does not is just liberal or conservative. Therefore, there is a distinction between a good justifiable state and an evil unjustifiable state. People can make more distinctions based on economic and political systems, but the vast majority agree that totalitarianism is ultimately what determines whether or not a state is ethical. Very few people act as if the Third Reich was a valid exercise in statecraft, and only a few more similarly defend the actions of the Soviet Union. There are also other such regimes, various authoritarian socialist experiments, and lower profile fascist states.

Control Through Law

It is physically impossible for a state to control the lives of everyone. This problem is solved by having the state legislate and regulate, then allowing the enforcers of these laws and regulations to have special privileges, so as to give the state the ability to convict any person the state wants to convict and punish in any way the state deems appropriate. In this manner, one may create a totalitarian state. For obvious reasons, these sorts of states have no regard for human rights or basic decency. Rather, they are directly opposed to the civilized nature of man. Although most people understand this, they do not understand that any state is inherently totalitarian. There are historical exceptions to this, but they are very few and far between and have long since disappeared. Because this is the case, we cannot act as if the historical possibility of a non-totalitarian state is a valid argument. Even if a state can be free of or largely lack totalitarianism for a limited time, this can never last.

Citizenship and Personhood

At the heart of the issue is the very thing that defines the state for all individuals: the aspect of citizenship. Every person under a state is the citizen of that state, which means that they have a relationship with the state in which the state is in a privileged position of control over the citizen. The relationship is even more integrated as without the state, no one can be a citizen. Due to the form of citizenship practiced in modern states, the ability to delegate citizenship gives the state the power to delegate legal personhood. In this system, a non-citizen is as good as a non-person, as they are without the legal protections that other people enjoy.

Because the actions of the citizens affect the relationship of the state with other states and the rest of the citizenry, the state has an interest in subjugating the people under it. This is because the people who live under a state are by necessity people whom the state must control and is expected to control by the rulers of other states and the citizens of that selfsame state. If the state does not control its people, then the state will lose perceived legitimacy as it fails to curtail adverse social effects that result from individual actors who act contrary to a state’s domestic and foreign policies.

From this, any actions taken in a statist system must not only require the consent of all parties involved, but also the consent of the state. The state effectively becomes a secular god, in that it can arbitrarily decide who is or is not legally a person and how people must or must not act. This must be the case with any state, no matter its size, scope, form, or ideological position. The state must hold a monopoly on law in a certain region, as failing to do so would both run afoul of the definition of a state and allow agents of the state to be held accountable for the crimes they commit under color of law. In order to do this, the state needs to make the people within its claimed territory into its citizens. The modern statist system relies upon citizenship, and the states within it would have no justification without such subjects.

Casual Totalitarianism

By this reasoning, there can be no state without totalitarianism. However, this is not the form of totalitarianism that was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. This is a casual totalitarianism, which is far more insidious than any explicit totalitarianism. In this totalitarianism, the state allows people to sell their labor to a crony capitalist who has swindled for himself special privileges from the state in what is called rent-seeking behavior. Thus, the worker has to either accept terms that no person would rationally accept if given a real choice or work in the black market. This is seemingly voluntary, and most people can get hired to work somewhere, so there can supposedly be no complaining. However, if a person actually tries to do the job that one wants to do as one wants to do it, one runs into mountains of regulations and legislation that an entire team of lawyers must review for compliance. They are also faced with licensing requirements and other privileges that the state keeps for itself and only distributes as the ruling class sees fit. Due to the involvement of the state, we cannot say that there is any legal voluntary economic activity in the current system, as there is no legal economic activity without the state. This is only possible because the state maintains a monopoly on law.

Furthermore, the state can legislate with regard to any relationship, whether interpersonal or political. One cannot engage in any activity without first getting the consent of the state. The state replaces faith and culture when it comes to marriage, as the state decides which marriages and types of marriages are valid and which are not. The state replaces any sense of morality when it comes to law through the doctrine of legal positivism. What matters becomes what is legal rather than what is morally righteous. The state assumes full control over one’s life without arousing suspicion in most people. The state even takes control over what happens between a citizen and himself. That is, the state replaces free will. In the modern world, the state may allow one to engage in any sort of degeneracy under the sun, but the moment the state is harmed or lessened in influence from whatever a person does with himself, the state will forbid it. The state is thus omnipresent, and for many people, this is enough; if they are forbidden from doing something by the state, even when it affects no other persons, they will not do it. People will actively avoid anything illegal, as the state has replaced morality and thinking for oneself.

Because of this, there is no such thing as individualism in the presence of the state. There is effectively only one real person, and that person is the state. No one other than the state can act in any meaningful manner without the consent of the state for fear of being shut down. The state will always make all decisions, even if we do not realize it. Neither will the citizens have a choice in their own minds, as the state has replaced them as people. Thus, we are stuck in a form of totalitarianism, which only differs from place to place and from time to time in the degree of apparent restriction. Some will claim that democracy counters this tendency towards totalitarianism, but if anything, liberal democracy only enables the total state. Without the apparent will of the people, the state cannot designate who the people are without breaking the casual nature of its totalitarianism. The citizens give up their own rights as humans and give the state the right to decide for them. The state needs some sort of mandate, as it needs the citizens to listen to its commands and the government agents to enforce these commands. This may be more or less explicit, but it is always present by necessity. Mass democracy demonstrates this better than any other system.

Ending Totalitarianism

The single greatest show of submission is to beg for the state to lengthen one’s leash, as no matter what happens, one will still be collared. The state will not be changed by begging, as the state is by necessity a totalitarian institution. The only meaningful exercises of power by the people are to subvert the state or overthrow it. The state is antithetical to morality, freedom, and humanity by design, and it cannot be designed otherwise. It is therefore necessary to create an alternative form of governance and defend it against the state. The precise nature of stateless organization will vary from place to place and must be decided by the organizers in each locality.

It is vital that we remove totalitarianism from society if we wish to ever achieve real human liberty. If one believes this, then the precise details become less relevant as it creates an entirely new paradigm of political theory. The alliances and conflicts of previous theories are subordinated to the point of irrelevance. This is not to say that we should support those who call themselves anarchists but simply want global socialism; rather, it is to say that regardless of whether people organize along socialistic, capitalistic, progressive, or reactionary lines, it will be of secondary importance because the highest priority for any living person today should be the elimination of the inherently totalitarian state. Personal preferences about the actions of others will only take precedence once we have freed ourselves from the state and created a society of distinct and free persons. If we do not do this, then we will necessarily choose totalitarianism.

Twelve Observations On The Catalonia Independence Vote

On September 6, the government in Catalonia announced that it was going to hold a vote on October 1 to decide whether the region should secede from Spain and become a nation-state unto itself in the form of a republic. It also announced that should the people choose independence, the government would declare secession within 48 hours. Spain’s constitutional court declared the vote unconstitutional, and the central government in Madrid said that it would attempt to stop the vote. Neither side backed down. The Spanish government seized ballots and tried to shut down polling places, resulting in violence that left over 840 people injured. The vote still took place, with nearly 90 percent voting for independence. In response, pro-secession protests occurred throughout Spain and a general strike was called across Catalonia. Spain and the European Union have rejected Catalonia’s requests for mediation, and King Felipe VI has denounced the secession movement. Twelve observations on these events follow.

1. One cannot understand the present without knowing the past. The formation of the current Spanish state can be dated to 1469, when the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. Under their leadership, the last Muslim rulers were expelled from Spain, Christopher Columbus was sent to the New World, and royal power was centralized at the expense of local nobility. Even so, Spain has always been a multi-ethnic state, composed of Basques, Catalans, Galicians, and others. In the 19th century, nationalist feelings among these groups grew. These aspirations took a back seat during the Cuban War of Independence, Phillipine Revolution, and Spanish-American War. Regions of Spain were granted greater autonomy in the Second Spanish Republic (1931-39), but this was brutally repressed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939-75), such that people were not even allowed to give their children Basque, Catalan, Galician names. After Franco’s death, Spain was turned into a semi-federal state with 17 autonomous communities, some of which have their own languages and cultures, as Catalonia does.

2. The Catalan independence movement cuts across ordinary political lines. Some people in Catalonia believe that independence would bring order to the region’s finances, or make taxes paid by Catalonians provide more benefit to Catalonians. Others are migrants who became involved with the Catalan movement and have no loyalty to the government in Madrid. Still others have particular political objectives that they believe to be easier to achieve on a smaller scale, such as an independent Catalonia rather than the entirety of Spain. In American terms, the parties which are in a temporary alliance to achieve independence run the gamut from the Constitution Party to the Green Party.

3. The harder one clenches one’s fist, the more sand slips through one’s fingers. For the Madrid government, responding with peaceful dismissal of the independence vote would have been more effective. Instead, they met peaceful efforts by Catalans with violence. In the words of a Spanish politician, “We have given them the pictures they want.” By forcefully opposing the self-determination of Catalans, the Spanish government is pushing swing voters toward the independence movement, as such actions raise the specter of Franco that is still remembered, particularly among older people. Furthermore, the creation of a new state is much easier if existing states recognize it, and images for foreign consumption of people trying to vote and being hit with truncheons and shot with rubber bullets for it will create pressure on other governments from their people to recognize Catalonian independence.

4. The voting results are questionable. The Catalan government rushed through the legislation for the referendum and passed it in a late-night session without the opposition being present. They vowed to secede even if turnout was low, and engaged in smear tactics against those who opposed independence. Turnout was only 42.3 percent, and the anti-independence side did not campaign because the government in Madrid declared the vote to be illegal.

5. This will provoke greater nationalist sentiment in the rest of Spain. Whenever separatist sentiment grows in one part of a nation, a unionist sentiment tends to grow elsewhere in reaction to it. In some cases, this occurs because the separatists threaten to remove an economically important area from the nation, such as a mine or a seaport. In others, such as the American Civil War, the separatists are engaged in activities that the unionists find morally reprehensible. Sometimes, a central government simply wishes to keep separatists subjugated so as to discourage other separatist movements elsewhere in the nation, such as in the Basque country. Whatever the case may be, nationalism in Madrid is likely to grow alongside secessionism in Catalonia. This will be bolstered by the fact that Catalonia is more leftist than the rest of Spain, as nationalism tends to be more common on the right.

6. Nationalism is not an ally of liberty; merely an enemy of some of liberty’s enemies. The nationalist sentiments of Catalans or anyone else in Spain will not lead to liberty in and of themselves. Only by coupling such sentiments with the principles of self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property can a libertarian social order emerge. Nationalism is also hostile to any decentralizations of power below the national level. That being said, nationalism is certainly a lesser evil than globalism, and may serve as a temporary makeshift on the path to a better political arrangement.

7. The EU will be weakened regardless of the end result. If Catalonia becomes independent, it will be outside the EU, having to either apply to rejoin or have its move toward independence also serve as a Catexit, so to speak. Given Catalonia’s population of 7,522,596 and GDP of $255.204 billion, this would remove 1.47 percent of the population and 1.23 percent of the GDP from the EU. By contrast, Brexit will remove 12.83 percent of the population and 13.45 percent of the GDP from the EU. Even though Brexit is a much larger issue, the impact of a Catexit would still be noticeable. Catalonians are unlikely to want to exit the EU, but doing so may be unavoidable if they cannot gain admission once they are independent.

As per the previous point, it is also necessary to contemplate a Spexit, with or without Catalonia included. Growing nationalism in Spain as a reaction to growing separatism in Catalonia may lead to euroskepticism there. This, combined with longstanding economic issues in Spain such as high unemployment, may lead conservatives to contemplate the possibility of a brighter future outside of the European single market. A complete Spexit would remove 9.08 percent of the population and 5.94 percent of the GDP from the EU, while only Catalonia remaining in the EU would remove 7.61 percent of the population and 4.71 percent of the GDP from the EU. Though not as impactful as Brexit, a second member state leaving the EU could signal the beginning of the end.

Finally, regardless of whether any exits occur, the EU will almost certainly appear to be weak and ineffectual as a result of recent events. Calls for it to mediate the dispute have gone unanswered, and the EU seems intent on ignoring repression of a democratic vote. Given the EU commission’s threats of sanctions against Hungary and Poland for their anti-democratic policies, this seems rather hypocritical. One must also consider that the EU has no mechanism for dealing with such an issue. Article 3a of the Treaty of Lisbon calls for the EU to “respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order, and safeguarding national security,” so it is unlikely to help the separatists. Nor is it in the rational self-interest of anyone who wields power in the EU to intervene, as doing so would encourage separatists in other EU nation-states.

8. Secessionist movements are fueled by economic hardship and government mismanagement. The role of the Catalan people in Spain is both privileged and marginalized. Even though Catalans have maintained a distinct identity, they contribute more to Spain than they receive in return, especially in terms of institutional influence, which remains dominated by Madrid. Since the 2008 financial crisis, this has exacerbated tensions, and the continued economic problems in Spain lead some Catalonians to believe that they could do better for themselves with more local governance.

9. The state is legitimized only by force. The simple truth is that any other basis for legitimacy is subject to reason and defeated thereby. A deity fails because no such being is proven to exist. A constitution fails because any person or group can write one, leaving the state’s legitimacy constantly imperiled. An appeal to tradition fails because all traditions and states must begin somewhere, leaving them unable to be formed in the first place. A supranational body fails because it begs the question of how it gets its legitimacy. A social contract fails because a valid contract must be entered into willfully by all parties. Democracy fails because it is a logical impossibility, which could not even appear to function without the state already in place, thus resulting in circular reasoning.

Mao Zedong spoke truly on the nature of state legitimacy; “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” A state continues to operate because it violently subjugates anyone who would attempt to end its operation, and it maintains territorial integrity by violently suppressing any efforts by its people to secede from the state. The only factor preventing individuals or sub-national groups from gaining sovereignty is the fact that they lack the force of arms and/or the willingness to use them for that purpose.

10. Self-determination must be taken and defended by force. Given the previous point, the path to true independence is clear. A separatist movement must first declare independence, but this will never be sufficient. The larger state will seek to retain any breakaway provinces by force, and if the separatists wish to form a new nation rather than be imprisoned or executed on charges of sedition or treason, they must respond with defensive force to the aggressions of the larger state. This has been the norm at least since the American Revolution, and the Catalonian situation is shaping up to be no different.

In a more general theoretical sense, self-determination must be taken and defended by force because the failure to do so will result in some group of aggressors infringing upon one’s self-determination. As Vegetius said, “He, therefore, who desires peace, should prepare for war.” Only by doing this can one present an effective deterrent against those who would return a free people to a state of bondage.

11. Repression by the Spanish government may provoke terrorism. Should the violence escalate, as appears likely, some Catalonians may end up following the Basque model. In the Basque Country, there is a moderate nationalist and separatist movement, much like the Catalonian independence movement. But there is also the ETA, a paramilitary group that has engaged in terrorist acts for decades. The group was founded in 1959 during Franco’s regime, but continued carrying out attacks for decades after the restoration of regional autonomy. Other examples of this throughout the world include the Irish Republican Army and the PKK in Kurdish regions of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Notably, the Kurds are also attempting to create a new state for themselves at the time of this writing.

12. The international community functions as a cartel. Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are currently attempting to become independent nation-states, and both are being met with a mixture of indifference and contempt from existing nation-states. That such movements provoke hostility from the remainder of their current states is understandable and has been addressed above, as has the uneasiness of foreign governments to recognize the independence of separatist movements. But there is more at work here, which may be explained by considering the role of cartels in a marketplace and the effects that decentralization would have if taken to its logical conclusion.

The standard libertarian view is that cartels are inherently unstable, as the incentive of each member has a profit motive to betray the cartel. This incentive is frequently countered by state interference in the economy to protect a cartel from this effect. There is no more profitable venture in the current system than the management of a state, so this profit motive is amplified alongside the protectionist motive as an equal and opposite reaction. But libertarians tend to under-appreciate the role of aggressive violence in the marketplace, which is a service for sale like any other. This keeps them from fully understanding situations like these, in which established players seek not only to out-compete upstarts or hamstring them through regulatory capture, but to engage in direct violent suppression of competitors.

Finally, the rulers of nation-states must be aware at some level that the entry of new polities into the established order has the potential to remove that order from power. In the words of Murray Rothbard,

Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy,’ why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.”[1]

Taken to its logical conclusion, political exit may be disintegrative, but stopping somewhat short of atomized individualism would both remove the Cathedral from power and create the opportunity to build a superior form of social order. The establishment has no interest in allowing this to happen and would rather nip it in the bud at the expense of looking oppressive and/or indifferent than risk losing their global hegemony.

Taken together, these explanations help one understand why the established nation-states, despite their contrary interests, can agree that no new members should be able to join their club.

References:

1. Rothbard, Murray (2009). Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market. Ludwig von Mises Institute, Scholar’s Edition, 2nd ed. p. 1051.