Ethical Theories at the Murrah Building

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and wounding 680. One third of the building was destroyed, along with damage to 324 other buildings and 86 cars, causing $652 million in damage. McVeigh was motivated by his opposition to the United States federal government and his anger over its actions in the 1992 Ruby Ridge incident and the 1993 Waco Siege. He timed the attack to occur on the second anniversary of the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.

To most people, McVeigh is obviously a reprehensible criminal whose actions cannot possibly be justified. Some theories of ethics would agree with that assessment, while others would recommend a different outlook. Let us examine the Oklahoma City bombing through the lenses of deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics to see how each provides a different perspective on McVeigh.

Deontology

Deontology argues that decisions should be made by consulting moral principles. The rightness or wrongness of an act is thus determined by whether it is in keeping with such principles. Deontological theories include the Kantian categorical imperative, which says that one should act only according to the maxim that one can will that it should become a universal law; moral absolutism, which argues that certain actions are intrinsically good or evil; divine command theory, which appeals to God as the judge of right and wrong; and Hoppean argumentation ethics, which derives moral rules from the act of argumentation.

In all such theories, murder is forbidden because initiating violence to kill someone cannot be in accordance with universal law. By definition, murder is not universal but unilateral; if it would occur in reciprocity, then it is a mutual assisted suicide rather than a case of murder. The people killed by McVeigh in Oklahoma City were not the individuals responsible for the state-sanctioned crimes committed at Ruby Ridge and Waco, and were only tangentially connected to the people who were responsible. Though 99 of the 168 victims were part of the state apparatus, the vast majority were unarmed civil ‘servants’. Only eight of the victims were federal law enforcement agents and six were military personnel. The rest of the victims were civilians, and they were not being used as innocent shields by legitimate targets for defensive force. Thus, a deontological approach finds McVeigh’s actions to be completely unjust and criminal in nature.

Consequentialism

Consequentialism, or teleology, argues that the morality of an action depends upon the result of the action. Consequentialist theories differ on what results they deem important. Utilitarianism seeks the most happiness for the greatest number of people; state consequentialism values order, material wealth, and population growth; egoism prioritizes good for the self; altruism seeks good for others; and rule consequentialism functions much like deontology but uses the consequences of moral rules to select them.

The initial answer that may come to mind is that the consequences of McVeigh’s actions were 168 murders, 680 injuries, and $652 million in property damage, thus his actions were immoral. But as with many complex situations, there is an answer—namely this one—which is clear, simple, and wrong. The straightforward answer is wrong because it ignores the counterfactual of what would have happened between that day and this if the Oklahoma City bombing had not occurred. Of course, it is impossible to know precisely what the counterfactual would be, and this uncertainty is an intractable problem with consequentialism. But this should not stop us from making an educated guess.

If McVeigh had not acted, then the mentality of those wielding state power would likely have been that they could perpetrate such atrocities as the Waco Siege without penalty. After all, they hold a monopoly on criminal justice that allows them to immunize themselves from prosecution. Absent vigilantism, they are thus able to escape punishment for their misdeeds. With this in mind, in the absence of the Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents probably would have been more willing to resort to force in such cases as the Montana Freemen standoff in 1996, the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014, and the Malheur standoff in 2016. The former and latter cases did not have the personnel involved to be more deadly than Oklahoma City, but the Bundy Ranch standoff could have resulted in hundreds of deaths on both sides if it had turned into a battle. It is impossible to be certain, but McVeigh’s actions may have altered the mentality of government agents to seek peaceful resolutions to such standoffs, which may have prevented many more deaths than the 168 that McVeigh caused.

Ultimately, any consequentialist analysis requires information that cannot be acquired, so we must treat both the possibility that McVeigh altered government responses to resistance groups and the possibility that he did not. If the state would have acted the same regardless of McVeigh’s actions, then McVeigh was an evildoer. But if the Oklahoma City bombing ultimately prevented greater atrocities in the future, such as a shootout at Bundy Ranch, then McVeigh’s actions produced a greater good for a greater number, more order, and more good for others. Among consequentialist theories, only ethical egoism would certainly condemn McVeigh because he brought capital punishment upon himself, which is not a prioritization of good for the self.

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the character of the moral actor rather than on specific actions. The purpose of examining an action in virtue ethics is to find out what the action says about the character of the moral actor. The means of doing this frequently falls back on deontology or consequentialism. What is considered to be a virtue differs among formulations, and this is subject to the cultural mores of a particular place and time.

The general finding of virtue ethics in this case would be that McVeigh’s character was similar to that of many tragic heroes in ancient Greek dramas. He was motivated by a sense of justice, seeing the United States government murder its own citizens with impunity. But like the tragic heroes of old, he had a tragic flaw that brought about his downfall as well as the destruction of those around him. A tragic flaw in a well-written story could not be an obviously negative character trait, but rather a trait which is positive in moderation but becomes negative when taken too far. McVeigh’s sense of justice went to extremes and blinded him to the fact that his bomb would commit its own injustice against the innocent people caught in the blast.

Conclusion

This exercise shows the stark contrast in results that can come from applying the various normative ethical theories to an extreme act. Deontology absolutely condemns such an act as mass murder. Most forms of consequentialism cannot definitively say much of anything, but they can offer educated guesses and help us see what might make such an act a more tolerable evil than inaction. Virtue ethics offers insight into the character of a terrorist, which helps explain what could motivate someone to such an act of mass destruction. Taken together, these theories give us a comprehensive understanding of the ethics concerning terrorist activity.

On the Supply Objection to the Gold Standard

Since the gold standard was abandoned in 1971, many people have sought to return to such a standard in order to combat inflation and rein in central banks. Keynesians and others who support fiat currency and central banking present several criticisms of this approach. One of these criticisms is particularly nonsensical, but occurs with increasing frequency: that there is not enough gold in the world to back the quantity of currency in existence, and thus returning to gold would set off a deflationary spiral while destroying several industries that depend on gold. Let us address this question from a scientific standpoint, return to economic matters, and address the claimed effects.

Physical Limits

Let us begin by finding the absolute limit of what gold can do for a monetary system. As the United States dollar is the world reserve currency at the time of this writing, it makes sense to use it as the currency to peg to gold. The smallest unit of gold is the atom, and the smallest unit of dollars is the penny. The most extreme possible case would be to set one penny equal to one atom of gold. What would this look like in practice? Any basic text on chemistry can lead us to the answer. The only stable isotope of gold is Au-197, and its molar mass is 196.967. This means that in about 197 grams of gold, or 6⅓ troy ounce coins of the type minted by many governments and private mints, there will be Avogadro’s constant of atoms, which is 6.022140857×10^23. Setting one penny equal to one atom of gold, this is $6.022×10^21 or $6.022 sextillion easily fitting in one’s hand.

This amount of money is so large that people cannot truly understand it due to the lack of a frame of reference for it. Few people will handle anything beyond millions of dollars at any point in their lives. Large businesses may deal with billions of dollars. The most powerful governments have budgets in the trillions of dollars. According to a History Channel documentary, the dollar value of the entire planet is in the quadrillions of dollars, checking in at $6,873,951,620,979,800, and subtracting Earth’s gold content leaves $6,862,465,304,321,880. As the limit of one penny per atom allows one to hold the current market value of a million Earths in one’s hand, it is clear that science imposes no physical limit to make a gold standard infeasible.

Another useful exercise is to try setting the value of all available gold equal to the value of the rest of the planet. The total available gold content at present amounts to 186,700 metric tons. Defining this amount of gold to be worth the above figure of $6,862,465,304,321,880 gives a gold price of $36,756.64 per gram or $1,143,259.40 per troy ounce. This is very expensive by current standards, but current standards do not come close to economizing the entire planet. The actual price would therefore be far lower than this, but this exercise is useful for setting an upper bound.

Current Prices

Perhaps critics of restoring sound money mean to say that the gold standard could not be reintroduced at current gold prices. In this, they are correct; at the time of this writing, gold trades at $1,284 per troy ounce. Multiplied by the 186,700 metric tons of gold available, this gives $7.707 trillion of gold-backed currency, which is not enough for the United States economy, let alone the entire world. The solution, then, is to devalue fiat currencies to fit the available gold supply. According to the CIA World Factbook, the gross world product in 2015 was $75.73 trillion. Covering this with the available gold gives a gold price of $12,616.75 per troy ounce, which is an order of magnitude above current prices, but not outlandish.

Possible Effects

Gold has gained several practical applications in recent times, particularly in medicine and technology. Critics claim that returning gold to monetary use would devastate these industries, along with the jewelry industry. In each case, critics are overreacting. Research toward creating substitutes which work nearly as well in electronics is promising. Gold salts in medicine have numerous side effects, monitoring requirements, limited efficacy, and very slow onset of action. Finally, there is no particular reason why we should care about an industry that produces impractical novelties to the extent of protecting it through fiat currency. It would be better to free up jewelers to do something more productive and helpful to others.

The other major criticism is that returning to a gold standard will cause a harmful episode of deflation. Paul Krugman writes,

“[W]hen people expect falling prices, they become less willing to spend, and in particular less willing to borrow. After all, when prices are falling, just sitting on cash becomes an investment with a positive real yield – Japanese bank deposits are a really good deal compared with those in America — and anyone considering borrowing, even for a productive investment, has to take account of the fact that the loan will have to repaid in dollars that are worth more than the dollars you borrowed.”

But those who are less willing to spend or borrow are necessarily more willing to save, which will allow them to spend more later or fund new businesses and investments. There is also the matter that one cannot hold out forever; one must eventually purchase goods and services. That the technology industry thrives despite producing the most deflationary goods shows that there is nothing harmful about this. It turns out that the value of using a current computer over the next year is worth more than holding out for a more powerful computer next year. It is also true that holding out for more food next month does not work if one cannot survive until then without food now. One may object that this would concentrate wealth in the hands of those who can hold out, but this is a feature rather than a bug because it redistributes resources to those who have been good stewards of resources.

Those who have already borrowed face a larger debt burden in a deflationary environment, and though creditors experience an equal gain, creditors are unlikely to increase their spending to offset the reduced spending of debtors. But again, this is a feature rather than a bug because it incentivizes saving over borrowing while pushing some debtors into default, thus punishing unwise lenders with loss of principal and unwise borrowers with bad credit ratings.

With falling prices, profits and wages usually have to fall as well. But profits are a function of prices and costs, which are also prices. This leaves profits largely unaffected on a percentage basis. Wages are prices as well, and the need to cut nominal wages in a deflationary environment could both incentivize firms to release their worst employees and provide pushback against minimum wage laws.

Finally, there is the belief that the sort of deflation that may be caused by returning to gold would cause a recession. But the above rebuttals deprive this problem of any mechanism by which it might occur. In fact, the empirical evidence suggests that deflation is linked to economic expansion, as occurred in the United States during the 19th century. The only period in which a correlation between deflation and depression does appear is the Great Depression (1929-34), and this may be linked to the central bank policies of the 1920s, which fraudulently inflated the money supply beyond the set gold exchange rates of the time.

Conclusion

While a free market in money would be the most desirable condition from a libertarian perspective, returning to a gold standard is a superior option to that of allowing fiat currency and central banking to continue as they are. The concerns about a lack of gold supply for returning to a gold standard are without merit, and the fears of deflation and devastation to industry are unfounded.

Book Review: Level Up Your Life

Level Up Your Life is a book about self-improvement and adventure by American entrepreneur, fitness instructor, publisher, and writer Steve Kamb. The book shows people how to define goals and use a game setup of experience points and levels to accomplish those goals while avoiding various pitfalls along the way. The book is divided into six sections, each of which contains three to five chapters.

Kamb begins with a brief introduction, describing several of his most interesting adventures as well as the life he led before deciding to change his life. He talks about the online community he founded about changing one’s life to be more active and adventurous, then invites the reader to join.

The first section begins by going into greater detail about Kamb’s own experiences and backstory than did the introduction. The middle is a warning about getting stuck in the research and planning stages of an adventure without ever actually going on the adventure. The final chapter of this section is an exhortation to stop waiting and thinking you cannot live the life you want to live.

Getting started on a hero’s journey is the subject of the second section. Kamb begins by laying out the basic story arc that almost all heroic characters follow. Next, he asks the reader to describe one’s normal life and then create the superhero alter-ego that one wishes to become. The following chapter presents several common excuses that people use to justify not living a more interesting life and rebuts each of them. The sixth chapter contains advice on dealing with people who offer discouragement and resistance to one’s ambitions. Kamb ends this section by explaining how game mechanics such as experience points and leveling can be used in real life to help one learn skills and achieve goals.

In the third section, Kamb discusses how to set up one’s Game of Life. He lays out the rules that his group uses, but one can create one’s own list. The ninth chapter gives examples of character classes from role-playing games and how they might translate into real-world skill sets. The point of the chapter is to describe one’s ideal leveled-up character. The next chapter explores various quests that one could pursue in order to get from one’s current state to one’s ideal state. Kamb ends this section by sharing how he used the methods from the previous two chapters in his own quest.

The fourth section begins with more discussion of experience points and levels, then proceeds to discuss the need to self-impose both positive and negative reinforcement in order to cultivate discipline. An excellent bit of advice is given here: rewarding yourself should take the form of something that will aid in one’s quest, not something immediately pleasurable that will hinder one’s efforts going forward. In the fourteenth chapter, Kamb explains the importance of willpower. He suggests altering one’s environment to make pursuing one’s goals require less willpower and working against those goals require more. Following this, the need to create flow and momentum in one’s life is explained. The section concludes with a chapter about team-building that describes the roles of mentor, peer, trainee, and wildcard. Finding people to fill each of these roles helps make a quest more productive and interesting.

The fifth section uses the examples of four well-known fictional characters and how they overcame adversity in their stories to discuss how to prepare the body and mind for any adventure, nurture an adventurous spirit, and make necessary sacrifices in pursuit of success. The stories of Bruce Wayne, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen contain a multitude of lessons, making this the longest section of the book.

In the last section, Kamb reminds the reader that tomorrow is not guaranteed and whatever is worth doing should be started now. He encourages those who have completed their personal quests to share their stories and knowledge so that less experienced people can learn from them. The final chapter encourages those who have done great deeds to avoid resting on their laurels and move on to another adventure. The book concludes with a list of resources, acknowledgments, and a repetition of the offer to join Kamb’s online community.

Level Up Your Life is one of the better self-help books out there, and the online community is an added bonus. The greatest criticisms of the book would be that it is too much of an advertisement for the online community, and that while it is excellent for someone who is enduring life but not enjoying it, it is far less useful for someone who already uses similar methods with great success in some areas of life but is held back by failures in other areas. Even so, Kamb has created a book that is worth reading (and a website worth visiting).

Rating: 4/5

A Case Against the Second Amendment

One of the most controversial parts of the United States Constitution is the Second Amendment, which reads:

“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.”

Unlike the previous entries in this series, this will not be an argument against the substance of the Second Amendment. Rather, this will be a case against both the exact language of the Second Amendment, its efficacy, and the effect of having it explicitly codified in the United States Constitution.

Language

Let us begin with the words themselves and how their meaning has changed over the centuries. This is a common problem for those who view the Constitution as a dead document, as well as a common exploit for those who view the Constitution as a living document that they can interpret to mean whatever they wish it to mean. In the eighteenth century, ‘well-regulated’ simply meant ‘functioning properly.’ But with the growth of the administrative state, regulation has taken on the novel meaning of law without proper legislation. Likewise, the concept of a militia has also changed from that of all able-bodied males of military age to that of fringe anti-government extremists, as the federal government has usurped the role of the militia and handed it to the National Guard, which it may more easily command and control.

Next, there is the matter of security of a free state. In one sense, ‘free state’ is a contradiction of terms because the presence of a state is a guarantee of an absence of freedom. In that sense, those who seek liberty should not want the state to be secure, but rather to be continually imperiled by its own subjects. But in the language of the time, a free state was one which was sovereign over its geographical area rather than one which was subject to another, more powerful state. In this sense, the Second Amendment is correct to observe that a heavily armed populace is the most effective deterrent against foreign invasion.

Efficacy

The Second Amendment concludes by saying quite plainly now as then that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ This is an absolute standard, setting a zero tolerance for infringement of the right to keep and bear arms. But how effective has this been? Given that the National Firearms Act of 1934 imposes taxes on certain categories of arms, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 forbids private nuclear weapons, the Gun Control Act of 1968 mandates licensing of arms dealers and manufacturers, the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 outlaws private ownership of machine guns manufactured after that date, and numerous other federal, state, and local measures further restrict what kinds of weapons one may own, it is clear that the Second Amendment is mere ink on a dead animal hide rather than an authentic protection of essential liberty against the whims of legislators.

Another concern with the Second Amendment is the same as with any other part of the Constitution. The interpretation is decided by judges who are paid by the state in courts which are monopolized by the state. Thus, the Second Amendment means whatever people in black costumes say it means, which need not be in keeping with common usage or dictionary definitions because there is no effective challenge to their power once the appeals process is exhausted. (There are the possibilities that a judge will be impeached and removed or that the Constitution will be amended, but these possibilities are rare enough to dismiss in most cases.) The incentive of people who are paid by the state is to encourage the health of the state, which in the case of the Second Amendment means that there is a conflict of interest between defending the rights of the people to keep and bear arms and eliminating the danger to agents of the state that an armed population presents. This incentivizes judges to rule in favor of restrictions on arms, which constitutes a threat to individual liberty and tends toward infringement upon natural rights.

That being said, the case law on the Second Amendment is somewhat more favorable than the legislation. In United States v. Lopez (1995), the Supreme Court struck down the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990. In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the court ruled that there is an individual right to keep and bear arms rather than solely a collective right. The McDonald v. Chicago (2010) decision extended Heller to the state and local level, while Caetano v. Massachusetts (2016) extended these decisions to all forms of bearable arms. However, other decisions leave much to be desired. In United States v. Cruikshank (1875), the court ruled that the Second Amendment “was not intended to limit the powers of the State governments in respect to their own citizens” and “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.” (McDonald v. Chicago largely reversed this decision.) The Presser v. Illinois (1886) decision found that states may prohibit their citizens from forming private military organizations, which protects the coercive monopoly of the state over military defense. In United States v. Miller (1939), the court found that the Second Amendment does not protect particular classes of weapons if they are not ordinary military equipment and legislators cannot imagine how the weapon could contribute to the common defense, thus hindering innovation in defense. The Lewis v. United States (1980) decision says that felons may be prohibited from possessing arms, which is troublesome due to the wide variety of peaceful activities that are considered felonious in the United States. United States v. Rybar (1996) affirmed that Congress may regulate possession of homemade machine guns, thus infringing upon the private property rights of citizens. Overall, the courts occasionally defend the right to keep and bear arms, but are generally unreliable, especially for more powerful weaponry.

To Codify Or Not To Codify

To quote Frederic Bastiat, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Perhaps the most damaging effect of the Second Amendment is ideological in nature; it encourages people to rely upon it as an argument for their rights instead of making a stronger case from first principles. This helps to perpetuate the erroneous beliefs that rights come from the state or from the Constitution, as opposed to the correct view that rights are logical corollaries of the most fundamental right, that of self-ownership. As soon as one accepts such a statist basis for one’s rights, those rights are instantly jeopardized, for what the state giveth, the state may taketh away. The implication at that point is that there would be nothing wrong with gun confiscation if the Second Amendment could be repealed or reinterpreted by a future Supreme Court packed with progressive liberals, which is the goal of many leftists in the United States. In other countries which do not have counterparts to the Second Amendment, the laws concerning keeping and bearing arms are much more strict and invasive. But in many places with strict gun control measures, a large number of people still maintain firearms; they just do so illegally. Note that when a product is in demand and legal markets are forbidden from providing the supply to meet the demand, illegal markets will step in and make the banned goods easier to obtain than if the goods were legal but strictly regulated.

Conclusion

The Second Amendment is excellent in aspiration, but thoroughly insufficient in practice. Both the legislative and judicial branches have infringed upon the right to keep and bear arms, in flagrant violation of the promise made by the Framers. It is thus necessary to make a stronger case for private armament on both the theoretical and practical fronts. Theoretically, the case for keeping and bearing arms should be made from the first principles of self-ownership and private property rights. Practically, those who seek liberty must recognize and make use of the fact that one effectively owns that which one can take and defend. Put plainly, the right to keep and bear arms is not secured by some magical parchment or by agents of the state, but by the ability and willingness of the owners of those arms to use them in self-defense against anyone who would attempt to take them.

Book Review: Against Empathy

Against Empathy is a book about the negative effects of trying to feel what other people feel by Canadian American psychology professor Paul Bloom. The book makes the case that concern and compassion function better in the absence of empathy. It also makes the case that empathy is a driving force behind much of the cruelty and irrationality in the world. The book is divided into six chapters and two shorter interludes, each of which explores a different aspect of empathy.

Bloom begins by defining his terms and laying out the case he intends to make over the whole book and in each chapter, as any good academic would. Adherence to definitions for the purpose of avoiding confusion is done well throughout the book, and is especially necessary when a word as widely defined and misused as empathy is in play. Rather than arguing in favor of psychopathy, Bloom advocates thinking with our heads rather than our hearts so as to reach a more consistent and helpful morality. Nor does he argue that empathy is completely bad; only that it does more harm than good.

The first chapter makes the distinction between cognitive empathy (recognizing another person’s feelings without feeling them oneself) and emotional empathy (experiencing the world as one thinks that someone else does). The shortcomings of the latter are the primary focus of the book, namely that empathy can lead to ignoring unidentifiable victims, denigrating logical choices that have superior results, letting our biases lead us astray, overrating present costs versus future costs, and sending unnecessary aid. The chapter ends with responses to objections raised by Bloom’s colleagues during the writing of the book.

In the second chapter, Bloom explores the neuroscientific aspects of empathy, including mirror neurons, the role of preconceptions of other people, and the difference between understanding and feeling. The difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy is important here, and it can be detected in fMRI scans. Bloom then discusses how empathy is currently measured, as well as the shortfalls of such methods.

The failures of empathy in the pursuit of virtue are the primary subject of the third chapter. These failures occur because empathy works as a spotlight, illuminating some problems and leaving the rest in the dark. This causes people to choose to help suffering individuals instead of suffering masses, to care less about the problems of a perceived out-group, or to engage in high-time-preference thinking. There is also the matter that one person can never truly feel what another person feels because one person does not have another person’s aggregate experience. In short, empathy interferes with a rational assessment of how to make the world better. Bloom concludes the chapter by praising economists for avoiding empathy in their analyses.

Next comes a half-chapter-length interlude about empathy and politics, which deserves more attention than it gets here. Bloom correctly states that empathy is not a useful measure of where one falls on a map of political views, but says little about libertarianism and nothing about anarchist or reactionary thought. The shortsightedness discussed earlier leads to incorrect long-term policy decisions, and empathy can lead judges to take decisions contrary to the letter of the law.

The fourth chapter is about the relationship between empathy and intimacy. Bloom argues that empathy runs counter to the special nature of a close interpersonal relationship, instead leading one to treat one’s family no better than strangers. He mentions an interesting hypothetical case of a pathologically empathetic person and shows how psychologically harmful this condition can be. It is interesting that there is no clinical name for this condition. Next, Bloom explores the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy in Buddhist philosophy, which contains a similar distinction and a similar recommendation about embracing cognitive empathy while rejecting emotional empathy. After this, the difficulties that doctors may encounter if they are distracted by emotional empathy are discussed, as well as the negative effects that receiving emotional empathy can have on patients. Then, Bloom makes important distinctions between having useful past experiences, caring about people without using empathy, and having emotional empathy in the present. The positive role of empathy in apologizing for misdeeds is examined, and Bloom has no counterargument on this point.

The second interlude considers empathy’s ability to serve as a foundation for morality, especially from the beginning of life. Bloom considers that empathy may be foundational for young children but harmful for adults, much like human breast milk. He considers that selfishness may motivate kind acts, but finds the explanation wanting on the grounds of misunderstanding both natural selection and psychology. The topic is left as an open question, but the evidence discussed suggests that even young children are capable of caring without internalizing another person’s feelings.

In the fifth chapter, Bloom explores how violence and cruelty are linked to empathy. In particular, he discusses how empathy can lead people to commit cruel and violent acts, especially toward people who have themselves committed atrocities. Bloom correctly posits that violence will always be with us, as some problems are insoluble without it. Here, the spotlight nature of empathy is seen to maximize the impact of victimhood while minimizing the impact of perpetration, which leads to escalations of hostilities between nations and blood feuds between families. Empathy can lead people to falsely believe that they are doing good deeds when they are being cruel and violent. It can also lead wartime leaders to fail to recognize sacrifices that must be made to win the war. Next, Bloom looks at the nature of psychopaths and the role that dehumanization plays in atrocities. He shows that these are concerns are different from concerns about empathy. He ends the chapter by comparing empathy to anger, and finding both to be unworthy of removal from a person’s psyche, but in need of subordination to rational deliberation.

The final chapter addresses the role of reason and defends it against several attacks. After all, an argument that presupposes rationality can be undermined by a case that people are fundamentally irrational. This chapter could have been improved by including the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas or Hans-Hermann Hoppe, as it would have added a strong defense of objective morality. Like so many controversial academics who encounter social justice warriors, Bloom was told to check his privilege, which he rightly dismisses as nonsensical, though “SJWs are the real bigots” is not a sufficiently sharp response. He addresses the concern that regardless of the virtues of reason, humans are incompetent at it. But this can be shrugged off by noting that reason is objective and thus not subject to individual competency. The arguments in favor of determinism lead to performative contradictions if taken to their logical conclusions, but Bloom does not attack them in this fashion. A second attack on reason comes from psychological studies that show how people can be subconsciously influenced, but to know this is to know to take corrective steps to eliminate the problem. Finally, Bloom makes the case for rationality by discussing the strong correlation between high IQ and success, as well as the correlation between self-control and success. He briefly returns to politics to note the irrationality there, but concludes that this is due to the political systems rather than the participants themselves. Bloom ends the book by conceding that empathy can have good results, but that this is the exception and not the rule.

In a sense, Bloom does not go far enough. The concept of conspicuous compassion is barely mentioned, and there are some cases in which psychopathy can be used for beneficial results. The final chapter is in need of stronger logical cases against Bloom’s critics. Even so, Against Empathy is thought-provoking and much-needed to stem a tide of books that take too bright a view of empathy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Review: Come And Take It

Come And Take It is a book about 3D printing of firearms and the implications thereof by American entrepreneur Cody Wilson. The book details Wilson’s experiences over nine months in 2012-13 when he decided to leave law school and figure out how to use a 3D printer to make a functional plastic handgun. It also conveys his thoughts on political events of the time, such as the re-election of President Barack Obama and the Sandy Hook school shooting.

The story of Wilson’s entrepreneurship is not so different from many others; he must decide whether to make his venture be for-profit or non-profit, decide whether to work for the state or the people, figure out how and where to get funding for his operations, find the right people to work with, wrestle with the impulse to continue his schooling versus working on his entrepreneurial idea, and deal with legal challenges and roadblocks thrown his way by established interests. What sets it apart is the unique nature of his work.

Wilson’s story takes some interesting turns, such as trips to Europe and California where he meets with everyone from left-wing anarchists in the Occupy movement to a club of neoreactionaries led by Mencius Moldbug. This shows that the project to allow everyone to be armed regardless of government laws on the matter changes the political calculus across the entire spectrum, thus making him a person of interest to people of a wide range of political views.

The book is a valiant effort in creative writing and storytelling, but its subtitle of “The Gun Printer’s Guide to Thinking Free” is rather misplaced. It is not so much a guide for someone else to follow as an example which future entrepreneurs may study in order to adapt proper elements thereof for their own projects. The technical details that one might hope for in such a book are only partially present, though we may fault the US Department of State for that, as Wilson tried to include details of the production procedure for his plastic handgun but was forced to redact the material with large black blocks in the final chapter.

In a strange way, the book feels both long and short. Though it is just over 300 pages, it takes much less time to read than most books of that size. Come And Take It offers an interesting look into the mind and experiences of a true game-changer in the world of technology and self-defense, though the reader who is looking for thorough details on 3D printed weapons or a general manifesto on liberty must look elsewhere.

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: In Our Own Image

In Our Own Image is a book about the prospects of creating artificial intelligence as well as the cultural, economic, historical, philosophical, and political concerns about it by Greek author and scientist George Zarkadakis. The book considers the problem of AI from the perspectives of human evolution, cybernetics, neuroscience, programming, and computing power.

Zarkadakis begins by briefly speaking of his early years and doctoral research, then spends the rest of the introduction outlining what he will discuss in the rest of the book. The book proper is divided into three parts, each with five or six chapters. The first part covers the evolution of the human brain from the primate brain, especially the most recent 40,000 years. The role of language in accelerating human progress is discussed, as well as the effects of totemic thinking, story-telling, philosophical dualism, and theory of mind. The use of metaphor and narrative to understand the world is examined, along with the inaccuracies inherent in them. The invention, uses, and limitations of the Turing test are explored, as are Asimov’s laws of robotics and the role of AI in fictional stories throughout history.

The second part is about the nature of the mind. The differences in approach between dualism versus monism, rationalism versus empiricism, and materialism versus Platonism are discussed. The thought experiment of the philosophical zombie and the possibility of digital immortality are explained. On the matter of why there appears to be no other intelligent life in the cosmos, Zarkadakis shares an interesting hypothesis: science is an unnatural idea at odds with our cognitive architecture, and an intelligent alien species would be unlikely to widely adopt it. This means that the universe is likely full of Platos, as well as Ancient Greeces, Romes, Indias, Chinas, and Mayas, but is perhaps devoid of Aristotles and societies advanced beyond that of humanity in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Dennett’s explanation of consciousness is overviewed, as well as the contributions of a great number of scientists to the field of cognitive psychology. Finally, the field of cybernetics and its offshoots are examined, showing that the hard problem of consciousness is actually solved with ease. The brain-in-a-vat paradigm of consciousness is shown to be insufficient by applying cybernetic theory.

Everything up to this point lays the foundation for understanding the last part of the book. The third part details the history of computers and programming, from ancient theorists to more recent mathematicians, and from punched cards to modern electronics. The limitations of symbolic logic and the implications thereof against AI in conventional computers are explored, and possible solutions in the form of new electronic components and computer architectures are explained. Charles Babbage’s inventions are discussed, as well as the lost potential of their lack of adoption in their own time. The role of computational technology during World War II is considered, along with the results of government spending on computer research at the time. The development of supercomputers, including IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson, is outlined. The ‘Internet of things’ is compared and contrasted with true AI, and the possible societal impact of large-scale automation of jobs is considered. The possibility of evolving rather than creating AI is examined, as are the possible dispositions of an AI; friendly, malevolent, or apathetic. Interestingly, Zarkadakis shows that there is good reason to believe that a strong AI may exhibit autism spectrum disorders. A short epilogue that begins with a summary and then considers possible economic, political, and social implications of strong AI completes the book.

The book is well-researched and impeccably sourced, at least in its core subject matter. That being said, the book struggles to find an audience, as it can be a bit too technical for the average layperson, but does not venture deeply enough into the subjects it covers to interest a professional in AI-related fields. In other words, it is lukewarm where being either cold or hot is best. Zarkadakis also commits some ultracrepidarianism, particularly in the fields of economics and politics. He seems to believe that AI will overcome the limitations described by Hayek’s knowledge problem and Mises’s economic calculation problem, but unless AI can get inside of our heads and know us better than we know ourselves, this is impossible. In politics, he briefly mentions the possibilities of AI leading to anarchism or to neoreactionary-style absolute monarchies with computerized philosopher-kings, but does not give these possibilities the amount of consideration that they warrant. Finally, the book contains more typographical errors and grammatical abnormalities than a competent editor should fail to correct, though we may grant Zarkadakis some leeway because English is not his first language.

Overall, In Our Own Image is worth reading for those who already have some knowledge of the subject matter but would like to fill gaps in their understanding, but there is room for improvement and expansion.

Rating: 4/5

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

Tucker, Spencer, Libertarianism, and Fascism

On February 18, white nationalist and alt-right leader Richard Spencer was present in the bar of the Marriott hotel that hosted the International Students For Liberty conference. He was invited by the Hans-Hermann Hoppe Caucus, a group of right-libertarians with no official affiliation with SFL. A sign and the claims of several Hoppe Caucus members made it seem as though Spencer was an official part of the event, although he was not.

“We started the Hoppe Caucus with just a small group of people to spread diversity of conversation into the libertarian movement,” said Mitchell Steffen, founding member of the Hoppe Caucus. “We don’t agree with what Spencer believes in a lot of ways, but we still wanted to hear his point of view.”

For the better part of an hour, he and a small gathering of supporters, other listeners, and some SFL attendees engaged in political conversation in a peaceful and mostly quiet manner. Things got more raucous over time, then Jeffrey Tucker and others arrived to loudly denounce Spencer. Tucker left the scene, but those who came with him kept yelling, prompting hotel security to ask the entire crowd at the bar to leave. Spencer requested an escort out by hotel security, which they provided.

“It was really unfortunate how it turned out,” Steffen said. “I think the Hoppe Caucus did a good job of pushing the envelope and exposing hypocrisy though. Spencer’s ideas should be challenged with better libertarian ideas. He should not be bullied.”

The Exchange

First, let us analyze the exchange between Tucker and Spencer, transcribed below from the source video:

“JEFFREY TUCKER: I think fascists are not welcome at an anti-fascist conference! Not welcome! Students For Liberty is about human dignity, about liberty for all and not about fascism and that is what that man represents! You know the only reason you’re here is because of public accommodation laws; otherwise you’d be thrown out immediately, buddy.
RICHARD SPENCER: Oh, its Jeffrey Tucker! (unintelligible)
JT: (unintelligible) Yeah, this hotel, because you’re devaluing this property, my friend.
RS: Oh, really? By you, Jeffrey? I’m not sure you could throw out a fly, little Jeffrey. Hey Jeffrey, I used to read those articles by you, Jeffrey.
JT: Look, you don’t belong here. You absolutely don’t belong.
RS: Oh, I don’t belong here? What?
JT: You know why? Because we stand for liberty.
RS: Do you support the deep state, dude? That’s awesome.
JT: You stand for fascism, and you don’t belong here. Students For Liberty opposes everything that you stand for, buddy.
RS: You tweeted that you support the deep state over Trump. I think you might be a little fascist there, little Jeffrey.
JT: You are a troll. You can’t organize your own conference, so you come to our conference.
RS: That’s not an argument.
JT: You know the last time you tried, you had a bunch of losers in a room making Nazi salutes. That’s what happened at yours.
RS: That’s not an argument.
JT: So you come to our conference and troll us. If you were on Twitter right now, we’d all block you.
RS: I was invited by people here to come speak to them, Jeffrey.
JT: You are a liar! You are a liar! Fascists are liars! (exits)”

Inaccuracies

First, despite potentially misleading statements and signage made by the Hoppe Caucus, Spencer was not technically at the conference. He never went inside the part of the building reserved for the conference that required paid admission, but rather remained in a bar outside which was not reserved for ISFLC participants. Nor did Spencer himself claim to be part of the conference. Tucker is free to voice his opinion that fascists are not welcome at an anti-fascist conference, and although he does not officially speak for SFL, SFL released a statement in support of Tucker’s actions. However, the wisdom of such a position is questionable. The reaction of Tucker and his ilk is precisely why the alt-right is growing. Neutral observers see a fascist engaged in rational discussion while leftists angrily shout him down and cause a disturbance that gets the venue’s security involved, thus making the fascist seem reasonable by comparison.

Tucker then said that SFL is about human dignity, whatever that may mean, which means that it is not really about libertarianism. Libertarianism is a philosophical position on what constitutes the acceptable use of force. It says that initiating the use of force is never moral, but responding to an initiation of force with defensive force is always moral. Libertarianism says nothing about human dignity one way or another. In a libertarian social order, those who overindulge in vices, engage in criminal behaviors, and/or refuse to be productive people could very well find themselves living a life without dignity, especially if their particular community has a more socially Darwinian ethos. To be fair, Spencer is in the wrong here as well; while peaceful methods could partially achieve his stated goals, many of his goals could only be fully achieved by initiating the use of force.

Tucker claimed that Spencer would be thrown out if not for public accommodation laws and was devaluing the hotel’s property. It is impossible to know whether this is so because it is a counterfactual, but the fact that Spencer has been there several times beforehand without incident suggests otherwise. Ironically, Tucker used the pragmatic libertarian case against open borders to justify his outburst. Open state borders are a form of public accommodation, in that they require the force of government to prevent people from using their freedom of association and private property rights to exclude other people. He cannot be unaware of this inconsistency at this point, so we may reasonably conclude that Tucker is being malicious rather than simply ignorant. What is known is that chanting obscenities, as people accompanying Tucker did, diminishes the quality of experience for bystanders, thus devaluing the hotel’s property.

As an aside, one must wonder if Tucker would be so quick to denounce a similar figure who is of a protected class, such as a member of the Hotep movement, which is in many ways the black counterpart of the white nationalist alt-right. Perhaps inviting someone like Ali Shakur would be a more effective move at ISFLC 2018 than inviting Spencer. Then we could see whether Tucker would be consistent or would fear the social justice warriors around him calling him racist.

Spencer asked if Tucker supports the deep state over Trump, and suggested Tucker might be a bit fascist for doing so. This referred to a February 15 article by Tucker, arguing that however bad the establishment may be, Trump could be worse. While his analysis in that article is suspect, the only hint of fascism from Tucker is in his reaction to Spencer’s presence.

Libertarianism and Fascism

Tucker claimed that SFL stands for liberty while Spencer stands for fascism, and thus Spencer did not belong there. Let us examine the relationship between libertarianism and fascism, for there has long been a link between the two. Ludwig von Mises wrote favorably of fascism in 1927, saying,

“It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.”

Mises was prescient on the matter of how fascism in particular and reaction in general arises. There is no need to fix that which is unbroken, so a healthy social order will contain nothing to the right of conservatism, meaning the desire to maintain the status quo. Reactionary thought arises when a society makes a mistake and the social order becomes unhealthy, and fascism in particular arises as a response either to the threat of a communist takeover or to the suffering caused by socialism. Libertarianism and reaction are pieces of a whole, and libertarianism and fascism can work together in some circumstances because they share the common enemies of democracy, socialism, and communism. There is a danger here, as Mises would learn the hard way when fascists forced him out of his academic position in Vienna and away to America, but history clearly demonstrates that as bad as fascism can be, communism and socialism wreak more havoc.

The 1973 Chilean coup d’état led to another confluence between libertarianism and fascism. Before Augusto Pinochet took power, Chile was suffering from 140 percent annual inflation and contracting GDP under Marxist leadership. Pinochet was willing to listen to Milton Friedman’s students, and although the Chicago School of Economics is not as libertarian in disposition as the Austrian School, this led to an important series of market reforms and improvements in the mid-1970s and the 1980s known as the Miracle of Chile. These policies were continued after Pinochet’s rule ended in 1990, and the percentage of people living in poverty was reduced from 48 percent to 20 percent from 1988 to 2000. In 2010, Chile was the first South American nation to win membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization restricted to the world’s richest countries.

In more theoretical terms, if a private property owner under libertarian standards wishes to administer his estate after the form of a fascist dictatorship, it is his right to do so. Being the owner of the property means that he has a right to exclusive control over it, including its governance structure. However, he cannot force people to stay, so a libertarian fascist will have to be far less oppressive than statist fascists in order to keep his regime populated. This kind of governance, which offers people no voice and free exit, has proven best at limiting state power throughout history. It would also be best for limiting the tyranny of the private property owner that so concerns critics of libertarianism. This sort of libertarian fascism is not what Spencer advocates, but Tucker’s claim that fascism is necessarily opposed to libertarianism is both logically false and contradicted by the historical case of Pinochet’s Chile.

Trolling, Heiling, Blocking, Lying

Tucker claimed that Spencer came to ISFLC because he could not organize his own conference, then contradicted himself by referencing Spencer’s National Policy Institute Conference in November 2016 at which Spencer said, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!,” and several people in the audience responded with Nazi-style salutes. Though Spencer’s conference was much smaller (275 attendees versus 1,500+ attendees), Tucker’s claim is clearly false.

Tucker accused Spencer of being a troll and of lying about being invited to the venue. Spencer was not lying about being invited, as the Hoppe Caucus invited him and Spencer never went into the part of the building reserved for ISFLC where he was not invited. Whether Spencer is a troll or not is mostly a matter of opinion. He is not the most informed person, having been caught in numerous errors of fact throughout the years, but he was engaging in a peaceful discourse. Being offended was a choice made by Tucker and his ilk because Spencer was attracting enough attention to make the SFL establishment uncomfortable. It is telling that Tucker and company would resort to causing a disturbance and involving security forces because his side appeared to be losing in the marketplace of ideas that night.

Tucker said that if the confrontation had occurred on social media rather than in the physical world, then all ISFLC attendees would block him. This is another untestable counterfactual, but judging by the amount of people engaging with Spencer, Tucker’s claim stretches credibility.

Aftermath

The Hoppe Caucus released a statement on their Facebook page, saying,

“The Hoppe Caucus hosted Richard Spencer at ISFLC not because we were trying to start some kind of commotion, but rather an important dialogue. Hans-Hermann Hoppe invited him to his own Property and Freedom Society Conference several years ago for that very reason. After all, event organizers thought it would be a good idea to have leftists and even full-blown communists at the event as apart of the ‘big tent.’ So why not discuss the alternative right? Why not enlarge the tent a little bit further? Furthermore, who gets to define the tent? Is it the big money funders? Is it the oligarchs? Is it is the intellectual elite? Or is it the rank-and-file libertarians? These are all questions we should be pondering considering what happened this weekend.”

SFL has declared that “[t]hose responsible for the disruption have been identified, and are no longer welcome at Students For Liberty events.” Again, this is their right, but Spencer was not inside the event proper and attempting to silence Spencer and the Hoppe Caucus only makes them look like winners of the debate to a neutral observer.

Robby Soave demonstrated an ignorance of the facts of the case and libertarian principles, as well as political autism concerning group dynamics in his write-up of the matter. This would not be so notable, except that media outlets from Salon to The Blaze ran with his deeply flawed narrative. But this is to be expected, as accepting a narrative from someone else is easier than researching and thinking for oneself.

Overall, this incident illustrates why the libertarian moment seems to have passed and the alt-right movement continues to grow. Regardless of what one may think of Tucker, Spencer, fascism, or libertarianism, the tactics employed by Tucker and his ilk ensured that Spencer and fascism emerged victorious while the flawed application of libertarian ideas by those who either do not understand them or intentionally misuse them harmed the cause of liberty.

Felling The Oak Of Statism

Several years ago, I went on a vacation with my family to the mountains for a week. On the day before we returned home, a line of severe thunderstorms hit back home. We arrived the next day to find that a large oak tree near the house had been struck by lightning. Debris was all over the yard between the woods and the house, and huge chunks of bark that had been blasted off were looped around the branches. The strike killed the massive tree, and its continued presence posed a danger. It was large enough to fall onto the house from where it stood if left to its own devices, so it had to be felled. But due to these circumstances, it could not be cut down haphazardly and without regard for what damage might be done if it were to fall in the wrong direction. We called in professional loggers to remove the tree in such a way as to avoid hurting anyone or damaging anything. The tree was removed properly and all was well.

There is a useful lesson here for those who seek to end the state. The state is like that oak; large, weighty, and with great potential to destroy. A thunderstorm consisting of economic, social, and cultural decay masked by technological progress has come. A lightning strike of discontent with the status quo is charging up, and sooner or later the tree of statism will be fatally struck. But if we leave the tree to die and fall by its own weight and decay, immense and possibly irreparable damage may be done to the social order. Just like the oak, the method used to dismantle the state apparatus cannot be haphazard in nature.

Those who subscribe to ‘No Particular Order-ism’, or the belief that libertarians should take whatever reduction in the size and scope of government they can get, are exhibiting a dangerous myopia that borders on political autism. There are certain aspects of government which, if abolished, would result in a potentially catastrophic outcome if other aspects were not also abolished beforehand or concurrently. There are other aspects of government which, if abolished, would leave people in a dangerous lurch in which they have neither a government monopoly nor a private alternative to provide them with service. There are also forms of privatization of state-controlled assets which could potentially be worse than leaving them in the state’s hands. Let us consider one example of each type to show what can go wrong if certain improper felling techniques are used on the oak of statism.

Improper Order

An example of abolishing government functions in the wrong order is that of open borders before welfare elimination. Many libertarians argue that state immigration controls should be completely lifted because they violate freedom of movement of immigrants, private property rights of residents, and freedom of association of both. But doing this while welfare programs are in place would encourage foreign peoples to flood a nation, displacing the native population while using the state to steal from them en masse. (Note that this also violates the private property rights and freedom of association of the native population.) The people who would be attracted to the country in this scenario would not be people who wish to be productive and make the nation better, but people who seek to exist parasitically upon those who have been forced to pay for the welfare state. Although this is a potential strategy for eliminating both state borders and welfare by using the influx of immigrants to crash the welfare state, this was originally proposed by leftists as a means of expanding the welfare state to the point of a basic income guarantee. (Notably, some people who call themselves libertarians actually want to expand the state in this way.) The likely outcome of all of this is not a freer society, but a loss of culture and identity to demographics which have a less libertarian disposition, the promotion of parasitism as a way of life, and the denigration of meritocracy.

Left in the Lurch

An example of leaving people without any kind of service would be the abolition of government militaries without any private replacement to protect people in their absence. This is the one part of the proverbial oak which is sure to fell the entire tree if it is cut, as a state without a monopoly on military force within its territory is a contradiction of terms. However, it is necessary to account for the Pax Romana problem. Students of history will be familiar with the time of relative peace and stability from the time of Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) until the time of Commodus (r. 177-192 CE). During this time, the economy, the arts, and agriculture flourished because the tribal battles that predated Roman conquests as well as the rebellions and riots that predated the Pax Romana were largely suppressed. But there was a dark side to this, particularly in parts of the empire which were much closer to the border than to Rome. With Roman forces in charge of law, order, and security, many peoples suffered losses in the ability to provide these services themselves. After all, societal organs tend to decay from disuse just as individual people do. When the Pax Romana ended, these peoples were without the stabilizing forces which they had come to rely upon and were out of practice in providing these services for themselves. The end result was that several of these peoples suffered raids, conquest, and murder at the hands of various barbarians and empires. Returning to our time, the restoration of the role of the militia in society as well as the development of privately owned military hardware (and perhaps a nuclear deterrent) are necessary prerequisites for an orderly elimination of government militaries. The only workable alternative to this (and only possibility before the aforementioned steps are accomplished) is a violent uprising by enough of the population living under a particular state so as to make that population ungovernable.

Soviet Dissolution

An example of improper privatization is that of handing control of state monopolies over to politically connected oligarchs. As Gustave de Molinari writes,

“Private property is redundant. ‘Public property’ is an oxymoron. All legit property is private. If property isn’t private it’s stolen.”

This is true, but the path from here to there matters. There are two proper methods of privatization of state-controlled property. One is to figure out the tax burden levied upon each person and distribute shares of state-controlled property accordingly. This is the most just method, as it attempts to compensate victims of state-sponsored theft for their losses. The other is for private citizens to seize control of whatever state-controlled property they can take and defend. This is not as just as attempting to return property to its rightful owners, but a person who takes property from a thief has a better claim to the property than the thief. For the state to hand over its monopoly over some good, service, or property to a particular private interest contributes to the creation of an oligarchical class which wields informal political power in promotion of its own self-interest to the detriment of everyone else, as happened in Russia during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. These oligarchs can cause more damage than the state in certain situations, particularly if they use their ill-gotten gains to influence who gets to wield state power, as they invariably have throughout history.

Conclusion

As always, it is important to think strategically and play the long game. Enemies of liberty are certainly doing this, and failure to do so by libertarians needlessly puts us at a disadvantage. Considering the likely consequences of cutting one part of government before another, cutting a part of government before a private replacement is viable, or privatizing state-controlled assets in certain ways can help us to fell the oak of statism in such a way as to safeguard essential elements of the social order and avoid needless unrest.

Book Review: The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad is a book about political unrest in the Middle East by Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. The book is a compilation of his notes and articles over a 20-year period (1996-2016) while traveling throughout the Middle East. Cockburn did direct reporting where possible, and relied upon first-hand accounts when venturing into certain places was too dangerous.

Cockburn begins with his reporting from Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States began its intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Next, he shares his experiences of Iraq under sanctions from 1996, 1998, and 2001, followed by his experiences there during the American occupation from 2003 to 2010. This is followed by his next forays into Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.

The next part of the book focuses on the Arab Spring and the events that followed, with particular emphasis on countries in which the rulers were not quickly deposed. Cockburn begins with the Libyan Civil War of 2011 that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power, along with the difficulties that followed. Sectarian violence in Yemen from 2009 to 2015 and the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 each get a chapter.

The last part of the book covers recent developments in Syria and Iraq. First, the Arab Spring in Syria and its development into the Syrian Civil War from 2011 to 2014 is discussed in two chapters. Another two chapters are devoted to the contemporaneous destabilization of Iraq. This culminates in the rise of ISIS and the establishment of the Caliphate, in and near which the final four chapters take place.

The book gives important insight into just how terrible daily life is for people in war-torn lands, including the near-absence of basic utilities, shortages of essential items, rampant unemployment, and fear of mistreatment both from rebel groups and one’s own government. The book is filled with anecdotes of behavior which have not been seen since the Renaissance in the West, and knowledge of this behavior helps to explain animosity toward migrants from that region. The reader may be familiar with some of the events described, but almost anyone would find new information somewhere in the book.

One comes away from the book with a sense that both Western and regional powers had to be trying to perform so poorly. Western powers sought to punish Saddam Hussein without regard for the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of sanctions. They ignored cultural attitudes and sectarian divisions while turning a blind eye to mass corruption that greatly weakened the nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. They removed dictators who were stabilizing forces, thus creating power vacuums which were filled by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. It is difficult to be so maliciously incompetent without intending to do so.

Overall, Cockburn does an excellent job of conveying the reality on the ground in most of the conflicts in the War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring. The only real improvement would be to add sections on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, which only get passing mentions as sources for jihadists in other places. The Age of Jihad belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of recent history, the Middle East, revolutions, war, and/or the effects of foreign intervention.

Rating: 5/5