Book Review: Reactionary Liberty

Reactionary Liberty is a book about libertarian philosophy by Robert Taylor that approaches this and related subjects from a reactionary perspective. The book is divided into fifteen chapters, with a short introduction preceding.

Taylor begins with a four-page introduction in which he explains his motivations for writing the book. Mostly, this involves the decisive leftward shift in American libertarianism since the Ron Paul presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, including a notorious open letter to Paul read at the 2015 International Students for Liberty conference and Gary Johnson’s disastrous presentation in 2016. He briefly explains what is wrong with left-libertarianism and gives an outline of the structure of the book.

In the first chapter, Taylor begins with the non-aggression principle (NAP), self-ownership, and private property rights. Although Taylor notes the important distinction between just property and currently-held property, he fails to properly account for the role of conquest in determining property rights over the long term. Taylor goes on to explain the social and economic difficulties that arise without secure property rights. The failures of central planning are discussed, as are the differences between negative and positive rights. He lays out the history of natural law in Western philosophy, beginning with early Christian thinkers, continuing through Enlightenment philosophers, and culminating in Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics. Taylor contrasts this with the state, which routinely violates natural law and rights. He details the many crimes of nation-states, war and debt slavery being chief among them. Taylor concludes by proposing an alternative to Marxist class theory which vilifies the state rather than the capitalist, and elevates the producer rather than the parasite.

The second chapter deals with the Austrian School perspective on the subject. Taylor takes the reader through praxeology, the action axiom, marginal utility, and the role of prices in efficiently allocating resources. Next, he explains why government and central bank interference with prices is so destructive. The section on money deals with the history of money according to the regression theorem, beginning with barter and commodity money, then progressing to precious metals and receipts for those metals. Taylor shows the reader that modern fiat currencies are a corruption of these receipts into instruments of inflation and debt slavery that facilitate unduly risky financial behavior, state largesse, and wars. In the Austrian view, these behaviors fuel the business cycle of booms and busts by distorting interest rates, which leads investors astray.

Spontaneous order and free markets are the subjects of the third chapter. Taylor begins with the economic calculation problem, the knowledge problem, and public choice theory, showing that central planning cannot succeed because it cannot calculate prices without the market and is further hampered by cynical concerns. He then covers the concept of spontaneous order, making the important and oft-overlooked observation that “there is no such thing as an unregulated market; the issue is, rather, who is doing the regulating.” These regulations take the form of trust, reputation, and freedom to dissociate, unless the state interferes by imposing its coercive regulations. Taylor frames the difference between state and market in terms of who gets profits and who suffers losses. The state privatizes profits and socializes losses, while the market does the opposite. Next, Taylor proposes the term marketization to describe the proper procedures for converting state monopolies into free-market entities, as privatization has acquired the meaning of turning over state monopolies to politically-connected oligarchs, as happened in Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. He concludes the chapter by providing an outline of how businesses may function in a purely libertarian market while noting that the particulars can only be observed in the future, not precisely predicted in the present.

The fourth chapter offers a much-needed treatment of Cultural Marxism, a concept often (and incorrectly) dismissed by leftists as a conspiracy theory. Taylor traces its roots to the failure of political and economic Marxism in Europe after World War I, at which time Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs resolved to apply Marxism to culture and use it to destroy traditional Western culture, which they faulted for the failure of communism to take root in most of the West. Taylor traces the ‘long march through the institutions’ from its beginnings in the 1930s all the way to its modern manifestations of identity politics and campus craziness. He calls on libertarians to refute Marxism’s cultural application, just as they defeated its economic application. The next section begins to do this by making the case against egalitarianism, showing it to be both impossible and self-defeating in practice. The second half of the chapter traverses more dubious ground in the form of r/K selection theory. This is an interesting analogy for attempting to understand political dynamics, but it places too much emphasis on nature instead of nurture and encourages dichotomous thinking in complex problems. That being said, it correctly suggests that some authoritarian leftists are beyond reason. The chapter ends with an explanation of the necessity of traditional social and sexual norms, as well as how and why Cultural Marxists have attacked them.

Decentralization is the focus of the fifth chapter. Taylor gives the reader a history lesson in the creation of Western traditions and common law through decentralized institutions after the fall of the Roman Empire. He blames centralization elsewhere in the world for preventing those peoples from enjoying the liberty and prosperity of Europeans. Turning to America, these two descriptions show the difference between what the United States was supposed to be and what it has become. As a remedy, Taylor proposes breaking up the US into at least 100 smaller territories. He concludes the chapter by praising those who have taken a strong stand for decentralization in the face of oppressive state power.

The sixth chapter attacks state power as a concept. Taylor explains how people are ruled indirectly through propaganda and mythology rather than directly by force, as the masses are sufficiently numerous and armed to defeat such an effort. He discusses the role of government schooling in indoctrinating the masses to accept such an arrangement, as well as the insufficient efforts to resist the imposition of compulsory indoctrination in the 19th century. The concept of situational Leninism comes next, followed by an overview of famous psychological experiments that demonstrate the willingness of people to obey authority toward reprehensible ends. After this, the role of language control and thought policing in maintaining authoritarian leftist control is examined. Taylor finishes the chapter with Ludwig von Mises’ concept of statolatry, in which statism becomes a sort of secular religion.

The attack continues in the next chapter, as Taylor turns to the flawed ideas of minarchism. He returns to the American example to show how limited government does not stay limited. He explains that the Constitution was not actually written to limit government, contrary to popular belief. It gave the federal government more power than it had under the Articles of Confederation, which Taylor praises in relative terms. He shows how Americans of the time were deceived, taking the reader through the tax rebellions of the 1780s-90s and the Alien and Sedition Acts. In the next section, he contrasts traditional monarchies with modern democracies, finding the former to be far less limited and more destructive due to inherent incentive structures. The chapter concludes with a strong explanation of why democracy grows the state and harms the cause of liberty.

In the eighth chapter, Taylor addresses police statism and what Samuel Francis termed ‘anarcho-tyranny’, a situation in which real crime goes unpunished while those who try to defend themselves are attacked by the state. He begins by noting the difference between a peace officer and an agent of the state. His description of several US Supreme Court cases is accurate, but misses the larger point that a coercive monopoly has no enforceable obligations because no one can enforce obligations against them, regardless of any court rulings. Taylor reviews Cultural Marxism through the lens of anarcho-tyranny, then explains some of the more obnoxious leftist behaviors in terms of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. The successes of the alt-right are explained in terms of their willingness to use the left’s tactics against them, unlike conventional conservatives. Next, he covers the origin of modern policing in the UK and the US, then proposes a private alternative to state police forces. The last section contemplates violent resistance against the state, though not with nearly the length and depth that the topic deserves.

While the eighth chapter considers the enforcers, Chapter 9 is concerned with what they enforce. Taylor begins by illustrating just how much poorer everyone is today as a result of lost economic growth due to regulations. Next, he refutes the progressive narrative about the antebellum South and the industrial captains of the 19th century, showing the negative aspects of both to be the result of government intervention rather than its absence. He then profiles James J. Hill, a largely forgotten hero of free-market capitalism in the late 19th century. Hill’s good deeds are contrasted with those who used the state to get undue favors and suppress competition. Taylor also corrects the record on John D. Rockefeller. The following section covers the history of expanding regulations after the Civil War, through the Progressive Era, and on to the present. He accuses those who point to regulations as the cause of improvements in safety and reductions in pollution of committing the broken window fallacy and ignoring the fact that some regulations have made people less healthy. The chapter concludes with many examples of faulty regulations that do more harm than good.

The transition from voluntary mutual aid to coercive welfare statism is the subject of the tenth chapter. Taylor introduces the subject with the age-old statist question, “Without government, who would take care of the poor?” Of course, one must begin by pointing out that government does no such thing, as Taylor does. He spends the first part of the chapter educating the reader about mutual aid societies, which were common before the Progressive Era but were destroyed by government intervention into the healthcare and insurance industries. Taylor shows how the state has reduced the supply of medical care, thus increasing its cost and decreasing its availability. Unfortunately, Taylor’s approach ignores the Social Darwinist perspective that natural selection should be allowed to remove the least successful humans from the gene pool. The second half of the chapter debunks at length the myth of Scandinavian socialism.

The eleventh chapter deals with civil disobedience. Here, Taylor stumbles in the way that most libertarians do, in that he fails to understand raw power, celebrates small victories that will not occur on a large scale, and confuses the downfall of a particular regime with ending the state itself. He does this even while reciting the history of preparedness for the use of force among civil rights leaders and noting what the state has done to leaders of nonviolent resistance efforts. Taylor also manages to celebrate the effects of Western degeneracy among Middle Eastern youth. His encouragement of government agents to refuse unjust orders, leak information detailing abuses to the public, and otherwise engage in whistleblowing is more on point, though he notes the powerful incentive structure against doing so. The second half of the chapter details a plethora of private alternatives to services which have long been monopolized and/or heavily regulated by the state.

The growth of cryptocurrency and other peer-to-peer technologies is the focus of Chapter 12. Taylor provides a decent layperson’s overview of Bitcoin, then moves on to practical applications of cryptocurrency, such as funding dissidents suppressed by legacy financial networks, evading capital controls, and engaging in commercial activities forbidden by the state. Next, he covers the P2P revolution, which has greatly expanded liberty and privacy online and in the physical world. The remainder of the chapter runs through various examples of how P2P and blockchain technologies have solved problems and exposed corruption.

In the thirteenth chapter, Taylor addresses the open-borders dogma held by many libertarians. He demonstrates that open borders and forced integration are a form of the aforementioned anarcho-tyranny, with closed state borders being sub-optimal but less evil. The role of forced diversity in creating internal conflicts that lead to less liberty is considered, as is the biological phenomenon of kin selection in creating cohesive groups. Taylor makes the case that open borders are contrary to private property rights because in order to have open borders, the state must override the wishes of property owners who do not want migrants to enter. He then examines the history of US immigration policy from 1790 to the present, noting the shift in demographics admitted after 1965. The contention that the real problem is the welfare state rather than demographic shifts is rebutted both on the practical grounds of American politics and with the counterexample of European nations surviving socialism but falling into turmoil due to migrants.

The fourteenth chapter furthers the themes from Chapter 11 by discussing secession, nullification, and political migration. Taylor notes the myriad benefits of secession, but only briefly mentions the history of larger states violently suppressing such movements. Next, he covers the history of both legislative and jury nullification in opposing unjust laws. Taylor’s exploration of political migration is rather America-centric, but it can be adapted to other situations. His praise for the Free State Project comes off as overzealous, given the thoroughly leftist nature of that organization. He finishes the chapter with a concept called the Benedict Option, in which those who wish to preserve a tradition and begin a restoration retreat from the public and urban life of a degenerate culture.

The final chapter of the book is an argument against democratic government. This reads much like Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed, quoting and borrowing from it extensively as Taylor explains the perverse incentive structures inherent in democracy and makes the case that monarchy has a superior incentive structure. But unlike Hoppe, Taylor contemplates physical removal as a means of achieving a libertarian social order in addition to a means of maintenance. As Taylor writes on page 283, “Economics teaches us that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But in order to achieve and maintain a libertarian social order, there will be free helicopter rides.” His defense of Augusto Pinochet’s actions in Chile and Lee Kuan Yew’s rule in Singapore as better than the alternatives is common in right-libertarian circles, but his defense of Francisco Franco goes a bit too far. Taylor ends with an exhortation to and description of a libertarian revolution, but this is, as before, too brief.

Overall, the book is good, but not great. For a book called Reactionary Liberty, it could have used more reaction in the form of lengthy explanations of traditional norms and power dynamics. Taylor seemed to lack an editor and proofreader, as some typos survived in very unfortunate places that render a few sentences absurd. A few chapters can become tedious when Taylor features a laundry list of examples. That being said, it is a strong presentation of right-libertarianism that is impeccably sourced.

Rating: 4/5

On Leftist Academics, Respectable Opinion, and Civil War

In recent times, there is a burgeoning industry in popular books on academic subjects aimed at the layperson or the educated person who is not an expert in the field discussed in a certain book. Most of these books, particularly in the fields of politics, economics, and sociology, are written by authors who have a leftist bias. This is to be expected, as academia has long been dominated by such people. But this bias seems to consistently impair such authors whenever they attempt to understand perspectives which are fundamentally different from their own. Three examples of this can be found in books that were reviewed here at Zeroth Position in the past fortmoon. The shortcomings therein are evidence of a much broader and more serious problem. We will consider extant theories which describe this problem. Next, we will posit some potential origins for this phenomenon, as well as some possible solutions. Finally, we will consider the potential negative consequences of leaving the problem unsolved.

Good Guys With Guns

This is a book about concealed firearms, the culture around them, and their effects on society by sociologist Angela Stroud, reviewed here on December 12, 2016. True to leftist thought, the roles of gender, race, and class in firearm ownership are major themes of the book. The series of interviews included in the book illuminate many interesting aspects of firearm ownership which are not adequately discussed elsewhere, and Stroud makes a genuine effort to understand people who disagree with her. But she commits a multitude of errors which are common among leftists and sociologists, and seems to be unable to keep herself from doing so. Her most egregious and oft-repeated fallacies include the broken window fallacy, confusing objective reality with subjective social constructs, false dilemmas, accusing people of contradicting themselves when they do not, and conflating society with the state. She also does a poor job of recognizing and assessing potential threats, ignores information which undermines her case, blames free-market capitalism and patriarchy when they were not in use, assumes that any inequality is the result of institutional oppression, and blames white people for problems caused by non-whites.

While there are many insightful points made in the book, Stroud commits far too many fallacies along the way for the book to be enjoyable or read smoothly. What could have been an excellent work on an important topic is instead bogged down by postmodern discourse, social justice rhetoric, and shoddy reasoning.

Islamic Exceptionalism

This is a book about the relationship between Islam and the modern nation-state, the role that Islam has played in the development of the Middle East, and the currently ongoing conflicts there by Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid, reviewed here on April 30, 2017. Hamid’s explorations of these subjects leads him to question the mainstream liberal narrative of Whig historiography, democratic supremacy, and progressive determinism, though he never quite manages to reject this narrative. He provides an informative history of Islam from the beginning, illuminating several points that frequently elude Westerners. But when Hamid interviews youths who wish to break the Westphalian order of nation-states and are willing to use violence to achieve political goals, he seems unable to truly understand them.

That being said, of the three authors discussed, Hamid is the most perceptive of the lot. He correctly recognized ISIS as a state at the time of writing because it had a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area while providing the common functions of a state. He knows that moderates tend to lose in civil wars and revolutions because they lack both the fervor and resolve to do what the extremists on all sides will do. He understands that there are no such things as universal values in practice. But the Western liberal democratic biases of the author are inescapable. Hamid is unable to process the possibility that democracy is inferior to the older pre-Westphalian order, especially for the Muslim world. This is especially irksome, given the amount of evidence that he himself finds for this possibility.

The Euro

This is a book about the shortcomings of the eurozone currency project, the faulty policies pursued by European leaders thus far, and several potential alternatives by American economist Joseph Stiglitz, reviewed here on December 11, 2017. He is perhaps the worst of the three, in that while the others have difficulties in understanding right-wing thought, Stiglitz tends to either show no awareness of its existence, dismiss it out of hand, or mischaracterize it in ways which can only be deliberate for someone of his caliber. His Keynesian approach to economics is apparent from the beginning, as is his thoroughly statist worldview. He never mentions the Austrian School and ignores many practical possibilities for true economic and political liberty. The Chicago School earns nothing but contempt from him, as he recites the leftist caricature of Chile under Pinochet and derides monetarism. Meanwhile, he repeatedly blames markets for the 2008 crisis when they were only responding to the perverse incentives created by governments and central banks. He also blames austerity for Europe’s recent troubles when very little austerity has actually occurred.

Like Stroud, Stiglitz confuses collective action with state action. Stiglitz’s faith in democracy is even stronger than Hamid’s, as he never questions whether anything is wrong with democracy itself, even as he argues against incentive structures which are necessarily part of any democracy, advocates for a new monetary system which could offer states tyrannical control over their citizens, and denounces anti-immigrant groups in Europe which resist demographic replacement by a ruling class that they did not ask to replace them. Though Stiglitz does not appear to argue in bad faith, one could be forgiven for thinking that he does.

Current Theories

Before attempting to analyze the above examples, it is necessary to lay some groundwork concerning meta-politics. In political discourse, there is a range of opinions which are considered to be socially acceptable to varying degrees, with extremes on one or both sides of each issue regarded as anywhere from unfashionable at best to worthy of violent response at worst. This concept has been given various names; Hallin’s second sphere, the Overton Window, and the index card of allowable opinion, to name a few. Hallin’s analysis divides the world of political discourse into three spheres according to how the media covers various subjects. The first sphere is the sphere of consensus. This contains topics on which agreement is assumed. Hallin writes that for such topics, “Journalists feel free to invoke a generalized ‘we’ and to take for granted shared values and shared assumptions. …Journalists do not feel compelled to present an opposing viewpoint or to remain disinterested observers.”[1] The second sphere is the sphere of legitimate controversy. This sphere consists of matters on which rational, informed people have disagreements. Journalists are expected to be disinterested observers and reporters for topics in this sphere, not overtly supporting one position over another. The third sphere is the sphere of deviance. This contains topics which are believed to be outside the bounds of legitimate discussion. Hallin writes that in this sphere, “Journalists depart from standard norms of objective reporting and feel authorized to treat as marginal, laughable, dangerous, or ridiculous individuals and groups who fall far outside a range of variation taken as legitimate.”[1] Those who dispute the content of the sphere of consensus tend to find themselves here, as do those who lack sufficient influence to merit news coverage or are known for making baseless and outlandish claims. The boundaries of the spheres shift with changes in public opinion, journalistic standards, and media ownership, as well as advances in reason, science, and technology.

Joseph Overton’s conception of political discourse posits a range of ideas which are tolerated in public discourse. Whereas Hallin’s spheres describe media coverage, the Overton window describes voter sentiment and politician stances. Overton contends that the political viability of an idea depends on whether the idea is within the window or outside of it. Politicians who recommend too many policies which are outside of the window will be considered too extreme to be elected or re-elected. Most of the theory about the Overton Window is concerned with how to move it or keep it from moving, depending on whether the goal is to advance policies which are currently outside or inside of the window, respectively. Application of the door-in-the-face technique to Overton’s theory results in the deliberate promotion of ideas that are far outside of the window in order to shift the window toward ideas which are slightly outside of it. (This makes as much sense in ideological space as it does in physical space; one cannot push an object while one is standing on it, as such a force is both self-defeating and lacking in leverage.)

Tom Woods refers to this phenomenon as the index card of allowable opinion. Woods’ description combines the insights of Hallin and Overton, as the establishment media uses Hallin’s spheres while playing a large role in deciding where the frame of the Overton Window lies. Woods writes,

“On the left, sites like ThinkProgress and Media Matters smear and attack those uppity peons who stray from the ideological plantation that the Washington Post and the New York Times oversee. On the right, it’s neoconservative sites like the Free Beacon, who have built a nice little cabin on that plantation, and who rat out anyone who tries to run away.”[2]

One could easily add National Review and several others to the list of sites on the right (such as it is in modern America), as well as note such a presence in libertarian circles, denounced here as cuckertarians. The purpose of maintaining this range of allowable opinion is to prevent people from realizing the need for a radical change from the status quo by saturating them with ideas which never stray too far from the establishment narrative and presenting them with the illusion that they have meaningful choices in the current system. As Noam Chomsky writes,

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”[3]

The behavioral pattern that Woods notes later is the subject of the next section. He continues:

“The respectables of left and right do not deign to show where we’re wrong, of course. The very fact that we’ve strayed from the approved spectrum is refutation enough. …Once in a while they do try to show where we’re wrong, but they can almost never manage even to state our position correctly, much less muster an effective argument against it. [The] purpose of these alleged replies is not to shed light, but to demonize libertarians in the public mind.”[2]

Mechanisms and Remedies

The range of allowable opinion has the effect of a feedback loop on academia. The range of allowable opinion agreed upon by one generation of academics influences the next generation, limiting the range of ideas to which they are exposed in sufficient depth to truly understand them. Whereas true rightist thought is rigid, rationalist, and timeless while leftist thought is flexible, empiricist, and novel, it is no surprise that this process gradually pulls the Overton window leftward. There are several mechanisms by which this occurs, and if the problem is to be resolved, each requires its own remedy.

Whig History

Whig historiography views the past as an inevitable march of progress toward greater knowledge and freedom, culminating in liberal democracy and constitutionally limited monarchy. The name comes from the British Whigs, who supported the power of Parliament over the power of the monarch, thus opposing the Tories, who did the opposite. The term has acquired a pejorative use for good reason. Whiggism bears resemblance to Marxism, which follows the same narrative to a different end, namely that of a classless, egalitarian, communist utopia. It assumes without evidence that there will be no further progress past liberal democracy and limited monarchy toward greater knowledge and freedom. This explains why its adherents attack libertarians, as they propose further advances in freedom, which are disallowed by the Whig narrative. Indeed, Whiggism errs in assuming that history is necessarily goal-oriented at all, as this would require some collective unconscious and/or divine plan that is not proven to exist.

The present-mindedness of the Whig approach leads its adherents to believe that current ideals were held in the past, which ends up producing a great amount of ignorant eisegesis when historical figures are examined in a context that they would find to be alien. It keeps one from investigating the real causes of historical change by providing the false answer that the cause was the march toward progress.[4] Whiggism also motivates the sanctification of past leaders who advanced this progress and the vilification of those who worked against it[5] that is omnipresent in contemporary politics, for if an inevitable march toward progress is assumed, it follows that conservatives and reactionaries are engaged in a revolt against nature. As Allan Greer writes,

“They lost because they had to lose; they were not simply overwhelmed by superior force, they were justly chastised by the God of History.”[6]

The ongoing influence of Whiggism partly explains why leftist academics seem unable to grasp rightist thought. An inevitable march toward progress combined with the generally leftist nature of progress means that they view a rigorous understanding of and debate with rightist thought as unnecessary; we have progressed past it, never to return. Among the less academically inclined, this explains the “Its the current year!” response that is widely mocked among rightists.

The most potent antidote to Whig history is to relentlessly attack its fallacies while advocating alternatives such as cyclical history (a repeating cycle of ascent and decline) and agnostic history (the view that no such grand narrative can be known). Butterfield proposed a methodological remedy “to evoke a certain sensibility towards the past, the sensibility which studies the past ‘for the sake of the past’, which delights in the concrete and the complex, which ‘goes out to meet the past’, which searches for ‘unlikenesses between past and present.’”[7]

Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and the Mirror-Image Fallacy

While Whig historiography can lead leftist academics to dismiss rightist thought as an unworthy opponent best left unengaged, other phenomena can leave them unaware of its existence. A filter bubble is a form of intellectual isolation that can occur when websites use algorithms to guess what a user wants to see based on the user’s history and other personal information. This keeps people from finding information that is presented from different viewpoints, thus trapping them in a cultural or ideological bubble.[8] This leaves them ill-equipped to deal with those who are unlike themselves. The term was coined by Internet activist Eli Pariser and discussed in his 2011 book of the same name. Pariser formally defined the concept of a filter bubble as “that personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by these algorithms.”[9] The filter bubble is the technological manifestation of the echo chamber, a term describing the tendency of legacy media as well as one’s social and professional circles to create similar limitations in thinking and perception. Pariser notes that filter bubbles can harm a society by undermining civic discourse, creating confirmation bias, and increasing vulnerability to propaganda and other manipulations of public opinion.[10]

Although the extent of the effect of filter bubbles remains in contention[11], and some of the effect comes from user choice that emanates from and reinforces echo chambers in the physical world[12], the influence of exposure to only one’s own side of political issues is guaranteed to distort one’s perception of reality. In the worst cases, this can lead people to believe that everyone thinks and views the world as they do, a condition which Charles Krauthammer describes as the mirror-image fallacy. He writes:

“The mirror-image fantasy is not as crazy as it seems. Fundamentally, it is a radical denial of the otherness of others. Or to put it another way, a blinding belief in ‘common humanity,’ in the triumph of human commonality over human differences. …Its central axiom is that if one burrows deep enough beneath the Mao jacket, the shapka, or the chador, one discovers that people everywhere are essentially the same.”[13]

This predictably causes serious problems. Krauthammer continues:

“If the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical. …The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken. Diplomatic fiascoes follow… To gloss over contradictory interests, incompatible ideologies, and opposing cultures is more than anti-political. It is dangerous.”[13]

A more realistic approach is thus required, as Krauthammer describes:

“Ultimately to say that people all share the same hopes and fears, are all born and love and suffer and die alike, is to say very little. For it is after commonalities are accounted for that politics becomes necessary. It is only when values, ideologies, cultures, and interests clash that politics even begins. At only the most trivial level can it be said that people want the same things. Take peace. The North Vietnamese wanted it, but apparently they wanted to conquer all of Indochina first. The Salvadoran right and left both want it, but only after making a desert of the other. The Reagan administration wants it, but not if it has to pay for it with pieces of Central America.

And even if one admits universal ends, one still has said nothing about means, about what people will risk, will permit, will commit in order to banish their (common) fears and pursue their (common) hopes. One would think that after the experience of this [20th] century the belief that a harmony must prevail between peoples who share a love of children and small dogs would be considered evidence of a most grotesque historical amnesia.”[13]

The problem of echo chambers and filter bubbles is more difficult to solve than that of Whig historiography. This is not to say that solutions do not exist; one can make a conscious effort to look for these conditions and actively seek alternative viewpoints. Several websites have been created to aid people in that purpose, as have several browser plugins and smartphone applications.[14] In meatspace, this process is not as simple as installing a few programs, but there are a multitude of social clubs that one can join to meet new people with different perspectives. The difficulty lies in actually implementing the solutions. Just as the incompetent can lack the expertise to recognize their own incompetence, so too can those within an echo chamber fail to realize that they have a problem. In many cases, it will be necessary for people who are outside of such echo chambers to make an active effort to reach in.

Virtue Signalling

Whig historiography and echo chambers, while important factors, are only proximate causes of the intellectual limitations of leftists. A more fundamental source comes from the dynamics of social coordination and is known as virtue signalling. Virtue signalling is a conspicuous and/or invidious expression of one’s opinion on a moral issue done primarily to maintain or enhance one’s social status. The term originates from signalling theory, a body of work in evolutionary biology that examines communication between organisms. For example, a large mane on a male lion is a status signal that declares his fitness, as a less fit lion would lose contests with other males and have his hair torn out. The term later found use in economics, as an impressive building for a firm or a resume full of extraneous qualifications for a job-seeker declare financial and intellectual fitness, respectively. Less successful firms and less competent people would be unable to achieve such results.[15] Religious traditions frequently include rituals that serve a similar function for the purpose of aiding in-group cohesion.[16][17][18]

Beginning in the late 2000s, ‘virtue signalling’ came to be defined differently in various Internet forums. The newer meaning refers to superficial support for political views with the primary purpose of maintaining an appearance of respectability, as well as a focus on appearing to act rather than actually taking action.[19][20] As James Bartholomew writes,

“When David Cameron defends maintaining spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid, he is telling us that the Tory party, or at least he himself — as a rather wonderful, non-toxic part of it — cares about the poor in the developing world. The actual effectiveness or otherwise of foreign aid in achieving this aim is irrelevant.”[21]

Notably, virtue signalling tends to involve expressions of hatred of the other, of the out-group. Bartholomew continues:

“It’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate things. It is camouflage. The emphasis on hate distracts from the fact you are really saying how good you are. If you were frank and said, ‘I care about the environment more than most people do’ or ‘I care about the poor more than others’, your vanity and self-aggrandisement would be obvious… Anger and outrage disguise your boastfulness.

One of the occasions when expressions of hate are not used is when people say they are passionate believers in the NHS. Note the use of the word ‘belief’. This is to shift the issue away from evidence about which healthcare system results in the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people. The speaker does not want to get into facts or evidence. He or she wishes to demonstrate kindness — the desire that all people, notably the poor, should have access to ‘the best’ healthcare. The virtue lies in the wish. But hatred waits in reserve even with the NHS. ‘The Tories want to privatise the NHS!’ you assert angrily. Gosh, you must be virtuous to be so cross!”[21]

This ends up being counterproductive, in that it can harm the very people that those who are truly virtuous and not just signalling would desire to help. Bartholomew writes,

“No one actually has to do anything. …There was a time in the distant past when people thought you could only be virtuous by doing things: by helping the blind man across the road; looking after your elderly parents instead of dumping them in a home; staying in a not-wholly-perfect marriage for the sake of the children. These things involve effort and self-sacrifice. That sounds hard! Much more convenient to achieve virtue by expressing hatred of those who think the health service could be improved by introducing competition. …Virtue-signalling battles can soon take leave of any genuine concern for the low-paid or suffering. Indeed they can become highly damaging. The low-skilled whose abilities simply cannot command an absurdly high minimum wage become unemployable.”[21]

Virtue signalling is also responsible for the problem of Error Push, in which a factually incorrect position is advanced because a hated enemy is factually correct about a certain issue, and virtue signalling becomes more important to people than correct knowledge or telling the truth.

Fortunately, there are two powerful remedies against this sort of behavior. First, one may engage in the opposite behavior, known as counter-signalling or vice signalling. This should be followed by mercilessly criticizing the virtue signallers for their fallacious discourse when they resort to ad hominems instead of making appropriate counter-arguments. The purpose of this tactic is to show their support to be superficial and insincere, as a person with deeply-held, sincere beliefs should be able to defend them in rational discourse. Resorting to angry name-calling against a calm opponent who makes reasoned arguments is also damaging to the appearance of respectability that the virtue signaller so desires.

Second, one may take meaningful action concerning the subjects of the virtue signals. A person who supports minimum wage hikes and social programs for the poor may appear virtuous to the economically illiterate, but a person who directly helps the poor to become upwardly mobile is actually virtuous. A person who supports tougher environmental regulations against polluters may appear virtuous to those who do not understand regulatory capture, but a person who invents new technologies or uses capitalist principles to reduce pollution is actually virtuous. With “effort and self-sacrifice,” one can take the wind out of the sails of virtue signallers by acting while they talk. In the long run, the golden will defeat the merely gilded.

The Overton Bubble and Civil War

So far, we have considered examples of leftist failures to understand rightist thought, potential causes for this phenomenon, and possible remedies for each. Now, we will explore what may happen if this problem is not remedied. When the Overton window is combined with an ideological echo chamber and reinforced by copious amounts of virtue signalling, it can become thick and opaque, hardening into an ideological pocket universe which can only be entered or re-entered with great difficulty. This Overton Bubble, as neoreactionaries call it, can form when the establishment effectively controls the Overton window and uses this control to maintain political power. When the range of respectable opinion is policed with sufficient rigor, having an accurate understanding of opinions outside of that range is enough to make oneself the target of a political witch hunt.

When combined with the phenomenon of error push described in the previous section, an Overton bubble can leave a society in general and its elites in particular incapable of solving problems. As Neal Devers writes,

“If some thoughts are unthinkable and unspeakable, and the truth happens in some case to fall outside of polite consensus, then [the] ruling elite and their society will run into situations [that] they simply [cannot] handle.”[22]

It follows that wise elites would be exceedingly careful about allowing such a ‘polite consensus’ to form; in fact, they would take active steps to suppress the formation of such holiness spirals. Unfortunately, the perverse incentives inherent in political democracy ensure that the elite almost universally will be both unwise and insecure, thus perpetually goading them into destructive behaviors such as blowing Overton bubbles.

The problems that such an elite simply cannot handle may be domestic or foreign in origin. If foreign, then the typical result is conquest and subjugation under a power that would have no capability to assume control had a healthy system of governance and defense been in place. The particular dynamics of such events are outside the scope of this essay. Here, we are primarily concerned with political disputes within one society.

For centuries, the establishment exercised tight control over public discourse, burning heresies along with their authors. After such brutality fell out of favor in the West, the elites still managed to expel from official positions those who did not kowtow to the official narrative. Such exiles lacked the means to mount an effective counter-movement, so ‘point deer make horse’ was a favorite tactic of political control. Modern technology fundamentally alters this dynamic; being forced out of the Overton bubble is no longer fatal to one’s influence or career prospects, and as time marches on, existing inside the bubble will become a less and less attractive option for those starting out in life. But those who have established academic, media, and/or political careers inside the bubble will fail to understand the social dynamics in play, for gaining such an understanding would result in them being purged.

The trouble that lies ahead is thus clear. A leftist establishment that cannot peacefully engage with anything non-leftist and a non-leftist opposition that finally has the strength to organize an effective challenge existing in the same physical space is a recipe for violent conflict. Foreshocks of this political earthquake have already occurred in Chicago, Berkeley, and Charlottesville, to name a few. It is quickly becoming technologically impossible for the establishment to put the genie of opinion-making back into their bottle. Abolishing democracy, breaking up the institutions inside the Overton bubble, and secession into smaller, more politically uniform territories are considered unthinkable both by those inside the bubble and many of the people outside of it.

The immediate options will thus eventually reduce to the two options that all of us have in our personal lives: reason or force, words or weapons, truth or consequences, peace or utter destruction. Whereas it is not certain that the former set will be chosen over the latter set, and a civil war is always the most disastrous kind, it is necessary to de-escalate the situation before it reaches that point using the methods described in the previous sections. Only then can saner ideas be brought back into the realm of public discourse with a goal of either reaching a governing consensus or achieving an amicable geographic separation along political lines.

Conclusion

It may seem that we have traveled a long way from discussing three books to discussing civil war and its prevention. But the books were only meant to serve as small examples of a much larger problem. The formation of Overton bubbles is controlled by several key factors: a range of respectable opinion, the lingering influence of Whig historiography, filter bubbles in digital space, echo chambers in physical space, the plural solipsism caused by the previous two factors, virtue signalling, and the destructive incentives inherent in democracy. The civilization-destroying potential of our present bubble can still be thwarted if enough of these contributing factors are dismantled, but time is short and growing shorter.

References:

  1. Hallin, Daniel (1986). The Uncensored War: The Media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press. p.116–118.
  2. Woods, Thomas (2014, Oct. 16). “How To Shred The Index Card Of Allowable Opinion”. Lew Rockwell.
  3. Chomsky, Noam (1998). The Common Good. Odonian Press. p. 43.
  4. Butterfield, Herbert (1965). The Whig Interpretation of History. New York: W. W. Norton. p.12.
  5. J. Hart. “Nineteenth-Century Social Reform: A Tory Interpretation of History”. Past & Present 1965 31(1):39–61.
  6. Greer, Allan. “1837-38: Rebellion reconsidered”. Canadian Historical Review (1995) 76#1:1–18, at p. 3.
  7. Ashplant, T.G.; Wilson, Adrian. “Whig History and Present-Centred History”. The Historical Journal, 31 (1988):1–16, at p. 10.
  8. Bozdag, Engin (2013, June 23). “Bias in algorithmic filtering and personalization”. Ethics and Information Technology 15(3):209–227.
  9. Parramore, Lynn (2010, Oct. 10). “The Filter Bubble”. The Atlantic.
  10. Weisberg, Jacob (2011, June 10). “Bubble Trouble: Is Web personalization turning us into solipsistic twits?”. Slate.
  11. Pariser, Eli (2015, May 7). “Fun facts from the new Facebook filter bubble study”. Medium.
  12. West, Joshua Bleiberg; Darrell M. (2017, May 24). “Political polarization on Facebook”. Brookings Institution.
  13. Krauthammer, Charles (1983, Aug. 15). “The Mirror-Image Fallacy”. Time.
  14. “5 Questions with Eli Pariser, Author of The Filter Bubble”. Time. ISSN 0040-781X.
  15. Bowman, S. (2016). “Stop Saying ‘Virtue Signalling’” Adam Smith Institute.
  16. Bulbulia, Joseph; Schjoedt, Uffe (2010). “Religious Culture and Cooperative Prediction under Risk: Perspectives from Social Neuroscience”. Religion, Economy, and Cooperation. p. 37–39. ISBN 3110246333.
  17. Steadman, L.; Palmer, C. (2008). The Supernatural and Natural Selection: Religion and Evolutionary Success. Paradigm.
  18. Irons, W. (2001) “Religion as a hard-to-fake sign of commitment”. The Evolution of Commitment, Randolph Nesse (ed.) New York: Russell Sage Foundation. p. 292–309.
  19. Yudkowsky, Eliezer (2009, Feb. 17). “Cynical About Cynicism”. LessWrong.
  20. Yudkowsky, Eliezer (2009, Mar. 20). “Why Our Kind Can’t Cooperate”. LessWrong.
  21. Bartholemew, James (2015, Apr. 18). “The awful rise of ‘virtue signalling’”. Spectator.
  22. Devers, Neal (2016, Nov. 24). “The Overton Bubble”. The Future Primaeval.

Why Price Gouging Is Good

When a natural disaster strikes, it is almost guaranteed that there will be yet another uproar about price gouging. Media pundits will take to the airwaves to virtue signal against people who would dare to exploit disaster victims. Government officials will use the crisis to score political points by portraying themselves as defenders of the common people against greedy capitalists. But how accurately does this reflect reality? Let us explore the nature of price gouging to see the economics of such a situation and explain the behavior of journalists and state agents.

Economic Forces

In order to intelligently approach the concept of price gouging, one must first define it. Price gouging is a sudden, sharp increase in prices that occurs in response to a disaster or other civil emergency. Though this defines the act well, it does not explain the mechanisms behind it. When a disaster approaches, there are certain goods that people wish to acquire in greater quantities than normal, such as clean drinking water, non-perishable foods, wooden boards for protecting windows, and so on. If supply is held constant, then this sudden increase in demand for such goods will produce a sudden increase in their prices.

If left unhindered by the state, this upward pressure on prices will produce important benefits. First, it serves as a signal to producers and distributors of those goods that more supply is needed. The producers and distributors thus learn where their goods are most urgently in demand, allowing them to engage in mutually beneficial transactions with disaster victims. This is how free markets are supposed to function in order to meet the needs of customers.

Second, price gouging encourages proactive preparations. A potential business model for a firm is to invest in equipment that allows it to operate when a disaster would otherwise force it to close, and use the proceeds from price gouging to amortize the cost of the equipment. This helps consumers by allowing them to purchase goods at higher prices rather than be left without essential items during a crisis.

Third, price gouging provides an important benefit by conserving the fixed amount of resources which are present before more deliveries can be made to the disaster area. The higher cost of scarce goods disincentivizes people from buying up supplies that other people need, thus helping to keep the items in stock. This keeps scarce resources from being wasted on marginal uses, directing them toward their most valued uses and the people who most need them instead.

Markets And Malice

Unfortunately, not every instance of price gouging is so benevolent. Business owners who seek to exploit vulnerable people in order to make money do exist. But engaging in such behavior in a free market produces a short-term gain followed by a long-term loss. In a pure capitalist environment, reputation is everything for a business. Whatever profits may come from gouging disaster victims in the present will be more than outweighed by the sales that one will lose in the future because of the damage that this does to one’s brand. After all, most people would view such behavior as adding insult to injury and vote against it with their wallets. Though it is impossible to accurately count sales that do not happen, to dismiss this effect as nonexistent is to commit the broken window fallacy.

Enter The State

Most people are economically illiterate, so they tend to focus on the malevolent type of price gouging and be unaware of the benevolent type. In a democratic state, this has predictable results. Politicians and other government agents will frown upon price gouging and seek to punish anyone who they believe to be engaging in it. But it can be difficult to distinguish the natural effects of demand spikes and limited supplies upon price from the efforts of greedy exploiters of disaster victims, especially for government officials who are too far removed from the disaster area to be intimately familiar with the economic dynamics there. Thus, all price gouging is suppressed by the state, and while this may protect a few people from exploitation, it causes more harm than good by disrupting the market signals which would have informed producers and distributors that their goods need to be sent to the disaster area. The end result is that scarce goods are depleted and not replaced, leading people to once more blame the market for failing them when the actual cause of their shortage was a government failure.

Suppression of price gouging has several deleterious effects. First, by placing price controls on goods, the state deprives entrepreneurs of the profit motive to bring additional supply to the disaster area. Without state inteference, people who live outside of the disaster area and are willing to travel there in order to bring supplies could charge enough for their goods to recover their travel costs and be compensated for the inconvenience of spending time in a disaster area, all while making enough profit to make such a venture more attractive than other economic opportunities. Price gouging laws remove such action, leaving only state agencies and altruistic private groups to provide aid. Note that like all government regulations, price gouging laws are subject to regulatory capture by the largest businesses.

Second, removing the incentive for proactive preparations makes untenable the business model for operating during a disaster described above. Third, removing the conservation effect of price gouging forces business owners to sell goods below their market-clearing price. This incentivizes hoarders to buy more than they need and scalpers to buy goods for resale. The existence of scalpers also makes desired goods more difficult to find, as resellers will be more difficult to locate than established stores. Thus, laws against price gouging do not eliminate the practice, but rather shift it from primary markets to secondary markets and cause a different set of people to profit. Taken together, these effects result in artificial scarcity that makes conditions in a disaster area even worse.

A Pair of Razors

Given the clear case in favor of price gouging, one may wonder why so many people in positions of political power rail against it. Reece’s razor suggests that we look for the most cynical explanation when attempting to determine a motive for state policy. No other possibility prioritizes the self-interest of politicians and their minions over the lives and properties of citizens quite like the idea that government officials want to suppress the natural response of markets in order to make government disaster relief agencies look effective and necessary, thus justifying their existence and expansion, so Reece’s razor selects it.

However, it is not in the rational self-interest of elected officials to increase the suffering of disaster victims who are capable of removing them from office in the next election. A better explanation is offered by Hanlon’s razor, which says that one should not attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. In this view, government officials are not trying to increase the harm done during a disaster; they simply know no better because they are just as economically illiterate as the electorate, if not more so. This razor is a better fit for the available logic and evidence.

Conclusion

It is clear that price gouging has an important economic role in ensuring that goods both go to those who need them most and remain available in times of emergency. Market prices are important signals that tell producers and distributors where their goods are most urgently needed. When the state interferes with this process by imposing price controls, it turns off the signal and incentives for market actors to send aid, encourages hoarding and scalping, and discourages conservation and farsightedness. These effects mean that laws against price gouging harm the very people that they are ostensibly supposed to help. Therefore, price gouging should not be punished by the state or demonized by the press.

Disasters and the Pax Romana Problem

Whenever disasters impact an area in modern times, governments play a large role in the cleanup and recovery efforts. People file claims with the state to recover their losses while simultaneously inflicting those losses upon taxpayers elsewhere in the nation. Building codes are enhanced, and because resources spent on one expense cannot be spent on another, the result is less resources available for communication, medical care, and transportation to warn people of disasters, get them away from danger, and treat any injuries or diseases that result. The usual pork barrel spending and high-profile boondoggles will rear their ugly heads among the disaster relief spending.

But there is an even more insidious problem at work here, which we may term 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 were raided and conquered by various barbarians and empires.

At first glance, this may not appear to have much to do with disaster relief. But there is a similarity between what happens when governments step in during disasters and what happens when a large empire takes over security for formerly independent smaller tribes. Before there was massive government intervention to help disaster victims, people had more of an incentive to plan ahead and be ready for potential disasters because they knew that if something were to happen, they would have to rely upon themselves and the people in their communities to survive and recover. Without the potential for government agents to step in, people were less likely to view disaster relief as someone else’s problem and thus more likely to donate to relief efforts. When one relies upon people one knows for support during hard times, defrauding people is disincentivized due to both the loss of reputation in the community as well as the potential for reprisals. Looting is also less of a problem when security is handled directly by private property owners without involving the state because they and their hired help are both more competent at and more concerned with solving local crime problems than distant bureaucrats and their minions. Of course, these conditions meant a stronger social fabric and less dependence on the state, so governments found it all too tempting to interfere.

Before there was significant government involvement in the insurance industry, insurers would either refuse to insure or charge exorbitant rates to cover properties which were at a continually high risk for being destroyed by floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and other such periodic catastrophes. This was an important market signal that certain areas are not good places for humans to build permanent residences. Of course, some people ignored those signals and suffered the consequences of their stupidity, but this has better outcomes for everyone else than rewarding such stupidity with government handouts which incentivize people to stay in places where they are likely to suffer disasters.

Now that governments play an active role in disaster relief, all of the problems that one might reasonably expect are present. When politicians have a choice between doing what is best for the people and doing what helps their public image, they will almost invariably choose the latter. Because the state has a coercive monopoly, it cannot be fired or have its funding suspended by normal means, regardless of how terrible its performance is or how much it interferes with private efforts which are trying to help people. To the contrary, failure means that statists can claim that insufficient funding is the reason for failure. There is also the matter of vote-buying, in that the people have an incentive to elect politicians who will deliver them the most funds from the government treasury. Disaster relief is not as reliable a payout method as welfare programs, but it is still a means of legal plunder available to those who live in disaster-prone areas.

We can also see the typical one-size-fits-all policies rather than the more targeted solutions that a private effort would attempt. For example, following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a program to give away $2000 to every household that claimed to be affected by Katrina, regardless of size or need. Of course, this was subject to much waste, fraud, and abuse. Unlike private organizations who must rely upon voluntary donations, the state has no incentive to actually figure out how much help each household needs, so it overpays some and underpays others.

With government infrastructure management, people are encouraged to live in places which are at higher risk for disasters than would otherwise be economical to inhabit. To use the example of Katrina again, levees held back water from areas which have an elevation below sea level. Investigations into their failure showed cost-cutting during construction as well as poor maintenance. While there is no guarantee that a privately built and maintained system would have been successful, that which may or may not work is better than that which is known to fail. Then again, leaving infrastructure up to the private market could have meant that low-lying areas would have always been underwater and thus uninhabited, meaning that structures and lives would not have been at risk there because they would have been absent in the first place.

Government flood insurance programs also encourage people to take risks which would not make economic sense in a free market. What is incorrectly perceived as a market failure is actually a market success; the process of voluntary exchange and decentralized calculation produces the result that flood plains are inferior places to build a house or business. Rather than people rebuilding communities in unstable locations for the umpteenth time, a free market in flood insurance would cause low-lying areas to be abandoned and returned to a state of nature, as is proper. Perhaps in time, such places which are near coastlines and below sea level could fill in with sediment and become livable lands which do not require levees to keep water out of them.

Finally, government police and National Guard forces have largely displaced private security measures to prevent looting during disasters. Worse than that, they have actively engaged in attacks upon disaster victims who were trying to provide such defense for themselves, causing the very problem they should be trying to solve.

Fortunately, this perverse state of affairs will not last forever. Someday, the United States government will decline and fall, just like Rome and so many other empires throughout history. Just like the outer peoples of the Roman Empire after the Pax Romana ended, the American people will be left to fend for themselves in the absence of the federal government. The degree of government involvement in their lives will leave them weakened in the face of disasters which will not cease to afflict them when the state does. But a return to proper incentive structures will mean that in the long run, behaviors will be positively modified, the attitudes of the people will change to match those behaviors, and the community bonds which support a truly healthy society can be rebuilt.

Government Will Not Hold Government Accountable

Since the beginning of statism, rulers have sought to monopolize the provision of justice and criminal punishment for obvious reasons. Not only is it lucrative to do so, in the form of rulers taking for themselves in fines what should be given to victims in restitution, but it also allows for agents of the state to engage with impunity in activities which are criminalized for the commoner. Since time immemorial for those alive at the time of this writing, the nation-state has done so the world over. But when a government politician or enforcement agent is examined by government investigators or tried in a government court, this creates a conflict of interest. Government prosecutors and judges may be interested in promoting justice (or an illusion thereof), but they must also interested in maintaining the structure of state power, which may be endangered by indicting or convicting a politician or enforcement agent. And then there is the matter that the laws being used by said investigators, prosecutors, and judges are monopolized by the state, the common result of which is that a politician or enforcement agent is exonerated for what would land a commoner in prison.

While there is a long line of abuses and usurpations stretching back millennia, three well-publicized concrete examples of these problems have manifested themselves just in the United States in the month prior to the time of this writing. These are the non-indictment of Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of classified information, the overturning of Bob McDonnell’s conviction for political corruption, and the acquittal of Caesar Goodson in the Freddie Gray case. Let us consider each of these cases.

Hillary Clinton

While Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she used private email servers and mobile devices to conduct government business. On July 5, 2016, an FBI investigation found that “from the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification. Separate from those, about 2,000 additional e-mails were ‘up-classified’ to make them Confidential; the information in those had not been classified at the time the e-mails were sent.” Three additional classified emails were found outside of the group of 30,000, one Secret and two Confidential. Evidence was found that Clinton or her colleagues were “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” According to FBI director James Comey, “None of these e-mails should have been on any kind of unclassified system, but their presence is especially concerning because all of these e-mails were housed on unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff, like those found at Departments and Agencies of the U.S. Government—or even with a commercial service like Gmail.” It was assessed that hostile actors could have gained access to Clinton’s email account and that they did gain access to email accounts belonging to people who corresponded with Clinton on classified matters.

Despite such a damning litany, Comey recommended that no charges be brought. Although the requirements for criminal charges under USC Title 18, Section 793, Subsection F were clearly met, Comey set up a straw man by claiming that there is not sufficient evidence of intent, even though intent is not part of the statute. This is for good reason because negligence in protecting classified information that can put innocent people in danger, and is therefore a malicious form of incompetence. Comey’s language concerning a “reasonable prosecutor” (whatever that means) was especially concerning, as it condemns as unreasonable anyone in the Department of Justice who might disagree with Comey’s recommendations. It is also noteworthy that Gen. David Petraeus and Maj. Jason Brezler were pushed out of the military in recent years for less.

The most likely explanations for this result are that Attorney General Loretta Lynch received her major career push from former President Bill Clinton, that Hillary could expose much deeper issues and many more violations in response to being indicted, that Comey lacks the fortitude to upset the electoral apple cart, and that Democrats care more about keeping power than accountability.

Bob McDonnell

In 2014, former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted of accepting more than $175,000 in gifts, loans and other benefits from Star Scientific executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. in exchange for the governor’s help in securing state testing of dietary product. Bob was sentenced to two years in prison for bribery and extortion, while Maureen was sentenced to one year and one day for corruption. He appealed his conviction, which was upheld by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2015. The Supreme Court reviewed the case and overturned the conviction on June 27, 2016.

At issue was whether Gov. McDonnell committed (or agreed to commit) an “official act” in exchange for the loans and gifts. An “official act” is defined as “any decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy, which may at any time be pending, or which may by law be brought before any public official, in such official’s official capacity, or in such official’s place of trust or profit. The Court decided 8-0 that the prosecutor’s view of an “official act” was too broad, and that although McDonnell conduct was “tawdry,” it should not have resulted in a criminal conviction.

Jack Abramoff, a former congressional lobbyist who was imprisoned for fraud, corruption, and conspiracy, said of the ruling,

“I continue to be concerned by what seems to be a lack of understanding on the part of the justices that a little bit of money can breed corruption. When somebody petitioning a public servant for action provides any kind of extra resources — money or a gift or anything — that affects the process. People come to think those seeking favors and giving you things are your friends, your buddies. Human nature is such that your natural inclination is, ‘He has done something for me, what can I do for him?’ The minute that has crept into the public service discussion, that is a problem.”

Whereas the overarching theme of this article is conflict of interest, it is worth noting that the very Supreme Court justices who decided this case are themselves the recipients of lavish paid trips and gifts from private donors.

Caesar Goodson

On April 12, 2015, Baltimore police arrested Freddie Gray for possessing what was alleged to be an illegal switchblade. While Gray had a prior criminal record, some of which was comprised of crimes against people and property, simple possession of a switchblade knife would not be criminal in a free society unless one were on private property whose owner disallows such armaments. While being transported in a police van driven by Officer Caesar Goodson, Gray was rendered comatose and was taken to a trauma center where he died on April 19. His death was caused by injuries to his spinal cord. It was found upon investigation that Gray was not secured properly in the van; he was handcuffed and foot shackled, but not buckled to his seat.

Goodson opted for a bench trial rather than a trial by jury. On June 23, 2016, Circuit Judge Barry Williams acquitted Goodson of all charges, including second-degree depraved heart murder, second-degree assault, involuntary manslaughter, manslaughter by vehicles (criminal and gross negligence), reckless endangerment, and misconduct in office. These charges could have resulted in up to a 30-year prison sentence. Williams claimed that the prosecution lacked the evidence to prove its case. Williams acquitted another officer involved in the case in May 2016.

The Common Problem

The thread which ties together these seemingly disparate cases is that all of them involve certain or nearly certain misdeeds by government personnel. These personnel are then subject to what is essentially an internal review, as they are investigated by another branch of the same organization. The investigation predictably finds that no wrongdoing worthy of prosecution or conviction occurred unless the conduct was so egregious that it is simply impossible to cover up, and the bar for this is set quite high.

Government will not hold government accountable because it is not in their interest. The only way to solve this conflict of interest is to eliminate it. If we are to have justice for the crimes of government personnel, we must take direct action to end the government monopoly on criminal justice. The remainder of this essay will consider what forms this might take and address likely objections.

Solving The Problem

The first response of most people when confronted with a proposal to end a government monopoly on a service is that one must be objecting to any organized provision of that service at all. In other words, they assume a false dilemma between state laws, police, courts, and prisons, or a vigilantist free-for-all. There is something positive to be said for vigilante justice, in that it can be better than no justice at all, and no justice at all is what the government system tends to provide for those who are victimized by the state. Vigilantism can also demonstrate that an oppressed people have had enough, and that those in power should listen to their grievances lest they be removed from power by an angry mob. But vigilantism has a tendency to descend into directionless violence that accomplishes nothing in the long run. As such, it is necessary to construct competing criminal justice systems which can replace the government monopoly and provide the due process that a lynch mob cannot.

Laws

We must, of course, start with the law itself, for no good cider may be made from poisoned apples. Government laws have extended into every facet of life and have become so complex that most people run afoul of the law on a regular basis without even realizing it. Without a government monopoly on laws, people would have the freedom to choose their own legal codes by either choosing from a number of law service providers or going into business as such a service provider. This system in which only the laws that people are willing to financially support through voluntary means can be enforced would have the effect of shrinking the laws which are mandatory for every person to the bare minimum; no murder, slavery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, vandalism, and so forth. Any activity which does not constitute aggression against a person or their property would not be criminal unless one had agreed not to engage in that activity as part of a valid contract, which is a contract that all parties enter into without fraud or coercion and that does not demand the impossible. This would swiftly eliminate police confrontations with citizens over such issues as possessing a state-disapproved kind of weapon or drug, or engaging in a state-disapproved business venture.

Police

Next, we must consider the enforcers of the law. When the state has a monopoly on law enforcement, its agents can break the law with impunity to the extent that the statist system will not hold itself accountable. But in a system of competing private enforcers, the agents of one police company may be held in check by agents of all of the other police companies as well as a considerably more armed citizenry, as gun control laws would almost certainly be among the government laws which would fall by the wayside. Without the ability to enforce higher-order aspects of legal codes to which people have not consented and with the much greater probability that overreaching enforcers may be fired or martially defeated, non-government police lack the mechanisms that make government police so oppressive.

Courts

Third, we must consider private court systems. Without government laws and courts, every interaction between people of any complexity would need to involve a contract to specify how the people involved in the interaction agree to handle disputes which may arise between them. Individuals would likely hire insurance companies to co-sign their contracts for the purpose of ensuring that victims get restitution without having to wait for a contract breaker to provide it. Should one engage in criminal activity, one would be tried in a court specified by one’s contracts, with the appeals process also specified. Failure to abide by the ruling that one contracted to abide by would be economically crippling, as private defenders and dispute mediators would treat this as a risk worthy of raising a person’s rates significantly or even dropping them as a customer. Being without private defenders and dispute mediators would leave one in a difficult position, as one would have trouble buying, selling, entering into contracts, or even defending oneself.

Punishment

Fourth, we must consider how a private legal system will deal with punishment and restitution. While the libertarian theoretical limits of punishment are quite broad, there is no reason why these limits must be approached in every case. Punishment in a libertarian society would generally take the form of forced restitution in cases where an aggressor refuses to make restitution without being forced, with the possibility of “eye for an eye” punishments where restitution is impossible.

In a private justice system, prisons would be tailored to the purpose of helping criminals provide restitution by keeping them safe and in decent living conditions while they do so. Several incentives are at work toward this end. The private prisons are competing with each other to house prisoners, so they each must try to offer the best service for the least cost. The prisoners are paying customers of the insurance companies which are affiliated with the prisons, so they can take their business and transfer their prison time elsewhere if they feel mistreated or endangered and can find a better option. The insurance companies wish to reduce violent crimes for which they must pay claims, and so have an incentive to keep prisoners from harming or being harmed by anyone. Getting criminals to go to prison could be accomplished by making their continued coverage contingent upon going there and making restitution, with the alternative being life as an outlaw in the traditional sense.

Note that unlike a statist system with mandatory sentencing requirements, a private justice system may allow the victim of a crime to negotiate an agreement with the criminal to reduce or even eliminate the criminal’s obligation to perform restitution. One could even specify in one’s will what should be done to one’s murderer if one is murdered.

Additionally, there is one punishment that one may undoubtedly inflict upon anyone for any reason without any need for judicial oversight: ostracism. To be denied association with one’s fellows as well as with one’s trading partners by said fellows and trading partners can certainly meet all of the above definitions of punishment. Psychologists have found that the pain of ostracism is quite similar to the pain of physical injury in terms of the effect it has on a person. The long-term effects that an episode of ostracism has make it an effective way to enforce beneficial social norms without violating the non-aggression principle. The lack of government anti-discrimination laws in this proposed system makes the full realization of ostracism possible.

Objections Rebutted

Such a proposal typically meets three criticisms which were not addressed above. First, there is the “public goods” argument that this system may leave behind the poorest people who cannot afford to pay for it. Aside from the fact that “public goods” are a myth, the amount of productivity that could be unleashed by ending the government monopoly on laws should ensure that no one who does not wish to be poor would have to be. Even if this were not the case, the poor could still receive charity or form neighborhood watch groups while using the aforementioned newly legal heavy weapons, which would also be cheaper due to loosened restrictions on manufacture and ownership.

Second, there is the argument that competing private police forces will fight. The problem with this argument is that the incentives are all pointed in the opposite direction. Fighting will result in deaths for both private police forces, which makes it harder and more expensive for the surviving officers to serve their customers while hurting the public relations of the fighting forces. This creates an opportunity for other private police forces to step in and provide services more efficiently, thus sending the fighting forces into an economic death spiral. Note also that heavy area effect weapons cannot be used in such a fight without harming innocents and bringing legal claims and militant reprisals against the offending officers and companies. Failing all of this, such forces would still be less capable of destruction than nation-states currently are.

Finally, there is the contention that the state will not allow such a system to replace its monopoly. The state is quite profitable to those who run it and those who benefit from its influence, and they will not simply surrender this power. This would be the ultimate result of losing a monopoly on criminal law, as a private law system would treat government crimes committed under color of state law as though they were committed by private citizens. This is why liberty requires revolution, as the answer to the state disallowing a challenge to its power is to put it out of a position of being able to allow or disallow anything.

Conclusion

While government will not hold government accountable, the people living under it can, and it is they who must do it if they wish it done. The above market solution outlines an alternative to the statist criminal justice system, but it is up to the citizens afflicted by state crimes to build and operate such a system. The sooner this is done, the sooner all people can be held to the same basic standard of conduct and the crimes of the state can end.

 

Book Review: Freedom!

Freedom! is a book about libertarian theory written by activist Adam Kokesh. The book discusses the philosophy of libertarianism, applies it to various socioeconomic issues, and discusses its potential.

Mr. Kokesh begins by discussing the nature of freedom from a self-ownership perspective, and shows how government is philosophically incompatible with this perspective. He then shows how the non-aggression principle and the right to claim property derives from self-ownership. The validity of the self-ownership perspective has been argued with more robustness elsewhere, but we can assume that Kokesh omits a deeper discussion of argumentation ethics for the sake of brevity. Strangely, Kokesh does not include the precise definition of government that he has used repeatedly elsewhere (a group of individuals who exercise a monopoly on the initiation of force within a geographical area). He finishes the first chapter by proposing a society in which people only engage in voluntary relationships.

The second chapter is about the history of the state and how we might evolve past it, with an emphasis on the role of technology in helping people see through the lies of government propaganda and become productive enough to oppose the state in meaningful ways. The overall tone is rather Pollyanna-ish, as governments have become far more dangerous with recent advances in technology, and technology alone is not guaranteed to lead to the end of the state. There is also an alternative interpretation of the available data which is not directly discussed; namely, that the evolution from more crude forms of government to democracy did not occur because common people wanted more influence in government, but because rulers found that human livestock are more productive when given the illusion of freedom.

The third and fourth chapters briefly discuss the nature of self-defense and justice in a free society, with much more space devoted to the ways in which governments have corrupted these concepts with their monopolies on legal systems and military defense. Such corruptions include military interventionism, foreign aid, conscription, the military-industrial complex, wars against abstract ideas and tactics rather than physical foes who may be defeated, laws that criminalize victimless behaviors, laws that restrict access to weapons, courts that give agents of the state cover to assault peaceful people, the prison-industrial complex, and a legal system of punishment rather than a justice system of restitution.

The fifth chapter discusses taxation and explains why it is immoral, in both direct forms and indirect forms such as central banking. Kokesh shows that attempting to use the state to rein in the excesses of the rich will fail because the rich control the state by funding politicians. He then demonstrates that taxes discourage production because removing incentive to work in the form of income taxation will lead to less work being done (at least officially). After explaining how fiat currencies are imposed and how they are used to make it easier to tax a population, he argues that eminent domain and property taxes violate private property rights and are yet another form of theft. Kokesh finishes the chapter with a glimmer of hope; that a generation of people will come who will disown national debts because such debts legitimately have nothing to do with them. There are two problematic arguments in this chapter. First, there is the idea that taxation can be voluntary if one believes that governments serve people, one’s tax money is used properly, and one willingly pays taxes. This is false on two counts. Truth is independent of belief and morality is objective, so taxation is immoral even if one does not believe that it is. Also, consent under duress is not valid consent. As it is impossible to distinguish consent given only because of duress from consent given despite duress, it is impossible to consent when duress is present. Second, Kokesh claims that the only options for fighting taxation are to fight tax collectors in court and to conduct economic activities out of the view of tax collectors. This is false because the use of defensive force against agents of the state is also an option, even if there are not yet enough potential practitioners to make it likely to succeed.

In the sixth chapter, Kokesh begins by explaining the ideal of trade without force, fraud, or coercion, then examines how destructive government interference in trade is to the economy. He then goes into more detail about how central banks and fiat currencies distort the economy, and suggests cryptocurrencies as a possible way to solve this problem. Next, there is the problem of corporations, which led to the formation of unions. Kokesh explains that corporations are legal fictions created by the state to protect the wealthy who bribe politicians, and that this led to strong unions as a reaction by workers to the formation of powerful corporate interests. After this, he discusses the effect of government monopolization on infrastructure and utilities, which has hampered advancement beyond current technology and raised the cost of all goods and services by eliminating the increased efficiency that results from competition among service providers. The fifth section of the chapter is devoted to the method of ostracism and boycotting to bring about change in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, the shortfalls of ostracism are not fully explored. Kokesh ends the sixth chapter by making the case that everything should be viewed through the lens of economics.

In the seventh chapter, Kokesh demonstrates how government interference in schooling, medicine, assistance for the poor, drug use, environmental protection, and the free flow of ideas has harmed everyone. Free market solutions to these problems are discussed perhaps too briefly, but discussing them at full length would make the book several times longer, and this has been done elsewhere by other authors.

The eighth chapter discusses government involvement in personal and family relationships. Here, Kokesh makes the case against laws forbidding consensual relationships as well as the case for peaceful parenting and treating children more like people and less like property vis-à-vis their current standing in society. This perspective is then applied to the problem of bullying in government schools. The chapter ends with a discussion of racism that examines its nature, its uses from a libertarian perspective, and how it is used by power elites to divide and conquer.

The last two chapters present Kokesh’s advice for living free in an unfree world, as well as his prediction for where the human species is going. His advice includes learning to master one’s emotions, becoming knowledgeable about taking care of one’s body and using that knowledge, living as debt-free as possible, doing work that one can be proud of, and choosing to have a positive state of mind. The last chapter returns to the theme of the second chapter; namely, that of technological advancement reaching an asymptote beyond which the state cannot function. Fortunately, the Pollyanna-ish tone does not return here, as Kokesh warns about the destructive potential of states with technology at a nearly asymptotic level. The next three sections discuss the methods by which people may transition to a voluntary society, which include education, civil disobedience, conducting business out of view of the state, and abolishing states gradually from the top level down rather than all at once. The use of force to topple governments is perhaps unfairly downplayed, however. Kokesh ends the book by explaining that the transition to a free society is not a revolution in the historical sense, but an evolution to something entirely new.

Overall, the book could explain some concepts in more detail and could avoid a few specious arguments, but it is what it was meant to be: a strong but concise treatise on the philosophy and potential of libertarianism.

Rating: 4/5

How The Salvation Army Commits The Broken Window Fallacy

Every year during the Christmas season, the Salvation Army sends out bell ringers to collect donations as part of its annual Red Kettle campaign. These bell ringers stand in public places or at entrances to large shopping centers and ring handbells loudly and incessantly, stopping only momentarily to express gratitude when someone makes a donation. This business model for charitable donations appears to work (otherwise it would be discontinued), and the funds are used for noble purposes, but there is a problem with the Red Kettle campaign. It focuses on what is seen and ignores what is unseen, which is one of the most persistent errors in economics. It was pointed out by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, and has become known as the glazier’s fallacy or the broken window fallacy.

The broken window fallacy gets its name from the parable of the broken window, which was discussed by Frédéric Bastiat in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit, et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That which is seen, and that which is not seen) to illustrate why destruction, and the resources and effort required to rebuild after destruction, is not a net-benefit to society. The parable demonstrates that the modern economic concept of opportunity cost, along with unintended consequences, has an effect on economic activity that is frequently ignored.

Bastiat told a parable about a shopkeeper’s son who threw a rock through the window of the family business. The glazier then gets the business of repairing the window, and then he can buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is seen. But if the shopkeeper did not have to fix his window, he could spend his money on something else. Perhaps he could buy some clothes from the tailor, who can then buy bread from the baker, and so on. This is what is unseen.

Bastiat, along with Austrian School economists, often used this story figuratively, with the glazier representing special interests and the boy who breaks the window representing government intervention. But this case requires a different interpretation. In this case, what is seen is that people donate when the Salvation Army workers set up a red kettle and ring their bells. What the Salvation Army workers either ignore or fail to realize is that their bells can be off-putting to people who are annoyed by ringing noises, repetitive noises, loud noises, or some combination of the aforementioned. Such people will be disincentivized from giving donations, but because there is no way to count a non-donation, this cost to their organization is hidden. To simply dismiss this effect in favor of giving attention only to the donations that are given is to commit the broken window fallacy.