Agreeing With Statists For The Wrong Reasons: Universal Basic Income

<<<Episode VI                                                                                                Episode VIII>>>

A Universal Basic Income (UBI), also known as Citizen’s Income, Basic Income Guarantee, or Universal Demogrant, is a proposed social welfare program in which the state pays every legal resident within its territory a periodic sum of money. Most proposals have variations for age, but have no other conditions; people would receive the same amount regardless of their employment status, contributions to society, existing salary, net worth, current expenses, gender, family structures, race, religion, or any other factors.[1] Depending on the amount being paid, a basic income may be full or partial.

Basic income was first proposed by Sir Thomas More in the early 16th century[2], but did not receive much further attention until Thomas Spence, Thomas Paine, and Marquis de Condorcet argued for such a welfare system in the late 18th century.[3] The idea resurfaced again during and after the Progressive Era, but related welfare systems such as means-tested programs, negative income taxes, minimum income guarantees, and family allowances were tried instead.[4] Since the 1980s, policy advocates have given more focus to basic income, especially in Europe.[5,6] The proposal has gained traction in recent years due to concerns over structural unemployment caused by automation and artificial intelligence, and experiments with basic income programs are being proposed and conducted in several countries.[7,8,9]

Supporters of UBI generally believe that the basic means of subsistence should be guaranteed as a positive human right in advanced societies, and that UBI can provide this better than extant welfare programs. But there are reasons to support UBI which are quite different from what most of its proponents believe. Let us explore these and see why one could agree with statists for the wrong reasons.

One criticism of welfare programs is that they are dysgenic; they subsidize the survival and reproduction of the unfit at the expense of their Darwinian betters. But any effort to combat dysgenics must begin with figuring out who the dysgenic people are. UBI does this in a way that no other welfare program does. It gives equal amounts of money to people, and the spending habits of the recipients can be studied. The overall process is the closest thing to a controlled experiment that can be performed in economics. The results will show who is beyond help due to poor decision-making, such as spending their entire basic income payment on vices. From there, the least intelligent members of a society can be dealt with through a variety of means. A 2014 World Bank review of studies shows that relatively few people who receive UBI will squander it in such ways[10], suggesting that only the worst people would be spotlighted as unfit. Of course, this would mean that UBI is only a transitory step toward something else, but so is every other government program on a sufficiently long timescale.

Second, critics of UBI cite the fiscal impracticalities of implementing it. In the United States at the time of this writing, current population figures mean that implementing a proposed[11] $1000 per month UBI would cost almost $4 trillion annually, which is roughly equal to the entire current expenditures of the federal government.[12] Effectively doubling government spending seems illibertarian at face value, but let us examine the matter more closely. Any reduction in government spending will be strongly felt by those who receive the funds, while the expenses of taxation and inflation are diffused throughout a society. This perverse incentive structure produces ever greater rent-seeking behavior on the part of special interest groups. Furthermore, attempting to reduce spending on welfare programs, as libertarians would advise, is politically impossible in a democracy. Such efforts will only get one branded evil, selfish, heartless, racist, sexist, and all the rest of the Great Progressive Litany Of Not An Argument. The alternative course is to accelerate government spending in order to hasten the inevitable collapse. Implementing a generous UBI would accomplish this.

Given economic realities, it is far more practical for UBI to replace some or all of current welfare spending.[13] Again, repealing welfare without replacing it is a political non-starter, so it is necessary to consider replacement. UBI is not means-tested or contingent upon any factors which must be examined, so the need for a bloated welfare administration is eliminated.[14] Lisa Westerveld, a councilor for the city of Nijmegen, Netherlands, estimates that £15 million of their £88 million annual welfare budget could be saved by implementing UBI there.[15] It is important to remember that welfare does not solely consist of handouts, but also of make-work programs and bloated bureaucracies that introduce artificial inefficiency to the state apparatus and the broader economy. Cutting these programs and government jobs should be a welcome development to any libertarian.

Another effect of providing free money unconditionally is that people will have less need to work for a living. Less work means less tax revenue, which in turn means less funding for government programs.[16] This is good because it will force formerly public projects to be created and maintained privately, thus subjecting them to market accountability. Alternatively, the state may run larger deficits or inflate its currency, but these measures will eventually cause it to cut spending out of necessity when interest rates rise and creditors become nervous about a sovereign default. Meanwhile, once people have a basic subsistence without work, many unskilled jobs that are ripe for automation would have to be automated quickly, as businesses and governments would no longer be able to find workers to fill those jobs. This would greatly increase efficiency.

One must also consider who would be impacted by such changes. The government jobs that would be eliminated by UBI implementation in Western countries are disproportionately held by racial minorities, while basic income would give an advantage to poor whites. Because democracies incentivize people to vote themselves money from the public treasury, UBI would reverse the political vote-buying of the current welfare system in the short-term while curbing the practice in the long-term. The anti-white racism of the progressive political establishment would be further exposed when they oppose a transition to UBI, as they would have to go on record as wanting to give handouts to everyone except poor whites. Right-wing parties could therefore expect a boost at the polls if they embrace UBI.

Critics of UBI will point to likely price inflation, as increasing the total amount of money in consumer hands would reduce its unit value by reducing its scarcity. There is also the matter that funding such a program will likely come from raising taxes on businesses[11], which are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices like any other business expense. But this provides an opportunity for people to buy precious metals and cryptocurrencies as a hedge against inflation. This could help cryptocurrency gain more widespread adoption and further weaken the fiat currency that is used for handing out the UBI, adding to the acceleration effect on government spending and inflation when people advocate for a larger UBI to combat inflation. (This represents the other end of the intelligence spectrum from the dysgenics discussed earlier. UBI also shows us who the smartest people are, as they would use the fiat money to exchange for something more sound.)

Some feminists oppose UBI because it might serve to reinforce traditional gender roles by incentivizing women to stay out of the workforce.[17,18] But this actually leads to a set of reasons to support UBI. If mothers are at home raising their children, then children will receive better care than they would from strangers. Money saved on childcare could be kept within the family to provide for the children or help the family unit in other ways, while those providing childcare would be freed up to do something more directly productive. Renewed dependence on male breadwinners to provide for the family beyond the level that UBI allows would strengthen family cohesion and lessen divorce rates. At work, the restored male super-majority would improve workplace social dynamics.[19] Women cannot be sexually harassed or discriminated against at work if they are not at work, and social justice warriors would have a harder time operating against a revitalized männerbund. The male social bonds that develop at work would soon extend to society at large, helping to restore a proper patriarchy.

UBI can also help to stem the tide of demographic replacement in Western countries. A direct money transfer to poor whites would raise their fertility rates, resulting in less need and room for foreign labor, but it would also encourage a solidarity among all citizens. Let us consider Native American tribes that make money from casinos and other tourist traps. These funds are distributed to tribe members, which gives all recipients a monetary incentive to place strict limitations on tribal membership and reservation residency in order to increase the share for all who remain. Otherwise, people would be incentivized to move to reservations and join tribes in order to receive a handout. Similarly, a national UBI would encourage immigration at first, but would also give every citizen a monetary incentive to close the gates while clearly demarcating in-group versus out-group. This direct skin in the game could counter the elite bribery that mostly prevents effective border controls at present.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, UBI could fuel a surge of anti-establishment activism. Many people who work in menial, low-paying jobs with little hope of advancement would prefer to be professional political activists, and UBI would allow them to do this. Those with careers who fear losing them if they speak out of turn would also have a fallback strategy, if a less luxurious one. This surge would primarily be libertarian and rightist, as leftists have an entrenched establishment to protect their activists from the harms that other activists suffer. UBI would not solve the problems of deplatforming or anarcho-tyranny, but it may make them so onerous that they can no longer go unsolved, which is the general objective of a bootlegger political strategy.

In summary, UBI has effects across the board that are useful and even vital for libertarians and rightists who wish for a freer hand in the political arena and greater realization of their overall visions for society. It is therefore easy to agree with statists for the wrong reasons when they propose a universal basic income.

References:

  1. What Is It? – Citizen’s Income”.
  2. More, Thomas (1516). Utopia, Book 2: Discourse on Utopia.
  3. Nicolas de Condorcet (1794). Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit.
  4. Spicker, Paul (2011, Jan. 19). How Social Security Works. Bristol University Press.
  5. Citizen’s Income – An unconditional, nonwithdrawable income paid to every individual as a right of citizenship”.
  6. Blaschke, Ronald (2012). The basic income debate in Germany and some basic reflections.
  7. Krahe, Dialika (2009, Aug. 10). “How a Basic Income Program Saved a Namibian Village”. Spiegel Online.
  8. Mathews, Dylan (2017, Mar. 6). “This Kenyan village is a laboratory for the biggest basic income experiment ever”. Vox.com.
  9. Monsebraaten, Laurie (2017, Apr. 24). “Ontario launches basic income pilot for 4,000 in Hamilton, Thunder Bay, Lindsay”. Toronto Star. Star Media Group.
  10. Evans, David K.; Popova, Anna (2014, May 1). “Cash Transfers and Temptation Goods: A Review of Global Evidence. Policy Research Working Paper 6886”. The World Bank. Office of the Chief Economist.: 1–3.
  11. What is Universal Basic Income?”.Andrew Yang 2020 Presidential Campaign.
  12. Mulvaney, Mick (2017, Mar. 16). “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again”. Office of Management and Budget.
  13. Standing, Guy (2017). Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen. Pelican Books. Ch. 7.
  14. Konczal, Mike (2013, May 11). “Thinking Utopian: How about a universal basic income?”. Washington Post.
  15. Boffey, Daniel (2015, Dec. 26). “Dutch city plans to pay citizens a ‘basic income’, and Greens say it could work in the UK”. The Guardian.
  16. Séguin, Gilles (1994). “Improving Social Security in Canada – Guaranteed Annual Income: A Supplementary Paper”. Government of Canada.
  17. Katada, Kaori. “Basic Income and Feminism: in terms of ‘the gender division of labor’”.
  18. McLean, Caitlin (Sept. 2015). “Beyond Care: Expanding the Feminist Debate on Universal Basic Income”. WiSE.
  19. Lambert, Hugh (2017, Mar. 23). “Mannerbund And The Sexual Dynamics Of Coordination”. Social Matter.

<<<Episode VI                                                                                                Episode VIII>>>

The Not-So-Current Year: 2018 In Review

Though the specific demarcation of the passage from one year into another is a rather arbitrary social construct, it does provide a useful annual period for self-examination and remembrance. Now that 2018 has entered the history books, let us take a look back at a year’s worth of essays and review the not-so-current year.

We begin, of course, with last year’s article of the same kind. Some articles in this list are sequels to articles in that list. Aside from that, we may move on.

Benjamin Welton and I began 2018 by addressing some leftover matters from the end of 2017. He explored the quick decline of Nepal from monarchy to democracy to communism in less than a generation, while I responded to a thoroughly misguided attack by Bill Wirtz on Hans-Hermann Hoppe and other right-libertarians.

The left’s warfare on language and the dangerous potential thereof is important to understand. I began exploring this phenomenon by examining common shortcomings among leftist popular authors, looking for the origins of their follies, and showing how these factors can cause a civil war if left unaddressed. In a follow-up essay, I contemplated how the innovation of language becomes stunted and weaponized in political struggles, as well as what may be done to counter such tendencies.

Book reviews have long been a part of my intellectual output, and 2018 was no different. I read and reviewed less books than in 2017, which included Robert Taylor’s Reactionary Liberty, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, Surjit S. Bhalla’s The New Wealth of Nations, James Ledbetter’s One Nation Under Gold, and Insula Qui’s Anarcho-Monarchism.

I began a new series called “Agreeing With Statists For The Wrong Reasons”, in which I consider how government policies which seem terrible at face value can be exploited to achieve liberty and/or undermine statist goals. This was loosely inspired by Morrakiu’s series “Agreeing With Liberals For The Wrong Reasons”, in which he showed how progressives unwittingly help the alt-right. The subjects covered in this series in 2018 included cryptocurrency bans, conscription, anti-discrimination laws, minimum wage, and impeaching Donald Trump. More episodes will come next year.

Insula Qui presented a grand project called “On Libertarianism and Statecraft” to lead into her book Anarcho-Monarchism. The introduction discusses other schools of thought and makes the case for why a libertarian theory of statecraft is necessary. Part I explains the folly of political activism. Part II explores the implications of property rights in a libertarian social order. Part III deals with the differences between states and governments, as well as the basics of private defense. Part IV explains the necessity of governance, what form it might take, and who will govern. Part V considers the effect that trust levels in society may have on the form of a libertarian social order. Part VI explores the relationship between authority and liberty. Part VII uses social contract theory to expand libertarian philosophy. Part VIII considers the nature of the natural elite. Part IX explores the role of trust in society. Part X examines the role of time preference in forming a libertarian social order. Part XI considers the role of externalities that go beyond strictly material concerns. Part XII explains how greed is frequently overrated by libertarians. The series may or may not have more entries.

In 2017, I argued that the United States debt ceiling should be eliminated. However, the debt ceiling is only part of the problem. Another part is the practice known as a government shutdown, and I argued that this practice should also be ended.

On March 9, right-wing activists Martin Sellner and Brittany Pettibone were detained and deported while attempting to enter the United Kingdom to give speeches and interview other rightist personalities. A similar fate also befell Lauren Southern on March 12. I wrote a list of observations about these events.

Following the Parkland shooting, a student movement to restrict access to firearms became prominent. I deconstructed this effort to show how it is orchestrated by the political establishment using tactics common to other such movements.

My glossary of social justice warrior terminology is the most popular article ever posted at Zeroth Position. After two years of continued craziness from radical leftists, I decided to revise and expand it to create a second edition. This is likely to need continual updating, and two years is a proper amount of time between editions, so look for the third edition in 2020.

I began an article series called “The Color Theory of Conflict”, in which I attempted to provide a grand unified theory of conflict. Part I defines the various colors and defends those definitions against likely objections. This was unfortunately put on the back burner, but more parts will come next year.

In human discourse, logical fallacies are quite common. But when opposition to these fallacies goes too far, further fallacies and sub-optimal behaviors can result. I examined the most common examples of this behavior in an effort to counter such second-order problems.

Sometimes, the lens of examination is best turned inward to correct one’s own missteps. Such was the case for an article I wrote in 2017 about the concept of degeneracy, so I published a revision in which I considered the possibility that civilization can be degenerate.

Welton returned with a case that American intervention in Syria is not only not right; it is not even wrong.

My poetic side suddenly came out in May, resulting in song lyrics critical of elected politicians in general. It resurfaced in September with song lyrics about Bitcoin, in November with an anti-election song, and in December with a Bitcoin Christmas song.

Libertarians have mixed views about capital punishment, but no one else seems to have considered the value of forming communal bonds by working together to execute the worst offenders. I did this at great length through the lens of ritual magick. Later, I used the problem of pedophilia among Catholic clergy to consider the limits of capital punishment, and found that there is a strong case for executing child molesters.

Welton offered an excellent history of the rise and fall of the Boy Scouts, along with the characteristics that a replacement organization should have in order to prevent a similar leftist takeover.

Doxxing has long been a problem in political circles, but it became worse in 2018. I reasoned through the limits of its acceptable use, then proposed a comprehensive solution for reining it in to those limits.

Since the beginning of recorded history, a teleological element has been present in historical narratives. I argued against this practice, promoting instead an agnostic historiography.

An incident on cable news over Trump’s immigration policies provided an opportunity for examining useful tactics for making leftists look more unhinged than usual. I showed how Corey Lewandowski’s treatment of Zac Petkanas was a master class in this regard.

I attempted to find the ideal amount of force that a civilization should use to maintain itself, coming to the conclusion that, contrary to mainstream liberalism and libertarianism, the bare minimum is not ideal.

Welton took on an important issue that has long been waiting for a proper reactionary response: the undue reverence given to the Magna Carta by liberals of all stripes.

In 2017, I argued the case for reining in censorious technology giants by threatening the revocation of their incorporation. I followed this up with an argument against the corporate form itself as a creature of statism that would almost certainly not exist in a free society. Continued problems with corporate censorship that touched me personally led me to formulate a holistic approach to solving the problem.

Qui returned with a thorough survey of the producerist school of thought, which has both significant overlap with and significant difference from libertarianism.

On July 23, Social Matter published an article by Mark Christensen in which he argued that conservatives should favor larger government. I welcomed Darien Sumner, the fourth additional writer at Zeroth Position, in August to rebut Christensen’s arguments point-by-point. A September 25 article by Henry Olson that criticized libertarianism from the right merited a more measured response.

Welton and I figured that if libertarians and rightists are going to be slandered as fascists and Nazis no matter what, then we have nothing to lose by examining real Nazis and seeing what can be learned from their example. The result was an excellent piece on the rise and fall of the Sturmabteilung (SA).

The Walking Dead comic series and the television show based on it contain many themes which are of interest to the student of libertarian philosophy and reactionary thought. I explored the many ways in which Negan’s group resembles a state apparatus, as well as what one can learn from those who resist his rule and ultimately overthrow him. The third part was released in 2018, covering the second half of Season 7. The fourth and fifth parts, covering Season 8, were planned for 2018 but will instead appear in early 2019.

In 2016, I wrote a guide to political autism as it pertains to libertarian commentators. I followed up that effort with a similar overview of autistic conservatism.

On September 4–7, the United States Senate held hearings on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace outgoing Justice Anthony Kennedy. I wrote a list of observations on the events. After Democrats launched an unprecedented smear campaign, I wrote another list of observations.

Nathan Dempsey returned after an 11-month hiatus to begin a quarterly series of updates on his Liberty Minecraft project, the first of which ran on October 24.

Clashes between different strains of political universalism, as well as proselytization into territories ruled by non-universalist governance structures, led to the unprecedented losses of life and property in wars and genocides during the 20th century, and is capable of doing much more damage going forward. I examined the history and practice of universalism, its pathway to genocide, and what libertarians may do about it in a sweeping essay.

Welton offered a history of imperialism and colonialism, considering the bad name it has unjustly acquired, the joint-stock and free state models, and how colonialism might be used to create a libertarian social order.

Black Friday is revered by most libertarians as a celebration of free-market capitalism. I updated my explanation of why this reverence is misplaced.

My final think piece of the year will continue into 2019, but the first part offers a detailed explanation of the concept of immaterial technology.

All in all, it was an interesting year full of occasions to make sharp libertarian and reactionary arguments. May 2019 bring more and better!

Book Review: Anarcho-Monarchism

Anarcho-Monarchism is a collection of 30 essays by libertarian author Insula Qui. The book explores various issues from a libertarian reactionary perspective, all of which factor into a synthesis of anarchy and monarchy.

The introduction sets out the purpose of the book, which is to synthesize liberty and authority in such a way as to avoid the apparent contradictions in doing so. According to Qui, this is done through careful nuance. She recommends an alternate order in which one may read the book, but this is only necessary for those unfamiliar with any libertarian reactionary thought. She includes here a disclaimer that the work is not professionally edited, which unfortunately is more glaringly obvious than in her previous book.

In What is Anarcho-Monarchism?, Qui offers an extended introduction. She proposes that the non-aggression principle is necessary but not sufficient, and that property rights will lead to natural hierarchies that culminate in monarchs. These monarchs are different from the absolute rulers of history, in that they rule based on merit and ability rather than coercion.

The Contradiction of Freedom explores the limitations of freedom as pertains to the mutual incompatibility of each person being free to do as one will, which naturally leads to people violating each other’s freedoms. The differing conceptions of freedom offered by competing political ideologies motivate further conflicts in this regard. She summarizes these conditions thus:

“To fight for freedom qua freedom is to fight for other people to be able to impose their vision of freedom onto you. To fight for freedom is simply to fight for the dominance of an unspecified party, and as such if you fight for freedom you fight for subjugation. However, there is still the slight hope that you will be the one doing the subjugating.”[1]

She resolves this problem by advocating as a pragmatic matter that there must be a pursuit of autonomy to avoid needless conflicts in which people seek to impose their vision of freedom upon everyone else. Qui concludes the essay by denouncing the egoism of Max Stirner as the worst combination of freedom and autonomy.

In The Final Arbiter, Qui deals with the problem of final resolution of disputes. She considers various possibilities for how such a final arbiter may exist outside of a monopolistic legal system. Unfortunately, she accepts the opponent’s framing of the question and spends all of her effort in trying to answer it rather than rejecting the concept of a final arbiter as either nonsensical (in that no person or institution can absolutely guarantee that any issue will be resolved forever with no possibility of review) or guaranteed by nature (the dead cannot dispute and every person eventually dies, so the Grim Reaper is the final arbiter).

The fourth essay is The Centralization of Defence, and it argues against the contention of Robert Nozick and others that market anarchy would eventually be undone by centralization of defense agencies leading to the re-establishment of states. Qui admits the advantages of centralizing defense, such as volume discounts and the reduction of transaction costs. But as she explains,

“[P]eople do not constantly need viable alternatives. Rather, what is necessary is the possibility of alternatives emerging.”[2]

In other words, the mere threat of competition can inspire existing companies to provide better service. But more importantly,

“[T]he system of law enforced by the agencies of defence is independent from those agencies that provide physical protection. There is no one agency that should have control over both law and force, and these industries would always be separate. If these industries are not provided by different agencies, the defence agency would become a dictator and would become what it was supposed to defend against.”[3]

The separation of law creation and law enforcement into entities that are not under the same umbrella would be absolutely necessary to avoid the tyranny of modern nation-states. Finally, there is the problem of a powerful defense agency simply conquering a territory and declaring itself a new state. Qui admits that this is possible but not certain, which while less than ideal, is better than the certainty of the current system.

Pro-War, Anti-Nation offers a strong case for the incompatibility of nationalism with warmongering, noting the dysgenic effect of sending the best men to die, the economic ruin brought by wartime destruction and production diversion, and the loss of moral foundation. Qui argues that true nationalism has been corrupted by imperialism, and restoring non-interventionist thinking is the path back to sanity. To her credit, she recognizes the possibility of restoration of martial virtues in a defensive war.

In The Necessity of Force, Qui argues against the utopian ideas of some left-libertarians who advocate a goal of universal nonviolence. She writes,

“ There will always be people who use force and there will always be people who need to respond to force with force to ensure that the original initiator of violence can be brought to justice. …If there are no people who are willing to use force to secure relative peace for people who do not want to use force, then people who are willing to use violence for personal gains would always achieve unjust outcomes for the sake of themselves.”[4]

She also demonstrates that this need not devolve into a state, as the incentive structures involved give advantages to defenders over aggressors.

Qui considers the corruption of libertarian philosophy for the purpose of appealing to leftists in Brutal Freedom. Here, she considers the flip side of full personal responsibility to its logical conclusion of social Darwinism, though she does not use the term in this essay. Though charity may mitigate brutality somewhat, Qui argues that some brutality will remain, as these charities will only help those who are willing to help themselves and just need a temporary step up.

All Men Are Created Equal is a brief essay that addresses that all too common liberal fiction. As usual,

“Definitions change and juxtaposing a modern notion with a classical one results in a misunderstanding of much thought in the classical tradition.”[5]

As such, she compares modern notions of equality with the classical liberal idea of getting rid of titles of nobility and other such birthrights. This classical idea of human biological diversity and meritocracy is contrasted with the modern idea of equality of outcome. But Qui commits an error at the end, arguing for classical equality instead of natural inequality.

Social Darwinism is given direct treatment in the ninth essay. Qui argues that far from trying to deny such an accusation, capitalists should embrace this sort of thinking. She illuminates the difference between actively killing and passively allowing death, showing expectation of survival to be a revolt against nature. But then she makes a dubious assertion:

“If a system allows people to gain unearned advantages, that system ceases to be a social darwinist [sic] one. This is because it starts to encourage parasitism and negative qualities instead of the advancement of all individuals.”[6]

Left unsaid is what constitutes an unearned advantage. There is also the problem that one does not earn one’s own genetic code, and that parasitism and other negative qualities are part of the evolutionary process. However, she correctly recognizes that a Darwinian process applies not just to who can survive, but who will occupy each station in life. She argues that social Darwinism will prevent charity from being wasted on those who will never become productive members of society, with resources instead flowing to those who prove themselves best at managing them.

In The Rule of Law, Qui briefly contemplates the impossibility of any political system securing the rule of law, as any such system places someone above the law. She argues for a separation of law and state:

“The only solution to this is to remove the managerial position when it comes to law from being legitimized by the coercive use of force and to put law on the same level as every other industry. We can have the managerial position of law be put onto the free market where each person is able to patronize the providers of law and where each person is also free to not do so. Thus the people who are in the position that is traditionally one of governance become reduced to the level of every person who is not within the system of governance. In that manner, it is possible to create a situation where there are no privileged positions and there is real equality before the law.”[7]

Of course, this raises the usual objections of the wealthiest patrons ultimately deciding the law by which enforcers they will hire for which purposes, the free rider problem, and the possibility of re-emerging states, none of which are adequately addressed in the essay.

Against Taxes is the first long essay of the book, and approaches the case against taxation in economic terms rather than the usual moral arguments. Qui uses opportunity cost, price mechanisms, the lack of market accountability of the state, the cost of collecting taxes, the cost of prosecuting tax resistance, wealth transfer from competent stewards to incompetent stewards, and the impossibility of creating a taxation scheme that does not disproportionately harm the poor to make this case. She concludes the essay by debunking the idea of public goods.

In High Trust, Qui provides an overview of various types of individualism, settling on ethical individualism as most conducive to a libertarian social order. She also considers the role of homogeneity in strengthening trust. Unlike mainstream libertarians, Qui accepts the impact of genetics:

“Due to evolutionary pressures in different ecosystems and climates, genes change in humans when they are in different areas of the world. [T]hese genes affect the culture and they create the basis for culture. Furthermore, even if a member of a genetic group comes into contact with the culture of another, they still have the genetic incentives of their original culture.”[8]

The essay concludes by explaining why high trust is important. Where Qui goes astray is with her insistence on nonviolent means of enforcing social norms; violence has almost always entered into this process and will likely continue to do so. There is also no mention of the possibility for technology to reduce the need for trust.

In Liberty, Property, Society, Qui argues against critics who accuse libertarians of being anti-social because they reject coercive institutions. Defining liberty as self-determination and explaining property as a rational method for allocating scarce resources, she concludes that this allows for social interaction to be maximized. She explains the difference between capitalism and corporatism, which critics of libertarianism (and many libertarians as well) frequently confuse. The essay concludes by exploring the reversal of the argument, that a lack of liberty and property will undermine society.

With The Family in Capitalism, Qui begins addressing the relationship between libertarianism and the far-right. She addresses the far-right contention that capitalism is anti-family. Unlike left-libertarians, many of whom view the breakdown of traditional family structures as a positive, Qui argues that the state and the corporatism it enables has done this to everyone’s detriment. She shows that both states and corporations are incentivized to destroy the family as a challenger and impediment to their power. She understands that capitalism is an amoral process; garbage inputs result in garbage production, while good inputs result in the production of virtue. The ending deals with women in the workforce, and bears quoting at length:

“[T]here is the…point that capitalism pushes women into the workforce…so there is a need for fascist economics to avoid this phenomenon. This argument has a compelling point. Capitalists are directly benefited by there being a surplus of labour to make those who own capital able to lower wages in the economy. This would eventually correct itself and, given enough time, the supply of capital would reach the demand for capital. But capitalists hold political power in an unfree market. We can say that when the capitalists hold both political and economic power, capitalism has inherent forces that destroy the family. This cannot be achieved with economic power alone. There would be no way to force women into the workforce and keep profits from increasing the size of the workforce. However, in a free market, the capitalists cannot prevent additional capital from entering the market and cannot alter the amount of labour in the economy by incentive structures.

Furthermore, it is simply profitable due to the division of labour for women to stay home and take care of the children while the father works. This is for multiple reasons, usually men earn more since they are more productive and more willing to work longer hours. Women are more apt at taking care of children and more emotionally attached to the process of child-rearing. Thus, if a couple aims to produce healthy children in a good family with enough wealth, that couple needs a division of labour that would fit the strengths of all people in the family.”[9]

The Case for Tradition argues against “libertine hedonihilism,” as Qui terms it. This is the left-libertarian view of liberty as freedom to engage in any degenerate behavior whatsoever as long as no one else is aggressed against. She argues that the family is the bedrock of society, therefore a stable libertarian order will be undermined by anything that erodes family values. She writes,

“Every society is organized along some lines, even a society with no coercive power system creates a system of exclusion, rules of interaction, and other norms to stabilize social life under the system. These social foundations may be implicit or explicit, however, they will always exist and thus we should make sure that the everpresent [sic] organizational principles result in a society that produces the best quality of life for the people involved. The libertine recoils at this statement as he firmly believes that all people should be left alone to be as degenerate as they want to be and no person should be bothered by any sort of moralism. But even the libertine must function within a society and that society will have organizational principles.”[10]

Qui explains the difference between individualism as isolation and individualism as independence. She then describes tradition thus:

“[T]radition is not to be understood as the corrupted american [sic] concept of tradition. So-called family values, military histories, and constitutions do not constitute a historical basis for organizing society. Rather, tradition is the all-encompassing concept of the cultural heritage and the knowledge of all people involved in those traditions. Tradition is the manifestation of the cultural group that created the traditions. …Simply put, tradition is the spontaneous historical order of a nation and to not respect tradition would be to not respect proper social structures.”[11]

She urges libertarians to appeal to rightists instead of leftists as a more natural fit, much as Murray Rothbard did in his 1992 essay Right-Wing Populism. She finishes the essay by thinking of tradition as a collection of best practices through the ages, which while imperfect, was good enough to bring people this far.

In Community, Tradition, Liberty, the same matters are approached from the angle of community as a mitigating factor for the degeneracy that can result if people regard themselves as atomized individuals. The role of social capital as an economic factor is also discussed, along with lower transaction costs and better economic calculation as people form tight-knit communities. She then considers the problems of implementing traditional values absent liberty.

The Two Laws of Nature begins a streak of five controversial essays, in which Qui attempts to bridge the liberty-authority divide. She describes her undertaking as follows:

“In the niche sphere of radical politics, you find two very contrasting American intellectual traditions with their own notions of what is the natural law. American white nationalists and fascists occasionally claim that the law of nature forms a brutal order of self-defence and racial animosity. Radical libertarians interpret the law of nature as something that guarantees rights to each person. I would propose a synthesis of these two laws of nature to combine them into a proper set of moral values. This could form a social order that is a combination of libertarian and extreme traditionalist-nationalist values. Furthermore, this synthesis is highly similar to classical concepts of natural law which combine both personal morality and rights.”[12]

She considers fascist ethics as being rooted in animal behavior and adapted to take account of the differences between humans and lower animals. This sets up hierarchies as the natural form of organization, while egalitarianism and democracy are revolts against nature. By contrast, Qui views libertarianism as constructed from reason, from which the non-aggression principle and private property rights emerge. But curiously, she refers to libertarian theory as “empty tautologies.” She describes her proposed synthesis thus:

“Each person ought to value their tribe, know their place in society, attempt to form a family, and defend themselves. This is not to say that each person can succeed at all of these, there are certain inherent limitations. [H]owever, these things should be required for living a perfectly moral life. The tribe does not have to be a race or a nation, the tribe would rather be the community in which you find yourself.”[13]

The next essay is National Socialism and Libertarianism, and it deals with common premises shared between libertarians and national socialists, which are commonly believed to be diametrically opposed. Qui believes these to be that society should emerge organically, opposition to parasitism, recognition that the state is an institution of force, and intolerance of communism. The manifestation of each of these differs greatly; is the parasite the state or Jewry, are parasites best removed by the market or the state, and so on. She closes with a warning:

“[I]t is very easy to become disillusioned with freedom when one realizes for which purposes freedom is used. Because there are overlaps in the general worldview of fascists and libertarians, it becomes easy to simply remove the seemingly problematic aspect of freedom that leads to various ills within libertarianism.”[14]

“However, this does not mean that libertarians are similar to fascists or that it is necessarily libertarian to intermingle with fascists.”[15]

Authoritarianism Versus Libertarianism deals head-on with the central issue of the book. Qui argues that liberty and authority are incompatible in the political realm, but can come together outside of politics. Again defining liberty as self-determination, she finds the enemy of liberty to be not authority but coercion. She writes,

“When strong command structures and a social order predicated upon a strong focus on authority can defeat coercion at large in society, then authoritarianism is more libertarian than perceivedly unauthoritarian structures. This may seem impossible. After all, when there are strong structures of command it seems like there could not be any room to exercise liberty. But this ignores human action and psychology. These strong command structures do not liberate people from command structures but rather give them the liberty to decide what they do outside authority.”[16]

This kind of liberty under authority comports well with both traditional and neoreactionary thinking. Qui also has an explanation for why this is poorly understood among libertarians:

“But the people who want to be left alone to practice their liberty are also the people who are viscerally opposed to being constrained by command structures. This means that they often overlook how these seemingly oppressive structures can actually benefit the ability to exercise control over your own life. A government that makes a few demands in a very authoritative manner should always be preferable to a government that makes many demands in a democratic manner.”[17]

She spends the remainder of the essay considering the benefits of non-coercive command structures over coercive ones as well as a lack thereof.

Qui’s flirtation with neoreaction continues in Strong and Small. Here, she argues that an ideal state exercises hegemonic control and strong political authority, but does not needlessly involve itself in every facet of society. She uses public choice theory to show that states are inclined to grow, either by becoming stronger or larger (or both). She contends that a strong state will primarily look after its own interests, while a weak state will do the bidding of various special interests. But this contention is dubious because a strong state can have special interests and factionalism internally rather than externally, leading to similar problems. Her conclusion is that a state can either function as an anarcho-tyranny (as many currently do) or as a liberal autocracy, a strong state that does very little.

Libertarianism and Fascism began as an article here at Zeroth Position, though the version in this book is significantly different. Qui compares the spectrum between libertarianism and neoliberalism that leads to left-libertarianism to the spectrum between libertarianism and fascism that can lead to a type of libertarian reaction. She provides a history of the various fascist movements, though this history is not exhaustive. Next comes an overview of fascist ideology, which Qui explains as placing the advancement of the nation above all else. Of a potential synthesis of libertarianism and fascism, she writes,

“Fascism undoubtedly preserves property more than left-wing socialism does, thus fascist sympathies cannot be construed as completely anti-libertarian. But one cannot take both nation and property as ultimate goals. This is because the conflicts between these goals would have to be solved by means of arbitrary decision. This means that libertarianism and fascism cannot be combined as ideologies because their premises are different. One may combine republicanism, minarchism, monarchism, anarcho-capitalism, etc. into a broad political movement, as the premises of these positions are sufficiently similar. But there is no way to create a big tent movement that can accurately represent the interests of both fascists and libertarians; the premises come into too much conflict.”[18]

She concludes that although fascists and libertarians are incompatible in the long-term, they can work together against common enemies by setting aside their incompatibilities to deal with common enemies.

Conversely, the lengthy essay Producerism was later adapted from this book into a Zeroth Position article. Qui’s contention that efficiency is the base value of libertarianism is questionable at best. She describes producerism (differently from most sources) as trying to increase production in general, both of material and immaterial goods. Her claim that producerism is the only metaphysically consistent form of political philosophy requires more support than is given, as she does not prove uniqueness as needed. Much of the rest of the essay repeats material from earlier in the book. This essay would have benefited greatly from exploring the dangers of overproduction as a source of degeneracy instead of containing so much repetition.

Communitarian Libertarianism deals with yet another possible synthesis between libertarianism and another school of thought. Qui blames the strategic errors of Friedrich Hayek for the top-down focus of political libertarianism, which has so far failed to convince elites to be more libertarian for entirely predictable reasons. Though she correctly notes that warfare against the state would be required for the masses to implement libertarianism, she does not contemplate the possibility of a rogue elite leading the way to liberty, as neoreaction does. Qui instead focuses on building communities as a bulwark against the leviathan state, as this is what worked in pre-modern times.

The provocatively titled The Final Solution to the Banking Question argues for a fundamental reform of banking systems. Qui begins by explaining what is wrong with contemporary banking, which essentially functions as a globalist system of debt slavery. Before proposing a solution, she describes a conflict between two sets of critics of banking:

“Our approach to banking should not be about turning a blind eye to unethical action, rather it should wholly be a method of critique and instituting a market solution to a state problem. And there are plenty of people who critique banks from an anti-market perspective. They propose different solutions as they feel that banks are unethical by nature and not by circumstance.”[19]

She provides a standard free-market defense of interest as a measure of time preference. Her proposed solution is quite similar to the Banking Act of 1933 (better known as Glass-Steagall), in that she would separate savings and loan banks from investment banks, disallowing any institution to practice both. Strangely, there is no mention of cryptocurrency and its potential to eliminate the need for banks as we know them.

Familism refers to primacy of the family rather than the individual or any larger collective. Qui argues that families cannot be separated into discrete sub-units in economic analysis, as the income and spending of the individuals is too intertwined. More broadly,

“In cultures that have not been subject to American cultural imperialism, there is often no such thing as individualism divorced from the family. In most of the world, individualism does not imply that the individual should be independent from the constraints of the family, but rather that individuals should be focused on their own family. However, due to the increasingly westernized [sic] nature of the world, this is not a commonplace meaning.”[20]

She contends that unless families consist of degenerate and/or aggressive people, alienated individualism and non-familial collectivism are less optimal than familism. According to Qui, one redefines one’s family through redefining oneself, and advancing one’s family by giving rise to the next generation is the purpose of economic action.

Neo-Feudalism explores the common ground between libertarianism and feudalism, which is quite rich despite libertarianism’s origins in anti-feudalism. Qui makes the case that a natural landed aristocracy will arise out of libertarian standards for property ownership, but the absence of coercion would allow for more turnover of incompetent landowners. Second, the defense structures of anarcho-capitalism greatly resemble that of feudal lords, but Qui again hand-waves the issue of potential re-establishment of states. Even so, the destruction wrought by modern nation-states dwarfs anything under feudalism. She also notes the benefit of using mercenaries for lessening “my country, right or wrong” sentiments.

The Case for Guilds argues that trade unions are a statist corruption of the older system of guilds, which should be reborn and adapted for the future economy. Qui highlights the issue of guilds being run by the best in their line of work, while unions are run by the best at rent-seeking. The means by which guilds ensure quality in ways that unions, trade schools, and universities do not are also discussed.

In Greatness, Qui contemplates the conflict between modernity and potential for excellence. She blames the Enlightenment for abandoning the virtues of previous eras:

“Rationalism became replaced by populism, religious tolerance became replaced by institutional secularism, human advancement became replaced by anti-traditionalism, and an opposition to absolute and tyrannical monarchs became an opposition to monarchy. This was not helped by the opponents of the enlightenment [sic] as they were not staunch traditionalists, but rather simply anti-rationalists and similarly opposed to greatness. They only helped create the monsters of the enlightenment and the popular philosophy that started the downfall of the world.”[21]

This assessment of the Counter-Enlightenment is only partially accurate; for example, Joseph de Maistre opposed a rational foundation for governance because he believed it would only lead to arguments devolving into violence over whether this or that particular government was legitimate. Qui goes on to expose the contradiction between popular democratic will and eternal values. She then describes the progression from Enlightenment values to progressivism:

“Without equality, liberty, fraternity we would have never reached egality, entitlement, collectivity. It is a logical progression from wanting to abolish institutional privilege to wanting to abolish every kind of privilege. The same is true with wanting the ability to be undisturbed by other people and the ability to be undisturbed by the fundamental realities of the world. Respect for your fellow man can easily lead to demanding that the focus of each person be on their fellow man.”[22]

In Kings by Merit, Qui advocates authority as the means for creating virtue, which she believes liberty cannot do on its own. Why this would involve removing authority from economics or politics is left an open question, as degeneracy is especially prone to manifest there. She describes the libertarian king as a societal patriarch who is followed voluntarily for his leadership skills, which she believes is necessary for most people to avoid being led astray by the various demagogues that arise from time to time. Qui views the king’s function as combating parasitism and embodying virtue. She writes,

“The king would logically then be the person in society who has the highest degree of virtue and the highest degree of merit, voluntary monarchy is the ultimate meritocracy as the most qualified person would have the most power. The…person who is the most righteous and most capable would be the king. …Monarchy in any other way and democracy in all ways results in situations in which the rulers are people who do not embody virtue, although this happens far more with democracy than with monarchy. It does not mean that involuntary rule will always necessarily be against virtue, but we need exemplary kings to embody virtue and we only get exemplary kings through voluntary monarchy”[23]

The final essay, For an Anarchist Monarchy, closes the book on its central theme. Qui discusses the failures of combining monarchy with democracy, then proposes a synthesis of monarchy with anarchy by retaining the best principles of both while mitigating the potentially destructive aspects of both with a voluntary monarchic system.

The book ends with a single page advocating further reading of her series “On Libertarianism and Statecraft” here at Zeroth Position.

The first word that comes to mind when describing the entire collection is ‘unfinished.’ The grammatical constructions and punctuation are awkward throughout. A book of this many essays should be categorized into sections of similar subject matters, and the table of contents lacks page numbers. Each of the essays would benefit from a much deeper bibliography, as there are many important points which are simply asserted without proper support. The essays are also somewhat disjointed, in that they do not refer to each other to save space. That being said, the thoughts expressed in this book are sufficiently intriguing to merit reading despite these flaws.

Rating: 3.5/5

References:

  1. Qui, Insula (2018). Anarcho-Monarchism. p. 22.
  2. Ibid., p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 40.
  4. Ibid., p. 57.
  5. Ibid., p. 66.
  6. Ibid., p. 71.
  7. Ibid., p. 80.
  8. Ibid., p. 104.
  9. Ibid., p. 123–4.
  10. Ibid., p. 127.
  11. Ibid., p. 129.
  12. Ibid., p. 146.
  13. Ibid., p. 153.
  14. Ibid., p. 162.
  15. Ibid., p. 160.
  16. Ibid., p. 168.
  17. Ibid., p. 169.
  18. Ibid., p. 189–90.
  19. Ibid., p. 224–5.
  20. Ibid., p. 232.
  21. Ibid., p. 257.
  22. Ibid., p. 259–60.
  23. Ibid., p. 268–9.

On Private Imperialism and Colonialism

In the modern academy, no “sin” is seen as more reprehensible than racism. Colonialism and European imperialism (and only European imperialism) are equally damned by the professoriat as the arch-manifestations of racism. Take, for instance, a scholar like the German-born, Harvard-reared Sven Beckert, whose books claim that capitalism in the Western world is inextricably tied to the enslavement of Africans. Therefore, capitalism equals slavery, which equals racism, thus capitalism is illegitimate. This is the logic of post-Marxism in a nutshell.

Given this reality, how could anyone with a modicum of respectability stand up and cheer for imperialism? There are two worthy cases within living memory, and both merit discussion.

Colonialism’s Bad Name

Dinesh D’Souza penned “Two cheers for colonialism” in 2002. D’Souza argues that “the articles of faith” spouted by “Third World intellectuals” are not true. D’Souza uses two examples; the first is the Marxist historian Walter Rodney, whose book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa says that European colonial powers are responsible for “draining African wealth and making it impossible to develop more rapidly the resources of the continent.”[1] Rodney’s view is echoed by millions of leftists around the world, who, like Karl Marx, make the fatal mistake of assuming that wealth is only generated through labor and material extraction.

A more insidious writer was the Francophone psychiatrist Franz Fanon, whose book The Wretched Earth became one of the most popular reads among the Western counter-cultural set of the 1960s. D’Souza quotes Fanon,

“European opulence has been founded on slavery. The well-being and progress of Europe have been built up with the sweat and the dead bodies of Negroes, Arabs, Indians and the yellow races.”[2]

According to Fanon, Europeans have nothing about which to be proud.

D’Souza contends that this is all hogwash. “The West did not become rich and powerful through colonial oppression,” writes D’Souza. “It makes no sense to claim that the West grew rich and strong by conquering other countries and taking their stuff.” Rather, D’Souza notes that Western imperialism (namely British imperialism) added vital resources to their foreign territories (e.g. the introduction of rubber to Malaysia), introduced such thoroughly Western concepts as scientific inquiry, democracy, and capital investment, and rose the overall standard of living for non-white populations from Africa to the Philippines.

“Two cheers for colonialism” did not make too many waves because it was written by a well-known and outspoken mouthpiece of the Republican Party. The same cannot be said about the article published by Prof. Bruce Gilley of Portland State University. In 2017, Gilley wrote an article titled “The Case for Colonialism” that was published in Third World Quarterly. The outrage was immediate. The journal called the piece “offensive,” while online mobs howled not only for Gilley to be fired, but to be stripped of his doctorate. The journal’s editor claimed that he had received threats of violence against his person. All of this was for the apparently extreme assertion by Gilley that good governance by Europeans in the colonies lifted millions of people out of wretched poverty.

Besides elucidating the intolerance of the Left and academia (a fact hardly worth noting anymore), Gilley’s reviled article also put forward a proposal to bring back some form of colonialism. Gilley’s example includes the poverty-stricken nation of Guinea-Bissau, which until the 1970s, was a Portuguese colony. He writes,

“Suppose that the government of Guinea-Bissau were to lease back to Portugal the small uninhabited island of Galinhas that lies 10 miles off the mainland and where the former colonial governor’s mansion lies in ruins. The annual lease would be US$1 so that the Portuguese spend their money on the island and the Guinea-Bissau government is not dependent on a lease fee. Suppose, then, that the US$10 million to US$20 million in foreign aid wasted annually on the country were redirected to this new offshore colony to create basic infrastructure.”[3]

Gilley’s idea is not only controversial, but inconceivable. Portugal’s electorate would never vote to absorb Galinhas, regardless of whether or not it is inhabited. No democracy would vote for imperialism, no matter how conservative or “racist” the voters are. Imperialism is simply too expensive and has too many ugly connotations to appeal to any voting public. This is why none of the great European (or non-European) empires were brought into being by voters.

How then can imperialism be revived? A possible answer lies in imperialism without the state. There are at least two models of non-state imperialism from history which could be resurrected in the modern world. More importantly, these stateless empires could appeal to libertarians, despite the oft-cited contention that libertarianism and imperialism are diametrically opposed to one another.

The Joint-Stock Company Model

The greatest overseas empire in history, the British Empire, did not come about thanks to a professional army or Parliament’s funding of a world-dominating navy. Rather, Britain’s rise as the world’s most powerful state occurred because of royally chartered, quasi-private companies like the Virginia Bay Company and the East India Company. While some of these joint stock companies later became indistinguishable from the central state in London, they began as semi-independent entities cherished by the English, then British crown for their cheapness and the revenue and taxes they kicked back to the home isle.

The genesis of the joint-stock company began in the late 16th century, when Richard Hakluyt suggested to Queen Elizabeth I that company-controlled colonies in the New World would provide the Kingdom of England with a way to both harass the Spanish and remove from the metropole debtors, vagrants, and other “undesirables” (e.g. Scottish and Irish POWs).[4] Elizabeth I was not swayed, mostly because Sir Walter Raleigh’s adventures in the New World had generally failed.

King James I, the founder of the Stuart dynasty in England, had more of a gambler’s personality. In 1606, he established the Virginia Company as a way to colonize the New World. The fear of failure was high, and the starting costs for this venture were enormous. However, England at that time had plenty of willing investors. The second sons of noble families were willing to invest in the venture because English common law barred them from inheriting property. Merchants in southern England, many of whom had become stiff-necked Puritans, saw in the Virginia Company and others a possible way to flee the strictures of the Anglican Church. Helping matters too was the fact that England was awash in the landless poor, thousands of whom would wind up as workers (or slaves) in the plantations of Virginia, the Carolinas, and New England.

Unlike the colonialism of Spain or France, England’s joint-stock model gave investors as sense that the colonial enterprise belonged to them, not just the king. Whereas New Spain and New France were conquered by brave men filled with either religious zeal or the lust for gold, England’s Empire in the New World began as a business venture. This business venture proved highly enduring. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which had been founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company, English settlers were left to handle their own affairs. Massachusetts formed its own militia, created its own courts and churches, and even established its own schools and universities.

Such semi-independence derived from the Massachusetts Bay Charter of 1629, which legally bound the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a company-ruled plantation with only minimal supervision from England. The charter reads,

“Wee will, and by theis Presents, for Us, our Heires and Successors, doe ordeyne and graunte, That the Governor of the saide Company for the tyme being, or in his Absence by Occasion of Sicknes or otherwise, the Deputie Governor for the tyme being, shall have Authoritie from tyme to tyme upon all Occasions, to give order for the assembling of the saide Company, and calling them together to consult and advise of the Bussinesses and Affaires of the saide Company, and that the said Governor, Deputie Governor, and Assistants of the saide Company, for the tyme being, shall or maie once every Moneth, or oftener at their Pleasures, assemble and houlde and keepe a Courte or Assemblie of themselves, for the better ordering and directing of their Affaires, and that any seaven or more persons of the Assistants, togither with the Governor, or Deputie Governor soe assembled, shalbe saide, taken, held, and reputed to be, and shalbe a full and sufficient Courte or Assemblie of the said Company, for the handling, ordering, and dispatching of all such Buysinesses and Occurrents as shall from tyme to tyme happen.”[5]

Such autonomy was the norm in New England until 1686, when the crown in London consolidated the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies in order to form the Dominion of New England. Under Governor Edmund Andros, England tried to remake the Dominion of New England in the image of the motherland. These attempts ran into trouble when the Church of England was instituted in the Puritan heartland. The Dominion of New England did not last past the Glorious Revolution and the unseating of the last Stuart monarch, King James II.

Besides the New World companies, the most famous English/British joint stock company was the British East India Company. Founded and incorporated by royal charter in December 1600, the East India Company’s original goal was to enhance English trade with India and Southeast Asia. Much like the Virginia Company, the East India Company was born out of England’s desire to take the trade in spices, tea, and other items away from its imperial adversaries; namely, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. By 1757, the company was the ruler of Bengal. From this time until the passage of the India Act in 1784, all sovereign decisions made in company-ruled India were made by the East India Company’s shareholders.

Today, companies are far more wealthy and powerful than the East India Company ever was. Although most corporations cooperate hand-in-glove with governments (both foreign and domestic), they have the resources and the wherewithal to establish private empires in the world’s less developed regions. A new East India Company could be easily established today. For instance, in borrowing Dr. Gilley’s idea, some import/export company could buy Galinhas island and protect it with private military contractors. Other countries in Africa, Asia, or Latin America could be similarly enticed to sell off parts of land that are either unproductive or too expensive for their meager government budgets. These countries would then be granted favored status in trade.

As far as issues of immigration or citizenship are concerned, such matters would be left up to the company. However, the easiest solution would be to grant citizenship or residency only to those who hail from the company’s country of origin or the country that sells the land to the company.

The Congo Free State Model

Only Nazi Germany is more reviled by the contemporary Left than the Congo Free State, which lasted from 1885 until 1908. Many people know about the cruelties of the Congo Free State thanks to the book King Leopold’s Ghost by lifelong leftist Adam Hochschild. According to Hochschild, the Congo Free State was King Leopold II of Belgium’s private sweatshop, and it culminated in one of history’s deadliest genocides. Hochschild puts the number of people killed by the awful Leopold II at 10 million.

Ryan Faulk argues that Hochschild’s numbers do not conform with the censuses taken of the Congolese population in the late 19th century. For instance, there were only 9,801,150 people in the Congo in 1885 (the first year of Leopold II’s rule). The number of Congolese citizens rose by 1900 to over 10 million souls.[6] Such numbers should be taken with a grain of salt given the high population of transitory slaves in northeastern Congo and the haphazard nature of census-taking in 1900. Still, these numbers call into question not only Hochschild’s body count, but his assertion that Leopold II was one of the world’s greatest butchers.

Similarly, when other European imperial powers investigated the Congo Free State after journalistic investigations into the practice of torturing and mutilating native rubber plantation workers, they found that such practices were not official Congo Free State policy.[7] Instead, members of the Force Publique, an armed constabulary made up of black Africans commanded by white, mostly Belgian officers, were singled out for committing cruel acts without official sanction.[8]

We can now highlight the unique innovation of the Congo Free State. Namely, this colony was not ruled by Belgium, but was ruled by King Leopold II as his private property. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, Leopold II convinced Europe’s major powers that he was interested in philanthropic work in the Congo. Rather than annex the Congo on behalf of the government of Belgium, he used the International Association of the Congo, a private company that he controlled, as the governing institution of the resource-rich African state. This is why Roderick Long and Tibor Machan labeled the Congo Free State as “anarcho-capitalism”.[9]

Under the rule of the IAC, the Congo became the world’s largest exporter of ivory, rubber, and minerals.[10] Its borders and internal divisions were guarded by the Force Publique, which attracted local men looking for steady work, as well as Belgian, European, and American mercenaries looking for profit. Between 1892 and 1894, this minarchist state even fought and won a war against Arab slave traders supported by the Islamic sultanates of Zanzibar and Muscat. This war ended the Arab buying and selling of Congolese flesh. Despite these successes, the Congo Free State is only remembered today for atrocities and gross exploitation. To be sure, the health and wellness of Congolese workers mattered little to the IAC, and it is certainly true that horrible things happened under the watch of King Leopold II. That being said, the design of the Congo Free State remains one of the few truly libertarian states in world history.

Imagine if Galinhas was purchased today not by a country, but by a country’s ruler. Consider American President Donald Trump. Trump, a billionaire businessman who specializes in real estate, could be enticed to personally buy some uninhabited island or chunk of real estate in some cash-strapped country. In return for American investment, Trump, acting only as a private citizen, could legally purchase this land and rule it as he saw fit. Trump’s critics would be horrified by such a proposal, but nonetheless such a legal transaction between a private citizen and a foreign government would be binding. Europe’s remaining monarchs, as well as wealthy businessmen the world over, should consider following in Leopold II’s footsteps while simultaneously avoiding those mistakes which cost Leopold his free state.

Libertarian Objections

It can be argued that imperialism is the antithesis of the libertarian social order. If the conquerors have no legitimate claims to land, then their invasion is no different than a highwayman sticking up fear-struck travelers. If conquerors colonize a land, rule it, but do not exterminate the local natives, then they forever become a thorn in the side of the people. By any legal definition these locals have a right to strike against their unwanted occupiers. However, there is a caveat here. If a colonial power invades a territory, exterminates the local population, then imports their own people, then it becomes less of a legal issue and more of a moral one. Although claims of genocide end with that generation that experienced and committed the genocide, a moral nation would disdain both conquest and genocide.

The problem in making a libertarian alternative to the contemporary state lies in modernization and state formation. The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism defines an empire as “a state of affairs in which one nation, tribe, or political entity (or, actually, their ruling elite) exercises political power over others.” By this definition, the United States, China, and Russia are imperial powers that resort to violence in order to maintain their control over a racially, ethnically, and religiously heterogeneous civilization, despite their stated federalism or anti-colonialist feelings. The power of these states have become so normalized that few today find it possible to rethink the central state model. Therefore, right-libertarians see imperialism as coercive and immoral.

One voice decrying the usual libertarian hatred for imperialism, Faré of The Distributed Republic dismantles the Rothbardian notion that one’s government is always the primary enemy:

“Of course, applying the same ‘logic’, the respective citizens of those countries whose government are in conflict with USG should in turn support the US government in its fight against their own—if only their own government wouldn’t murder them immediately at the mere utterance of such a support. And to take this line of reasoning to its conclusion, a Pole in 1939 should have supported Hitler and Stalin as opponents to his current oppressive government.

A ‘logic’ that reaches different conclusions for different people is actually…polylogism, a fallacy of double standards, a rhetorical device to back whichever absurdity one fancies. Moreover, underlying this fallacy, we see another typical case where people who should know better fall into an accounting fallacy: just because a current oppressor is identified (current account negative) current non-oppressors (current account zero) are considered a better alternative as part of an unrelated future choice between oppressors.”[11]

For Faré, some oppressors are better than others, and the article notes that “the British and French Colonial Powers should have been supported in their conquests of barbarian and totalitarian powers that previously existed in Africa, India, Vietnam, etc.” Although London and Paris exported oppressive states, at least their market-centric states were more beneficial to the average colonial subject than their own prior regimes.

Another complaint is that libertarianism is a peacetime philosophy. This line, which is often used to mock online libertarians, does get to the root of a major problem. Namely, extralegal force must be used in some cases to protect liberty. By extension, in the face of aggressive globalism, it could be argued that the exportation of the libertarian social order is the best defense. To square colonialism with libertarianism, certain factors must be met first before a colonial enterprise can be undertaken. First, can colonial expansion be justified under the idea of defensive violence? If not, then it is not guided by libertarian ethos. Second, the colonial campaign cannot be justified under collective punishment. Finally, colonial violence in the name of protecting a libertarian social order is legitimate only after softer measures have been exhausted against anti-libertarian opponents.

Possible Opportunities for Libertarian Colonialism

If Galinhas were purchased outright by an American company and protected by a private military outfit, then the cost to the American taxpayer would be zero. American and African consumers would benefit from efficient management and trade without having to foot the bill. Even better, if Galinhas proved to be a success, then it could serve as a model for other societies, especially those enduring illegitimate, oppressive, and/or poorly managed regimes. Other American or international companies could also be enticed to purchased uninhabited or sparsely inhabited territories in order to establish local governance overseen by a private entity.

Another possible example of libertarian colonialism could occur somewhere in the Middle East. Because of exhaustive chaos and warfare, perhaps a city in Syria or Iraq decides to become completely independent. As a city-state in the 21st century, this entity would need major outside assistance, as internal objections from its neighbors (especially its former state overseer) would put this hypothetical city-state in troubled waters. Like Galinhas, this city-state may turn to a well-armed private company in order to meet some of its security and economic needs. Employees of the chosen company would then receive citizenship or special privileges within the city-state. Again, as in the case of Galinhas, the Middle Eastern city-state’s foreign backers would be involved in governance because of a private contract between two parties.

Since colonialism is often interchangeable with imperialism, libertarians must find a way to distinguish the two. One way to do this would be to reintroduce a sense of Roman imperium, which means the right or authority to rule. For the Romans, this typically meant a general’s right to rule a legion or the emperor’s right to rule his empire. Imperium almost always meant an individual’s power rather than a nation’s. If this ideal could be wedded to the colonialism of the Archaic Greeks (Greek city-states built commercial centers on mostly uninhabited land), then few libertarians would object.

Finally, defensive colonialism is a possibility. Let us consider South Africa. The serially corrupt South African government led by Cyril Ramaphosa is considering an amendment to the South African Constitution to legalize the taking of private property without compensation.[12] Ernst Roets of AfriForum proved that such illegal land seizures target mostly (if not only) white South African farmers. He and his organization were pilloried by the mainstream media in South Africa and the West.[13] Without fail, when the land seizures began, they not only threw the unstable country into an economic tailspin[14], but white farmers were the ones targeted by the government and wildcat squatters alike.

In the case of South Africa, a private company, a private military order, or some other kind of non-state actor hoping to create a libertarian social order is justified in providing farmers in South Africa with money and security. If the South African Army initiates violence against these hired guns, then the farmers and their supporters would be justified to use violence against the South African state. The aim of this war would be the creation of a separate state within South Africa that would be recognized and supported by those counties currently denouncing Ramaphosa’s land seizures.

Conclusion

Private imperialism would provide the economic benefits of imperialism without the evils of state domination. To be sure, private companies are fully capable of evil on their own, and thus any company considering taking on non-state imperialism must make sure that they do not sink to nepotism, brutality, or any acts that would raise the ire of the always critical (and leftist) international press. Given human fallibility, such strictures may be too difficult to overcome, but private imperialism could be the best solution to the current problems facing the most impoverished nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

References:

  1. Rodney, Walter; Qtd. by D’Souza, Dinesh (2002). “Two cheers for colonialism”. San Francisco Gate. www.sfgate.com.
  2. Fanon, Frantz. Qtd. Ibid.
  3. Gilley, Bruce (2017, Aug. 15). “The case for colonialism”. Third World Quarterly.
  4. “2b. Joint Stock Companies”. U.S. History.org.
  5. “Charter of Massachusetts Bay 1629”, reprinted by American History from the Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond. www.let.rug.nl.
  6. Faulk, Ryan (2016, July 24). “Mythologies About Leopold’s Congo Free State”. The Alternative Hypothesis. http://thealternativehypothesis.org/index.php/2016/07/24/mythologies-about-leopolds-congo-free-state/
  7. Report of the British Consul, Roger Casement, on the Administration of the Congo Free State. https://web.viu.ca/davies/H479B.Imperialism.Nationalism/Br.report.Congo.atrocities.1904.htm
  8. Renton, David; Seddon, David; Zeilig, Leo (2007). The Congo: Plunder and Resistance. London: Zed Books. p. 31.
  9. Long, Roderick T. and Machan, Tibor R., Ed. (2016). Anarchism/Minarchism: Is Government Part of a Free Country? Abingdon, UK: Routledge. p. 50.
  10. Gondola, Didier (2002). The History of Congo. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 66–7.
  11. Faré (2009, Nov. 25). “In Defense of Libertarian Imperialism”. The Distributed Republic. http://www.distributedrepublic.net/archives/2009/11/25/in-defense-libertarian-imperialism/
  12. Merten, Marianne (2018, Nov. 8). “The politics of land expropriation without compensation in the ANC constitutional review proposals”. Daily Maverick. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-11-08-the-politics-of-land-expropriation-without-compensation-in-the-anc-constitutional-review-proposals/
  13. Steenkamp, Hesti (2018, Sep. 26). “South African farmers are indeed in a serious crisis – Ernst Roets”. AfriForum. https://www.afriforum.co.za/south-african-farmers-indeed-serious-crisis-ernst-roets/
  14. Montanari, Lorenzo; Thompson, Philip (2018, Aug. 31). “South Africa Land Seizures Begin, Economic Decline Accelerates”. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenzomontanari/2018/08/31/south-africa-land-seizures-begin-economic-decline-accelerates/

Song Lyrics: Election Song

Verse 1:

(E7) Wake up in the morning
Long before first (E9) light
(E7) Smell the coffee (Bm7) brewing in the
(E7) same pot that you didn’t wash last (A) night
(A7)
(E7) Gonna be alright
(E)
(E7) Pull out of the driveway
Head down to the (E9) polls
(E7) Odds are better (Bm7) that you’ll die in
(E7) a car crash than change the way it (A) goes
(A7)
(E7) Oh, don’t you know?
(E)
(Bm7) Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee
(F#m7) whoever wins the system keeps (E) control
(E7) The status quo

Verse 2:

(E7) Stand there in a long line
Wrapped around the (E9) block
(E7) Brave the pouring (Bm7) rain and cold damp
(E7) air so you can say you cast your (A) lot
(A7)
(E7) Wish you forgot?
(E)
(E7) Get inside the polling place
Know just how to (E9) vote
(E7) Gotta do your (Bm7) civic duty
(E7) Mark the ballot for devils you (A) know
(A7)
(E7) Is it all for show?
(E)
(Bm7) After all its in the hands of
(F#m7) whoever is there to count the (E) votes
(E7) What a sick joke

Verse 3:

(E7) Go about your busy day
Gotta work your (E9) job
(E7) That “I voted” (Bm7) sticker is your
(E7) ticket out of lectures from the (A) mob
(A7)
(E7) Their minds are locked
(E) from propaganda slop
(E7) The hours finally pass
Time to go back (E9) home
(E7) Stuck in traffic (Bm7) listening to
(E7) the last ads play on the (A) radio
(A7)
(E7) Glad they’ll be gone
(E) for two years or so
(Bm7) But the next election season
(F#m7) promises another stupid (E) row
(E7) Hackneyed ebb and flow

Verse 4:

(E7) Supper’s done and now its time
To sit down and (E9) rest
(E7) Switch on the (Bm7) idiot box and
(E7) Watch the results come in too (A) fast
(A7)
(E7) Election’s done at last
(E) Glad its in the past
(E7) One seat stays with Team Red
Another flips for (E9) Blue
(E7) Counting votes like (Bm7) counting sheep and
(E7) sheep are those who vote to put them (A) through
(A7)
(E7) Tell me, is that you?
(E) Yeah, is that you?
(Bm7) Wake up the next morning to find
(F#m7) nothing’s getting better; what a (E) ruse
(E7) and you’ve been fooled

Verse 5:

(E7) No matter who you vote for
The system stays in (E9) place
(E7) Ever growing, (Bm7) ever reaching
(E7) ever looking for more things to (A) claim
(A7)
(E7) A monster without face
(E) Liberty erased
(E7) One hand in your wallet
Another ’round your (E9) neck
(E7) Threaten you (Bm7) with prison time
(E7) unless you obey and send that tax (A) check
(A7)
(E7) That’s truth direct
(E)
(Bm7) Starting wars, funding terror,
(F#m7) turning the whole world into a (E) mess
(E7) Its all grotesque

Verse 6:

(E7) Then you start a-thinking
Is this all there (E9) is?
(E7) Can’t we find a (Bm7) way to solve our
(E7) problems that works out better than (A) this?
(A7)
(E7) Or call it quits
(E) and take our own risks
(E7) But they won’t let us do that
They’ve too much at (E9) stake
(E7) Their vested interest (Bm7) is to stand in
(E7) our way until we cause them to (A) break
(A7)
(E7) Make our escape
(E) Freedom retake
(Bm7) But we’ll have to build and plan and
(F#m7) bide our time until they seal their (E) fate
(E7) with a mistake too great

Outro:
(Bm7) Yeah, we’ll have to build and plan and
(F#m7) bide our time until they seal their (E) fate
(E7) Await that day
Await that day
Await that day
(E)

Henry Olson Misunderstands Libertarianism

On September 25, Social Matter published an article by Henry Olson titled “The Death and Tragic Rebirth of Libertarianism”. While this article raises several important issues for libertarians and gets some points correct, it also has major theoretical problems. Whereas Olson’s misunderstandings are more commonly distributed and believed than correct libertarian theory, and this is a primary reason for many rejections of libertarianism, let us explore them and offer corrections while also noting where his essay is accurate.

Abstract

Olson begins,

“Whatever their partisans claim, political ideologies rarely succeed in describing some timeless truth about the world. More often, their existence is entirely contingent on the events around them. They serve as gathering points for similar personality types to consider the important issues of their day. When the issues change, most partisans move somewhere else, and the ideology goes stale.”

This is mostly correct, though libertarianism (in the Hoppean sense) does succeed in providing a rational proof that self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property form the basis for how people should act, even if it is not how they do act. Though a political ideology can become stale when partisans leave, it can also lead to renewal as those who would use (and abuse) the ideology for their own purposes go elsewhere and take their corruptions with them.

Olson views the rise of political libertarianism through Ron Paul and its recession away from Rand Paul in favor of Donald Trump and the alt-right as an example of this staleness. He describes the passing of the “libertarian moment” in favor of Trumpism and the alt-right as “the sadness of a vanished childhood, where we realized that the dreams we once believed so deeply were only dreams”. But as we will see, this view rests upon a foundation of misunderstanding, as does the mainstream corporatist libertarian position that Olson criticizes.

Libertarian Theory

Olson attempts to provide the reader with a brief overview of libertarian theory, but offers a deeply flawed version of it. He writes,

“The central tenet of libertarianism was always simple. It was based around the so-called ‘non-aggression principle’ (or NAP), which held that anyone may do whatever he pleases with his own property so long as he respects other people’s rights to do the same with theirs. Since the boundaries on what it means to encroach on someone else’s property rights are not always clear, the NAP was typically understood as a prohibition on the initiation of force.”

While it is odd to read of even a former libertarian referring to the “so-called NAP,” the issue here is that self-ownership is the central tenet while NAP and private property are corollaries thereof. Though the definition of “encroachment” is not always clear in the abstract, it usually is clear in practice because people negotiate agreements in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. The exceptions to this tend to be caused by state interference that inhibits the ability of private actors to negotiate such matters between themselves. Olson’s footnote about zoning laws, which suggests that libertarians have no answer to the objection that zoning laws “make communities nicer for nearly everyone and do not significantly harm the few cranks and outliers they inconvenience” suggests an unfamiliarity with libertarian theory. Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s theories on covenant communities resolve such problems, as does the work of many other libertarians on the subject of contracts. If one wishes to prevent “transforming the Vermont village green into a strip mall,” for instance, the charter of a covenant community may provide that this space is never to be developed. The residents of the area may also band together to make socioeconomic life so difficult for anyone who would develop a particular plot that no one would want to take the risk. “Using force to preserve something that nearly everyone appreciates” is not “defined as immoral from the outset”; it simply requires that the proper private legal structures be put into place and that the proper forces be arranged toward that purpose.

Olson raises the canards of Murray Rothbard’s case for letting children starve, Walter Block’s less palatable chapters in Defending the Undefendable, and the apparent love affair that the Mises Institute has with Ebenezer Scrooge. For the former two, it must be said that even the greatest thinkers can be dreadfully wrong on occasion. No philosopher should be followed exactly on reputation alone, but neither should the rest of their canon be rejected without further cause. Defending Scrooge, however, makes far more sense, especially from a Social Darwinist perspective, which a person moving from libertarianism to neoreaction could reasonably possess and retain. Even so, Olson praises libertarianism for giving “the right answers to the most pressing practical issues of the late 2000s,” even if its adherents occasionally wished for a past that never was (also common among reactionaries of all types). However, his history is slightly off. The Austrian School began in 1871 with Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics; those working in the early 20th century (e.g. Ludwig von Mises) were the second generation of Austrian economists.

The Moment Passes

Olson’s initial description of the passing of the “libertarian moment” on the right is poignant:

“As the defections of former libertarians and Tea Partiers to Donald Trump and the alt-right showed, a lot of the libertarians from the Ron Paul years fundamentally did not believe in libertarian theory as much as they thought they did. They flocked to it at the time because it offered an intelligent critique of the Left and the mainstream Right that was otherwise lacking in a time when Sean Hannity and Karl Rove were leading right-wing luminaries. But when a meatier opposition arose—based on nationalism, immigration restriction, and economic protectionism—many libertarians saw no problem in dropping their old beliefs for contradictory ones.”

These people never were libertarians (or Tea Partiers, for that matter); they were anti-progressives and anti-cuckservatives who saw no other political movement that opposed both camps. He then identifies himself as being in this category, which is glaringly obvious by the analytical mistakes in his next paragraph. Olson writes that his “libertarian dream died with the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.” His description of events is saturated with exactly the type of political autism of which reactionaries tend to accuse libertarians. It is true that within context, the police and National Guard forces imposed order upon a rioting mob that was attacking innocent bystanders and destroying their property. But who created that context? For the past century, all levels of American government have worked tirelessly to suppress militia groups that once performed the legitimate functions of the National Guard. Many cities once had racial zoning ordinances that created segregated ghettos where none had existed previously. The welfare state provides perverse incentives that have destroyed black families and grown the criminal element, and government education has failed to prepare them to lead a life outside the criminal justice system. Legal protections for the press dating back to the Constitution itself keep them from facing proper consequences for inciting people to riot, loot, and burn. Wherever one looks, the state is at fault, and expecting them to clean up their own mess is the least that one can ask. It is fair to criticize “the libertarian theorists pontificating on how the best solution would be to privatize the roads, abolish the police, or legalize pot” for not addressing the problem at hand with the implements at hand, but they did far more than “offer only platitudes in the face of real life-and-death problems”.

On the left side, Olson is closer to the target:

“Certain aspects of libertarianism insisted on drug legalization, open borders, and the right to all kinds of weird sex, in what was then an even more aggressive manner than the mainstream Left. But as the ‘mainstream’ Left adopted increasingly radical positions in the culture wars, such that, today, elected Democratic politicians demand that we ‘abolish ICE‘ while Democratic voters nominate transgenders as their gubernatorial candidates, there is little reason for cultural leftists to stick with libertarianism. Why buy the knock-off when the real thing is just as accessible? So these people left too, and joined the freakshow known as liberalism circa 2018.”

His errors here are minor. First, there has always been a degenerate, hedonistic element in majuscule, political Libertarianism. These people come into libertarian circles because they seek a safe space for the practice of their vices, whatever they may be. Leftist elements within libertarianism provide them with this safe space because doing so is an easier way to grow the movement than authentic proselytization. This also gives them occasion to attack right-libertarians for opposing the adulteration and degeneration of their political movement. Second, they are not leaving the Libertarian Party in sufficient numbers to turn it rightward, as many of them know that they lack the talent to perform in a major political party and would rather remain as big fish in a small pond, fighting over worthless scraps of non-existent power.

A Tragic Rebirth?

We now reach the purpose of Olson’s article: to make the case that libertarianism is an enemy in the fight against corporate censorship. He describes the importance of this struggle thus:

“The most important battle of our time is now shaping up to be the battle against the tech monopolists. Whereas issues like changing demographics, non-white immigration to the West, and the glorification of sexual deviancy and hedonistic consumerism over traditional Western norms all pose existential threats to our civilization, the threat from the tech world presents an even more fundamental problem. It challenges whether we will even be able to talk about these other issues at all. By excluding dissident websites from Google search results, by preventing rightists from using Facebook or Twitter to spread their messages, or by banning the Right from online payment processors, private tech monopolists have every bit the same power to silence critics as the old Soviet Cheka.”

Once more, Olson is poised to ignore how the current context was formed. He continues,

“In fact, their power may even be greater. The secret police of the twentieth century communist regimes had to rely on glaringly primitive and brutal tactics like the gulag, the torture chamber, and the firing squad. While a force like the Cheka was obviously able inflict much more pain on individual people than Google can, its obvious brutality could not help but stir up popular resentment; thus, the common refrain that by the fall of the Berlin Wall the only people still believing in communism were American university professors. Therefore, the fact that modern tech companies have given up primitive methods of control for more sophisticated ones is an evolutionary improvement in managerial totalitarianism, not a weakness. The goal of the gulags was rarely to hurt individual people; it was to make the cost of opposing the system prohibitive to others. If Google, Twitter, PayPal, or any other company can silence dissent just by changing search algorithms or banning dissidents from using a service, then it has achieved in the same results in a less intrusive way. And because their methods are less obviously evil, they are also less likely to engender popular disillusionment or revolt.”

That soft power frequently faces less backlash than hard power is important to remember, as is the fact that private enterprise working hand in hand with the state typically results in the worst of both worlds: the evil of the state combined with the efficiency of the market. It is important to remember that the market is fundamentally amoral; it is not a thing but a process. If the inputs are corrupted, so will be the results. Just as markets “find solutions that the government misses” for good, so can they for evil. As Hoppe writes,

“Moreover, free competition is not always good. Free competition in the production of goods is good, but free competition in the production of bads is not. Free competition in the torturing and killing of innocents, or free competition in counterfeiting or swindling, for instance, is not good; it is worse than bad.”[1]

Olson accuses libertarianism of “rush[ing] to the rescue of the establishment censors,” defending them as “private companies [that] can set whatever terms of service they want.” While some prominent libertarians are saying this, proper libertarian theory says no such thing. Instead, it recognizes that corporations are not private companies; they are legal fictions created by the state to shield business owners from full financial liability and ease the enforcement of laws upon those businesses. It is impossible to create a corporation without involving the state, as attempting to do so without chartering or registering the corporation with a state will have no effect. The closest one could come would be to negotiate recognition of a business entity with limited liability with each customer of that business, but this would not be identical to a state-recognized corporation in terms of its interaction with the state or with bystanders. Corporations as we know them are therefore incompatible with libertarianism; they should be replaced by other forms of business organization, such as common-law partnerships and cooperatives.

Olson quotes Rothbard on the matter of freedom of speech:

“Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.”

What both Olson and Rothbard neglect is that, as explained above, corporations exist on the backs of taxpayers who are extorted to fund the government that allows them to incorporate. It is not trespassing for those taxpayers to enter the property of the social media companies, payment processors, etc. and make use of their services against their wishes because their incorporation is a benefit of property rights violations. Therefore, their exercise of private property rights by denying service to people and trespassing them is estopped as long as they remain incorporated.

Olson correctly points out that (misunderstood) libertarian theory serves the progressive leftist establishment, and that they will use the part that serves their interest while ignoring and discarding the other parts and implications, such as the right to discriminate racially. But as shown above, his descriptions of libertarians who do oppose the technology giants are false:

“They range from an acknowledgment of the problem but a refusal to find a solution (e.g., ‘a free speech social media alternative will come eventually, so we can ignore the problem for now’) to a half-baked rationalization that government tech regulation really is not regulation at all (e.g., ‘tech companies get lots of government subsidies, so it really does not aggress against their property rights to regulate them’).”

The consistent libertarians really are not “the tech apologists,” nor are the effective opponents those who would “rally government force to stop them.” If the NAP really said that “we are not allowed to stop them” from “silenc[ing] dissent to aid our ruling class’s efforts to turn America into the Third World and destroy the civilization that we inherited,” then one could reasonably say “to hell with the NAP.” Fortunately, it says no such thing. Government force is the ultimate cause of the problem because it provides the means to destroy Western civilization and empowers the technology giants to become giants that serve as tools of oppression in the first place. Though it may be necessary to break up the near-monopolies of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, this alone will not be sufficient. Nor will regulating them as public utilities, as this will both stifle innovation and incentivize regulatory capture.

Conclusion

Olson’s article is most interesting for its dueling political autisms; he correctly chastises mainstream libertarians for their inability to understand and deal with the current situation, all while remaining blissfully unaware of how his beloved state created the current situation. The solution to censorious technology giants will likely require taking the reins of power, but only for the purpose of setting parts of the Cathedral against other parts in order to hasten its demise. If the Right, per his suggestion, “learn[s] to be unapologetically statist,” it will only retread a predictable course that ends in failure, more robust leftism in the long term, and the abandonment of liberty.

References:

  1. Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 87.

The Myth of Tremendous Government: A Reply to Mark Christensen

Everyone please welcome Darien Sumner, our fourth additional writer at Zeroth Position.

On July 23, Social Matter published an article by Mark Christensen titled “We Need Tremendous Government: Why Conservative Mythology Must Be Disrupted”. His contention is that modern conservatism has long been dominated by libertarians who want to shrink government purely for its own sake, with no attention paid to the costs or consequences. Conservatives, therefore, should rebel against this negative influence and get back to what he contends is the root of conservative thought: Making America Great Again. To do so, it is necessary to embrace the power of the state as a tool for advancing conservative interests. Unfortunately for Christensen, his quest to disrupt conservative mythology runs aground on three major flaws, which we will explore below.

What Christensen Gets Right

Christensen is far from wrong about everything. Indeed, he is highly perceptive on the subject of President Trump. He writes:

“The political leader of Republican America is a man with a very different message. In his journey to the White House, the words from Donald Trump’s mouth rang very different. Something like this: ‘I am a successful businessman. I have built great things and hired great people. The U.S. government is not successful and does not build things right now, but it used to. When I am in charge, I will use my tremendous ability to make it a success which builds great things once more. I will Make America Great Again.’”

This is a fairly accurate assessment, and it is a point that most commentators miss amidst their own axe-grinding: contra the wishful thinking of many libertarians who really ought to know better, Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform has nothing whatsoever to do with limiting the scope of the power of the federal government (and, of course, contra the left, it has nothing to do with racism and Nazis). Trump’s plan to “Make America Great Again” is all about “America”—read: the United States government—building “great things.” It is not merely compatible with big government; it positively requires it.

In this, Christensen is exactly correct, and his own views appear to be entirely in sync with those of the president. Indeed, were his article merely about how Trumpian American greatness is a big government philosophy, there would be no problems with it. Sadly, he attempts to position this philosophy as the One True Conservatism, and thus goes astray.

Flaw #1: Historical Knowledge

Christensen does not appear to be very knowledgeable about the history of conservatism, which is a significant problem. Indeed, the opening of his article reads:

“Since the days of Reagan—and perhaps those of Buckley’s then-new conservative movement—conservatism has been plagued by a false doctrine about government, which shapes both ideological theory and electoral slogans.

It goes something like this: for a variety of social and economic reasons, government is incompetent, inferior, and a necessary evil insofar as it must exist at all. It’s bad. The grand vision of the conservative movement is to roll it back and restrict it in future by whatever means necessary.”

The idea that conservatism owes its origins to William Buckley is patently absurd, and we need not engage in murky attempts to attach anachronistic political labels to the Founding Fathers in order to demonstrate this. It is sufficient, rather, to point out that the origins of conservatism lie in a reaction against what was arguably the first major “progressive” movement: the French Revolution. The true father of conservatism (though, as far as is known, he never used the word) is widely regarded as Edmund Burke, and as good a summary of his thought as can be found comes from his Reflections on the Revolution in France:

“But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. The shallowest understanding, the rudest hand, is more than equal to that task. Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work, for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make every thing the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm, and cheating hope, have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.”[1]

The essence of conservatism at its birth, then, was restraint upon the power of man to destroy that which exists and replace it with that he imagines to be superior. Even Joseph de Maistre, whom one may reasonably suspect of being more sympathetic to Christensen’s cause, called not for stronger or more dynamic government, but for stable and orderly government that certainly did not attempt to create “great things”:

“If perfection was an attribute of human nature, each legislator would speak only once: but, although all our works are imperfect and the sovereign is obliged to support political institutions with new laws to the degree that they become tainted, yet human legislation draws closer to its model by that intermittency of which I was just now speaking. Its repose honors it as much as its original action; the more it acts, the more human, that is to say fragile, are its achievements.

What a prodigious number of laws has resulted from the labors of three French National Assemblies!

From July 1st to October, 1791, the National Assembly passed 2,557

The Legislative Assembly passed, in eleven and a half months 1,712

The National Convention, from the first day of the Republic until 4 Brumaire year IV [October 26, 1795], passed in 57 months 11,210

TOTAL 15,479

I doubt if the three houses of the Kings of France have spawned a collection of such magnitude. Reflecting on this infinite number, two very different emotions are felt successively. The first is that of admiration or at least of astonishment; one is amazed, with Mr. Burke, that this nation, whose frivolity is a byword, has produced such obstinate workers. This structure of law is so huge that it takes the breath away. But astonishment must quickly change to pity when the futility of these laws is recalled, and then one sees only children killing each other to raise a house of cards.”[2]

Maistre was a monarchist, to be sure. However, he supported the monarchy not because he wanted a strong, dynamic leader with plans and visions for society, but because he believed, with quite a bit of evidence, that the monarch would keep things on an even keel:

“[T]he restoration of the Crown would weaken suddenly the whole machinery of the state. The black magic operating at this moment would vanish like a mist before the sun. Kindness, clemency, justice, all the gentle and peaceful virtues would suddenly reappear and bring back with them a certain general gentleness of character, a certain cheerfulness entirely opposed to the somber rigor of the revolutionary regime. No more requisitions, no more legal thefts, no more violence.”[3]

Modern American conservatism arose as a reaction against the rise of American Progressivism, which in turn was spawned by the revivalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century. As Murray Rothbard writes,

“The pietists were those who held that each individual, rather than the church or the clergy, was responsible for his own salvation. Salvation was a matter, not of following prescribed ritual or even of cleaving to a certain fixed creed, but rather of an intense emotional commitment or conversion experience by the individual, even to the extent of believing himself ‘born again’ in a special ‘baptism of grace.’ Moreover, the outward sign—the evidence to the rest of society for the genuineness and the permanence of a given individual’s conversion—was his continuing purity of behavior. And since each individual was responsible for his own salvation, the pietists concluded that society was duty-bound to aid each man in pursuing his salvation, in promoting his good behavior, and in seeing as best it could that he does not fall prey to temptation. The emphasis of the pietists was on converting the maximum number of persons, and in helping them to become and to remain sound.

Society, therefore, in the institution of the State, was to take it upon itself to aid the weaker brethren by various crusading actions of compulsory morality, and thus to purge the world of sin. The secular and the religious were to be conjoined. In the second half of the 19th century, the pietists concentrated on agitating for three such compulsory measures on the state and local level, to save liturgical ‘sinners’ despite themselves: Prohibition, to eradicate the sin of alcohol; Sunday blue laws, to prevent people from violating the Sabbath; and, increasingly toward the end of the century, compulsory public schooling to ‘Americanize’ the immigrants and ‘Christianize the Catholics’, and to use the schools to transform Catholics and immigrants (often one and the same) into pietistic Protestant and nativist molds.”[4]

We see in the pietists, then, the impulses that characterize a progressive: the desire to use the power of the state to compel everyone to live a moral life, and thus to “perfect” society, and, of course, the drive toward great “public works”. Indeed, it was the progressives who sought to “Make America Great Again” in the 19th century. The conservatives, meanwhile, were the poor liturgicals who mainly wanted those nosy Methodists to mind their own business. As Rothbard shows (drawing on the work of the late historian Paul Kleppner), the voting results line up exactly along those lines; in the regions of the country dominated by Catholics, high church Lutherans, and old-style Calvinists (the liturgical faiths), the laissez-faire, mind-your-own-business Democrats consistently come out on top, whereas the pietist regions predominantly elected busybody Republicans. Prior to the election of 1892, the expected party roles were reversed; it is no coincidence that Theodore Roosevelt, the first progressive president, came out of the Republican Party.

It takes but a cursory glance at history to determine that the conservative skepticism of big government does not originate from Ronald Reagan’s stump speeches, and the conservative movement altogether does not owe its origins to William F. Buckley, the man who arguably more than any other, is responsible for turning it into progressivism with a cigar and a monocle. Rothbard writes,

“[T]ake one of Buckley’s early efforts, ‘A Young Republican’s View’, published in Commonweal, January 25, 1952. Buckley began the article in unexceptionable libertarian fashion, affirming that the enemy is the State, and endorsing the view of Herbert Spencer that the State is ‘begotten of aggression and by aggression.’ Buckley also contributed excellent quotations from such leading individualists of the past as H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, and criticized the Republican Party for offering no real alternative to the burgeoning of statism. But then in the remainder of the article he gave the case away, for there loomed the alleged Soviet menace, and all libertarian principles had to go by the board for the duration. Thus, Buckley declared that the ‘thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union’ imminently threatens American security, and that therefore ‘we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.’ In short, a totalitarian bureaucracy must be accepted so long as the Soviet Union exists (presumably for its alleged threat of imposing upon us a totalitarian bureaucracy?). In consequence, Buckley concluded that we must all support ‘the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy,’ as well as ‘large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington—even with Truman at the reins of it all.’ Thus, even at his most libertarian, even before Buckley came to accept Big Government and morality laws as ends in themselves, the pretended National Review ‘fusion’ between liberty and order, between individualism and anti-Communism, was a phony—the individualist and libertarian part of the fusion was strictly rhetorical, to be saved for abstract theorizing and after-dinner discourse. The guts of the New Conservatism was the mobilization of Big Government for the worldwide crusade against Communism”.[5]

This was the Buckleyite doctrine from the very beginning: a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. Surely the idea that Buckley’s ‘conservatism’ was just too small-government is patently absurd.

We see, therefore, that there is no merit to the claims that small-government philosophy somehow infiltrated conservatism during the Reagan years or through the work of Buckley. Indeed, the very origins of conservatism were in push-back against activist government attempting to “build great things” and produce “virtuous people”. If we jettison the historical errors and, with them, the pretense that the drive for a super-state is somehow going to return conservatism to its roots, we are still left with an article making the case for big government in a conservative guise. There are, however, flaws more grave than the historical errors cited above that sink the entire project.

Flaw #2: Philosophical Confusion

Christensen writes,

“Let’s first reframe the concept of competent government. After all, the concept depends heavily on one’s concept of a good society. Precluding the debates of moral philosophy, let’s state that a society is good when it produces virtuous people, cultural genius and beauty, and economic prosperity. By extension, a government is good when it provides the support for society to achieve such things. Now let’s ask the pertinent question: is it big government or small government which best achieves these things?”

This question cuts right to the heart of the matter. Christensen assumes a set of criteria for determining whether or not a government is “good”, which I will grant for the purposes of this rebuttal. He then asks whether big or small government is most likely to be “good”. Granted, his very next sentence—“[o]f course, the question is ridiculous”—almost throws the entire thing away; not only is that question not ridiculous, it is the entire core of the argument! If big government does not do a better job of being “good”, then what on earth would be its purpose? Surely a smaller, less expensive government capable of achieving the same or a greater level of “goodness” would be preferable; why would one not choose the less expensive means of identically achieving one’s ends?

Having thus thrown away most of his cards, Christensen is left in the unenviable position of having to argue that, while big government may not be more “good” in general, it is obviously more “good” in certain specific circumstances:

“The United States achieved domestic development in the 19th century with relatively free trade within and protectionist tariffs without—a policy mix which would alarm both libertarian Republicans and Clintonian Democrats. On the other hand, China is achieving it through massive government involvement via state-owned enterprises. We can find examples of government which failed: for example, American alcohol prohibition. We can also point out many circumstances where the problem has been a lack of competent government: here we have the border crisis and a heroin epidemic.”

Notice how slippery this is. The phrasing “lack of competent government” is carefully chosen to suggest that what is needed is more government; after all, if one lacks good water, the solution is to get more water, but if one’s yard is full of garbage, more garbage will exacerbate the problem. A cursory glance at these examples, however, should be enough to demonstrate that neither of the success stories is a tale of positive government action, and none of the failures would be solved by adding additional government.

While it cannot be denied that domestic development occurred in 19th-century America, no clear connection between that development and the protectionist tariffs is apparent. This is not to say that it is in any way odd that development would occur with tariffs in place; no serious argument has ever been advanced claiming that the existence of any tariff somehow prevents all economic development, merely that the existence of a tariff hampers economic development relative to what it would have been without the tariff. As Robert P. Murphy explains,

“In the long run, a country pays for its imports by exports. If the U.S. government makes it harder for Americans to buy Japanese cars, this will boost employment and production in Detroit. But if Americans spend less on Japanese cars, then the Japanese have fewer dollars with which to buy American exports, such as wheat. Thus, the U.S. government tariff doesn’t boost industry or create jobs on net but merely rearranges production and employment patterns. What’s worse, the rearrangement leaves Americans and Japanese poorer, on average, because labor has been diverted in both countries into lines where it is less productive, all things considered.”[6] [Emphasis original]

While the tariffs certainly benefited some people and some industries in the United States—those who were facing direct competition from cheaper or superior imports—they were a net harm to the development of the nation, even notwithstanding the fact that a disastrous war would eventually be fought over them.[7]

The example of China is often given to support the notion of state-created prosperity, but this example, placed into any type of context, is highly perverse. China is saddled with a “tremendous government”, and that government intervenes mightily into the economy, but China has also recently emerged from total communism—surely the move to the current “state capitalism” model represents a radical reduction in the level of government economic control! The fact that Chinese prosperity has increased alongside the move toward economic freedom is hardly shocking, though it should also be noted that the China boom has a number of serious problems caused explicitly by the government’s involvement; from the centrally-planned development of hundreds of empty cities[8] to the creation of a giant lake of radioactive poison[9], it is not hard to come by examples of truly grotesque mismanagement. Chinese prosperity is also highly overrated; to a great extent, it is built on a vast pile of debt, as China’s debt-to-GDP ratio now exceeds 300%.[10] In all, there are many signs present that the vast government China does possess is smothering the life out of the emerging prosperity.

We covered alcohol prohibition earlier in discussing the origins of American conservatism, though the border crisis has something significant in common with it: it is a problem that literally would not exist in the absence of government, and one does not need to be an open-borders advocate to see this. In a libertarian social order with fully privatized borders, immigration decisions would be localized to the greatest extent possible. Those who wished to allow open immigration could do so, but only onto their own property, and those who wished to forbid it could defend their own property precisely as they would against any other invasion. There would be nothing mystical about immigration that would make it any different from any other border crossing, of which number our daily lives are absolutely full. The only factors that complicate the border situation and turn it into a crisis are the one-size-fits-all border control approaches dictated by remote bureaucrats and the vast array of aggressions they will commit against the existing citizenry on behalf of the incoming immigrants. Those are problems of the state and by the state.

The heroin epidemic, on the other hand, is a genuinely perverse example; if anywhere there is a case of maximal government, the heroin epidemic is that case. The US government prohibits the sale, possession, or consumption of heroin and provides truly draconian penalties for violating this prohibition: up to thirty years of imprisonment and $50,000 in fines per count.[11] Not only this, but it is itself the world’s leading possessor, seller, and manufacturer of the drug:

[I]n Afghanistan…the first local drug lords on an international scale–Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abu Rasul Sayyaf–were in fact launched internationally as a result of massive and ill-advised assistance from the CIA, in conjunction with the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. While other local resistance forces were accorded second-class status, these two clients of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, precisely because they lacked local support, pioneered the use of opium and heroin to build up their fighting power and financial resources…

CIA involvement in the drug trade hardly began with its involvement in the Soviet-Afghan war. To a certain degree, the CIA’s responsibility for the present dominant role of Afghanistan in the global heroin traffic merely replicated what had happened earlier in Burma, Thailand, and Laos between the late 1940s and the 1970s. These countries also only became factors in the international drug traffic as a result of CIA assistance (after the French, in the case of Laos) to what would otherwise have been only local traffickers…

In this same period the CIA recruited assets along the smuggling routes of the Asian opium traffic as well, in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Italy, France, Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico. These assets have included government officials like Manuel Noriega of Panama or Vladimiro Montesinos of Peru, often senior figures in CIA-assisted police and intelligence services. But they have also included insurrectionist movements, ranging from the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s to (according to Robert Baer and Seymour Hersh) the al-Qaeda-linked Jundallah, operating today in Iran and Baluchistan…

Perhaps the best example of such CIA influence via drug traffickers today is in Afghanistan itself, where those accused of drug trafficking include President Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (an active CIA asset), and Abdul Rashid Dostum (a former CIA asset).[12]

Given that the US government is the producer and trafficker of the heroin, and the institution that prohibits, polices, and punishes private use and distribution of the heroin, it is difficult to see what possible further role there could be for government in the heroin epidemic. This is another case of government run badly amok, and the solution, once again, is to eliminate it.

Christensen has one more example to point to in his attempt to show the folly of small government, and it is a doozy:

“We can even point to the financial crisis of 2008 as a perfect storm of incompetence: government was involved in the worst places (like encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them), while failing to govern precisely those areas which needed it (deregulation of a variety of financial devices and a pathetic bailout deal in the aftermath).”

The only part of this that is at all correct is the statement that “encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them” was in fact a failure of government. Everything else here is almost entirely counter to reality. Deregulation, as commonly understood and clearly as intended here, played no role in the financial crisis; the repealed portion of the Glass-Steagall Act, that piece of repealed legislation generally pointed to as the “deregulation” that brought on the financial crisis, did nothing but prohibit investment banks from taking demand deposits, and vice-versa.[13] Clearly this had nothing whatsoever to do with the financial crisis. Indeed, the only type of deregulation that was involved in the crisis was the type that allowed banks to take greater investment risks with a guarantee that the taxpayers would be forced to absorb the losses. In other words: the deregulation that led to the crisis was nothing more than a restatement of “encouraging banks to give mortgages to those who couldn’t afford them”—an action that certainly was not caused both by too much and too little government involvement! As Thomas Woods explains,

“Commercial bank deposits are insured by the federal government up to $100,000 (and, temporarily, up to $250,000). Any ‘deregulation’ of the banking system that permits the banks to take greater risks while maintaining government (that is, taxpayer) insurance of their deposits is not genuine deregulation from a free-market point of view.

When the moral hazard of deposit insurance is combined with the ‘too big to fail’ mentality, which will not allow large institutions to fail, the result (a conclusion compelled by common sense and bolstered by recent research) is that banks will take on considerably more risk than they would if they were subject to genuine market pressures.”[14][Emphasis original]

And what to make of the complaint of the “pathetic” bailout deal? Note carefully its inclusion under “failure to govern”; are we to conclude that the $700 billion in taxpayer money spent to preserve the monthly bonuses of a handful of bankers was insufficient? Is Christensen somehow reaching the madcap conclusion that, if only the government were more involved in the banking sector, the bailout never would have happened?

The remaining error in the above passage underlines the final large pothole in which Christensen finds himself.

Flaw #3: The Nature of the State

To recap:

“We can even point to the financial crisis of 2008 as a perfect storm of incompetence.”

We can do that, yes, but to do so is to look directly away from the truth. There was no incompetence involved whatsoever. The American financial sector, with the help of the federal government, had spent almost a hundred years building itself a rigged casino in which it literally could not lose. The financial crisis, far from reflecting any incompetence, demonstrated the amazing competence with which the system was designed. Everything went wrong—the wheels fell completely off—and the bets paid out anyway on the backs of the taxpayer, and even in the face of overwhelming, nearly-unanimous taxpayer opposition.

“[The] alleged threat to millions of policyholders was a beard—behind which stood the handful of giant financial institutions which had purchased what amounted to wagering insurance from the AIG holding company.

To be sure, AIG’s giant financial customers like Bank of America or Société Générale had not reached their tremendous girth due to their prowess as legitimate free market enterprises. They were lumbering wards of the state and…products of the cheap debt, moral hazard, and serial speculative bubbles being fostered by the Fed and other central banks. Not surprisingly, therefore, they were now desperately petitioning the treasury secretary for help in collecting their gambling debts from AIG.

Needless to say, Paulson did not hesitate to throw the weight of the public purse into the arena on behalf of these gamblers, because it resulted in an immediate boost to the stock price of Goldman Sachs and the remnants of Wall Street. Hank Paulson thus desecrated the rules of the free market, and for the most deplorable of reasons: namely, to make Goldman, Deutsche Bank, and the rest of the banking giants whole on gambling claims which had been incurred to carry out an end run around regulatory standards in the first place.”[15]

Surely there was no incompetence about this; there was only cold, calculated evil. This was not a series of innocent errors, but an intentional and callous plundering of the American people. Yet this is hardly an isolated example; it is not through incompetence that the government roads are terrible, but by design: only if the roads are unsatisfactory and lethal can the road bureaucrats increase their share of the power and pelf. It is not merest happenstance that the government schools are constantly becoming more expensive and less educational. It is not due to a lack of resources that the government’s wars drag on into eternity. “Incompetence” is the cover the government hides behind to obscure the fact that its very nature is to fail; the roads are terrible, the schools are terrible, the wars are a loss—why, they must all need more money and a greater priority in civic life, then!

One could surely advance the argument here, and not without merit, that these problems are a feature of democracy, and would be put to rest under a monarchic government. While I surely concede, following Maistre and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, that a monarchy would be far less damaging than a democracy, it would still suffer from the same problems, merely to a lesser degree. Any command activity—any action undertaken by the state—will of necessity be arbitrary and bureaucratic, as it cannot be guided by market incentives and the profit motive. Bureaucrats will rule in a monarchy as they do in a democracy, though likely to a lesser extent. No king can change this, for as Ludwig von Mises writes,

“As he lacks ubiquity, he must delegate a part of his power to subordinates. They are, in their districts, his deputies, acting in his name and under his auspices. In fact they become local despots only nominally subject to the mighty overlord who has appointed them. They rule their provinces according to their own will, they become satraps. The great king has the power to discharge them and to appoint a successor. But that is no remedy either. The new governor also soon becomes an almost independent satrap. What some critics wrongly assert with regard to representative democracy, namely, that the people is sovereign only on election day, is literally true with regard to such a system of despotism; the king is sovereign in the provinces only on the day he appoints a new governor.”[16]

Falling into the trap of believing that the government suffers from insufficient competence, and that this competence deficit can be cured by more government, is the means by which virtually all people throughout history have acquiesced to tyranny. At first it works; “great things” are built. The strong man makes the trains run on time. That is the bait; the initial “fix” one gets for free. Beyond this point lies nothing but an endless cynical game in which we are not the players—we are the prize.

Policy Proposals

Having thus cleared away the underlying philosophy, it may seem unnecessary to rebut Christensen’s policy ideas as well, but for one thing: the possibility remains that Christensen, though his premises are faulty, has nonetheless arrived at the correct conclusion. His proposals therefore still need to be dealt with on their own merit. He writes,

“The lesson is clear: big versus small government ranges from inaccurate to useless as a metric for policy-making. The bias either tilts toward government involvement in unnecessary areas or its absence in necessary ones. This is even true if we are considering things in purely economic terms. A pure devotion to free markets ignores political questions such as preserving cultural sovereignty and maintaining good relations between social classes. Meanwhile, the opposite tendency interferes with the ability of productive people and companies to work without the restraints of red tape; this is why modern Chinese socialism has taken advantage of policies such as special economic zones while preserving the state’s active role. We must demand a more substantive metric: competent government.”

It is odd to see the line “big versus small government ranges from inaccurate to useless as a metric for policy-making” in an article entitled “We Need Tremendous Government”. How can one assert both of these things? If the size of the government is truly so meaningless, why claim that we need it not only to be significant, but “tremendous”?

Notwithstanding that, the language of the rest of this passage is exceedingly slippery. It is tacitly asserted that “preserving cultural sovereignty and maintaining good relations between social classes” is a function of the state, and that those who wish to have less of the state are therefore unconcerned with culture and social peace, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Far from ignoring such questions, we argue that the state is the wrong answer to them. Social peace and cultural sovereignty are best served by the minimization (or absence) of the state: that institution that preserves its own power by debasing the culture with its bread and circuses, and by destroying social peace through the divide et impera strategy—pitting the people against each other to keep them distracted and disorganized.

It is similarly perverse to describe the effects of socialism—the opposite of devotion to free markets—as “interfer[ing] with the ability of productive people and companies to work without the restraints of red tape”. This glib phrasing makes it sound as though a century of socialism had produced a handful of minor inconveniences for businessmen; so many forms to fill out! The reality of it is considerably less pleasant: impoverishment on a truly unbelievable scale, environmental catastrophes vastly worse than anything seen in the “free world”, and over 100 million deaths.[17] Christensen continues,

“Ironically, the conservative disdain for government has often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The problem is that much of American government truly has become inept. But being a dominant power between two oceans, America has perhaps failed to check if this holds true elsewhere. In fact, there are many examples of competent government to be found. We need not even limit ourselves to the small-state powerhouses like Singapore and Switzerland. In a matter of decades, the Chinese state has achieved massive industrialization, the establishment of political norms and institutions after a chaotic era, extensive geopolitical power, and the lifting up of two hundred million souls from poverty. We can point to Poland, which has achieved tremendous economic growth that it has effectively translated into political clout within Europe, pursuing its own vision informed by Polish and Catholic values, rather than those of Brussels. Not just competent but even (dare we say?) dynamic and accomplished government is eminently possible. So why has it so often failed at all levels of American life: city, state, and federal?”

We have discussed the case of China already, and Christensen mentions but looks past the examples of Singapore and Switzerland, so we are left with Poland as his exemplar of big government being beneficial. But this example contains its own refutation; Poland, as Christensen acknowledges, is asserting its own interests against those of the European Union. This is a secessionist act. This is a smaller, more localized political unit asserting its independence from the super-state that allegedly rules it. Far from being an example of big government leading to competence and greatness, the case of Poland at most illustrates the principles of federalism—a smaller, more local government is pushing against the unwanted behavior of a larger government. The analogy is not to the United States government expanding its power in the world, but to one of the individual states deciding to go its own way. Indeed, one could argue that the reason efforts like this have so often failed in the United States is exactly because of the large, powerful federal government.

The case of Poland is remarkably similar to the Nullification Crisis. On November 24, 1832, the state of South Carolina adopted the Ordinance of Nullification, declaring that the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832 were null and void inside the state of South Carolina. This is quite of a piece with Poland’s recent rejection of EU mandates that run counter to the interests of Poland, with both South Carolina and Poland asserting their own local interests in the face of the “greater good” being dictated to them by bigger governments. As Thomas Jefferson wrote earlier of this idea,

“[T]he several States composing, the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their general government; but that, by a compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States, and of amendments thereto, they constituted a general government for special purposes—delegated to that government certain definite powers, reserving, each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self-government; and that whensoever the general government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force…”[18]

If this is not a rejection of “tremendous government” to achieve “great works”, then nothing is, and this describes the current behavior of Poland precisely.

Not long ago, different states had different legal drinking ages, different speed limits, and a whole host of other local rules and customs that varied across the nation. Many of these are now uniform. This happened not as the result of reasoned discourse and competent evaluation, but as the result of naked force applied from Washington. It is surely not outside the realm of possibility that the different circumstances in different states warrant different rules; driving in Alaska is a different experience from driving in Nebraska. If we accept that government should set rules for driving in the first place, does it not stand to reason that the state of Alaska is more competent to establish rules for driving in Alaska than is the federal government, thousands of miles away? It would seem once again that bigness of government and competence of government are at odds with one another. Christensen writes,

“American political life has long suffered from a focus on means to the exclusion of ends. The most obvious example of this is the privileged position of the U.S. Constitution in moral and political life. Of course, many countries have great respect for their constitutions. But few if any treat theirs with the sheer awe and sacral emotion with which American conservatism treats that of the United States. Progressives have always seen the Constitution more as something to be expanded and fleshed out with the changing of the times, which is perhaps why they have managed to cement so many more of their political victories in law. It is easier to change society by writing new norms than by trying to repeal them.”

Actually, conservatives everywhere traditionally regard constitutions with a great deal of respect, if not veneration. A constitution, properly understood, is not merely a paper containing the daily whimsy of the ruling class. To quote Maistre:

“Modern philosophy is at one and the same time too materialistic and too presumptuous to see the real springs of action in politics. One of its follies is to believe that an assembly can constitute a nation, that a constitution, that is to say, the totality of fundamental laws which suit a nation and should give it a certain form of government, is an artifact like any other, requiring only intelligence, knowledge, and practice, that the job of constitution-making can be learned, and that, the moment they think about it, men can say to other men, Make us a government, as a workman is told, Make us a fire engine or a loom

If a man of goodwill, relying only on good sense and rectitude, asks what the old French constitution was, the straightforward reply can be given: ‘It is what you felt when you were in France: it is the mixture of liberty and authority, law and opinion, that made the foreign traveler in France believe that he was living under a government different from his own.’”[19] [Emphasis original]

The primary reason that few people nowadays hold constitutions in much regard is, of course, precisely because of the desire for political expedience championed here by Christensen. As Maistre understood it, a proper constitution was not a bill enacted by a legislative body, nor was it a fiat declared by a king. Rather, a constitution was an organic outgrowth of the culture and the society, and it defined and delineated what form the government should take. As such, it was not subject to breezy legislative overwriting; indeed, in Maistre’s view, a constitution should not even exist as a written document, since to write it down is to invite amendments devised by the minds of men.

The notions that the constitution should be given only symbolic value, and that it should even be conceivable “to change society by writing new norms”, are the essence of progressivism. Writing new norms is nothing more or less than the old pietist drive to perfect man through the power of the state. Christensen continues,

“Even for such fundamental questions as demographics, the nature of marriage, and the involvement of money in elections, the question of the common good appears to have often been absent. What was important was whether the policies around these issues aligned with the Constitution or not, the moral worldview behind them being of little consequence.”

It is one thing to suggest that the goodness of one’s means is irrelevant if said means fail to achieve a desirable end, but it is quite another to suggest that the goodness of means is irrelevant as long as a good end is reached. Yet:

“Conservatives have traditionally been so devoted to ideas like property and markets that they have aided their most ardent enemies in the process. For example, conservative voices rallied during Citizens United to protect independent spending from corporations and unions on political speech. This, despite the fact that many of America’s largest corporations back globalist free trade agreements and HR-mandated progressive norms that would make Hillary Clinton raise an eyebrow.”

If we are to abandon respect for property and markets, what is there to fear from “globalist free trade agreements”? I suspect the forest is being lost for the trees. Surely it is preferable to live under a government that enacts crony state capitalist deals but otherwise does not interfere with property and markets than it is to live in a society in which property and markets are abrogated. We need not even speculate; this is the precise situation in modern China, which was earlier being celebrated as a grand success.

Recall Christensen’s definition of good government given earlier: a government that enables “virtuous people, cultural genius and beauty, and economic prosperity”. I trust it has been sufficiently demonstrated that economic prosperity depends on property and markets. The other two conditions do as well.

“Cultural genius”, if the term has any meaning, no doubt refers to high art, sophistication, and refinement. Which societies in history have produced the best art and culture—those with relatively high respect for property and markets, or those with relatively low respect? Sparta certainly produced a highly efficient, effective government, but produced so little cultural genius that the word spartan is present in the lexicon meaning “marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort”. Athens, meanwhile, is still today considered a high point in the history of world culture. I trust the reader knows which of these states respected property and markets and which did not. With no art and no culture, the only beauty that can exist is the incidental; the beauty of a rainbow, or of a sunset. Man can encourage or develop beauty only by encouraging and developing culture.

How are we to define a people that is virtuous? Plato, of course, filled volumes attempting to answer that very question. For our purposes, I propose a very simple, basic definition: people are virtuous who respect the rights of others and the norms of their society. A society that denies property rights, however, puts those two conditions in conflict with one another, as Rothbard explains:

“[T]he concept of ‘rights’ only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard…

In short, a person does not have a ‘right to freedom of speech’; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a ‘right to freedom of the press’; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra ‘right of free speech’ or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.”[20] [Emphasis original]

There is no means of understanding rights that does not reduce to property; any other way of defining rights leads to unresolvable conflicts. As such, if one lives in a society that does not respect property rights, one cannot, by definition, respect any rights of one’s neighbors without violating cultural norms. It thus becomes difficult to see how one can jettison property and markets while retaining Christensen’s “good government”. Christensen writes,

“Red and blue America began with two different ideologies, each with a different agenda in the legal realm. Red America from the 1970s onward became committed to a philosophy of negative rights and the shrinking or decentralizing of government.”

Is this truly the case? If so, it becomes impossible to view Red America as having had any impact whatsoever on the country. The government has ballooned and centralized at an alarming rate over that period. If Red America means the Republican Party, then clearly there is no truth to the claim. However, the Republicans are responsible for some of the most outrageous expansions and centralizations of state power, from the closing of the gold window in 1971[21] to Medicare Part D and the USA PATRIOT Act. The idea that Republicans are the party of small government is laughable.

If not the Republican Party, then are we referring to the ordinary people in “flyover country”? It seems a severe stretch of credibility to describe such a broad swath of people as being committed to any particular philosophy. Christensen continues,

“Blue America was committed to the pursuit of positive rights and an activist government pursuing social issues (although we should note that by Clinton’s era it had abandoned economic ones). These translated into competing moral visions. Ironically, both are quite grounded in a version of individualism and freedom from coercion. But for the former this is a civic individualism and economic freedom, while for the latter this is a social individualism and moral freedom. The former subverts the political state while the latter subverts the moral community. America will not survive either tendency.”

This is the final argument raised, though it is merely asserted; neither logic nor evidence is provided to support the idea that America will not survive the subversion of the political state, which seems a bit difficult to accept when one considers that political states are subverted on a fairly regular basis, yet I am at pains to identify the last nation that failed to survive it. Indeed, America itself was born from the subversion of an existing political state!

The nation itself and the people taken as a whole are resilient. What is fragile is a given cultural order, and, indeed, the biggest threat American culture faces comes not from enemies in the Middle East, nor from some type of causeless malaise, but from active government programs specifically designed to disrupt it. From the welfare system and its destruction of the black family[22] to ceaseless militarism, from the constant attempts to push new sexual perversions into the mainstream to the CIA’s deliberate destruction of American art and culture[23], the federal government is that agency most likely to destroy the social order. Conservatives—who are meant to care about culture and tradition, after all—should be standing against this, not celebrating it.

Christensen’s next passage reads eerily like Theodore Roosevelt, a man who had no fondness for the Constitution when it interfered with his political goals and often declared that the federal government must intervene to mobilize resources and put them at the service of the people:

“American political life must regain a vision of the common good which the legal and political structures are tools to achieve. In other words, it must embrace a standard against which to judge the Constitution… America is a country of wealth with a huge population. It deserves a political order which can properly mobilize these resources and put them at the service of its families and its visionaries.”

Now Roosevelt:

“The object of the Government is to dispose of the land to settlers who will build homes upon it. To accomplish this object water must be brought within their reach.

The pioneer settlers on the arid public domain chose their homes along streams from which they could themselves divert the water to reclaim their holdings. Such opportunities are practically gone. There remain, however, vast areas of public land which can be made available for homestead settlement, but only by reservoirs and main-line canals impracticable for private enterprise. These irrigation works should be built by the National Government. The lands reclaimed by them should be reserved by the Government for actual settlers, and the cost of construction should so far as possible be repaid by the land reclaimed. The distribution of the water, the division of the streams among irrigators, should be left to the settlers themselves in conformity with State laws and without interference with those laws or with vested fights. The policy of the National Government should be to aid irrigation in the several States and Territories in such manner as will enable the people in the local communities to help themselves, and as will stimulate needed reforms in the State laws and regulations governing irrigation.

The reclamation and settlement of the arid lands will enrich every portion of our country, just as the settlement of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys brought prosperity to the Atlantic States. The increased demand for manufactured articles will stimulate industrial production, while wider home markets and the trade of Asia will consume the larger food supplies and effectually prevent Western competition with Eastern agriculture. Indeed, the products of irrigation will be consumed chiefly in upbuilding local centers of mining and other industries, which would otherwise not come into existence at all. Our people as a whole will profit, for successful home- making is but another name for the upbuilding of the nation.”[24]

Theodore Roosevelt, of course, was America’s first truly progressive president. Christensen concludes,

“In order for the healthiest segments of the conservative movement to move forward, it is vital that they embrace the power and institutions of government. They must be seen not only as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. The shocking paradigm shift of 2016 will be of little use if national and sovereigntist forces refuse to use the very tools which they now control. They can rest assured that the forces of neoliberalism will not.”

Shorn of its philosophical underpinnings, having failed to provide any evidence linking big government to the creation of the good society, our final policy proposal devolves into a purely defensive move: conservatives must use the power of the state to the maximum extent in a simple attempt to counterbalance progressives doing the same. I would suggest that it does not work that way; increases in government are cumulative, not competitive. When the Democrats controlled the government during the Obama years and granted unprecedented new powers to themselves, those powers did not dissipate when the Republicans took back the reins. Similarly, if conservatives now embrace big government and grant it a whole plethora of new powers, the progressives will inherit those same powers the next time they are in charge. A much better idea if one wishes to defend against progressive overreach is to work to reduce—even to eliminate—those very powers. That way, one does not hand one’s ideological enemies the ammunition they need.

If history is to be any guide, it shows us that no dynasty lasts forever. Even if the progressives are vanquished forever, are we to assume there will be no new enemies to guard against? Are we to assume that future generations of great leaders will be wise and incorruptible? This was not the assumption made of the monarchs of which Burke and Maistre wrote fondly. They wrote of kings who were a source of stability—whose personal interests were served by the maintenance of justice, peace, and tradition, and who, as such, kept society insulated from would-be great men and their utopian visions.

Conclusion

“Unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.”[25]

In writing the above words, with their strong echoes of Edmund Burke’s rebuke of the French revolutionaries, Frédéric Bastiat puts to rest the notion that “we need tremendous government”. The more force society places at the disposal of the unscrupulous, the more the law will become perverted. The more the law becomes perverted, the more we are all at the mercy of those who see us as nothing more than chattel. The drive to repose more and more power in the hands of strongmen in the hope that they will use it to create a “good society” is antithetical to conservative principles and doomed to fail.

References:

  1. Burke, Edmund (1790). Reflections on the Revolution in France.
  2. de Maistre, Joseph (1796). Considerations on France. (Jack Lively, trans.)
  3. Ibid.
  4. Rothbard, Murray N. (2017). The Progressive Era. Mises Institute. Ch. 4.
  5. Rothbard, Murray N. (2007). The Betrayal of the American Right. Mises Institute. p. 158–9.
  6. Murphy, Robert P. (2015). Choice. Independent Institute. p. 282–3.
  7. DiLorenzo, Thomas J. (2006). Lincoln’s Tariff War [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.mises.org.
  8. Mallonee, Laura (2016). “The Unreal, Eerie Emptiness of China’s ‘Ghost Cities’”. Wired.
  9. Maughan, Tim (2015). “The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust”. BBC.
  10. Durden, Tyler (2018). “China’s Economy is Held Together by Capital Controls. If Those Fail, the Whole System Fails”. ZeroHedge.
  11. LaMance, Ken (2018). Heroin State and Federal Penalties. Retrieved from http://www.legalmatch.com
  12. Scott, Peter Dale (2010). Opium, the CIA, and the Karzai Administration”. The Asia-Pacific Journal, volume 8, issue 14, number 5.
  13. Pearlstein, Steven (2012). “Shattering the Glass-Steagall Myth”. Washington Post.
  14. Woods, Thomas E. (2009). Meltdown. Regnery. p. 46.
  15. Stockman, David A. (2013). The Great Deformation: the Corruption of Capitalism in America. PublicAffairs. p. 9.
  16. Von Mises, Ludwig (1944). Bureaucracy. Yale University Press. p. 40.
  17. Courtois, Stéphane, et al (1999). The Black Book of Communism. Harvard University Press. (Mark Kramer and Jonathan Murphy, trans.)
  18. Jefferson, Thomas (1798). The Kentucky Resolutions of 1798.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Rothbard, Murray N. (1982). The Ethics of Liberty. Humanities Press. p. 113–4.
  21. Foss, Paul-Martin (2016). “Today in 1971: President Nixon Closes the Gold Window”. Retrieved from http://www.mises.org
  22. Chiles, Nick (2014). “7 Ways the War on Poverty Destroyed Black Fatherhood”. Atlanta Black Star.
  23. Saunders, Frances S. (1995). Modern Art was CIA ‘weapon.’ Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk
  24. Roosevelt, Theodore (1901). State of the Union address.
  25. Bastiat, Frédéric (1850). The Law (Dean Russell, trans.).

Book Review: The New Wealth of Nations

The New Wealth of Nations is a book about the decline of world poverty by Indian economist Surjit S. Bhalla. The book explores the role of education in bringing this about, the failures of current measures of inequality, and possible changes to government welfare programs to accommodate changing conditions.

The opening chapter considers the accelerated growth of the third world relative to advanced economies in recent decades. Bhalla posits greater equality in education as the cause, making the case through much of the rest of the book. His near-obsession with equality between the sexes and belief in its unalloyed goodness begins here and becomes tedious as the book goes on. His list of supposed benefits of the globalization demonstrate a thoroughly liberal worldview. Bhalla closes the chapter by introducing the topics that will be covered in most of the following chapters.

Chapter 2 deals with the impacts of the equalizing of education around the world. Bhalla cites data showing that since 1980, growth in developing countries has outpaced growth in the West. He notes that crediting globalization for all of the 700 percent growth in the incomes of poor people in China and India would be fallacious, but waits until the next chapter to deal with other explanations. He views Brexit and Trump as mostly a backlash against falling Western growth, partly racially motivated, and the latter partly due to Clinton’s incompetence as a candidate, which is more or less correct. Bhalla ends the chapter by framing globalization as good in Rawlsian terms, which also works against his case if one rejects Rawls’ conception of government policy ethics.

The third chapter examines economic history from 1500 to 2016, with projections to 2030. Bhalla relies heavily on the estimates of Angus Maddison, which are highly questionable even by Maddison’s own admission.[1,2] Bhalla outlines his methodology for the rest of the book, and problems here explain most of what is misguided going forward. He makes much of the Gini coefficient, which has its own set of faults. He contemplates why poor countries are poor, looking to industrialization, commodity trading, and colonialism, finally settling on lack of education. Never does the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence between ethnic groups cross Bhalla’s mind, as this would call into question his “natural experiment” of comparing Latin America to Africa and Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The chapter finishes on a tangent about spread of democracy, which Bhalla treats as political freedom and an absolute good rather than a source of perverse incentives.

The advancement of China and India is the subject of the fourth chapter. Bhalla looks at the role of education in the rapid improvement of both countries in recent decades, as well as the relative lack of education during the previous five centuries. When discussing Chinese history, he presents as fact the 1421 hypothesis of Chinese discovery of the Americas, which is rejected as pseudohistory by historians.[3] He considers the similarities of China and India through the centuries, as well as their recent divergence, largely attributable to when each started economic reforms that freed their markets. At the end of the chapter are graphs showing the distribution of the middle class and of income throughout the world since 1950.

Chapter 5 deals with the connection between education and income more explicitly. While this explanation is tempting, Bhalla commits the glaring fallacy of equating education with years of schooling, neglecting self-education, on-the-job training, and the substitution of authentic learning with indoctrination. He notes the decline in fertility that accompanies increased education, but only considers this in r/K terms. Genetic quality of children in terms of age of the mother go unaddressed, as does the role of Enlightenment values. As for demographic shifts, Bhalla notices that in earlier times, the poorest and least-educated could not manage to migrate to the United States. That this is no longer the case is frequently overlooked by commentators, including Bhalla himself, who equates “open door” policies with “enlightenment”. Surprisingly, he mentions the higher average intelligence of Jews, attributing it to the need to be able to read the Torah and the fact that education is not left behind when fleeing persecution. This is contrasted with Hindu Brahmins, who did their best to keep their religious mysteries to themselves. The next chapter continues exploring income and education. Bhalla cites and critiques the findings of Oxfam and Credit Suisse on income inequality. He explains how the metric of Purchasing Power Parity functions. His great ambition for this chapter, that of estimating the wealth in education, suffers from the faults of equating education with schooling and using the Gini coefficient. He further assumes that the ultimate value of present schooling can be known in advance, and that PPP will reflect this.

The seventh chapter considers the implications of an expanding supply of skilled labor. Bhalla explains stagnant wages in the West in terms of an excess of college graduates, but fails to explain this as the government-created problem that it is. When discussing inflation, he points out that food and fuel are excluded from official measures of inflation and explains that this is because monetary policy cannot affect their prices as it affects other prices. He correctly criticizes the Keynesian Phillips Curve and several other schools of thought, as well as the blunders of US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, but makes no mention of the Austrian School or the role of the Nixon Shock in causing inflation. But rather than propose less state intervention, Bhalla proposes more by looking ahead to basic income guarantees (Chapter 10).

Chapter 8 explores the role of women in a changing economy. Bhalla asserts without evidence that “there is no reason to think that men and women have different average abilities for the same education level”, ignoring both contrary evidence from neuroscience and the role of standard deviation, which is larger for men.[4] This leads him to blame “misogyny” for the relative absence of women in corporate board positions. Returning to the fertility decline, he suggests that the threat of population explosion of third-worlders flooding Western countries is overblown, as their fertility should decline as education increases there. However, his prediction that populations will reproduce below replacement levels is still worrisome in terms of protecting genetic stock and ethnic integrity. His contention that hiring men at greater cost than hiring women is irrational presumes no values beyond economic efficiency, but he does correctly explain away the myth of the wage gap. Bhalla closes by predicting a social revolution as women are on track to become the major breadwinners, but presents this with unfounded excitement.

The ninth chapter expands on the theme of equality. Bhalla correctly faults the establishment concern over world income inequality, given that by their own measurements it is already decreasing. He explains the work of Simon Kuznets on wealth inequality over time, showing that his model failed because it did not account for growth in education. He then discusses inequality in the US, UK, and China, comparing them to the rest of the world. The final three pages show graphs of income distribution across the West, the rest of the world, and the entire world.

Chapter 10 considers the likely changes to state welfare programs. Bhalla notes the decades-long policy discussions about poverty, then correctly criticizes the poverty industry for the make-work scam for bureaucrats and intellectuals that it is. He relays a personal experience of his own work going unpublished because the reality he found does not fit the party line. He introduces the reader to the Human Development Index (HDI), an alternative to GDP per capita for measuring well-being, then shows the strong correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Bhalla uses the examples of China and India to demonstrate faults in the World Bank’s methodology concerning poverty measurement. He ends by discussing what Mencius Moldbug has termed the Dire Problem (Bhalla does not use the term); the emerging economy will produce large-scale unemployment as automation takes away old jobs and does not produce enough new jobs. Universal basic income and negative income taxes are discussed as options, with the former being criticized.

In the eleventh chapter, Bhalla makes the case that education drives the middle class, explaining its relative size in different places and times. He considers several historical definitions of the middle class, most of which ultimately refer to private property owners. He comes to the empirical results that the middle class starts with the poverty line in advanced economies and ends at ten times that amount, with the poor and the rich being outside of this range on each side. Bhalla’s description of class dynamics is mostly accurate, though like any liberal thinker, he views the growth of democracy that tends to follow growth of the middle class as an inevitable and positive mark of progress. This makes the table included in this chapter rather puzzling. Of countries that have experienced accelerated growth since 1960, the highest per capita incomes are found in Singapore and Chile, both of which had lengthy periods of non-democratic rule.

The changes that expanded education brings to the elite are the subject of Chapter 12. Bhalla correctly points out the survival ability of traditional elites, but neglects the damage done to them in communist and socialist uprisings such as the Russian Revolution. But his predictions for changes in the nature of the elite do not go far enough, though correctly tumultuous they are; a highly educated demos is likely to think more of localism and anarchism than of democracy or populism, as they will see no need for expert rulers above them.

The final chapter begins with a brief note about the Trump presidency, in which Bhalla argues that immigration restrictions cannot raise American wages. This is correct but irrelevant, as the motivation of many Trump supporters is to protect their sense of culture and ethnicity. He then looks to the people left behind; the Charlottesville marchers in the United States and the cow vigilantes in India. Bhalla misunderstands their plight, arguing that a basic income will cure their antisocial behavior, when a handout will do nothing for their sense of dignity or for their lack of investment in society. This plan also reeks of appeasement, which has an extremely poor track record of stopping hostile people. The book ends on an error that is present throughout: the equation of progress with Mother Nature, when Bhalla’s feminized Gnon frequently represents the unnatural aberrations of modernity.

Overall, the book presents an interesting set of arguments, but there are simply too many fallacies and gaps in Bhalla’s reasoning and empirics for one to regard the case as proven. That being said, the book is still valuable on a secondary level for correctly rebutting many establishment positions on economic issues.

Rating: 3/5

References:

  1. Datta, Saugato, ed. (2011) Economics: making sense of the Modern Economy. John Wiley & Sons.
  2. Maddison, Angus (2007). Contours of the world economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in macro-economic history. Oxford University Press.
  3. Fritze, Ronald H. (2011). Invented Knowledge: False History, Fake Science and Pseudo-religions (Reprint ed.). Reaktion Books. p. 12, 19.
  4. Wai, Jonathan; Cacchio, Megan; Putallaz, Martha; Makel, Matthew C. (2010). “Sex differences in the right tail of cognitive abilities: A 30year examination”. Intelligence. 38 (4): 412–423.

The Case Against Corporations

Libertarianism within a leviathan state functions not as a governing philosophy, but as a critique of excesses, i.e. the cases in which state power is used in an unusually pernicious manner. These efforts have had varying degrees of success, depending on how well libertarians can convince major party operatives and wealthy financiers of the wisdom of restraining the state on one issue or another. Unfortunately, mainstream libertarians seem to have a blind spot, if not an outright case of political autism, when it comes to corporate power. Free-market conservatives, reactionaries, and traditionalists also view corporations far too positively. Let us examine the history of corporations, construct a case against their existence and power, and offer solutions for reining them in.

History of Corporations

The word “corporation” comes from Latin corpus, meaning “body”. Originally, it was the gods of Uruk that fulfilled the function of imaginary entities that owned property and conducted commerce. Like modern corporations, Enki, Inanna, Lagash, Shurupak, and the other deities of ancient Mesopotamia outlived any human and were not troubled by inheritance disputes, but needed humans to conduct affairs on their behalf. The ancient Egyptians merged this concept with a physical embodiment to create the concept of Pharaoh.[1]

By the time of Justinian I (r. 527–565), Byzantine-Roman law recognized several types of corporate entities, such as collegium, corpus, and universitas. The state itself was considered a sovereign corporation, the Populus Romanus. Smaller municipalities were also categorized as such, along with occupational guilds, political groups, and religious cults. The privileges of these early corporations were granted by the emperor in their charters, such as owning property, making contracts, engaging in commerce, and pursuing legal action.[2] Local governments and religious institutions were also incorporated in medieval Europe for the same reasons. Other forms of organization such as partnerships were offered by common law, which arose whenever people acted together with an intent to profit.

The era of the modern corporation began in the 17th century with the chartered companies that led European colonial ventures in India, the Americas, and elsewhere. The Dutch East India Company (VOC, from Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) was chartered by the Dutch government in 1602 and sold shares to investors, who traded them on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. The charter granted limited liability to investors and allowed the company to use military force pursuant to its purposes, which it did by defeating Portuguese forces in the Maluku Islands.[3] The English government chartered corporations with a territorial monopoly. For example, Queen Elizabeth I chartered the East India Company of London in 1600 to monopolize trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope.[4] Like the Dutch company, the English company would use force on the government’s behalf, becoming integrated with English and later British foreign policy. The English East India Company would become a symbol of both corporate success and exploitation.[5] Shareholders made almost 150 percent returns in 1711. Its first stock offering in 1713–1716 raised £418,000, and its second in 1717–1722 raised £1.6 million.[6]

However, the apparent success of a similar entity, the South Sea Company, turned out to be illusory. Established in 1711, its monopoly rights to trade with Spanish South America were supposedly backed by the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. In reality, the Spanish remained hostile, only allowing one trade ship per year. Investors made the South Sea Company immensely wealthy despite the fact that it did no real business. It took on the burden of British public debt in 1717, further accelerating the share price. War with Spain in 1718 cost the company its prospects of trade profits.[7] The Bubble Act 1720, which prohibited the establishment of companies without a Royal Charter, contributed to Britain’s first speculative bubble.[8] South Sea Company shares eventually collapsed from £1000 in August 1720 to under £150 in October, causing many bankruptcies.

Modern Developments

As the 18th century ended, mercantilism was displaced by capitalism and agrarian economies became industrialized. Corporate forms also evolved to be less dependent on state direction and permission. Many business ventures during this time were unincorporated associations with up to thousands of members. Litigation was thus very difficult to coordinate, keeping the courts from being clogged with corporate lawsuits. The Bubble Act was eventually repealed in 1825. In 1844, Parliament passed the Joint Stock Companies Act, which allowed companies to incorporate by registration for only £10 without obtaining a royal charter.[9] Until 1855, company members were still fully financially responsible for their collective actions, but the Limited Liability Act changed this by only holding investors responsible up to the amount of their investment[10], thus allowing the remainder to be externalized to the public.[11] Insurance companies were excluded from limited liability at first, but the Companies Act 1862 changed this.[12] The 1897 House of Lords decision in Salomon v. Salomon & Co. confirmed the separate legal personhood of corporations by affirming that creditors could not sue the shareholders of an insolvent company for outstanding corporate debt. In 1892, Germany introduced the Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (GmbH), the forerunner of the modern limited-liability company (LLC). These were considered separate legal personalities with limited liability like corporations, but could be owned by a single person.[13]

In the United States, corporations were usually formed by acts of Congress until the late 19th century. The captains of industry therefore made more use of the trust model than the corporate model, under which Rockefeller’s Standard Oil and Carnegie Steel Company became enormously successful.[14,15] State governments had more permissive corporate laws than the federal government in the 19th century, but most were designed to prevent corporations from gaining much wealth or power.[16] In the 1890s, New Jersey and Delaware adopted enabling corporate statutes.[17,18] Around this time, mergers and holding companies led to larger corporations, and governments responded with anti-trust and anti-monopoly legislation. Forming corporations was also made easier in most jurisdictions, though some places had many state-owned corporations that effectively nationalized certain industries. In recent decades, many countries have moved toward privatizing state-owned corporations, though ownership was transferred to politically connected oligarchs in many cases.[19,20,21]

Inherent Problems

The history of the corporate form makes clear the intractable problems of such entities. Fittingly, their roots are in the realm of religion, where fictions that operate on the intersubjective level of human experience have traditionally resided. Formalism demands that official reality should reflect actual reality, which is the first argument against corporations. Physical existence requires a concrete particular form; corporations are defined as lacking this, instead being legal persons without individual humanity. Furthermore, an association of individuals who agree upon a group identity and common purpose may be formed and continued without being accorded special privileges by a state, and power should not do what it need not.

A new set of problems arises when the state takes on a corporate form. For a sovereign to incorporate is redundant, as it already has all of the privileges of a corporation by virtue of monopolizing the legitimate use of force within the territory it controls. For good or ill, it can use its power to declare itself immune from suit and limit its liabilities by debasing currency or declaring a sovereign default. Only a loss of sovereignty from losing a war or sufficiently damaging measures taken against its trade by other sovereigns could force a sovereign to pay its creditors. More generally, a sovereign entity can have no law at all enforced against it except by the previously mentioned means. This is because the very concept of international law is a contradiction of terms; a sovereign cannot be subject to a higher law by definition.

Additionally, for a ruler to invite others to share power in a joint venture is to create offices which will eventually be used for evil ends, regardless of any well-intentioned efforts to create checks and balances. Eventually, these powers will be used to usurp the rights of the ruler and redistribute them. The road from there to democracy and all of its ills is heavily worn and in no need of additional traffic. Once that occurs, politicians can demagogue against the very corporations that the state has empowered to convince voters to support regulations that will increase state power and control over the economy. It is better to nip this recipe for rebellion and totalitarianism in the bud.

There is also danger in any sovereign entity, from private property monarch to nation-state government, granting such privileges to business interests. Corporations become the most powerful and profitable business entities wherever they can be formed without the tight constraints of pre-modern times (and even under those constraints in many cases) because of their ability to capitalize gains and socialize losses. That is, their state-granted privileges allow them to protect their interests by means unavailable to purely private businesses and push the tab for their mistakes onto the rest of society. This has long been a problem with regard to environmental pollution. Recent examples of this that still cause lingering resentment are the various corporate bailouts following the 2008 financial crisis. These privileges and safety nets, combined with their abilities to bribe state officials to regulate smaller competitors out of existence with compliance costs and spend vast amounts of money on political campaigns[22], creates a feedback loop by which economic and political power is centralized into a quasi-fascist oligarchy.

This oligarchic power is weaponizable just like any other power. Once an industry is dominated by only a few large corporations because the state has altered the market to keep any other upstarts from having a chance to compete, it becomes possible to deny essential services to people who are considered undesirable by the elite, such as political dissidents or ethnic minorities. It is here that the political autism of mainstream libertarians manifests itself, as they will defend the rights of business owners to discriminate without regard for context. Corporations, acting at the state’s behest, can effectively force people to stop participating in socioeconomic life by reducing their options and then cutting off those options. Those who lose their stake in society are both at risk of being destroyed by it and incentivized to destroy it in order to create a new system that serves their needs, paving the way for both genocides and terrorist attacks.

Solving the Problem

Fortunately, there are several methods which may be used to confront the problem of corporatism. The initial step is to gain enough political power to turn against them the very legal systems that empower them. Once that is done, the process of eliminating the corporate form may begin.

First, the worst behaviors of overzealous corporate leaders must be curtailed. If a corporation is chartered or registered under the laws of a particular state and that state has a constitution demarcating the limits of its claimed powers, then no such corporation should exceed those limits, for no entity should delegate powers to others that it does not have itself. For example, an incorporated social media firm or payment processor in the United States should be prohibited from banning users who are not breaking laws because of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.[23] Only a purely private business should be able to discriminate in this fashion within territory governed by US law. Because taxpayers are forced to pay for the legal structures that corporations use, any funding grants or bailouts they receive, and any public works they perform, to let the taxpayers be denied service by these entities is doubly unjust. This method could be used against almost all corporations as of this writing, though corporations in countries with unwritten constitutions may be unaffected.

Second, the power to tax and regulate is the power to destroy. Libertarians and free-market conservatives tend to balk at the prospect of wielding this power, but so long as they are unwilling and unable to mount an effective challenge to it, it will exist and be wielded by someone. Progressives have no scruples about using state power to perform social engineering, and the presence of such scruples among their opponents explains much of the current imbalance of political terror. If the goal is to eliminate the corporation and the concept of limited liability, then the taxes and regulations on such companies could be made so onerous as to give them no choice but to adopt another business model. Of course, an adjustment period of perhaps two years would be necessary to avoid unnecessary economic disruption, and carrots for adjusting to a type of unincorporated unlimited liability company with haste could be employed alongside the aforementioned sticks. Once all companies have either transitioned to a new model or failed because they cannot survive under free-market conditions, the doorway back to corporatism can be sealed.

Third, it is necessary to break up the largest and most powerful states. Corporate power is ultimately derived from state power, and a large tree cannot be supported without large roots. In a world of thousands of smaller polities, no governance structure would be powerful enough to grant the dangerous advantages that corporations currently enjoy. Whether by amicable separation, cryptographic disempowerment of states, secessionist movements, or civil wars, the scale of governance must be reduced as much as possible in as many places as possible so as to limit the potential power of whatever corporations survive the purge.

While the plan of using state power against corporations followed by a localization of state power is being carried out, there is an important role to be played by private actors. Technological innovations, such as cryptocurrencies, enable new forms of business organization. These forms should be innovated and developed in order to create more alternatives that can help businesses transition to a model which does not depend on the state. Smart contracts built into blockchains can offer most of the legitimate advantages of incorporation without the illegitimate advantages or negative externalities. Moreover, purely private businesses can be built for the primary purpose of competing with establishment-favored corporations.

Rebutting Objections

One may anticipate several objections worthy of consideration. First, there is the sheer difficulty of the task at hand. Corporations wield immense power, and will exercise that power to defend their privileges. It is true that eliminating corporations will be a daunting task, but that which is created and perpetuated by humans can cease being created and perpetuated; it is only a matter of who has the will to do what is necessary to win. In fact, there was a time when people faced great challenges precisely because they were difficult for the sense of accomplishment and pride in achieving real progress. Doing battle against such a formidable foe may be just the sort of challenge that people need to give their lives meaning and purpose.

Traditionalists are most likely to object that corporations have existed in one form or another for millennia, and are thus a natural outgrowth of governance structures. This is both an appeal to tradition and an appeal to nature. Traditions can emerge in one set of circumstances as a collection of best practices, but be counterproductive in a different cultural milieu. It is also possible for traditions to form not as best practices, but as practices which are just functional enough to avoid being abandoned or as practices which keep a particular group of people in power, regardless of merit. That corporatism seems to naturally emerge from statism and become worse as democracy spreads is not a defense of corporatism, but an indictment of statism and democracy.

Another reactionary objection is that corporations can increase the effectiveness of governance by coupling the efficiency of markets with the functions of government. If governments ruled justly, this objection could be valid, except for the potential pitfalls already discussed. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case, meaning that entrusting state functions to private actors results in the worst of both worlds: criminality under color of law carried out in service of profit above all else.

Critics from across the political spectrum will likely point out the role of limited liability in encouraging risky but beneficial ventures by protecting investors from losses beyond a certain point. In more modern terms, the absence of corporate privileges can lead to missing markets because of coordination failures that would occur without government intervention. This objection commits the broken window fallacy twice. First, it ignores the coordination failures that corporatism causes by creating negative externalities, thus resulting in missing markets in pollution mitigation. Second, it overlooks the economic activity that could have occurred had chartered and registered corporations not attracted investment capital to them and away from purely private companies. It also fails to interpret missing markets as a market signal that a certain market should not exist. Additionally, reactionaries should understand the shortcomings of basing economic considerations on utility alone, working instead with the principle of sacrifices producing greatness.

From a laissez-faire perspective, the economic growth that followed easing of restrictions on corporations and greater privileges granted to them may seem to prove the case in their favor. This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy; the fact that an enormous increase in prosperity occurred after limited liability became common and the creation of corporations changed from charter to registration does not mean that the latter caused the former. It is impossible to determine how much of modern prosperity has occurred because of corporations, in spite of them, or because of other factors, such as the exponential growth of knowledge and technology.[24] Of course, any other factors are inextricably linked to corporations. What can be said for certain is that economic growth is not the be all, end all that some capitalists make it out to be. For what shall it profit a people to be physically enriched but morally and spiritually impoverished?

Finally, libertarians will object that state power in general and taxation in particular are morally criminal and should not be used in pursuit of any socioeconomic goal. The political autism of this approach has already been addressed, so let us focus on the particular policies being advocated. The policy of taxing and regulating corporations out of existence is not designed to collect taxes. The idea is to require businesses to avoid the tax by changing their form. If this succeeds, then the economy has been engineered in the direction of liberty. If this fails because businesses opt to suffer through exorbitant taxation and regulation rather than reform, then this gives and advantage to purely private businesses while engineering society against obstinate stupidity. The idea of localizing state power by whatever means are necessary will meet opposition from libertarians who misunderstand the non-aggression principle, but this is resolved by articulating a correct understanding of libertarian philosophy.

Conclusion

The ancient root of corporations is in myths about deities which exist nowhere except in the minds of believers. The current form of corporations empowered by nation-states is only possible due to the monopoly of the state, which is based on aggressive violence rather than any legitimate property claim. While the pre-modern chartered companies were created by more legitimate powers, especially in pre-democratic times, they are still legal fictions that a rational philosophy should oppose. Corporations are therefore incompatible with libertarianism and should be replaced by other forms of business organization, such as common-law partnerships and cooperatives. Recent technological advances offer novel means of aiding this replacement, but turning state power against the corporate power it has created will almost certainly be necessary. Though there will be many objections to such a radical approach, none of them withstand proper scrutiny. Everything that corporations have done that should be done can be performed by purely private companies without the drawbacks of greater statism.

References:

  1. Harari, Yuval Noah (2015). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. HarperCollins Press. Ch. 4.
  2. Berman, Harold Joseph (1983). Law and Revolution (vol. 1): The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge University Press. p. 215–6.
  3. Prakash, Om (1998). European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-Colonial India. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Imperial Gazetteer of India vol. II (1908), p. 6.
  5. Keay, John (1991). The Honorable Company: A History of the English East India Company. MacMillan-New York.
  6. Ibid., p. 113
  7. Carswell, John (1960). The South Sea Bubble. London: Cresset Press. p. 75–6.
  8. Harris, Ron (1994). “The Bubble Act: Its Passage and Its Effects on Business Organization”. The Journal of Economic History. 54 (3): 610–627.
  9. Davies, Paul Lyndon (2010). Introduction to Company Law. Oxford University Press. p. 1.
  10. Mayson, S.W; et al. (2005). Mayson, French & Ryan on Company Law. London: Oxford University Press. p. 55.
  11. “Limited Liability and the Known Unknown”. Social Science Research Network. 2018.
  12. Pulbrook, Anthony (1865). The Companies Act, 1862, with analytical references and copious index. London: Effingham Wilson.
  13. Limited Liability Company Reporter (2001, Jun. 4). “Historical Background of the Limited Liability Company”.
  14. Dies, Edward (1969). Behind the Wall Street Curtain. Ayer. p. 76.
  15. Nasaw, David (2006). Andrew Carnegie. p. 578–88.
  16. Smiddy, Linda O.; Cunningham, Lawrence A. (2010). Corporations and Other Business Organizations: Cases, Materials, Problems (7th ed.). LexisNexis. p. 228–31.
  17. Ibid., p. 241
  18. The Law of Business Organizations. Cengage Learning.
  19. Nellis, John; Menezes, Rachel; Lucas, Sarah. “Privatization in Latin America: The rapid rise, recent fall, and continuing puzzle of a contentious economic policy”. Center for Global Development Policy Brief, Jan 2004. p. 1.
  20. Faiola, Anthony (2005, Oct. 15). “Japan Approves Postal Privatization”. Washington Post.
  21. Megginson, William L. (2005). The Financial Economics of Privatisation. Oxford University Press. p. 205–6.
  22. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 844 (2010)
  23. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co., 118 U.S. 394 (1886)
  24. Roser, Max; Ritchie, Hannah (2018). “Technological Progress”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org.

Against the Magna Carta

As some American eggheads say, there could not have been 1787 without 1215. The legacy of Philadelphia starts at Runnymede. Put more bluntly, the U.S. Constitution would not exist without the Magna Carta that was signed by King John of England.

America’s political culture, ideals, and most of its founding stock come from the British Isles. As such, arguing that American documents have an English lineage is entirely sensible. America’s Bill of Rights is based on and not much different from the Bill of Rights that English Protestants ratified in 1689 following the Glorious Revolution.

There a few documents in the world that receive such undue reverence as the Magna Carta. Conservative MP Daniel Hannan has called the signing of the document a “secular miracle”, the logic being that it was the Magna Carta that enshrined limited government in the English, then British soul. Hannan and others sincerely believe that the 1215 document is the root and origin of modern Anglo governance, with its protection of individual freedom, liberties, etc. Let us show that this is bunk.

Historical Context

The Magna Carta, which can be read in translation here, was signed by a king so loathed that no subsequent English monarch took his name. Although King John‘s story has been colored over the centuries by writers who hated him, it is true that John was a tyrant and a bumbler who lost most of the Angevin holdings in France to King Philip II of the House of Capet. Even worse, insofar as the Anglo-Norman barons of England were concerned, John was not the legitimate king because he ruled in the stead of the brave Richard the Lion-heart, who spent years languishing in an Austrian jail.

Beginning in 1215, the same year that John affixed his emblem to the Magna Carta, the Anglo-Norman barons of England’s north and east rose up in rebellion. Their main grievances were over John’s misrule in England and Normandy as well as his steep taxes that were raised in order to fight new campaigns in France. This rebellion would become known as the First Barons’ War, an unnecessary conflict that further weakened the monarchy in England.

The Magna Carta had already been signed by the time the war broke out, so it neither prevented the war nor ended it. In fact, haggling over the Magna Carta following its signing led both parties to be dissatisfied with the document, ultimately putting all on a war footing. The “secular miracle” was ineffectual insofar as internal English politics were concerned. The main reason for this is that King John had the document annulled not long after signing it by a decree from Pope Innocent III. The Pope and the King agreed that the document had been signed under coercion. The Pope even went further by excommunicating those barons who had forced John’s hand. Even in its own time, the Magna Carta meant nothing to either the English monarch or the barons who fought him.

The Document Itself

Those who claim that the Magna Carta is the origin of Anglo-American freedom often point to one line in particular:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”

This passage is often cited as the foundation of the notion that all governments should be held to the rule of law. This is a strange assertion, given that no English or British court case has been decided based on either this passage or the Magna Carta generally, and that the Romans had a legacy of protecting legal authority long prior. The Magna Carta is therefore of no legal importance. It is merely a symbolic gesture that signals the king’s willingness to compromise on his authority. When the English sovereign faced a much greater revolt in the 17th century, many Parliamentarians echoed the work of barrister Sir Edward Coke, who often invoked the Magna Carta during his injunctions against outlawry, unlawful arrests, and other formerly common practices of medieval (and Catholic) England.

Another criticism of the Magna Carta from the perspective of the Catholic or hard Protestant Right is the fact that the document makes God a mere observer in English affairs, not the creator and ultimate judge of all human actions:

“FIRST, THAT WE HAVE GRANTED TO GOD, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity, that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church’s elections – a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it – and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity.”

This moment then could be seen as the first stirrings of a legally encoded separation of church and state (an idea that is un-Christian down to its vary marrow) even though, as said before, the Magna Carta is ultimately a useless document. More to the point, legal codices and other documents have shown to be poor restraints on the state. Formerly, a Pope could excommunicate kings (and even that was not always effective) because the Pope in Rome was seen as having power in both the secular and ethereal realms. Nowadays, thanks to the Enlightenment, rulers are only constrained by contracts that can be changed thanks to the democratic and chaotic process of voting. Amendments are poor substitutes for excommunication; thus these weak constraints have empowered bureaucrats and managers at the cost of weakening sovereigns.

Third, the Magna Carta’s constant talk of “freemen” is meant to only apply to those Anglo-Norman barons who stood so threateningly beside King John as this document was signed. As G. K. Chesterton famously quipped, “the poor object to being governed badly, while the rich object to being governed at all.” This pithy statement is certainly apt when viewing the situation in England in the early 13th century. After all, the raising of taxes is one of the few duties of a king, and from the perspective of the Angevin crown, John was raising taxes in order to defend those lands that were his by birthright in France.

King John’s taxes did constitute a threat to baronial privilege, however. For a legitimate monarch, taxes are rent charged to tenants by the private property owner. In the case of King John, he enacted import and export taxes and pseudo-income taxes, most of which were only applicable to England’s barons. Those barons who could not or would not pay their taxes or debts saw their lands given to the crown. While the barons were wrong to draft the Magna Carta, King John was equally wrong to enact unfair taxes that went against precedent.

While the Magna Carta does speak out against the illegal seizure of non-English land (“If we have deprived or dispossessed any Welshmen of land, liberties, or anything else in England or in Wales, without the lawful judgment of their equals, these are at once to be returned to them”), it certainly does not articulate anything close to equal rights between the Celtic and Germanic subjects of the British Isles. Indeed, as discussed on Episode 77 of the Myth of the 20th Century podcast, the Magna Carta enshrined and justified the popular business of buying and selling English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh slaves to foreign and domestic markets. Similarly, the passage in the Magna Carta absolving Christians from debts to Jews (“If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.”) is really nothing less than an a way for debt-ridden nobles to cover their own hides after several failed crusades in the Holy Land.

It must also be mentioned that the “security clause” of the Magna Carta (Clause 61) does not offer up protection from unjust land theft, but rather tried to enshrine the rights of those twenty-five barons present at Runnymede:

“The barons shall elect twenty-five of their number to keep, and cause to be observed with all their might, the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter. If we, our chief justice, our officials, or any of our servants offend in any respect against any man, or transgress any of the articles of the peace or of this security, and the offence is made known to four of the said twenty-five barons, they shall come to us – or in our absence from the kingdom to the chief justice – to declare it and claim immediate redress. If we, or in our absence abroad the chief justice, make no redress within forty days, reckoning from the day on which the offence was declared to us or to him, the four barons shall refer the matter to the rest of the twenty-five barons, who may distrain upon and assail us in every way possible, with the support of the whole community of the land, by seizing our castles, lands, possessions, or anything else saving only our own person and those of the queen and our children, until they have secured such redress as they have determined upon. Having secured the redress, they may then resume their normal obedience to us. Any man who so desires may take an oath to obey the commands of the twenty-five barons for the achievement of these ends, and to join with them in assailing us to the utmost of his power.”

This clause gave the English public the right to forgo oaths of allegiance to the king, and in its opening passage (“SINCE WE HAVE GRANTED ALL THESE THINGS for God, for the better ordering of our kingdom, and to allay the discord that has arisen between us and our barons”) Clause 61 places man ahead of God in terms of the creation and structuring of civil society. Taken together, Clause 61 might be the most egregious in the Magna Carta for undermining the Christian nature of monarchy and the rights of the English sovereign. Historian Wilfred Warren argued in his book King John that Clause 61 made civil war inevitable in England because it so drastically upset the balance of power in the country in favor of the barons.

Other clauses, such as Clause 53 (“…when we have hitherto had this by virtue of a ‘fee’ held of us for knight’s service by a third party; and with abbeys founded in another person’s ‘fee’, in which the lord of the ‘fee’ claims to own a right. On our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once do full justice to complaints about these matters”) and Clause 55 (“All fines that have been given to us unjustly and against the law of the land, and all fines that we have exacted unjustly, shall be entirely remitted or the matter decided by a majority judgment of the twenty-five barons referred to below in the clause for securing the peace”) gave the barons the right to default on their debts and the right to refuse to pay certain fees. Many of these fees, including taxes on land, had been a part of English Common Law prior to the Norman Conquest. Clause 50 (“We will remove completely from their offices the kinsmen of Gerard de Athée, and in future they shall hold no offices in England. The people in question are Engelard de Cigogné, Peter, Guy, and Andrew de Chanceaux, Guy de Cigogné, Geoffrey de Martigny and his brothers, Philip Marc and his brothers, with Geoffrey his nephew, and all their followers”) lays bare the true nature of the Magna Carta—it was a document conjured up by aggrieved nobles looking for a way to increase their power against their rivals.

If the Magna Carta had been enacted in 1215, then England would have become a baronial oligarchy that could easily manipulate any sovereign. The Magna Carta would have also offset the possible dismantling of the Norman state back to its Anglo-Saxon origins (more on this later), for the barons would have seen the clear benefits of dominating both London and their estates in the country. Had the Magna Carta become law in 13th century England, it would have further centralized the English state at the cost of weakening the sovereign and legitimate monarch.

By the 17th century, the process of England’s pull away from the sovereign was completed by the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 is one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the English-speaking peoples. Not only did it remove the legitimate heirs to the throne—the Catholic and Norman-Scot Stuart family—but it threw the British North American colonies into chaos. After all, the signing of a new English constitution suddenly rendered the American charters null and void. While the men and women of Massachusetts originally cheered the revolution and the destruction of the Dominion of New England, the revolution threw the legitimacy of colonial governments into question. The mother country responded by taking a more active approach in North American affairs, a result that quickly rubbed the New England and Virginia colonists the wrong way, eventually contributing to the American Revolution.

An Anglo Alternative

Again, it bears repeating that the original Magna Carta was never ratified or nor put into law. The reissued Magna Carta of 1217, for instance, added that all castles built during the First Barons’ War would be destroyed. Signed by King Henry III and sealed by the papal legate Guala, the 1217 document is also noteworthy for the fact that French Prince Louis resigned all claims to any land formerly held in England.

King Henry reissued the document eight years later in 1225. This version of the document, known as the Great Charter of 1225, became the definitive version of the Magna Carta. The purpose for its issuance was Henry’s desire to raise new taxes—the very same issue that got his predecessor, King John, in so much trouble. The Great Charter also removed any wording or suggestions that the original document had been written under coercion. This probably seemed pleasant to England’s barons, except that the 1225 document placed a tax on the fifteenth part of their movable property.

The final incarnation of the original Magna Carta occurred in 1258 with the Provisions of Oxford. This document, which was also signed by King Henry and saw promises of financial aid to the monarch from the barons, is actually considered the first true constitution in English history. After a military blunder in Sicily, Henry groveled before Parliament, which forced the king to agree to a 24-man royal commission which included at least twelve men handpicked by the barons themselves. The Provisions of Oxford officially made England’s barons part of the royal power structure, and for twelve years, Henry was under the control of a Council of Fifteen along with chief ministers, a Justiciar, and a Chancellor.

While the absolutism of the 17th century, which is itself a perversion of the kingly ideal based in early Enlightenment and Protestant thinking, caused the growth of sharp anti-monarchical feeling in the British Isles, it was the Magna Carta and its offspring that set in motion the weakening of the sovereign’s authority. Instead of one ruler constrained by God, natural law, and inherited privileges, 13th century England concocted a witch’s brew that reeked of proto-democratic oligarchy. King John and Henry III, because of their poor military adventures, relinquished their power to petty barons and the court mandarins in London. England, and indeed the entire West, have never fully recovered.

The Stuarts had an alternative to absolutism that was based in the ancient soil of England. According to historian and sociologist Spencer Heath, “heathen anarchism” was the state of affairs in England prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. Now called “anarcho-feudalism”, this state of relations emphasized the Anglo-Saxon tradition of decentralized power, chieftains, and property. Take for instance the Anglo-Saxon custom of paying voluntary rent and/or customs to local lords. Prior to 1066 and the creation of the “Norman yoke”, Anglo-Saxon England did not have a centralized system of tax collection. Once taxation became official government policy, feudalism, which up until that point had been voluntary, became coercive. It was also the Norman Domesday Book which codified centralized authority, especially the authority that the king had over his nobles. It could be argued that had England retained Anglo-Saxon style governance, then the Magna Carta would never have been written.

Sadly, Norman rule in England brought about greater state centralization and coercion, and yet, the Magna Carta, which nominally tried to reign in King John and subsequent monarchs, only created greater synergy between the nobility and the monarch. The Magna Carta left unanswered the question: who has greater power, the nobles or the king? Such a vexing question would plague England for centuries and lead to yet another barons’ war. While the Anglo-Saxon system was far from fully voluntary (land tenure regulations and compulsive military service did exist), its more decentralized nature and the nature of tax collection in pre-Norman England was much closer to the spirit of liberty than either the Magna Carta or subsequent English laws written by either the monarch or Parliament.

Conclusion

The reverence given to the Magna Carta must be cast aside. The document meant nothing just weeks after it was written, and it means little now. Kings have a right to rule, so long as they rule in accordance with natural law. By restricting the king’s prerogative by instituting written constitutions, societies set themselves up for oligarchic exploitation. During the Second Barons’ War, Anglo-Norman knight Simon de Montfort captured London and the surrounding area. One of the first things he did was to create a parliament, subsequently known as Simon de Montfort’s Parliament. Because of this, Baron Montfort is often called the founder of the House of Commons, which means that this baron kick-started the engine that would decapitate King Charles I and dismantle any meaningful power invested in the English (later British) crown.

The Magna Carta was also invoked by the Protestant anarchists known as the Levellers during their resistance to both King Charles I and his Long Parliament. Ironically, when the Parliamentarian warlord Oliver Cromwell took power in London, he dispensed with the notion that he would abide by the 13th century document. Cromwell famously called the Magna Carta the “Magna Farta.”

Would one rather be ruled by a roster of barons or a single king? For libertarians and reactionaries, the answer is quite obvious. The Magna Carta was not some “secular miracle”; rather, it was a failed document that spawned other failed documents.