Thursday, December 13, 2007 89 Comments

Why I am not a libertarian

Fear not, gentle reader. Perhaps you have been linked to this essay quite casually, purely on the basis of its catchy title, and you are expecting one of those little chatty NPRish pieces that explain quite patiently to you, as to a retarded child, that libertarians are evil and the New Deal was the best thing since sliced bread.

This is not one of those essays. UR is, in fact, an extremist blog. Here at UR, we do our damnedest to have no concern whatsoever for the political fashions of 2007. One easy way to "overcome" this bias is to compare one's opinions not only to the fashions of 2007, but also of 1907. Or even 1807. Or even perhaps 1707. Or, what the heck, 7.

This ancient algorithm, once known by the cute Latin name of sub specie aeternitatis, is guaranteed to produce extremist results. If our views conformed perfectly to the fashions of 2007, they would strike the fashionable citizens of any of these other timepoints as crazed. (Of course, the same is true for 1907, or 1707, or 7.)

If you are a libertarian, you are already resigned to the fact that most fashionable people think of you as a nutcase. Today we are going to ask you to crawl a little farther out on that limb, and suggest that you replace your libertarian views with thoughts that are even more extreme.

If you are not a libertarian, and if this sub specie aeternitatis thing strikes you as somehow dubious or shady, I feel no hesitation in informing you with absolute confidence that the common concept of progress, which perhaps you are operating under, is a lie and a delusion and a snare. At least inasmuch as that term applies to the problem of human government, and not physics, oil painting, or backgammon. There is no reason to think the political designs of 2007 are any better than those of 1907, 1807, or 7. In fact, there is quite a bit of reason to think that the truth is just the opposite.

If you really do believe in progress, I'm sorry to have to inform you that your brain is full of little pockets of stringy black mycelium stuff, which will probably have to be cleaned out with the heavy brush. I do sympathize with your condition. It is one we have all suffered from. In fact, we probably all still have it. However, you have a very serious case and you will probably not be able to enjoy this here essay. Please feel free to browse elsewhere on the site.

In other words, today's post is for people who either are, or at least have been, or at least have been tempted to become, libertarians. To be a libertarian is to at least suspect that progress isn't all it's cracked up to be, because it is obvious to any twelve-year-old who can read Robert A. Heinlein that the world was once much more libertarian than it is now, and that it easily could become so again. Both of these conditions demonstrate nonmonotonic political change, invalidating the delusional concept of progress.

Surely only one such disproof is required before we feel motivated to perform a thorough mental audit of all historical changes in social and political systems which come to us tagged with this fascinating if deadly label.

One concept often associated with progress is revolution. Various fashionable opinions of 2007 assign various moral valences to various instances of revolution. The word is clearly extremely general. However, if we are to rid ourselves of these fashions, one simple way to start is with a simple default: all revolutions are bad.

Your mileage may vary, but I've found this default oddly compelling. So, for example, I see the French Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. I see the Russian Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. Perhaps you agree with only one of these conclusions. Perhaps you agree with both. But if you had to add a third revolution to this set, which one would it be?

And this is the first reason I am not a libertarian. Libertarianism is, more or less, basically, the ideology of the American Revolution. And the American Revolution was, in my own personal opinion, more or less, basically, a criminal outrage of the mob - led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both.

(I will grant that if I had to pick any mob leaders in history, I would probably pick Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, although Caesar, Cicero and either Cato would certainly earn a draft choice somewhere. However, a politician is a politician. The profession is a fundamentally criminal one. (I'm sure James Gandolfini would do a perfectly good job at it.))

If you have trouble swallowing this ubercynical picture of the American Revolution, let me recommend two books. The first is Murray Rothbard's great four-volume Conceived in Liberty, now available online. (It is really a tragedy that the fifth volume, which would have taken us to the Constitution, was never finished.) The second is Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which sadly is only sold in stores.

Rothbard is surely one of the ten top philosophers of the twentieth century. Besides being more or less the founder of modern American political libertarianism, besides being the acknowledged dean of the Austrian School of economics, he was also a world-class historian, trained under Joseph Dorfman at Columbia. Conceived in Liberty is full of primary research and original interpretations. Its portrait of George Washington as a bumbling buffoon, for example, may be challenged. But it is neither unsupported nor unmemorable.

And one thing you will see in Rothbard - though Rothbard tends to paint incidents such as Leisler's Rebellion in a suspiciously golden light - is the importance of mob violence and paramilitary armed gangs in American political history. Not just in the Revolution, but throughout the colonial period.

My general view of CIL, achievement though it is, is that it works a little too hard to emphasize the prevalence of colonial ideas which approximate modern libertarianism, understating strands that are more clearly ancestral to socialism and other statisms. But when you combine Rothbard with Bailyn, a mainstream historian of considerable renown, the result is damning.

Ideological Origins
, which appeared in 1967, won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. It is absolutely impossible to infer any opinions that Bailyn may hold from this carefully crafted book, a feat I consider perverse but still must admire. Its history, however, is beyond reproach and it is generally considered seminal.

What Bailyn shows us is that the rebels in the American Revolution were motivated by an ideology that was utterly deluded, that amounted to no more than a wacky conspiracy theory. The point is not even slightly arguable. Their interpretation of British politics simply had no basis in reality.

Since this delusional interpretation was the linchpin of their argument for rebellion, and since their reliance on street violence and paramilitary formations is indisputable, they can fairly be classed as unscrupulous or deluded mob leaders - regardless of any classification in the scruples department, a historical task which often verges on the impossible. (Especially diligent readers may enjoy Frederick Scott Oliver's Alexander Hamilton: An Essay on American Union, with its wonderful portrait of Thomas Jefferson as a scoundrel.)

I'll let Bailyn tell the story. From his foreword:
This book has developed from a study that was first undertaken a number of years ago, when Howard Mumford Jones, then Editor-in-Chief of the John Harvard Library, invited me to prepare a collection of pamphlets of the American Revolution for publication in that series. Like all students of American history I knew well perhaps a half dozen of the most famous pamphlets of the Revolution, obviously worth republication, and I knew also of others, another half dozen or so, that would probably be worth considering. The project was attractive to me, it did not appear to be particularly burdensome, and since in addition it was related to a book I was then preparing on eighteenth-century politics, I agreed to undertake it.

The starting point of the work was the compilation of a complete bibliography of the pamphlets. This alone proved to be a considerable task, and it was in assembling this list that I discovered the magnitude of the project I had embarked on. The full bibliography of pamphlets relating to the Anglo-American struggle published in the colonies through the year 1776 contains not a dozen or so items but over four hundred; in the end I concluded that no fewer than seventy-two of them ought to be republished. But sheer numbers were not the most important measure of the magnitude of the project. The pamphlets include all sorts of writings - treatises on political theory, essays on history, political arguments, sermons, correspondence, poems - and they display all sorts of literary devices. But for all their variety they have in common one distinctive characteristic: they are, to an unusual degree, explanatory. They reveal not merely positions but the reasons why positions were taken; they reveal motive and understanding: the assumptions, beliefs and ideas - the articulated world view - that lay behind the manifest events of the time. As a result I found myself, as I read through these many documents, studying not simply a particular medium of publication but, through these documents, nothing less than the ideological origins of the American Revolution. And I found myself viewing these origins with surprise, for the "interior" view, from the vantage point of the pamphlets, was different from what I had expected. The task, consequently, took on increasing excitement, for much of the history of the American Revolution has fallen into the condition that overtakes so many of the great events of the past; it is, as Professor Trevor-Roper has written in another connection, taken for granted: "By our explanations, interpretations, assumptions we gradually make it seem automatic, natural, inevitable; we remove from it the sense of wonder, the unpredictability, and therefore the freshness it ought to have."
[...]
The pamphlets do reveal the influence of Enlightenment thought, and they do show the effective force of certain religious ideas, of the common law, and also of classical literature; but they reveal most significantly the close integration of these elements in a pattern of, to me at least, surprising design - surprising because of the prominence in it of still another tradition, interwoven with, yet still distinct from, these more familiar strands of thought. This distinctive influence had been transmitted most directly to the colonists by a group of early eighteenth-century radical publicists and opposition politicians in England who carried forth into the eighteenth century and applied to the politics of the age of Walpole the peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War.
[...]
I began to see a new meaning in phrases that I, like most historians, had readily dismissed as mere rhetoric and propaganda: "slavery," "corruption," "conspiracy." These inflammatory words were used so forcefully by writers of so great a variety of social statuses, political positions, and religious persuasions; they fitted so logically into the pattern of radical and opposition thought; and they reflected so clearly the realities of an age in which monarchical autocracy flourished, in which the stability and freedom of England's "mixed" constitution was a recent and remarkable achievement, and in which the fear of conspiracy against constituted authority was built into the very structure of politics, that I began to suspect that they meant something very real to both the writers and their readers; that there were real fears, real anxieties, a sense of real danger behind these phrases, and not merely the desire to influence by rhetoric and propaganda the inert minds of an otherwise passive populace. The more I read, the less useful, it seemed to me, was the whole idea of propaganda in its modern meaning when applied to the writings of the American Revolution - a view that I hope to develop at length on another occasion. In the end I was convinced that the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world - a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part - lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement.
Note how gracefully Bailyn skates over the fact that (indisputably) no such conspiracy existed. In other words, our Founding Fathers were more or less the Troofers of their day. Or, to put it differently, America obtained its independence because of a war that was started by people who were genuinely terrified of the 18th-century equivalent of black helicopters.

From a later chapter (p. 94):
It is the meaning imparted to the events after 1763 by this integrated group of attitudes and ideas that lies behind the colonists' rebellion. In the context of these ideas, the controversial issues centering on the question of Parliament's jurisdiction in America acquired as a group new and overwhelming significance. The colonists believed they saw emerging from the welter of events during the decade after the Stamp Act a pattern whose meaning was unmistakable. They saw in the measures taken by the British government and in the actions of officials in the colonies something which their peculiar inheritance of thought had prepared them for only too well, something they had long conceived to be a possibility in view of the known tendencies of history and of the present state of affairs in England. They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles on which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America. The danger to America, it was believed, was in fact only the small, immediately visible part of the greater whole whose ultimate manifestation would be the destruction of the English constitution, with all the rights and privileges embedded in it.

This belief transformed the meaning of the colonists' struggle, and it added an inner accelerator to the movement of opposition. For, once assumed, it could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.

It was this - the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their words dissembled - that was signalled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.

Suspicion that the ever-present, latent danger of an active conspiracy of power against liberty was becoming manifest within the British Empire, assuming specific form and developing in coordinated phases, rose in the consciousness of a large segment of the American people before any of the famous political events of the struggle with England took place. No adherent of a nonconformist church or sect in the eighteenth century was free from suspicion that the Church of England, an arm of the English state, was working to bring all subjects of the crown into the community of the Church; and since toleration was official and nonconformist influence in English politics formidable, it was doing so by stealth, disguising its efforts, turning to improper uses devices that had been created for benign purposes. In particular, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in English Parts, an arm of the Church created in 1701 to aid in bringing the Gospel to the pagan Indians, was said by 1763 to have "long had a formal design to root out Presbyterianism, etc., and to establishing both episcopacy and bishops."

This suspicion, which had smoldered in the breasts of New Englanders and nonconformists throughout the colonies for half a century or more, had burst into flame repeatedly, but never so violently as in 1763, in the Mayhew-Apthorp controversy which climaxed years of growing anxiety that plans were being made secretly to establish an American episcopate. To Mayhew, as to Presbyterian and Congregational leaders throughout the colonies, there could be little doubt that the threat was real. Many of the facts were known, facts concerning maneuvers in London and in America. Anglican leaders in New York and New Jersey had met almost publicly to petition England for an American episcopate, and there could be little doubt also of the role of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in this undercover operation. For if the ostensible goal of the Society was the gospelizing of the pagan Indians and Negroes, its true goal was manifestly revealed when it established missions in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had not had a resident Indian since the seventeenth century and was well equipped with "orthodox" preachers. Such missions, Mayhew wrote, have "all the appearance of entering wedges... carrying on the crusade, or spiritual siege of our churches, with the hope that they will one day submit to to an episcopal sovereign." Bishops, he wrote unblinkingly in reply to the Archbishop of Canterbury, have commonly been instruments in arbitrary reigns of "establishing a tyranny over the bodies and souls of men," and their establishment in America would mark the end of liberty in Massachusetts and elsewhere. By 1765, when the final exchanges in this pamphlet war were published, it was commonly understood in New England and elsewhere that "the stamping and episcopizing [of] our colonies were... only different branches of the same plan of power."
Etc, etc, etc. And this is only the beginning - the plot goes far beyond "episcopizing." If you enjoy this sort of badinage, the book is available cheaply. It's really quite a study in abnormal political psychology.

Here is a diary entry from someone who didn't buy it:
That this was the issue, for thoughtful and informed people, on which decisions of loyalty to the government turned is nowhere so clearly and sensitively revealed as in the record Peter van Schaack left of his tormented meditations of January, 1776. A wellborn, scholarly and articulate New Yorker of 29 who prepared himself for deciding the question of his personal loyalty by undertaking in seclusion a critical examination of the works of Locke, Vattel, Montesquieu, Grotius, Beccaria, and Pufendorf, he noted first his fear of the destructive consequences of conceding Parliament's right to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever. That danger, he wrote, was perfectly clear. "But my difficulty arises from this," he said:
that taking the whole of the acts complained of together, they do not, I think, manifest a system of slavery, but may fairly be imputed to human frailty and the difficulty of the subject. Most of them seem to have sprung out of particular occasions, and are unconnected with each other... In sort, I think those acts may have been passed without a preconceived plan of enslaving us, and it appears to me that the more favorable construction ought to ever to be put in the conduct of our rulers.
(I feel the same way about the Jews, myself.)

Now van Schaack was, of course, a Tory. Or as he no doubt would have preferred, Loyalist. Now, if we update the conflict between Patriots and Loyalist to 2007 and look at our present bilaterally-symmetric political system, which side is the descendant of the Patriots, and which is the descendant of the Loyalists?

It's a trick question, of course. The Loyalists have no political descendant. There is no American alive today whose loyalty to the British Crown was passed down to him in an unbroken chain from 18th-century Loyalists. You would be about as likely to find a native speaker of Etruscan. Both Democrats and Republicans are factions of Patriot.

And yet: the Loyalists were right. At least on this one rather important question. Britain was not on a path to a weird, 1984-like future with gold braids and epaulets, crushed under the iron heel of the King, the Church of England and the Lords. Rather, the power of throne and altar and fief in Britain had been dwindling almost monotonically since Mary Tudor - a process which of course has continued to this day.

(With a ridiculous figurehead Queen and an utterly gormless Prince of Wales, a True Leveller and soi-disant Druid as Archbishop of Canterbury, and a PM who apparently (I still have a hard time believing this one) has the power to arbitrarily hire and fire peers of the realm. What could be more humiliating for the lion and the unicorn? I'm afraid they have both been getting it in the ass from Uncle Sam. And not just since September 11, either.)

The Loyalists were right. And yet they have no intellectual descendants at all, not in the US and not anywhere else. At least from the point of view of their political DNA, they were simply obliterated - not unlike the Cavaliers, to whom their resemblance is more than passing. And in what folder does almost everyone alive file this event? I'm afraid that folder is progress.

For a libertarian, especially a paleolibertarian, correcting this historically-received fallacy of moral valence should be an obviously attractive option, because it allows us to assign all three of the great revolutions of the last 250 years to the same category: that of crazed, lawless violence. But unfortunately, once we reject the American Revolution, we must also disown the label of libertarian, as simply confusing. (I will suggest a couple of replacement labels in a moment. In the meantime, please feel free to just wander around with nothing on your shirt.)

Rejecting the American Revolution is especially problematic for a libertarian, because the great libertarian writers of the twentieth century - Rothbard, Rand and Nozick - all defined libertarianism as an ethical ideal. Probably the best rigorous one-book definition of the mainstream libertarian (or "anarcho-capitalist," a term which has always struck me as utterly dorky) perspective is Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty.

EOL
works very hard to define the moral principles that make libertarianism philosophically ineluctable. Needless to say, these principles are none other than the Lockean natural rights of the American Revolution. The theological roots of these "rights" are obvious (Rothbard may not have been a Christian, but Locke certainly was), and any suggestion that they are in some sense philosophically universal violates Hume's is-ought principle.

Thus, libertarian principles cannot be logically justified except an appeal to the historical traditions that have descended to all Americans as received wisdom via the Patriot branch of the evolutionary tree. A libertarian, therefore, is fundamentally a conservative.

And if you admit that the Loyalists may have been right and the Patriots may have been a bunch of asshats, conservatism takes a heavy slash to the neck from Occam's razor. Because a so-called "conservative" who is a Patriot - or even a supporter of the "Glorious Revolution" - is someone who believes in progress up to a certain point, but no further.

While such a position may indeed prove correct, there is certainly no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt. In fact, considering the length of time for which it has held that benefit, it probably should be treated as if it were a boiling radioactive vial of Ebola.

And this is the second reason I am not a libertarian: because, by defining libertarianism as an ethical imperative, libertarians assign themselves an unsolvable problem and proceed not to solve it. As the miracle of 1787 spirals into the abyss, as the need for some sane alternative grows ever more obvious, libertarianism as a political force has proved itself only slightly more effective than the Maharishi. And that's in the US. In Europe, the situation is even worse. Perhaps there is a reason for this.

In my opinion, the practical problem with grounding libertarianism in the ideals of the American Revolution is that Americans no longer hold those ideals, and Europeans never did. Both, today, follow a moral code which is essentially socialist. It is true that this is the natural consequence of "education" at the hands of a government which is essentially socialist. It is also irrelevant. The consequence is the reality. You cannot explain to people that they ought to believe in, say, freedom of contract as a fundamental human right, when in fact they don't. As Hume, again, pointed out, ethical axioms are not debatable.

The response of many libertarians, especially those who for some awful, unimaginable reason seem to have congregated in the watershed of the Potomac, is often to borrow a trick from the Fabian Society, and try to steer Washington gradually and moderately in the direction of smaller and freer government.

They should know better. As we'll see shortly, the monotonic growth pattern of the State is not a coincidence. It is one thing to surf that wave. It is another to paddle out through the breaker. When we look at the results of 25 years of Beltway libertarianism, we see hardly any substantive policy achievements. I'm sure there are some. But I can't think of any.

And when we compare even their most aggressive visions to the set of changes that a return to the literal text of the Constitution, let alone a Rothbardian anarchy, would involve, we see the essentially decorative nature of the Beltway libertarians. I'm sure they have a lot of fun trying. But inevitable failure is no service to any cause.

I mean, why in God's name would anyone come to the conclusion that the US political system is in some sense reformable? Talk about the triumph of hope over experience. And all the energy, and money, and time, that the Beltway libertarians put into trying to apply a single smudge of lipstick to some flap of flesh in the remote vicinity of this hog's maw is energy, and money, and time uninvested in putting the beast to sleep. Moreover, since the official story of Washington is that it represents everyone, it fits all sizes, it contains multitudes, a few decorative pseudolibertarians may be just the right camouflage for it to weather another century's storms.

A quick question for fans of the Cato Institute, the George Mason economists, Reason, and the like: if you could vote on a proposition to abolish the US Federal Government, would you vote yes or no? If the latter, which side are you on? If the former, have you ever thought of mentioning this opinion?

So we arrive at an impasse. We find libertarianism attractive in a general sort of way. We feel, vaguely, that there is something fishy and awful about government, at least government as it is today. However, real libertarianism has no prospect of gaining a political foothold, and watered-down pseudolibertarianism defeats the purpose.

Perhaps I have dug deep enough in this rich seam of defeat and despair. But in case I haven't, let's observe that the United States once had a healthy and functioning libertarian Constitution, with Ninth and Tenth Amendments that were anything but inkblots. 220 years later, we have... what we have now. Does this inspire you with great confidence in limited government as a durable and effective engineering principle? Suppose, by some miracle, libertarians elect Ron Paul, and he actually succeeds in reforming Washington and restoring the 1787 interpretation of the Constitution. And how many years would this last? Why would we expect different results on the second go?

Unlike so many of their political heirs, the American Founders were (I believe) extremely thoughtful, discerning and scrupulous men. Their paranoid misunderstandings of British politics are best ascribed to cultural rather than personal factors. The engine they designed was a good effort, and it deserves at least some respect. But it was operating wildly outside their design envelope - consider the fate of the Electoral College - by at least 1800. The situation has hardly improved since then. And we want to go back to this?

The US, like Britain, has an unwritten constitution enforced by precedent and custom. The difference is that the US also has a written Constitution, which we pretend is identical to the actual thing. But to call the historically-accreted transformation from 1787 Constitution to 2007 constitutional law nontrivial is like saying it hurts when an elephant fucks you in the ass. It would be a fascinating exercise to actually write down what the Constitution would say if it actually described the structure of the US government today.

(Perhaps some law student should try it. Because this disparity between the written law and the judicially constructed reality certainly does no service to anyone, and it strikes me as much more straightforward to recognize the latter than to return to the former. If nothing else, formalization of the present reality is an excellent starting point for any kind of reform.)

So I hope I have presented a reasonable case that, while history is never to be disregarded, the dream of a return to the ideals or laws or values of late 18th-century postcolonial America is neither logically sound, historically justified, politically achievable, nor stably efficacious. Libertarianism, at least libertarianism as we know it, does not solve the problem it purports to address. Ergo, it is political Laetrile, different from all the other quack political remedies of the 20th century only in the sophistication of its appeal and the harmlessness of its efforts.

And this is the third reason I'm not a libertarian: because I'm an engineer. I find libertarian government an extremely desirable outcome. In just a second, we will look at other ways to achieve this outcome. However, as a moral imperative, or a political design, or a historical tradition, libertarianism does not strike me as an effective means to this end.

In this we can compare libertarianism to the peace movement. Both have buzzwords - liberty, peace - with incontestable positive valence. No one can be against liberty or against peace. However, what the actual "peace movement" has done is to associate this movement with a certain set of policies, which in practice translate (eg, in the Middle East) to a fairly aggressive brand of irredentism. They claim that if this irredentist program is fully and properly applied, the result will be peace. Obviously it has not been so applied, and no peace has resulted. And I don't believe that, after 60 years of this, my belief that the "peace process" is in fact the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be considered prima facie absurd.

Similarly, libertarians want liberty. As do we all - I hope. But does the actual political program of libertarianism advance the prospect of liberty?

All schools of libertarianism, whether Rothbardian or Randian or (nearly-stillborn) Nozickian, rest on the idea of limited government. Note the intrinsic absurdity of this concept. If some government is limited by its own volition, it can abandon these limits at any time. (Historical experience suggests that the "sacred-document" trick is of extremely limited utility in preventing it from doing so.) If the government is limited by some external power, it is not a government in the usual sense of the word, and we should direct our attention to the limiting power.

It is at this point that the libertarian typically reveals his inner democrat, and suggests that the sovereign power of the People will preserve liberty. First, this hasn't exactly worked in practice. Second, true sovereignty demands actual military superiority, which may have existed in 1787 but has certainly gone missing since then. If the military of any modern country faced off against the rest of its population, each side being united, the former would win every time. And third, the State can escape this check quite easily, because it can indoctrinate its subjects to despise rebellion and love its motherly care.

So I really see no value at all in libertarianism as we now know it. Therefore, please allow me to suggest an alternative. This should not be new to UR readers, but let's see if I can summarize it in a few paragraphs, without cheating by linking to old posts.

The essential characteristic of libertarianism is its respect for property. To a libertarian, property is an inalienable human right and an ethical absolute. Rothbard invests many chapters, such as this one and this one, on the question of when property titles or transfers are morally legitimate and binding. As Nozick points out, the standard libertarian logic on these points is frequently blurry and often completely circular.

For example, here is Rothbard on why you can't sell yourself into slavery:
Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts. Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention—and one that is fortunately upheld under present law—is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (i.e., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.
Ie, you can't sell yourself into slavery because your control over your own body and will are inalienable. Ie, you can't alienate them, because if you could you could - sell yourself into slavery. A masterpiece of circular reasoning orbiting around a Humean ought.

If we abandon these kinds of ethical claims for property right, we are left with property as a principle of social engineering. What is it, and how can it be used?

Property is any stable structure of monopoly control. You own something if you alone control it. Your control is stable if no one else will take it away from you. This control may be assured by your own powers of violence, or it may be delegated by a higher power. If the former, it is secondary property. If the latter, it is primary or sovereign property.

The key observation about primary and secondary property is that the two are much more similar than they may seem.

If the structure of property is stable and all transfers are voluntary exchanges, there is no praxeological distinction between primary and secondary property. If it is impossible for an aggressor to profit by unilaterally adjusting property rights in her favor, it does not matter why it is impossible. The aggressor could be prevented because her aggression is physically impractical, because it will be reversed by a police authority, because it will be punished by a nuclear strike, etc, etc. The important distinction is between a system in which aggression occurs, and a system in which no aggression occurs. The means is unimportant.

The principle of formalism, which is my own private libertarian heresy, suggests that the purpose of property is to prevent violence. The formalist is completely unconcerned with the moral legitimacy of property rights. She is entirely concerned with their stability. To a formalist, a system in which no involuntary property transfers occur is always ideal - at both the primary and secondary levels.

Obviously, the distribution of property affects many people in meaningful ways. An ethical preference for more egalitarian distributions is certainly valid. However, this goal can only be achieved at the expense of violence - especially if equalization is a continuous process, rather than a one-time redistribution. Since most people who consider equalization ethical also seem to express an even stronger aversion to violence, this moral contradiction is theirs to resolve. (Perhaps they will get back to me on this.)

To a formalist, violence always has two prerequisites: tension and ambiguity. Tension exists when more than one party desires some limited good. This is basically always. So the only way to eliminate violence is to eliminate ambiguity, the condition in which multiple contending parties reach different conclusions about who will prevail in a tussle. Without ambiguity, the loser will concede and the winner will win without a fight.

Again, these principles apply at both levels of property, primary and secondary. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in secondary property is the problem of law enforcement. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in primary property is the problem of external security.

History shows us that an effective government can solve both of these problems. And an ineffective one can fail at both. For example, in the lifetime of those now living, the number of robberies in Britain has increased by over two orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, the borders between Britain and her neighbors have remained stable over this same time period. This indicates an interesting, and not uncommon, pattern of effective external security and ineffective law enforcement. Perhaps there is a reason for this? But I digress.

This model of property sheds an interesting light on libertarianism, which I believe reflects its dubious revolutionary ancestry. From the perspective of a formalist, the reason that libertarianism fails is simple. It fails because libertarianism is an antipropertarian ideology, and all antipropertarian ideologies fail.

Socialism is the classic antipropertarian ideology. Socialists believe that systems of property in which some are very rich, and others are very poor, are ethically illegitimate. So they advocate forcible redistribution to correct this injustice.

Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, while they ascribe unquestionable spiritual validity to the existing distribution of secondary property, completely reject the existing distribution of primary property. In fact, a true anarcho-capitalist rejects even the concept of primary property, strange though this may seem. In its place, there is an almost mystical ideal of self-enforcing law that strikes me as quite unjustified by reality.

The libertarian revolutionaries of the 1770s, using the Lockean theory of "homesteading" that Rothbard inherits, believed that only those who worked land could truly own it. The British Crown and its Loyalist followers essentially believed that the Crown exercised primary or sovereign ownership over the American colonies, although complications of British history perhaps prevented them from expressing this opinion as clearly as today we might prefer. The question was put to arms and the former prevailed, creating a new distribution of property.

The US government today has no king. On the other hand, it is certainly a distinct entity, and we can regard it as a corporation, that is, a virtual person with a single identity. Under libertarian theory, this corporation is illegitimate, since it has no true property right in the land it controls, having never done any farming or tree-cutting or whatever. Any fees it charges are no more than extortion and stationary banditry.

Under formalist theory, this corporation (which here at UR, we call "Washcorp") is a normal primary or sovereign property holder. Washcorp is thus a sovereign corporation, or sovcorp. Its primary ownership of its swath of North America, which to avoid confusion with political entities we call "Plainland," is an absolutely normal relationship. The validity of Washcorp's ownership of Plainland does not depend on the Constitution, the last elections, or any other magical rite, but simply on the stable and exclusive military control it exercises over the territory. As for the fees that Plainlanders pay to Washcorp, they are the normal cost of property rental.

My preference, as a resident of Plainland, is for simple, libertarian or minarchist government. I notice that Washcorp does not provide this service. My question is: why not?

Note how distant this engineering approach is from Rothbardian ethical libertarianism. We treat liberty as a goal, rather than an ideal. We ask: how can we design a system that will achieve this goal, and maintain it sustainably?

The puzzle is that Washcorp has every incentive to provide libertarian government - except, of course, for the usual libertarian ideal of low taxes. Revenue maximization is Washcorp's bread and butter, as with most primary property owners in history. Like all corporations, Washcorp's financial goal must be to maximize the value of its equity, ie, its property.

Because violations of liberty, except inasmuch as they are necessary to secure Washcorp's ownership of Plainland against its residents - hardly an onerous task with modern military technology - do not profit Washcorp, and since by definition they conflict with the desires of its residents, they reduce the demand for secondary rights to Washcorp's property, and thus reduce its equity value. Ie, stock price.

For example, one obvious component of libertarian government is absolute freedom of medicine, or AFM. Under AFM, you (or, if you are incompetent, your guardian) have absolute control over your own body, what chemicals you put into it, what experts or so-called experts you consult to advise you on maintaining it, etc, etc, etc.

Washcorp certainly does not provide this service. The puzzle is: why not? Any prohibition is equivalent to a prohibitively high tax, so high that no one chooses to pay it. Washcorp can thus increase its revenue by reducing the tax, allowing you AFM if you pay the AFM tax. Needless to say, no such proposition is on the Washcorp policy menu.

The inescapable conclusion is that Washcorp is a very, very badly-mismanaged sovcorp. This is not at all surprising, because its management structures bear no relation to any of the very successful designs we see used in our normal, secondary corporations.

For example, Washcorp has no discernible shareholders. Instead, it appears to be run for the benefit of its employees. The 1990s in the Soviet Union provided many examples of what happens when a large company, especially one that controls a monopoly, is run by and for its employees. The result is corruption, featherbedding and patronage bloat. These phenomena will certainly be different in a sovcorp, at least in detail, but the basic syndrome is really quite recognizable.

Corporations controlled by their employees do not produce good customer service, as a general rule, because they have no capacity for unitary financial or managerial planning. If the customer is king, he is king only because his decisions are felt by the CFO, and the CFO is king. To put it differently, employees, unlike shareholders, have no local incentive to steward the equity of the entire operation. Thus they feel no compunction in abusing customers for their own personal jollies, like an Aeroflot stewardess in days of yore.

And this is how formalism leads us to neocameralism. Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today's private sector - the joint-stock corporation.

One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State "goes public," hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn't it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway, although it is certainly fun to imagine the elections.

If it strikes you as farfetched to imagine the US Government as a corporation with a stock symbol, you might find it easier to start by thinking in terms of private city-states. While none of them comes anywhere near the neocameralist ideal, the city-states of Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong certainly provide a very high quality of customer service. Note that none of them has any concept of constitutional, limited, or democratic government.

An easy thought-experiment for comparing forms of government is to imagine two competing side-by-side cities with identical geography, A and B, in which anyone can migrate from A to B or B to A by mutual consent of migrant and destination. (A common objection to neocameralism is the suggestion that a well-managed sovcorp might restrict not immigration but emigration, converting itself into a sort of large open-air prison or slave camp. I invite the reader to imagine the effect that this decision might have on property values, or to think about how profitable it has proven for North Korea - South Korea can be your B.)

We can reasonably say that A has achieved better government than B if there is a net migration flow from B to A, especially if the kind of people who are flowing from B to A are the same kind of people as whoever decides what "better" means. Now, imagine that A and B are both copies of San Francisco, but A is managed by Donald Trump or Lee Kuan Yew or Elizabeth I, whereas B is managed by the present arrangement of city, state and Federal governments. The results? While SF is a beautiful city, so was Detroit.

Note that this hypothesis is entirely testable. It is perfectly practical to create private cities. The step from special economic zones, which are often new cities (see, for example, Saudi Arabia's forthcoming entry in the game) to sovcorps is quite short. Again, once property rights are stabilized, the difference between primary and secondary property are organizationally irrelevant. Government is management, good government is good management, and bad government is bad management.

In conclusion, let's compare formalist neocameralism to libertarianism.

The advantage of libertarianism, from a practical political perspective, is that it has deep roots in the American value system, and it is hypothetically possible to persuade American voters to return to the values that their ancestors held in the 18th century. If they do this, they will become libertarians, vote for Ron Paul, return us to the gold standard, etc.

The disadvantage of libertarianism is (if I am right) that it is unsound as a principle of political engineering, that its historical roots are largely mythical and fantastic, and that there is no reason to think it is easy to change anyone's value system, let alone resurrect values held by distant ancestors.

The disadvantage of neocameralism is that it is completely alien to American voters, that it has no connection at all to any American value system, that no one has even heard of it at all, that it represents a complete rejection of the sacred American principle of democracy, and that it could be described, not utterly without grain of truth, as "corporate fascism" or some such similar epithet.

The advantage of neocameralism is (if I am right) that, unless you have a very perverse ethical system that glorifies violence, it can be justified logically in a few pages of text without reference to any Humean ought. It can be tested empirically, and arguably it already has been. In other words, neocameralism has no advantage except that it is a value-free proposition which is consistent with reality. Often, historically, this has been sufficient.

One way to illustrate neocameralism is to outline a strategy for restructuring Washcorp as an efficient, shareholder-owned operation. I am aware that I have promised an answer to this question before. However, this post is far too long already. Perhaps next week.

[Of course, on my vacation I produced no email whatsoever. But I will rectify this, shortly. I swear.]

89 Comments:

Blogger Independent Accountant said...

In reading your piece I thought of Hillary Clinton (HC). HC favored a "politcs of meaning". What did that mean? My question to her would have been, "Just tell us what specific policies you favor and what you think their real world outcomes would be. Then we can either accept or reject your polices as we deem the their real world outcomes desireable or undesireable". Further, we could reject HC's polcies based on our rejecting her beliefs as to their real world outcomes. No ethics, no philosophy, no morality, just projected outcomes.

December 13, 2007 at 7:21 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

If it is impossible for an aggressor to profit by unilaterally adjusting property rights in her favor, it does not matter why it is impossible.

You've done it again - used the feminine pronoun referering to the generic.

You, sir, do violence to the English language and to logic. This gentle reader compels you to explain this jarring verbal tic.

December 13, 2007 at 7:33 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

"...libertarianism is an antipropertarian ideology...

Very good point! And now that you mention it, there has always been something troubling to me in describing myself as a libertarian. It was as close as I could get, and it gets the point across without too much effort, but it was never entirely accurate. What I am is an individualist. That is, I don't give a rat's ass about the nation other than what I need to know to live in it successfully. Therefore, I do not find the idea of primary ownership and the associated rent payments the least bit troubling. In fact, it is quite comforting. I have no responsibility whatsoever. I have no need to respond at all to the guilt peddaling idealists and propagandists. I pay my rent, and that's the end of it.

December 13, 2007 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger brendon said...

mencius, i think like dwight macdonald said about himself, whenever you say 'no', you're right, but whenever you say, 'yes'....why wouldn't your neocameralist utopia prevent its subjects from emigrating? kim jong il prevents his subjects from fleeing, which as you say lowers the property value. but john il doesn't keep 'em in n. korea because he's 'ronery'. it's cuz he needs tax dollars to keep his regime afloat but doesn't want to take the measures necessary to improve his 'customer service' - and guess what, by limiting emigration and with high taxes, he doesn't have to.

in the real world, corporations behave so they can a) attract consumers and b) not get in trouble with the SEC, FTC and the other alphabets who police them. a 'sovcorp' with absolute control of its subjects has no incentive to give them choice provided the people on the top are getting money and the people entering the corporate bureaucracy have some promise of advancement to the top (thus ensuring they keep the system running in the hopes of future windfalls).

December 13, 2007 at 9:12 AM  
Blogger Byrne said...

There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable.

Doesn't this preclude selling oneself into slavery for even a little bit? Like, say, from 9 to 5 on weekdays?

December 13, 2007 at 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Brendon,

I think you're on to something there. In a neocameralist system, or any system, who cares about the future? I have kids, so I hope that everything works out well for them in the future, but do I care enough to try to control the lives of everyone else in order to ensure it? In a word... nope. So the general population doesn't really care, and the present owners can be counted on to act in their own relatively short term best interests, leaving who, exactly, that does care about the future? But without a return to monarchy, I don't see a way around the problem - and monarchy, of course, has its own problems.

December 13, 2007 at 9:33 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

P.S. Just thinking on that a bit more... Why do I take care of my house? First, because its my house and having it nice affects my quality of life and reputation, and second, because I know that someday it will be sold and I want to get a good price. I'm thinking that the first is applicable to primary property rights to some degree, but that the second doesn't translate well. How would primary property rights be sold?

December 13, 2007 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger TGGP said...

You are not alone in disliking the American Revolution, even among self-described libertarians. Bryan Caplan took a whack at it here, Hans Herman Hoppe has said he would have been a Loyalist. I attacked Rothbard's conception of the American War of Secession (makes more sense as a term than "revolution" to me) here. Yet Caplan, Hoppe and myself all call ourselves libertarians.

I don't completely object to the AWOS. It divided political jurisdiction, which I generally view as a good thing. It creates policy competition. And even if the colonists were deluded about conspiracies, I think they were right about an ever expanding state. Look at England today and its close enough to 1984/Clockwork Orange so as to make the US look like it was still under the Articles of Confederation. That it wasn't as glorious as its defenders make it out to be is beside the point.

Not all libertarians define it as an ethical ideal. Benjamin Tucker and many of his followers didn't. The site againstpolitics.com is dedicated to a non-cognitivist form of libertarianism.

By saying violence should be prevented, wealth/happiness should be created and so on you yourself violate Hume's is-ought.

The "beltway libertarians" have had policy achievements. There was a great wave of deregulations, huge marginal rate tax cuts near the top, scrapping the draft, a less dysfunctional monetary policy and other things you should read Brink Lindsey on. I want nothing to do with his "liberaltarianism" and I'm far less optimistic than him, but I don't deny there have been some accomplishments that shouldn't be ignored. I don't think they misinvested their time because other routes would have had no hope of success at all.

I think many George Mason economists would vote to abolish the federal government, since they consider themselves anarchists. Reason used to employ Bill Kauffman as an editor, who I'm certain would do so. Brian Dougherty has worked for both Reason and Cato, and he considers himself a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist, so I think he would do so as well.

Suppose, by some miracle, libertarians elect Ron Paul, and he actually succeeds in reforming Washington and restoring the 1787 interpretation of the Constitution. And how many years would this last? Why would we expect different results on the second go?
I'll be dead by the time things degenerate back to the way they were, but I'll still have those early years of freedom to savor.

All schools of libertarianism, whether Rothbardian or Randian or (nearly-stillborn) Nozickian, rest on the idea of limited government.
Rothbard was an anarchist, and his followers regularly mock the idea of "limited government".

Ie, you can't sell yourself into slavery because your control over your own body and will are inalienable. Ie, you can't alienate them, because if you could you could - sell yourself into slavery.
I agree it's nonsense, and that's why there are self-described Rothbardians that disagree.

The libertarian revolutionaries of the 1770s, using the Lockean theory of "homesteading" that Rothbard inherits, believed that only those who worked land could truly own it.
No, that is the mutualist or usufruct theory of property. Lockeans believe an absentee landlord can own property if he aquired it through the right means.

The puzzle is that Washcorp has every incentive to provide libertarian government - except, of course, for the usual libertarian ideal of low taxes.
Sane people agree we are well to the left of the Laffer curve's peak. Even Arthur Laffer thinks so.

There are some George Mason economists who have proposed something like your system which they call vertically integrated proprietary communities. Some of their colleagues attack that idea here.

I'm glad to see you endorsing my idea of the "foot vote" in measuring the relative quality of life in different jurisdictions. I think it could settle a lot of arguments if the numbers were available.

think about how profitable it has proven for North Korea
Then why does North Korea still do that? I lean toward Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's explanation: it is beneficial for the rulers of the country to keep it impoverished as long as they maintain control. The Iron Law of Institutions rears its ugly head.

December 13, 2007 at 10:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

I think Bailyn much overstates the significance of "growing concern about secret plans to establish an American episcopate" on the part of the Church of Engliand in the years leading up to the American Revolution. In fact, such plans (did they indeed exist) would have met with the implacable resistance of the bishop of London, in whose see all of British North America was included. Consecration of Anglican bishops in North America would have deprived him of his episcopal revenues from the parishes of North America, which were considerable.

The resultant inability to consecrate North American bishops led to a perennial shortage of clergy for North America (since under the Anglican polity, priests could only be ordained by bishops) and to a loss of adult communicants (since only bishops could administer the rite of confirmation). Thus, even to be confirmed, an Anglican from North America had to travel to England. As any biography of the Wesleys (who were originally Anglican priests) will explain, this situation led to the development of Methodism into an independent schismatic denomination.

The extent to which the Church of England in the 18th century was an instrument of political patronage rather than a spiritual undertaking is hard to envision today. The shortage of priests and the failure to confirm young Anglicans in North America led to Anglicanism becoming a minority denomination even in those colonies (such as Virginia) where the Church of England was established. The majority of the population, which was non-Anglican Protestant, resented being taxed to support a denomination to which it did not belong. As the verse from the old song "Harvest Home" puts it:

"We've cheated the parson,
We'll cheat him again,
For why should a blockhead
have one part in ten?"

Quite apart from any high-flown Enlightenment rhetoric from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, the people of Virginia were motivated for very practical reasons to accept his Statute of Religious Liberty.

Even after the American Revolution, the Church of England was unwilling to consecrate bishops for the newly independent American states. Samuel Seabury, the first bishop of the independent Protestant Episcopal Church, obtained his consecration from bishops of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which was not the established church in that country.

My apologies for having taken up so much space with what may seem to be ecclesiastical minutiæ. I do so only because the facts suggest Bailyn's historical analysis is flawed, and that it is not wise to draw any further conclusions about the motivations for the American revolution based upon it.

December 13, 2007 at 10:52 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Perhaps jumping ahead a bit, but it seems to me that the question of who the owners and renters actually are is important, and that without a clear definition we are stuck in the realm of conspiracy theory. A simple definition leaps to mind. The owners are those who are net collecters of rent and the renters are those who are net payers of rent. We can discuss power and influence to our hearts content, but the final analysis of ownership comes down to whether one pays or collects the rent. I'm thinking that a simple analysis of government expenditures will show clearly who the owners are - primarily, the current generation of elderly, government officials and workers, defense and infrastructure contractors, public school system employees, and a variety of patronage beneficiaries. Can we imagine a system which would have different owners? Can we imagine achieving such a system without a fight?

December 13, 2007 at 12:30 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

I agree completely with you on the futility of contemporary libertarianism. I also agree that there is a great distance between the Constitution on paper and today's Constitutional Law. Where I (mostly) disagree with you is that I don't think it's a bad thing. Well, really, it's that I don't think it's bad enough that any alternatives are appealing.

Yes, I would prefer to pay less in taxes. I would also prefer a government which did not jail people for imbibing various plant products. However, I don't see what the big freaking deal is.

You correctly point out that the "inalienable rights" our founders took for granted are not universal nor were they inevitable, that they are little different than "religious" beliefs.

(I use "religious" in quotes because you continue to blur the line between somewhat arbitrary moral beliefs like "rape is bad" and the belief that, e.g., there is a God who had a Son who was Himself that He tortured to death to assuage His own rage.)

Your preference for liberty is just as abritrary (or "religious.") So what problem is it with America that you're trying to solve? Is it our involvement in violence overseas? The fact that we have to pay taxes or can't smoke crack without risking jailtime? Those things seem much more manageable than both Grover Norquist's dream of drowning government in the bathtub or yours of replacing the U.S. government with a formalist sovcorp.

Your angle of pointing out that the American revolutionaries were deluded is merely an ad hominem attack and completely irrelevant to this whole discussion.

December 13, 2007 at 1:05 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

jewish atheist, it strikes me that one possible non-fallacious use for ad hominem may be in refuting argument from authority--if the primary argument for restoring the constitution of 1787 is that the founders were philosopher kings of infinite sagacity, proving that they were really the local equivalent of lyndon larouche seems an effective counter-argument.

(that founders' wisdom is irrelevant to the merits of their government is obvious to the readers of this blog; to the general populace, not so much)

December 13, 2007 at 1:11 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

I didn't make it through to the end, and this is my second try, but I will eventually see it through to its conclusion.

My initial impression: too much anal sex imagery; it's a little weird and distracting.

As pa said in a different context:

"You, sir, do violence to the English language and to logic. This gentle reader compels you to explain this jarring verbal tic."

December 13, 2007 at 1:49 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

I must agree with Aaron Davies that a legitimate use of argumentum ad hominem directed against the framers of the Constitution is to show that they weren't philosopher-kings, etc., However, what if we recognize that at least some of them realized that the universal abstractions of (say) Jefferson were fashionable tripe?

I think of Jefferson's kinsman John Randolph of Roanoke, who mocked his presidential relative as "St. Thomas of Cantingbury," and who simply declared his own libertarian creed as follows:

"I am an aristocrat. I love liberty, and I hate equality."

I suspect that behind many a proto-universalist effusion on the parts of our Founders lay this reason. They were landowners (not infrequently slaveholders) or rich merchants. They were upset that the bascially benevolent neglect of the first two Georges had come to an end, and that the ministers of George III, as a consequence of the French and Indian War, were going to tax the colonies to raise the ongoing costs of maintaining British sovereignty over them. They felt the means used were violations of the traditional liberties of Englishmen and rose against their sovereign in what had become almost a British tradition.

The rebellion of the puritans under Cromwell is not the only, nor even the best example (we can look as far back as that of the barons who forced Magna Charta on king John, and most recently, the Scots had risen twice since the beginning of the eighteenth century). In short, the leaders of the American revolution were not innovators - they were merely reiterators of an old pattern in British history. The egalitarian rhetoric can best be understood as reflecting their disgust with the system of placemen, instituted by Walpole, whereby political hacks were raised from the commons to the peerage as rewards for their loyalty. A Jefferson, a Washington - and especially a Randolph - would have looked at most of these placemen as upstarts and parvenus, not just no better than, but decidedly inferior to, a Virginia gentleman.

December 13, 2007 at 2:33 PM  
Anonymous Steve Burton said...

Michael S. - is that really what "Harvest Home" is all about?

Fascinating. That song w/chorus has long been one of my favorite bits of Purcell's "King Arthur" (1691). But I've never had the faintest idea what it was all about:

"Your hay, it is mow'd and your corn is reap'd,
Your barns will be full and your hovels heap'd,
Come, boys, come,
Come, boys, come,
And merrily roar out our harvest home.

"We've cheated the parson, we'll cheat him again,
For why shou'd a blockhead have one in ten?
One in ten,
One in ten,
For why should a blockhead have one in ten?

"For prating so long, like a book-learn'd sot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to the pot:
Burnt to pot,
Burnt to pot,
Till pudding and dumpling are burnt to pot.

We'll toss off our ale till we cannot stand;
And heigh for the honour of old England;
Old England,
Old England,
And heigh for the honour of old England"

What puzzles me is this: Purcell was, more or less, court composer to William & Mary. (His funeral music for Queen Mary remains justly famous to this day, and not just because Stanley Kubrick used it to open "A Clockwork Orange.") So if "Harvest Home" was an anti-Anglican ditty, wouldn't it have been awfully daring of him to include it so prominently in such a major work?

Or would William & Mary have been perfectly OK with anti-Anglican ditties?

Obviously, I need to read up more on late 17th century England.

Steve Burton

What's Wrong With the World?

December 13, 2007 at 2:40 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

I don't think it's true that libertarians base their philosophy on reverence for the Founding Fathers. I think they're generally regarded as more like flawed protolibertarians. In particular, I don't think you'll find many libertarians who will even try to justify the fact that so many of the Founding Fathers were slave owners.

My own opinion
is that essentially a libertarian is someone who accepts something like the non-aggression principle as a moral axiom and that if someone doesn't consider that axiom to be self evident it is impossible to convince him of it.

TGGP's point about the Iron Law of Organizations really needs to be addressed.

December 13, 2007 at 2:56 PM  
Anonymous z-anon said...

Having grown up in one of the quasi corporate city states you mention, I certainly agree that the rulers there focus on delivering "quality of life" that the US, or other democracies, simply do not.

But the question of why such authoritarian states swing one way, and others swing the other way is very real. Why did Dubai turn out like Dubai instead of like North Korea? Or more specifically, why did Dubai turn out like Dubai, while Sharjah turned out like Sharjah (badly planned, dry, and now nothing more than cheap housing for its richer neighbour), Abu Dhabi like Abu Dhabi (OK, they actually *have* oil wealth so don't need to do anything innovative), and the other 4 Emirates like the other 4 Emirates (not going to bother naming them, no point really).

All of them operated under the same legal framework. All of them have kings. All of them have similar societies. But one kicks ass and the others sort of languish.

Larger countries, if they did "incorporate" would be monopolist land owners, not landowners in a competitive market. Traditionally, monopolists are not known for delivering great service (although i'm sure taxes will be high).

December 13, 2007 at 3:29 PM  
Blogger Studd Beefpile said...

I question your assertion of the American Revolution as a revolution. You claim they were lunatic to believe that there was some conspiracy to deny them their liberty, but that there wasn't is only obvious in hindsight. That the English experiment with mixed government would prove so successful was a lot harder to know in the mid-18th century.

Sure, Jefferson was a genuine revolutionary and Hamilton wanted to be king, but by and large, I think, they were men attempting the same sort of project that you are Mencius, attempting to engineer a government that would protect rather than destroy liberty.

I agree that their project was insufficiently robust to protect liberty against democracy. I also agree that calls to return to the 1920s, the 1840s, or the 1780s are foolish. What I cannot accept is that any gradual policy improvement is useless. Socialists in 1840 had no chance of implementing their system, but they fought for it anyway, won small victories which paved the way for larger victories, and today they have conquered the world. Sure CATO is mostly useless, but they might win small victories which lay the seeds for larger victories. Would you deny that the terms of the debate are somwhat better today than they were in 1972?

Lastly, you claim that pursuading the masses to believe libertarianism is impossible, but is it any harder than pursuading them to accept neo-cameralism? Would it be harder than pursuading them to accept socialism was? Most people, as you have pointed out, will believe whatever is profitable for them to believe. The masses were bribed into socialism, I see no reason we can't bribe them towards neo-camerialism or libertarianism as well.

December 13, 2007 at 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Steve Burton said...

black sea:

Spot on.

The stuff about being f***ed up the a** by an elephant is totally unnecessary, it's bad style, and it almost prevents me from recommending this (otherwise) brilliant essay to my colleagues, not all of whom might be able to see beyond that momentary lapse in taste - good fellows though they are.

December 13, 2007 at 3:47 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

I agree that the American revolution was not really a revolution. I left a link earlier where I disputed Rothbard's characterization of it. I favor Tom Wood's belief that it was essentially conservative, like the Magna Carta or southern secession.

December 13, 2007 at 4:19 PM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Just my two cents, but I think the elephant analogy was hilarious. I think of MM's style as sort of a cross between Will Durant and Hunter S. Thompson (Do I remember something about shooting into the bushes?!) - encyclopaedic knowledge of history meets total irreverance. I think its great. Such combinations are where ideas are born - some of them better than others, of course...

December 13, 2007 at 5:04 PM  
Anonymous Randy said...

Z-anon,

Your refererence to Sharjah as "dry" brings back my recollection of the place as being incredibly humid. Mattresses would just soak up the moisture, so the best way to get any sleep was to grab a cot and take it outside. Now Al 'Ain, that was dry. Or perhaps by "dry" you mean no alcohol - in which case, yeah, good point.

December 13, 2007 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger Eric Dondero said...

Check out Mainstream Libertarians at www.mainstreamlibertarian.com

December 13, 2007 at 6:10 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

DONDEROOOOOOOOOO!

December 13, 2007 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Alrenous said...

If you want to recommend the essay to someone with what I have to call an overly sensitive palate, you can say "There's this great essay, though you might not like the swearing."

They're adults. They can make up their own minds, and can even, presumably, handle the consequences.

December 13, 2007 at 9:21 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Mencius: It seems to me that you argue against revolution here, arguing instead for formalizing existing power relations. Elsewhere you argue that "The Polygon" owns our government, and that it should be abolished. Am I the only one who sees a contradiction here?

December 14, 2007 at 6:24 AM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Maybe he means the Polygon in its current dysfunctional and dishonest form should be abolished through formalization and lustration. The people with authority should be converted from managers/employees to shareholders and the sovcorp run on a neo-cameralist basis. I agree with you that there is a basic tension. He is simultaneously trying to appeal to haters of "liberalism"/Universalism by demonizing it more thoroughly than most and claiming that strategies used against it other than his are all doomed to failure so his plan of accepting it is the only one with any chance. I think he has also suggested a judicial or military coup which seems to conflict with his plan of formalization. It's not like a coup is unprecedented and untried, it was a recurring feature of the global struggles between Red and Blue he seems more interested in than I think reasonable because the other side is Bad Bad Bad.

December 14, 2007 at 8:11 AM  
Blogger drank said...

if you could vote on a proposition to abolish the US Federal Government, would you vote yes or no?
It depends on what I'm voting to replace it with. I do not believe the US Federal Government to be the worst of all possible governments. I am not yet persuaded that I would vote to replace it with a Neo-Cameralist system.

We can reasonably say that A has achieved better government than B if there is a net migration flow from B to A
By that standard, WashCorp is the best government on the planet, and has been so for some time. Why, more than a million people a year are willing to become criminals in order to be here rather than there! Is that the conclusion you meant to reach?

In fairness, if you normalize per 1000 population, Singapore (+7.98 migrants/1000/year) looks better than the US (+3.05 migrants/1000/year). Here is some data on net migrations, and you can also find these stats in the CIA World Factbook.

Washcorp can thus increase its revenue by reducing the tax, allowing you AFM if you pay the AFM tax.
A sovcorp, just like a normal corp, has the responsibility to make money for their shareholders. What ensures that the shareholders' interest in profit will coincide with my interest in liberty? North Korea sucks for the, ah, customers, but seems to be working out OK for the sole shareholder.

Or to pick a lest drastic example, WashCorp might reasonably conclude that it could profitably launch a WashHealth subsidiary and grant it a monopoly - many of its customers are in favor of it, it will represent a vast increase in revenue, and several large shareholders stand to profit greatly from the deal. Why wouldn't a formalist encourage it to go right ahead? What reasons are there to think that WashCorp could make more money from assessing an AFM tax on a handful of libertarians than it could from forcing hundreds of millions to use WashHealth?

December 14, 2007 at 8:46 AM  
Anonymous z-anon said...

RANDY: Yup, when talking about Sharjah I meant dry as in "no alcohol". It was not always this way, I think they switched sometime in the 80s.

Not a revenue maximizing, quality of life enhancing move by the CEO/Sheikh. But it certainly boosted bar-happy Dubai just up the road.

December 14, 2007 at 9:21 AM  
Blogger mtraven said...

An ethical preference for more egalitarian distributions is certainly valid. However, this goal can only be achieved at the expense of violence - especially if equalization is a continuous process, rather than a one-time redistribution. Since most people who consider equalization ethical also seem to express an even stronger aversion to violence, this moral contradiction is theirs to resolve. (Perhaps they will get back to me on this.)

No contradiction, just bad assumptions on your part, which skews your whole analysis. I'm rather surprised to find you asserting this position, which boils down to the idiot-libertarian position that taxation is equivalent to theft, in a post devoted to non-libertarianism.

As I'm sure you would agree, all property is held by means of force. If I break into my neighbor's house, he'll shoot me or have the police remove me. So I don't, and vice-versa. We can make a distinction between implicit threats of violence and actual violence, with the former far preferable, but that doesn't change the fact that a cloud of physical force surrounds all property claims. The ideal of formalism, as I understand it, is to have all legal claims so clear, and the enforcement mechanisms so strong, that implicit violence never turns into realized actual violence. That's fine and dandy.

But since all property is held by force, there is nothing special about taxation and redistribution. The people with the guns (government) gets to set the rules for property, which includes taking a share of it for services rendered and, if it so chooses, spreading the wealth around. That's life under a sovcorp.

In short, you can't reject violence without rejecting property. If you accept property, you accept some kind of violence or threat of violence needed to enforce it, generally by a government. The rules by which that violence gets administered will always include something equivlent to taxation. And if some of that taxation is used to redistribute income, that may be good or bad, but it's not any more violent than anything else government does.

December 14, 2007 at 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

To Steve Burton's question, I do not think Purcell risked any royal displeasure by using the lyrics of "Harvest Home."

First, William III was himself not Anglican in his loyalties, even though he was nominally head of the Church of England. He had been brought up in the Dutch Reformed church and his reign was friendly to English nonconformist Protestants. He had come to the throne as the result of the Glorious Revolution, a low-church and Whiggish undertaking which deposed the Catholic James II and with him, the high churchmen in the Anglican establishment whose Catholicizing and prelatical tendencies James had favored.

Second, Mary II was fond of songs with rustic themes and sometimes bawdy humor. The story is told that on one occasion the Queen asked a Mrs Arabella Hunt to sing for her the song by Thomas D'Urfey "Cold and Raw"(also known as "The Scotchman outwitted by the Farmer's Daughter"). Purcell, who was accompanying Mrs Hunt on the harpsichord, was somewhat nettled at having to sit idle at the keyboard while she sang the song, necause he did not know the melody. He made amends by later using the tune as a bass for "May her bright example chace vice in troops out of the land," the birthday ode he wrote in 1692 for Queen Mary.

December 14, 2007 at 11:10 AM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

mtraven: Your comment states exactly my thoughts, so I will refrain from paraphrasing. However, I do wish to add one point: there is a strain of ancap thinking which deliberately - gleefully, even - despises the ethical libertarian theory of Rothbard et al. Not all ancaps are "libertarians" who believe in Lockean natural rights.

The rest of my comment consists of off-topic asides...

pa: What is wrong with occasionally using the feminine pronoun "she" to refer to the generic? Current English speakers have no reason to prefer "he" over "she" when the person's gender is irrelevant. In some English-speaking communities, "they" has become the default third-person singular pronoun; I predict that this singular "they" will be fully incorporated into the normative English pronoun system within 100 years. Perhaps MM ought to join the early adopters of this new usage.

black sea and steve burton: I'm surprised that anyone who follows UR could think that ass-fucking similes and whatnot are in poor taste.

December 14, 2007 at 12:29 PM  
Anonymous PA said...

Using "she" generically is loaded with feminist baggage, and gets in the way of smooth reading by drawing attention to itself.

I think that readers of UR -- even liberal commenters who show an ability to step aside and see "Universalism" from a detached perspective -- will generally agree that further feminization of our culture is not desirable.

I'm not aware of any English-speaking communities (do you mean dialect / regional groups) that use the feminine pronoun to mean "he or she."

Using the plural "they" to mean generic-singular is an awkward evasion. I like Winston Chirchil's defense of using "he" universally: "the male embraces the female."

December 14, 2007 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

MM proposes eliminating the political freedoms of democracy and replacing it with something modelled on murderous autocratic regimes, and you are worried about his pronoun choice? I really think there are bigger issues at stake.

I think that readers of UR -- even liberal commenters who show an ability to step aside and see "Universalism" from a detached perspective -- will generally agree that further feminization of our culture is not desirable.

If you are concerned about "feminization of culture" you are already on the soft and squishy side of things, and manlier syntax isn't going to help. Real men are busy making money or killing things and couldn't give a rat's ass about culture.

December 14, 2007 at 2:20 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

I think "she" is just one of Mencius's little jokes, parodying Universalist style.

December 14, 2007 at 2:45 PM  
Blogger Black Sea said...

"black sea and steve burton: I'm surprised that anyone who follows UR could think that ass-fucking similes and whatnot are in poor taste."

Anal assault is made reference to twice in this one post. As Voltaire said, "Once a philosopher, twice a pervert."

December 14, 2007 at 2:57 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

pa: I eagerly welcome the further "feminization of culture", because I am ideologically nimble and well-adapted to the new order. I enjoyed a thorough Universalist education which fully habituated me to reading texts in which "she" is the generic personal pronoun. So while you may be distracted by MM's "jarring verbal tic", I can glide over the generic "she" untroubled.

Why were Jews so overrepresented among the Bolsheviks? Educated, urban Jews were clever enough to know which way the wind was blowing, and they maneuvered to avoid being victimized. And yet people complained about "Jewish Bolshevism". The losers of a culture war are the ones who complain; the winners are too busy reaping the benefits to give a damn.

December 14, 2007 at 3:26 PM  
Anonymous PA said...

Commenting on blogs is a fun passtime and little more, so I'm not too worried about Mencius overthrowing liberties and replacing them with a mafia-state i nreal life.

There is something to be said about keeping a finger to the wind. It's better to bend than to break. But there is such thing as nihilism, which is first cousing to scumbagggery. I am thinking about that weasly guy in the original Die Hard who tried to ingratiate himself with the terrorists by betraying (or something, I don't remember) his fellow hostages. The captors, recognizing him as a dishonorable man, just blew him away.

December 14, 2007 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

OK, if Washcorp were to convert itself to a publicly owned corporation, then can we assume the American public would be its shareholders? And when that corporation paid dividends to its shareholders... wouldn't that look a lot like today's welfare state? Of course, the devil's in the details; there are surely many better ways of distributing wealth than through today's welfare system.

As to Menicus's assertion that there is always tension over limited goods: I disagree. I have absolutely no desire to own my neighbor's underwear. I do not covet any of Warren Buffett's money. I would not care to possess more than 11.9 gallons of gasoline. I sometimes give away actual food that I own to people who look hungry. On the other hand, if I watched too much of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, I might start to want whole mansions.

The problem with Menicus's assertion is his assumption that there is a fixed amount of desire for a fixed amount of goods. In fact, it is sometimes possible for people to adjust their desires so that everyone has sufficient amounts of limited goods. (This mental adjustment sometimes, but not always, results in voluntary transfer of property.)

So there is at least one non-violent way in which tension can be reduced in some cases. It remains to be seen whether this can be applied widely enough to reduce the need for governance. And I have no idea whether any of these tension-reducing practices (one example is "Nonviolent communication") can be institutionalized in large-scale systems. But it looks to me like Menicus was too hasty in discarding an alternative, which casts doubt on his subsequent derived conclusions.

December 14, 2007 at 9:58 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Chris, Mencius has already dismissed the idea of the American people being owners as fiction. The real owners are the Polygon. It is they who will be made shareholders rather than managers/employees.

chairmank, were you referring to the folks at againstpolitics.com?

the political freedoms of democracy
You mean the right to vote? Doesn't seem like much of a freedom to me, more of an entitlement over a tiny portion of everyone else's lives.

I'm rather surprised to find you asserting this position, which boils down to the idiot-libertarian position that taxation is equivalent to theft, in a post devoted to non-libertarianism.
He is non-libertarian in that he considers the State's theft to be completely legitimate based on their monopoly of violence. Since he doesn't reject violence, he doesn't reject property either. He simply wants to minimize uncertainty over property that results in violent struggle.

I don't see the big deal over what pronoun he uses, picking over language is one of the things we make fun of lefties for. I also think an increased feminization of culture could be a good thing. In a sense, Greg Clark attributes the Industrial Revolution to it.

pa, try to avoid generalizing from fictional evidence.

December 15, 2007 at 12:36 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

TGGP: I used Die Hard as an illustration, not evidence.

December 15, 2007 at 4:21 AM  
Blogger AMcGuinn said...

The tricky bit in MM's argument is the fact that secondary property is often alienable (I can give you stuff, and you then own it as securely as I previously did), whereas primary property is not: If I control something, not through law enforced by a higher authority, but through my real ultimate power, then I cannot give it away, for exactly the reasons you use to object to limited government. Given that, I don't see how you can have a joint stock sovcorp.

December 15, 2007 at 6:27 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

MM,

Your analysis has several gaping holes in it. First, your economic analysis of conflict over limited resources is dead wrong.
Even if there is no ambiguity about the outcome of a violent conflict, it is still entirely possible. The cornered rat bites, even though it has no doubt whatsoever that you are stronger. It's just your demand of dying a quiet death is not acceptable for the rodent.
Secondly, there will always be ambiguity, because disinformation about one's military capability is always cheaper than actual capabilities.
You have still not addressed to my satisfaction the problem of Fnargl sitting in the middle of Sahara convinced that he has all gold on Earth and that there are no humans left.

And finally, there is one more thing preventing involuntary transfer of property beyond self-provided or police-provided protection: hiding said property from whoever might want to take control of it. You'd be amazed of the amount of unaccounted for wealth: stashed-away monies and treasure, camouflaged real estate, secret workshops and factories.

You are underestimating the Dark Side of the Force.

December 15, 2007 at 6:52 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

From link provided by TGGP:

A Pacifist Syllogism by Bryan Caplan
Premise #1: Wealth makes men cowards.
Premise #2: When all men are cowards, there will be no war.
Conclusion: When all men are wealthy, there will be no war


If I'm going to assume that Caplan's article is not a joke, and counter with my own syllogism:

Premise 1: Wealth is relative
Premise 2: The poorer/braver men will eliminate the wealthier/ more cowardly men
Conclusion: Cain will slay Abel as before.

I don't see the big deal over what pronoun he uses, picking over language is one of the things we make fun of lefties for.

This is exactly how the right has been ceding ground to the left for the past half-century.

December 15, 2007 at 6:56 AM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Pa, in the link the people also think they are using fiction for illustration, not evidence. An anecdote (i.e single data-point, which we all know is garbage) may illustrate a broader principle, but fiction does not even reach that level. When we are discussing reality fiction should be kept strictly out unless what we are discussing is the fiction industry.

Wealth is relative
I'm going to disagree. Above a certain level of wealth its effects tend to wear off. How often do the merely rich go after the super-ultra-rich? The more wealth you have, the more value you tend to assign to your own life, you don't have "nothing to lose". I'm assuming of course that other factors correlated with wealth are controlled for: if you can't hold a job because you compulsively stab people, giving you money won't help.

December 15, 2007 at 8:25 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

When we are discussing reality fiction should be kept strictly out unless what we are discussing is the fiction industry.

Parables are examples of legitimate use of of fiction to illustrate a point. The New Testament is full of them, for example.

The basic problem with wealth will lead to universal peace theory is that it doesn't pass the bullshit test. It's the same old autistic man-as-interchangeable-economic-unit crap that doesn;'t take into account human drives such as envy, IQ, ethnicity, bloodlust, and so on.

America's Dalit class is wealthy by historic standards but that doesn't stop them violence. The 9-11 highjackers were upper-middle-class engineers.

December 15, 2007 at 10:09 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

And yes, wealth is relative. It's not entirely, but in large part, a measure of status, which by definition is relative.

December 15, 2007 at 10:47 AM  
Anonymous steve burton said...

Michael S. - many, many thanks for the explanation about William & Mary & Henry Purcell.

And what a great story about "Cold and Raw."

It seems I was right on one point: I really do need to read up more on the "Glorious Revolution" and its aftermath.

December 15, 2007 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger mtraven said...

Looks like the paradisical neocameralist regime of Dubai is having some problems these days. Labor unrest! Presumably strikers should just be lined up and shot, but then that might make it difficult to attract further guest-workers...this capitalist-autocracy business is tougher than it looks.

December 15, 2007 at 10:45 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Today at Marginal Revolution:

Dubai is on a spending spree, and financial analysts are starting to wonder about the amount of debt the city-state is racking up. Its oil production is dwindling, and its debt load is four times the average among other Persian Gulf states. Credit-rating companies are asking for more information to determine how sound the government really is..."The transparency isn't good."

Here is the article and related links. If I had to "sell short" one country or city-state in the world today, it would be Dubai.

December 16, 2007 at 10:02 AM  
Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Wow, this article is really long, so I am not going to wade through it now. But given that you are interested in speculation about more effective governing systems, you might enjoy my essay on Dynamic Geography. I also liken government to a business, and propose an idea to make it more customer-focused.

December 16, 2007 at 11:33 AM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

Hi Patri,
How is the Seasteading project going, by the way? Haven't heared anything about it lately, although I've been following your efforts with much interest.

December 16, 2007 at 12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

unless you have a very perverse ethical system that glorifies violence

Humans who are willing and able to visit effective violence on their neighbors survive. Those who lack will will not.

City states can survive only so long as someone is willing to die for them.

December 16, 2007 at 6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

X can survive only so long as someone is willing to die for X.

That point, more generally, is the fundamental stumbling obstacle that every cosmopolitan ideology -- whether it be libertarianism or corporatism or communism or anarchism -- founders on.

People will kill and die for kin and country. For their genes and their descendants. Money can buy mercenaries, but mercenaries are -- famously -- mercenary in their attitudes towards the survival of the
state.

Any proposed system of political organization must take genes, relatedness, and human behavior into account.

December 16, 2007 at 7:03 PM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

General comment on the blog - the more I read the more persuasive I find MM. Of course this may be because he is a spectacularly gifted writer.

But it seems there is a lot of truth in his arguments - more than was at first apparent.

I am less confident than I was that democracy is the best way of replacing governments. And I will watch the city states more carefully to see if they can adapt to changes over the decades (almost any system - even very bad ones - can survive about 40 years, it seems).

My main worry is that the neo-cameralist view is too static - that it may be pointing at a zero (or very slow) growth society which would trend towards the ancient Chinese mandarinocracy - low-violence, well-ordered, with a vastly-cultivated, impartial and humane elite... and the vast majority of the population working 16 hours every day and subsisting on a few hundred calories of rice per day.

I think modern society is better than this, because almost anything is better than endless hunger, and because the dynamism of modern society offers hope.

Most Universalists are mandarins, and implicitly seek a mandarin world, and therefore prefer peaceful and cultivated stasis over the violence and vulgarity of dynamism.

Maybe the problem boils down to seeking a better way than mass voting to replace the mandarins when they become wicked or incompetent?

December 16, 2007 at 10:52 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

Anon,
You are quite wrong on violence and survival. I suggest that you visit a martial arts training. The first thing that you will notice is that if you follow your instincts, you will fight VERY inefficiently; much of the training is not about getting stronger or more agile, but about overriding instincts that prevent you from harming your fellow human too much. How did evolution select for such inefficient instinctive punches?
One would think that if your instinctive punch were more damaging, then you'd have an advantage, but this is not so. The ability to put down (or hand over) your weapons and surrender, once you lost armed combat, without posing any further threat to the victorious, is actually a very helpful trait, as far as survival is concerned. That is why humans lost almost all natural weapons such as fangs, claws and efficient punches and kicks. An armed human is stronger than naturally armed animals, but an unarmed human is harmless, which allows us to survive in certain circumstances.

More generally, the ability of being credibly harmless is advantageous to survival. If you are dangerous, others will pool their resources to take you out.

December 17, 2007 at 1:55 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Daniel, you make some good points, but here are my objections:

I suggest that you visit a martial arts training. The first thing that you will notice is that if you follow your instincts, you will fight VERY inefficiently;

True in the sense that brain beats brawn. A mass infantry charge against a machine gun is suicidal; a quiet commado raid works better. The again, machine gunners can run out of ammo, the gun can jam or overheat, so raw numbers combined with brute instincts can still trump.

much of the training is not about getting stronger or more agile,

The vast majority of martial artists are more effective as performance artists than as actual fighters. I would guess that only a tiny fraction of martial artists would be effective in a real fight against a stronger or more agile opponent.

My sense from watching UFC and seeing/being in a few fights myself is that in a real fight the ritualized karate (or whatever) moves would give way to blind pounding at first clash. Judging by UFC, it looks like the most effective qualities of a fighter are, more or less in this order:

- fearlessness
- raw size and strength
- grappling (wrestling) skills
- stamina
- skill-fighting (marital arts, boxing, etc.)

but about overriding instincts that prevent you from harming your fellow human too much.

This is only true among equally civilized opponents. See my point later on. In a martial arts ring, there are rules, referees, and spectators.

More generally, the ability of being credibly harmless is advantageous to survival.

There is some truth to this, although this too has roots in nature: a stronger dog will leave a rival that exposes its belly alone. However, a hungry dog will not show any mercy to its prey, whose chance of survival lies only in running or fighting to the death.

In otehr words, Ghandi's or MLK's passive resistance worked against the British and the Southerners. It would have stood no chance agains Genghis Khan or Mahometans.

December 17, 2007 at 5:03 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

More generally, the ability of being credibly harmless is advantageous to survival.

Does this get to the heart of Western Europe's current paralysis in the face of Isalm?

December 17, 2007 at 5:20 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

pa: I'm very far from convinced that UFC is real. The main problem with it, from my perspective, is that its fights last a long time, while real fights, from almost everything I have heard, are over very quickly. Boxing matches can be long primarily because they have limited target areas, making defense much easier than offense.

December 17, 2007 at 8:04 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Michael, I don't disagree with what you say about fights being very short. The UFC fights I remember looked real enough, and the ones that weren't over real quick tended to become sluggish grappling matches. Kind of like real fights.

I've watched some amateur boxing matches, and both contestants got leaden-arms within a minute of fighting.

December 17, 2007 at 8:22 AM  
Blogger Tanstaafl said...

Why were Jews so overrepresented among the Bolsheviks? Educated, urban Jews were clever enough to know which way the wind was blowing, and they maneuvered to avoid being victimized. And yet people complained about "Jewish Bolshevism". The losers of a culture war are the ones who complain; the winners are too busy reaping the benefits to give a damn.

To the extent that this is an admission that "good is what's good for Jews" I find it more forthright than anything in the original post or comments above. To the extent it ignores the philosophical roots and financing of Marxism/Bolshevism and blames the victims for not being "clever enough" to "manuever" out of the way I find it simultaneously and mind-numbingly arrogant and disinformative.

As for libertarianism I find John Stuart Mill's ideas far more sensible than neo-libertarians such as Rand or Rothbard.

December 17, 2007 at 1:04 PM  
OpenID teageegeepea said...

Parables are examples of legitimate use of of fiction to illustrate a point. The New Testament is full of them, for example.
I think the New Testament is all nonsense and the parables silly.

The basic problem with wealth will lead to universal peace theory is that it doesn't pass the bullshit test.
Is there a difference between "bullshit test" and "I simply refuse to believe it"?

It's the same old autistic man-as-interchangeable-economic-unit crap that doesn;'t take into account human drives such as envy, IQ, ethnicity, bloodlust, and so on.
Caplan is actually more prone to taking IQ and ethnicity into account than the average economist. Steven Pinker also seems relatively willing to take those things seriously, and here is his presentation on how much less violent we've become.

And yes, wealth is relative. It's not entirely, but in large part, a measure of status, which by definition is relative.
Do observe people trying to obtain higher absolute wealth or relative wealth? Do relatively well off people in a poor country move to be the relatively poor in richer countries? Yes, they do. Are wealthier neighbors a negative externality on the worse off? No, it seems to be the other way around.

mtraven, I e-mailed moldy about that Dubai story, but like he says he hasn't responded to any e-mails in a while.

Patri Friedman, I mentioned your idea to MM here.

City states can survive only so long as someone is willing to die for them.
That may change with dynamic geography.

I am less confident than I was that democracy is the best way of replacing governments.
How would a democracy replace government? If you had a democracy, wouldn't that be a government?

In otehr words, Ghandi's or MLK's passive resistance worked against the British and the Southerners. It would have stood no chance agains Genghis Khan or Mahometans.
That reminds me of one of my favorite Der Ego posts: Stalin-Ghandi vs Hitler-Khan. Also, it's silly to lump Genghis in with Mahometans. The latter are pushovers. Genhis beat the pants off them regularly. Muslims were at their scariest led by Tamerlane, a descendant of the Khan, who himself spent most of his career beating on other muslims. Genghis would have never had the problems Pakistan has with lawyers, Egypt with the modern (rather non-violent) Muslim Brotherhood an Iran has with university students.

Does this get to the heart of Western Europe's current paralysis in the face of Isalm?
Let's not exaggerate things. The terrorism problem is largely Overblown, and as for the demographics, read this.

Regarding violence and how controlled sporting events are so different from life, check out what Randall Collins has to say.

As for libertarianism I find John Stuart Mill's ideas far more sensible than neo-libertarians such as Rand or Rothbard.
It's kind of funny you bring up Mill, because a lot of Rand/Rothbard types complain about how his newfangled utilitarianism mucked up the perfectly good natural rights of the classical liberals and scholastics! Personally, I'm most partial to Max Stirner of the old BSers and the Public Choice theorists of the modern scholars.

December 17, 2007 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Daniel A. Nagy said...

Pa,

I was not talking about passive resistance. I was talking about submission. Which worked with Mongols and Tatars just fine.

Russia (Kievan Rus, to be more precise) was conquered by the Golden Horde (the Eastern European part of Genghis Khan's empire, ruled by his grandson, Batu Khan). After a few devastating raids, Russia started paying tribute in a quite orderly fashion. To the point where the Russian nobility was entrusted with collecting taxes on behalf of their Tatar overlords.

And then, three centuries later, things started to change. The dukes of Moscow (themselves of partly Tatar descent) managed to stash away enough wealth to finance a clandestine military buildup, and Ivan III of Moscow greeted the tribute collectors of Khan Akhmat with aimed cannon fire. Interestingly, there was no major showdown between the two: after a long stand-off on opposite banks of the Ugra river, Akhmat decided to leave without battle.

Most of the time afterwards (and that's half of a millennium), Tatars paid taxes to Moscow, not the other way around. Following a brief period of unrecognized de-facto independence following the break-up of the USSR, Tatarstan joined the Russian Federation as a member state in year 2000.

December 17, 2007 at 8:28 PM  
OpenID entitledtoanopinion said...

Via Ilkka I found a good Dubai-skeptical article from an insider's perspective here.

December 17, 2007 at 9:54 PM  
Anonymous PA said...

I think the New Testament is all nonsense and the parables silly.

Well, that settles that!

Is there a difference between "bullshit test" and "I simply refuse to believe it"?

Some assertions are so removed from logic, common sense, and human experience, that I don't really feel like making an effort of debunking them at first causes.

December 19, 2007 at 9:22 AM  
Anonymous Steve Burton said...

TGGP - unfortunately, your link to Steven Pinker's "presentation on how much less violent we've become" doesn't work.

I'd very much like to see this. Try again?

December 19, 2007 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

I'm watching The Pinker talk right now.

December 19, 2007 at 1:29 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Well, that settles that!
Just saying your example doesn't support your point.

Some assertions are so removed from logic, common sense, and human experience, that I don't really feel like making an effort of debunking them at first causes.
That assertion is so removed from logic, common sense and human experience that I don't really feel like making an effort of debunking it at first causes!

TGGP - unfortunately, your link to Steven Pinker's "presentation on how much less violent we've become" doesn't work.
I'm watching it just fine right now here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/163
You can download a zipped mp4 here: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/download/video/180/talk/163
I discussed that and the merits of Hobbes in this post at my blog.

December 19, 2007 at 1:31 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

Sorry, the number in both urls should be 163.

December 19, 2007 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger George Weinberg said...

TGGP, somehow your first link got an erroneous "www.blogger.com" in it.

It's pretty clear that violence and cruelty have decreased substantially in civilized societies over the last few centuries, although I wouldn't expect them to drop to zero anytime soon.

I'm less than satisfied with Pinker's suggestions as to why this may be happening, because he doesn't adequately address the other side of the question. That is, Pinker says that torturers and cat burners didn't feel any empathy for their victims, but I think if that were true people would regard torture as a boring if sometimes necessary occupation, but that's not true. It was a source of amusement and delight. Part of it could have been a desire for people to demonstrate what badasses they were, but I'd doubt if that's the whole story and it's not clear to me why such a desire should atrophy.

December 19, 2007 at 4:13 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

George Weinberg's last comment on Pinker's analysis of the reasons for the (purported) decline in violence and cruelty prompts the observation that schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of others) is a basic human trait. Tertullian asserts that part of the pleasure of the saved in Heaven is being able to watch, from their comfortable position, the sufferings of the damned. D.P. Walker wrote a most interesting book entitled "The Decline of Hell" on the gradual rejection of this belief. It is intimately connected with the rise of Universalism, a term which (in its original theological application) refers to the doctrine that all shall, eventually, be saved.

I suggest that schadenfreude is alive and well and its apparent decline is explained either by its being suppressed by the governing elite or by its being satisfied in other ways than the old and customary ones. Let us consider public executions. These are traditionally town-square events - the Saudis do them in car parks. In the sort of mass society in which we live, this is a very inefficient way of appealing to the market for schadenfreude. The audience is limited by the venue, and even then may not get a good view. Modern technology has not been applied to this problem only because the elites that control it are appalled by the idea. Televised executions with multiple camera angles and slo-mo instant replays would probably have a broad audience. Can one imagine 'color commentary' on the headsman's swing, akin to that accompanying the broadcast of a baseball game? (Parisian newspapers in the nineteenth century ran extensive accounts of public guillotinings, which often criticised the performance of M. de Paris).

The matter of fact is that violent entertainments in the form of video games and movies are legion and have audiences of just the sort that used to enjoy public hangings and decapitations. One is reminded, in contemplating such entertainments, of Samuel Pepys's remark in his famous diaries to the effect that he enjoyed the theatre but regretted it as a moral failing, public executions being a more wholesome sort of spectacle. I suspect that today's audiences, jaded by exposure to violent video games and movies, would find a plain old hanging rather milkwater by comparison. The authorities would have to find ways to jazz up such events to compete with what one can rent at Blockbuster.

December 20, 2007 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Everybody believes in something and everybody, by virtue of the fact that they believe in something, use that something to support their own existence." -frank zappa

saw this quote the other day; it's worth keeping in mind when railing against (or spouting) ideology and cant, libertarian or otherwise. (which, to people's credit, is usually why they don't.) everyone is (has) their own thought police, writ small, and in some way tries to enforce their version of right thinking/living and correct conduct (to a greater or lesser extent) on the rest of us -- so degree and not kind; we all have beliefs (or degrees of belief) and act on them accordingly, if perhaps not always appropriately.

fine and good, as it should be; as it ought, which is why it (mostly) is... explicit recognition of what's already implicitly understood (diversity of opinion) is hardly revelatory (altho perhaps amusing), but i suppose it's worth the effort of picking apart (meta-)belief/power structures from time to time -- shaking the tree, so to speak -- to see what might fall out or, indeed, whether the whole edifice might come tumbling down (dead roots, rotten core, etc).

but usually not much happens, by and large. empires rise and fall, alliances form and fade, fashions come and go, but restraint, understanding limits and refraining from overreach, never goes out of style (because it's always out of 'style'?); perhaps moreso, before any attempt at 'change', when simulated in vivo/silico "to eliminate ambiguity"* ...

in any event, thoughtful consideration _should be_ a welcome relief to grief and 'convincing' one another whether to accept or reject the conditions of their lives is a healthy exercise and appears to be a permanent fixture of human endeavour at any rate. in the absence of physical violence, (unambiguous!) threats often suffice... wait, you already covered that :P what it also does, tho, is foreground the war of (some) ideas taking place in the numinous aether -- our heads, the media, the noosphere, or whatever. for 'beliefs', their followers/carriers, if not expendable, are used "to support their own existence", if i may flip zappa.

and who or what is to adjudicate it all? reality will have its final say, of course, but i'm hopeful that as modelling reality improves and ambiguities shrink, or at least become 'known' if not predictable behaviours, there will be a perceptible difference in humankind.**

---
* viz. psychohistory
** cf. farewell to alms & geography of thought

December 23, 2007 at 9:52 AM  
Blogger TGGP said...

anonymous, this might be just the booze talking, but your post came off like a stream of babble. Do you post elsewhere as rtr?

December 25, 2007 at 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

all i'm saying is, i think it's probably more true that people live and die according to their beliefs; and who knows why anyone believes anything?

in MM's view, people live and die by their relations to power, properly understood...

alas, bin ich nicht rtr :{ just some psychobabel from the collective unconscience; a rorscharach test for the holidays, cheers!

December 29, 2007 at 7:20 AM  
Blogger Patri Friedman said...

Like you, I want freedom and think the libertarian agenda of democratic reform is hopeless. I came up with a very different solution:

http://patrifriedman.com/projects/socs/commented/drawer/dynamic_geography.html

February 19, 2008 at 8:45 PM  
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"There is no American alive today whose loyalty to the British Crown was passed down to him in an unbroken chain from 18th-century Loyalists" - I wouldn't be so sure about that. Recall that this tradition lasted long enough into the 20th century in upstate New York that the eponymous Roger Tory Peterson was so named by his parents. There may well be others less famous yet living.

"The Loyalists were right. And yet they have no intellectual descendants at all, not in the US and not anywhere else." This is not in fact the case. During the Australian republican referendum brouhaha I bumped into someone in this tradition, maintaining it by way of the Canadian United Empire Loyalists. I also spoke to an Australian Orangeman, who told me a few things about how the Orange tradition grew up in both Australia and Canada.

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February 25, 2009 at 1:34 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

You are a minarchist Mencius?
That is pathetic. I'd think someone with your level of knowledge would be a little smarter...

February 27, 2009 at 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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March 2, 2009 at 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 6, 2009 at 6:56 AM  
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March 17, 2009 at 11:55 PM  

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