Friday, April 24, 2015

TGIF: A Freed Society Would Not Be Problem-Free

In 1970 country singer Lynn Anderson had a hit recording of a Joe South song that opened with the line:
I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.
I often think of that song in connection with the libertarian philosophy. You may be asking: for heaven’s sake, why?
Because it’s what I want to say to people who seem annoyed that freedom would neither cure all existing social ills immediately nor prevent new ones from arising. It’s a strange demand to make on a political philosophy -- that it instantly fix everything that the opposing philosophy has broken. Moreover, I’m concerned that some libertarians, in their justifiable enthusiasm for “the market,” inadvertently lead nonlibertarians to think that this unrealistic expectation is part of their philosophy. Of course, that is not good because nonlibertarians won’t believe that the market would make all things right overnight, and so they’ll write off all libertarians as dogmatists.
Libertarians of all people should understand that decades -- indeed, centuries -- of government intervention have distorted society and the economy considerably. It’s safe to say that both would look different had that intervention not occurred. To pick one American example, the creation of an integrated continent-wide national market in the United States was in large part consciously planned by government officials (most prominently Abraham Lincoln, who embraced Henry Clay’s corporatist American System) and their corporate cronies, especially but hardly exclusively through transportation subsidies. (This is not to say they were able to dictate developments in detail; moreover, zones of entrepreneurial freedom existed, constrained though they were.) This system is American capitalism, which is to be distinguished from the spontaneous, decentralized free market.
Wouldn’t the market have tended toward greater integration if left free? I believe so, but the differences would have been substantial. In a freed market, costs are internalized. Expanding trade across a continent would require private risky investment in the means of transportation -- canals, roads, railroads, etc. No government land grants or other subsidies would be available. If a firm wanted to ship its products cross-country, it initially would have to bear the shipping costs, which would be reflected in consumer prices. Consumers, choosing in a competitive marketplace, would then be free to decide if the products were worth the price asked compared to those of more-locally produced products, whose manufacturers did not have high transportation costs to recoup. (They may have disadvantages due to their small size, but diseconomies of scale, as well as economies of scale, exist.) Consumers might be happy to pay the higher prices, but it’s up to them. “National” firms would not have the advantage that government intervention has afforded them historically. (Today, repairs to the taxpayer-financed interstate highways is disproportionately paid for by private automobile operators. Owners of big rigs don’t pay their share of the upkeep.)
The whole point of a government-led effort to create a national market was to impose costs on taxpayers, who had no choice in the matter, rather than have businesses charge consumers, who would have had a choice, at the checkout counter. Since national firms’ retail prices don’t have to reflect the full cost of production, consumption is distorted and smaller firms are harmed. We cannot say exactly how things would look had the government not instituted this corporatist policy, but we can say that things would be different. To claim otherwise is to suggest that government interference with economic activity is inert. Libertarians should know better.
While some people have benefited unjustly from this “nationalization” policy, others have been unjustly harmed, at least relative to what their position would have been in a freed market. There’s no way to put things as they would have been had the policy not be adopted -- bygones are bygones. Radically freeing the market wouldn’t immediately remove the lingering injustice of past policy; it wouldn’t repeal what Kevin Carson calls “the subsidy of history.”
The upshot is that the cleanup, to the extent that it can take place, would take time. “I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.” Libertarians promise freedom and the prospect of improving one’s lot in life, but not instant rectification of past injustices.
As I say, some libertarians strangely seem to want to downplay the deep distorting effects of government intervention and act as though the free market would make things right almost instantaneously. So, for example, when they talk about abolishing welfare-state programs, they imply that a seamless transition to a fully voluntary “safety net” would follow. But for decades the welfare state has made people (low- and middle-income) dependent on the government for, say, retirement benefits and medical care, and it has accustomed others to believe that the government will take care of people who can’t look after themselves. While I have no doubt that some voluntary help would kick in quickly were welfare programs canceled abruptly, we can’t be confident that it would be enough or soon enough. Transitions take time because they consist in human action, and people don’t always respond to other people in trouble immediately. For one thing, the free-rider phenomenon exists; an individual can easily believe that enough others will help and that his or her contribution would be too small to make much difference anyway. (However, the response after a natural disaster is typically quick and impressive. Perhaps the dramatic nature of a natural disaster helps to override the free-rider problem. Would the abolition of the welfare state have the same attention-getting drama?)
We see a similar downplaying of distortions whenever a government shutdown looms during a budget battle. It’s one thing to applaud an impending shutdown (except that the worst parts of the state never shut down), but it’s quite another to imply that no hardship will result. Since government creates dependency, a libertarian can’t consistently claim that no one will be harmed even in the short term when government offices close. For one thing, since everyone knows those offices will reopen before long, we can’t reasonably expect a constellation of alternative voluntary organizations to fully take up the slack. Some hardship will occur.
I don’t offer this as an argument against abolishing “entitlement” programs or closing down the government. I’m simply cautioning libertarians against suggesting that should this happen, no innocent person would be at a disadvantage.
Similarly, a freed society and freed market don’t guarantee that nothing bad would ever occur. Nonlibertarians often ask libertarians what would happen with neglected and abused children or mistreated animals -- the list of possible abhorrent acts is endless. Our interlocutors are unfazed by the fact that all societies have such problems, even those with the most activist governments. It’s always possible for unfortunate people to fall into the cracks, so it is no blemish on the libertarian philosophy that it can’t offer an ironclad guarantee against such things. All it can assure is that wrongdoing won’t be paid for by taxpayers (because no one will be a taxpayer). We anarchists can also assure that, for obvious reasons, no abuse will be committed by government officials.
Libertarians can be confident that voluntary organizations will exist (as they do to some extent today) to minimize such wrongdoing and to act appropriately when it occurs. Let us not underestimate the ability of free people to respond to problems when left to their own devices. Social cooperation is potent, and a freed society would contain the seeds of the solutions to problems, thanks both to the lure of entrepreneurial profit and to what Adam Smith called “fellow-feeling.”
But while we tout the virtues of freedom, let us not overestimate how quickly such an environment of mutual aid and charity would succeed the old order. Things take time.
Unlike other political philosophies, libertarianism does not promise that a New Person will emerge when society is freed. For good and ill, people will still be people. However, we can be comforted that without the state, a major encouragement to the worst in people will be gone.
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog "Free Association" and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More Equal

For leaking classified documents to his mistress/biographer, former general and CIA director David Petraeus gets two years' probation  -- because some animals are more equal than others.

Megalomaniacs

My article "US Foreign Policymakers Can't Be Trusted," written for the Independent Institute, is in today's spotlight at Antiwar.com.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Obama Wades Further into Yemen

“The U.S. Navy … has dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt toward the waters off Yemen to join other American ships prepared to intercept any Iranian vessels carrying weapons to the rebels, U.S. officials said,” the Chicago Tribune reported on Monday.
Thus does the Obama administration risk war with Iran while embracing the mischievous agendas of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Israel

Iran has not been found shipping arms, but you won’t learn that from mainstream news accounts. Nor do the media ask why the United States and its allies -- but not Iran -- may intervene in Yemen.
The Tribune, like all mainstream news outlets, refers to “Iran-backed Shiite rebels,” that is, the autonomy-minded and long-burdened Houthis, who are portrayed without evidence as agents of the Islamic Republic. The media are mere conduits for Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab Gulf states, which have an interest in falsely portraying the turmoil in Yemen, long racked by civil war, as an instance of Iranian expansion. The Sunni Arab states don’t want Shiite Persians playing a prominent role in the region and becoming friendlier with the United States, while Israel uses Iran to take the world’s mind off the Jewish State’s brutality against the Palestinians. All this goes on while the United States negotiates curbs on a nonexistent Iranian nuclear-weapons program -- to Saudi and Israeli consternation.
While the media fill American minds with almost nonstop propaganda about Iran’s ambitions, the U.S. intelligence agencies have their doubts. Why don’t the media report this, considering that Obama has facilitated the Saudis’ naval blockade against Yemen and its off-again/on-again bombing campaign? As a result of this war, Yemen suffers a humanitarian catastrophe, complete with refugees, food shortages, and the slaughter of civilians.
Fortifying doubts about Iranian backing of the Houthis, the Huffington Post, citing “American officials familiar with intelligence around the insurgent takeover,” reports that “Iranian representatives discouraged Houthi rebels from taking the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last year” (emphasis added).
This conflicts with the popular belief that the Houthis, who practice a Shiite offshoot that differs significantly from Iranian Shiism, moved on the capital under orders from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“The newly disclosed information casts further doubt on claims that the rebels are a proxy group fighting on behalf of Iran,” continue the authors, Ali Watkins, Ryan Grim, and Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “suggesting that the link between Iran and the Yemeni Shiite group may not be as strong as congressional hawks and foreign powers urging U.S. intervention in Yemen have asserted.”
Do congressional hawks and foreign powers, that is, Israel and Saudi Arabia, care what the facts show? Facts have nothing to do with this. Iran is the bogeyman, so all troubles must be traced to its door. Nothing -- especially the truth -- can be allowed to stand in the way.
The article adds that “the revelation that the Houthis directly disobeyed Iran gives credibility to the White House's argument that Iran is not directing the rebels” (emphasis added). It quotes Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman, who says, “It remains our assessment that Iran does not exert command and control over the Houthis in Yemen.”
To drive the point home, the authors quote a U.S. intelligence official: “It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran.”
So why does Obama help the Saudis murder Yemenis?
Directing the Houthis and aiding them are two different things, of course, but Iranian support in the face of long-standing Saudi and U.S. intervention hardly seems remarkable. Reuters reported in December 2014 that “exactly how much support Iran has given the Houthis … has never been clear.” Moreover, the ships “suspected” of carrying arms are probably part of Iran’s anti-piracy patrol. (See Gareth Porter's "Houthi arms bonanza came from Saleh, not Iran.")
And let’s face it: the U.S.-backed Saudi war creates opportunities for al-Qaeda in the Iraqi Peninsula (AQIP) and ISIS, which the Houthis oppose.
The United States risks unlimited war with Iran by interfering in a civil war on behalf of malign outsider objectives. (It’s been droning Yemen since 2001.) By seeing the conflict through the Saudi and Israeli lens, Obama magnifies the human catastrophe.
Sheldon Richman keeps the blog "Free Association" and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society.

Friday, April 17, 2015

TGIF: Patience and Empathy: Keys to Presenting the Freedom Philosophy

It goes without saying -- I hope -- that we libertarians should be patient and empathetic when we talk political economy with nonlibertarians. Patience and empathy are generally virtues, of course, but libertarians have an additional reason to practice them in their political lives: they are keys to effectively presenting new ideas.
We ask a lot of people when we ask them to appreciate the merits of our political philosophy. (I’m assuming the goal is persuasion and not mere self-gratification.) We should think back to when we first encountered the philosophy. None of us started out understanding it. We had to read, think, and talk with people more advanced in their understanding than we were. Even a fledgling libertarian who starts out favorably inclined intellectually and emotionally to the philosophy needs time to digest the ideas. I can recall running newly acquired, but not-yet-well-understood, libertarian ideas by friends, parents, and siblings -- only to be stumped by their questions and objections. I had to go back to the books or my libertarian teachers for further study and contemplation. The process takes a long time. Leonard Read used to say it takes a lifetime, and I believe him. Keeping this truth in mind will help shape our approach to nonlibertarians. Don’t underestimate the persuasive power of empathy.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What the Hell Are We Doing in Yemen?

The U.S. government has charged into another civil war in the Middle East. When you find yourself repeatedly asking, “Will they ever learn?” the answer may be that the decision-makers have no incentive to do things differently. What looks like failure may be the intended outcome. Quagmires have their benefits -- to the ruling elite -- if American casualties are minimized.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Yemen: Who's Who?

If you want to understand what's going on in Yemen, the location of the latest civil war into which the U.S. government has inserted itself, see Jonathan Marshall's excellent "How Washington Adds to Yemen's Nightmare" at Consortiumnews.com.

Friday, April 10, 2015

TGIF: Libertarians Must Get History Right

Understanding history as best we can is important for obvious reasons. It’s particularly important for libertarians who want to persuade people to the freedom philosophy. In making their case for individual freedom, mutual aid, social cooperation, foreign nonintervention, and peace, libertarians commonly place great weight on historical examples most often drawn from the early United States. So if they misstate history or draw obviously wrong conclusions, they will discredit their case. Much depends therefore on getting history right.