My brief thoughts on Ferguson

  • When I first heard the ruling, a few hours after it had been announced, I checked the webpages of the international press. Only two outlets – Germany’s Der Spiegel and Al-Jazeera‘s Arabic language webpage (its English and Turkish language websites were different stories) – had front page headlines not highlighting the riots in the US. The Turkish and British media had the most extensive coverage of events when I checked them out (again, this was a couple of hours after the ruling was announced).
  • The United States has a racist past, and a racist present, that has yet to be fully addressed. Tocqueville saw this coming in 1825. Reparations for stolen labor is the only way I can see this issue being resolved. I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed about black culture. Black culture is an important component of the United States and its image abroad. Every kid in every Ghanaian village knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States. Every teenager in every Chinese city knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States.
  • Ending the War on Drugs will also go a long way to addressing the issue of state-sponsored oppression.
  • Affirmative Action is what you get when you try to address state-sponsored oppression through the legislative process rather than through the judicial process. Few, if any, blacks benefit from AA, and the few who do are highly educated and do not reflect the general population of blacks in the US.
  • Nationalizing policing duties, or giving Washington a more prominent role in policing matters, is a horrible idea that needs to die a thousand, painful deaths.
  • The people who loot and damage private property should be pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
  • There are few things that make me smile more than seeing a police car burning. I hope the bill comes out of the pensions – themselves extracted from the taxpayer by public sector unions – of policemen, though I know this will not happen.
  • I have seen a lot of white, Asian, and Hispanic faces at the protests. There are some blacks who have made a living in academia and in the activist world by claiming that non-blacks are more racist than blacks (“micro-aggression”). I hope these protests will convince the neutral black observer that racism is a structural issue in this country, not a cultural one. I think, through my own anecdotal experience, that most blacks are both neutral and implicitly understand that this is a structural issue.

Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne I: de La Boetie (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Etienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) was from Sarlat in the southwest of France. He developed strong interests in poetry, classics, and politics as a youth and was rather precocious. It has even been suggested that he wrote his great political essay ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ (also known as ‘One against All’) at the age of sixteen, though there is no universally accepted date for its composition. He started a career as a judge in Bourdeaux at an unusual age, followed up by diplomatic work. He was also a translator of Greek classics and a poet who associated with a distinguished group that included the greatest French Renaissance poet Pierre Ronsard.

De La Boétie died at a sadly young age, but before that he wrote the great political essay under discussion here, and made friends with the Bordeaux judge and author of the Essays, one of the great works of French and European literature, philosophy, and self-examination. I have considered Montaigne as a thinker about liberty and though he did not directly express enthusiasm for liberty-oriented radicalism, he certainly had friends who did, including de La Boétie and an early feminist to be considered in the next post.

It has been claimed that Montaigne wrote ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ himself, which combined with the claim that de La Boétie wrote it at the age of sixteen suggests considerable uncertainty about the status of the text. I will just go with the more average assumptions, which are that de La Boétie was the author and wrote it later than the age of sixteen (or eighteen, as also been suggested).

Anyway, the friendship of Montaigne and de La Boétie was itself a major event in French and European culture, since de La Boétie’s death appears to have played a late part in Montaigne retiring from the judiciary and a melancholia, which led him to begin composing the Essays. One of the most famous essays, ‘On Friendship’, is in part a meditation on the friendship with de La Boétie and the sadness that Montaigne feels that his life is no longer shared with him.

The topic of friendship itself connects with ancient ideas of political liberty, so that the essay itself can be taken as part of the evidence that Montaigne sympathised with ancient republican liberty and wished for its revival. Montaigne’s essay is, as one would expect given Montaigne’s constant shifts in point of view and exploration of difficulties in ideas of some appeal, more open to difficult moments in the idea of friendship, such as the willingness of a friend to cooperate with the other friend’s lawless projects.

De La Boétie’s stye is to develop a thesis with great passion and rhetoric; skill, rather than obviously exploring all sides of a question, though he is certainly best understood with a critical approach to what he might mean and openness to different approaches. Attempts to fit de La Boétie too narrowly into any recent conception of liberty are unlikely to do him justice, as can be seen in the wide range of people who have sought inspiration from more individualistic and more collectivist understandings of both anarchism and republicanism.

‘The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’ may be taken as anarchistic in that de La Boétie argues for resisting the authority of any individual or group over a nation, or group of people however defined. It may taken as republican in that de La Boétie uses the language and references of ancient republican tradition in Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero, which gives all citizens some role on law-making and government actions through public assemblies. The theoretical work itself reflects on the experience of Ancient Greek city-states and Rome before the Emperor system.

What de La Boétie opposed to the unjust rule of one or a group is law and an idea of liberty, which he defines as natural, and in opposition to the unnatural tendency to those who rule without regard to law. His way of thinking looks connected to that of the tradition going back to Aristotle of ‘natural law’ as those laws shared by all communities and therefore to be seen as belonging to human communities by the nature of humans, or their communities, rather than those laws arising from specific localised customs and necessities. De La Boétie resists an exact account, suggesting he is concerned with the defence of liberty as natural against tyranny, defined as monstrous.

De La Boétie starts the Discourse with reference to Homer, making clear his classical points of reference. The idea comes from Odysseus (de La Boétie uses the`Latinate version of the name, Ulysses) in The Iliad that it is better to have one master than many. De La Boétie takes his starting point then the necessity of condemning one person rule, which must be tyranny whether that individual came to  power through inheritance, election, or usurpation (coup). In that respect, de La Boétie might be taken as an anarchist resisting all authority, as well as a pacifist, since he points to the power of one resisting on the obedience of many who could easily shake of the power of one, without force, if they ignored the claims if the one to sovereign power.

On the whole though, de La Boétie appears to be thinking of the antique republican tradition of sharing power between individuals and councils (and the human value of such participation), so that no one individual or council can have unchecked power. Both the Athenian and Spartan republics are mentioned favourably from this point of view, as is their armed resistance to the invasion of Greece by Persia, itself under the power of one. The ancient Greeks are associated with republican virtues in which liberty is more important than wealth or comfort. It is not so much anarchy, as sharing of political power that de La Boétie recommends, and war is accepted where necessary to resist domestic or foreign tyranny.

There is a justified anarchistic reading of de La Boétie, if we are willing to distinguish that from de La Boétie’s own view. He was an admirer of the sharing of power between citizens in ancient city-states, where there was close to no bureaucracy and administrative functions by modern standards, and what there was could be realistically managed by committees of citizens. This can come close to an anarchistic view of purely voluntary institutions substituting for the state, particularly if we accept a natural law view in which everyone is likely to favour the same basic laws as ‘natural’ or we have some other reason for thinking the same laws will be discerned and accepted as right by the whole body of citizens. I do not recommend such a view, but it is at least worth exploring.

The issue of friendship, which connects de La Boétie with Montaigne, comes into the republicanism of de La Boétie in that friendship is what a tyrant cannot have, while friendship between citizens is what unites them in struggle against tyranny. The tyrant can only have sycophants and enemies, no friends since they must be equals. A society based on friendship between citizens is not based on coercion and the privilege of one, or a few, who control the state. Friendship itself contains the idea of a good that benefits at least two people, so undermining the idea that we can only have a form of power seeking individualism unconcerned with the common good, and that it is possible to live as a human while ignoring common goods and rights.

Around the Web

  1. Obama, immigration, and the rule of law
  2. Free markets, racial equality, and Southern prosperity
  3. Reflections on the Arab Uprising
  4. GOP hawks sink libertarian bid to lead key House conservative bloc
  5. Morocco and its arts

Go Bruins!

That’s three in a row versus SC.

ucla logo

There’s a new dynasty is LA, and it’s coached by Jim Mora. Here is the LA Times on the new dynasty. And ESPN.

I had my pick of elite schools on the west coast to choose from. I chose UCLA because I grew up with college football and college hoops. It wasn’t even a contest (just like the game at the Rose Bowl last night!).

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…

President Condemns Price Gougers, Dealers Raided

On one sunny August 16, at a time of high price inflation, government operatives announced the seizure of millions of eggs and 200,000 pounds of sugar. Raids on the larders of other suspected profiteers continued for weeks thereafter … The government was prepared to return these items to their owners once the chastened profiteers agreed to sell them at a “reasonable” price and under the watchful eye of a government officer.

The official in charge of the raids explained thusly: “I am one of those who believe that a large part of the high cost of living is due to the fact that a number of unconscionable men in the ranks of the dealers have taken advantage … If we can make a few conspicuous examples of gougers and give the widest sort of publicity to the fact that such gougers have been and will be punished, in the future there will be little inclination to profiteer in this country.”

Earlier, the President of the Republic had laid the blame for a lesser bout of price inflation squarely at the feet of gouging businessmen: “The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” is how he put it.

By now you may have guessed that I am talking about present-day Venezuela, its Presidente, and his henchmen. You would have guessed wrong. The year was 1919, Woodrow Wilson was president, and his henchman, quoted above, was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. The high cost of living was a result of Mr. Wilson’s war, which was financed partly by money printing, as well as the absorption of vast quantities of real goods and services by the government for use in fighting the war. The obvious effect of more money chasing a reduced supply of goods and services was price inflation, and that same phenomenon happened in all the warring countries, most notably France.

This episode provides one of many reasons, too numerous to elaborate here, why Woodrow Wilson is properly called a proto-fascist and why he is a serious contender for the dubious honor of worst-ever U.S. president. For more, see Jim Powell’s, “Wilson’s War: How Woodrow Wilson’s Great Blunder Led to Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and World War II.

The first three paragraphs above are paraphrased from p. 24 of James Grant’s new book, “The Forgotten Depression.” Though I have not finished the book, I couldn’t resist sharing this tidbit. The gist of Grant’s thesis can be seen in its subtitle, “1921: the Crash that Cured Itself.” Highly recommended, so far.

From the Comments: What *are* the institutions that promote rational ignorance?

Rick answers my question:

Let’s go a step further than institutions: Instincts.*

Our ancestors survived a dangerous natural environment by taking on genetic strategies that allow us to use our big-old-dolphin-brains in clever ways, but that falls short of perfect Spock-ness. We are easily excited by certain things and will often answer easier questions than the ones posed to us without realizing it.

So besides the fact that it’s genuinely rational to be ignorant, our psychological makeup creates a situation that exacerbates the problem. Voters ask the question “will I be better off in four years with that asshole in charge or this one?” but answer the question “which of these schmucks would drive me to suicide slowest if I were trapped on a desert island with one of them?”

Let’s get back to the institutional question… Rational ignorance is a thing because we are facing a collective action problem. Through repeated play the problem of rational ignorance has created an electoral institution that rewards showmanship (playing on the psychology of voters). There are two questions: 1) Why did things unfold so that this is the case? 2) How might we change them for the better?

I suspect the answer to 1) is that people genuinely thought voting was going to be about information. Perhaps it even was at some point. And if it was successful it’s only natural that its scope would be expanded. But as its scope expands the informational issues become larger and it becomes more rational to be ignorant. (That’s one possible story but not the only one.)

The status quo isn’t going to change without a major shift in the way people think. One way to get that shift would be to fix high school civics classes (Okay, where do I sign up for sea-steading?!). I think one of the higher marginal benefit things is satire (tangent: my introduction to satire was This Hour has 22 Minutes which I watched before I was a full-blown libertarian). One reason I like Jon Stewart so much is that he fights back against the non-role of information in the political-media nexus. If “the people” acknowledge that politics isn’t about making “the right choice” in some objective sense they will be admitting the problem.

*Now, if I remember my last anthropology class correctly instincts aren’t as real as we think they are… but what from what I’ve gleaned about evolutionary psychology and neurology there is hard-wiring, or something like it, that kinda-sorta stands between instinct and culture. So I’ll (perhaps incorrectly) use the word instinct as short-hand for psychological features of humans that arose from our evolution as a social animal.

A Matter of Expectancies

We agree with the opinion that radical social discontent is strongly related to a disappointment of expectancies. The relation emerges from the observation that the most extremist activists are not the most disadvantageous people in society but persons who have a relative wealthy social background and a high level of education. People often believe that radical ideals must be addressed to the poor, because they have “nothing to loose but their chains”, and then get astonished when they find out that most revolutionaries come from the elites. The answer to this puzzle is that political conservatism and radicalism mostly depend on the degree of fulfillment of previous expectancies –or, better, the current expectancy of fulfillment of previous expectancies.

I consider that this contention allows us to translate the Egalitarian claims for a more fair society into the language of the Classical Liberalism. A Classical Liberal view may agree on that every individual deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect, if this means that the most quantity of expectancies are to be fulfilled only when citizens are equal before the law and the restrictions on individual plans are the minimal necessary for them to coexist. This is all the Egalitarianism that Classical Liberalism can provide.

Notwithstanding, there is an enormous advantage of Classical Liberalism on Egalitarianism about this issue: Classical Liberalism judges every individual plan of life only at a very general and abstract degree (do not kill anyone but in self defense; do not coerce liberty of locomotion of anyone, and so on). On the other hand, Egalitarianism needs to qualify the legitimacy of every individual plan of life in accordance to a particular scale of merit on which there is no guaranteed consensus.

But let us suppose that, due to “the veil of ignorance” which we were behind, we might reasonably agree on a particular scale of merit in order to judge the legitimate limits between each personal plan. We reasonably accepted some particular restrictions in our property and liberty in order to proceed to the redistribution of wealth regulated by the system we agreed on when we were “behind the veil of ignorance”. The problem is that we had accepted an Egalitarian system behind the veil of ignorance, but we formed our personal plans and expectancies when later unveiled.

If this is so, we may expect of every Egalitarian system to be unstable. We are in serious trouble when this instability is attributed not to a lack of freedom, but to an absence of regulation –and that is how markets become both accused of being the oppressing iron cage of liberty and the chaos. The other way is to regard each plan of life as intrinsic valuable as far as it does not interfere with basic aspects of other’s. It is true that expectancies are made from perceptions and that sometimes the system works as the tale of the fox and the grapes. But, at least, every individual will be full responsible not of his chance but of what he does with it. That is a right to fight for: not equality, not even prosperity, but the right to be responsible for one’s own days.