La escasez habanera

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La escasez habanera es única en el mundo. Se evidencia en que carecen de la amargura para vivir frustrados llorando la causalidad ante-bajo-de-desde-en-entre-hacia-para-sobre-tras el sistema económico global. Porque la escasez de las conversaciones habaneras carece de la auto complacencia que pulula ante-bajo-con-de-en-entre-por-tras aquellas sociedades donde la moda actúa como el soma en las mentes de la juventud. Porque la escasez de-desde-en-entre-por-según-tras sus cuerpos se expresa en los escasos músculos que no mueven cuando bailan al ritmo de la salsa en las casas, calles y avenidas de la ciudad. Porque la escasez de-desde-en-entre-por-según-sobre-tras sus memorias se refleja en las mentes soñadoras de una juventud que crece sin memorizar historias de treguas y derrotas ante el imperialismo que derrotó a cada uno de los países vecinos.

Y es que, tal parece, solo afuera de La Habana es la escasez definida por los diccionarios como una causa-efecto negativos ante-con-de-desde-en-entre-hacia-por-según-tras las relaciones humanas.

Libertarians and World Government, Part 3

I have briefly blogged about the problem libertarians face when confronted with world government and the inherent internationalism of their creed before (here and here), but none of those musings were as deep as I’d have liked them to be. I think I have a better understanding of this puzzle now, and therefore you’re gonna get a longer than usual post.

First up is the task of confronting the skepticism of all government that comes from most American libertarians. This is a skepticism that becomes all the more hostile as the level of government rises. So, for example, many libertarians are contemptuous of local government but don’t mind it all that much. This contemptuousness rises a little when the next level of government is involved: that of the administrative unit (in the US this is known as a “state” for reasons I hope to explain a little further below; elsewhere the administrative unit is usually known as a “province”). When the federal government is involved, in US politics, the libertarian becomes deeply suspicious and hostile to its intents and actions. Much of this is warranted, of course, and the American libertarian usually allows the federal level of government room to maneuver in matters of foreign policy and the courts (the two legitimate functions of the state).

When a level of governance rises up any further than that, though, to the regional level (NAFTA, CAFTA, etc.) or the supranational level (the UN, World Bank, EU, etc.), the animosity displayed towards government is vicious and reactionary rather than thoughtful and penetrating. Again, much of this is warranted, as these levels of governance usually act beyond the scope of democracy and seem only to serve the interests of those who belong to the regional and supranational organizations (unelected – i.e. politically appointed – bureaucrats). The nature of these “higher levels” of government is the main reason the patron saints of modern-day libertarians – the interwar economist Ludwig von Mises and the legal philosopher FA Hayek chief among them – were highly critical of the creation of these organizations (as well as the short-lived League of Nations).

It does not follow, however, that the inter- and post-war libertarians disavowed the earlier writings of classical liberals on world government. Indeed, Ludwig von Mises himself, in his 1927 book Liberalism (pdf), observed:

Just as, in the eyes of the liberal, the state is not the highest ideal, so it is also not the best apparatus of compulsion. The metaphysical theory of the state declares—approaching, in this respect, the vanity and presumption of the absolute monarchs—that each individual state is sovereign, i.e., that it represents the last and highest court of appeals. But, for the liberal, the world does not end at the borders of the state. In his eyes, whatever significance national boundaries have is only incidental and subordinate. His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind. The starting-point of his entire political philosophy is the conviction that the division of labor is international and not merely national. He realizes from the very first that it is not sufficient to establish peace within each country, that it is much more important that all nations live at peace with one another. The liberal therefore demands that the political organization of society be extended until it reaches its culmination in a world state that unites all nations on an equal basis. For this reason he sees the law of each nation as subordinate to international law, and that is why he demands supranational tribunals and administrative authorities to assure peace among nations in the same way that the judicial and executive organs of each country are charged with the maintenance of peace within its own territory.

For a long time the demand for the establishment of such a supranational world organization was confined to a few thinkers who were considered utopians and went unheeded. To be sure, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the world repeatedly witnessed the spectacle of the statesmen of the leading powers gathered around the conference table to arrive at a common accord, and after the middle of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of supranational institutions were established, the most widely noted of which are the Red Cross and the International Postal Union. Yet all of this was still a very far cry from the creation of a genuine supranational organization. Even the Hague Peace Conference signified hardly any progress in this respect. It was only the horrors of the World War that first made it possible to win widespread support for the idea of an organization of all nations that would be in a position to prevent future conflicts. (147-148)

What Mises and other interwar liberals missed in regards to establishing a supranational state is the very nature of the US constitution. Interwar liberals were more interested in pointing out the blatant inconsistencies of the multilateral institutions being erected after the war than they were with elaborating upon the idea of a world state. My guess is that they viewed the world state as too far out of reach for their goals at the time, and thus fell back on the ‘balance of power’ option (pdf) that was still popular among liberals at the time. The US constitution is, at its core, a pact between sovereign states to join together politically for the mutual self-interests of foreign affairs and legal standardization (a standardization that is very minimal, as it allows for plenty of flexibility and competition).

This pact, aside from explaining why US administrative units are known as ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,’ is the key to slowly building a world state that is both representative and liberal (in that it exists to protect the rights of individuals first and foremost).

One of the biggest weaknesses of the US constitution to date is its inability to expand upon the notion that it is a legal charter outlining the duties of a supranational organization. Creating a mechanism that allows for the recognition of foreign provinces  as US member states by incorporating them into the federal apparatus would be a step in the right direction. This mechanism would obviously have to be slowed down in some way. It would have to be approved, for example, by two-thirds of all state legislatures (Utah and California say ‘Yes’ while Georgia says ‘No’) as well as two-thirds of both legislative bodies in the federal government (67% ‘Yes’ vote from both the House and the Senate).

There would also have to be a mechanism allowing for states in the federal union to exit if they so pleased (again in a way that is slow and deliberate so that as many factions as possible could have their voices heard). Contra to some musings by paleolibertarians here in the US, the constitution and the Bill of Rights actually has a sophisticated method of dealing with intrastate conflict within its sphere of jurisdiction; secession is allowed between states, as is the merging of two or more states, although secession from the federal government is so far prohibited (this failing would also have to be addressed before a world state could be contemplated).

It seems to me that the US has practiced unpolished versions of my argument in the past. Texas, for example, seceded from Mexico before becoming a US “state” through annexation.

Does any of this make sense, or do I just sound like a mad man?

Capitalism for the Intelligent but Ignorant – Part One: the Constraints

Originally posted on FACTS MATTER:

First, the obvious that hardly anyone talks about: If you have not taken at least two good courses in economics, it’s not likely that you understand even the basics of capitalism. If you have, when you were 19 and suffering from severe testosterone poisoning (male or female) it’s still likely that you don’t understand much. There are exceptions: It’s possible to teach oneself through assiduous reading of a good newspaper such as the Wall Street Journal. I don’t know how many people do this although I did, to a large extent. It took me about ten years.

Don’t blame yourself at all. Capitalism is a topic that should be taught every year throughout junior and senior high school. It never is. Also teachers of introductory economics often do a very bad job of it for reasons we need not go into here. A few do more harm than good…

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Scotland, Nation, and Liberty

As I start writing voting is coming to an end in Scotland with regard to a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are those in Cornwall, a peninsula on the extreme south-west of England who argue that is should be represented as an entity on  level with those four components of the UK, as it was regarded as distinct from England into the sixteenth century, never having being properly incorporated into Roman Britannia or Anglo-Saxon Wessex (the Old English kingdom in the south west, which became the nucleus of the Medieval English state).

From the 10th century onwards Anglo-Saxon kings asserted supremacy over Scotland with varying degrees of success in obtaining some recognition of overlordship from Scottish kings. Wars between Scotland and England led to victory for Scotland in the fourteenth century when the English monarchy ended attempts to use force to demand Scottish subordination, or even incorporation of Scotland, and European states accepted Scotland as a sovereign entity. In the early seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless so that the heir to the English crown was King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. He moved his court from Edinburgh to London, and pushed for the union of two kingdoms in his person to become a state union of England and Scotland as Great Britain. (At this time, Wales was treated as a part of England.)

The English Parliament resisted the creation of Great Britain, but by the early eighteenth century there was mutual interest in the trade and economic advantages of state union with accompany reductions on trade barriers, particularly after the failure of a brief attempt at Scottish empire building in Central America.  An Act of Union was passed by the English Parliament in 1707 and then by the Scottish Parliament in 1708, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. It also left in place major differences in laws, the legal system, education, and the state church, which have lasted until the present day.

Before the personal union of Scotland and England under James VI/I, Scotland itself went through a process of internal integration, or colonisation of the peripheral regions by the centre, as all nations have. This included the 1493  abolition of the Lord of the Isles, which indicated sovereignty over an area covering the highland and island areas of Scotland, and which has a complex history in relation to all the neighbouring powers. The incorporation  of that region, what could easily have been a separate sovereign nation if history had gone a bit differently, was not completed until 1745, that is after the Act of Union, when a British army destroyed an attempted restoration of the Stuart family of James VI/I. The attempted restoration is known as the Jacobite Rebellion. Jacobite refers to the latinised form of James, in honour of James II, who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 due to his Catholic religion, fears that he was attempting to enforce that religion as a state church instead of the existing Protestant established church, and fears that he was creating an absolute monarchy with a decorative role only for Parliament.

The Jacobite  Rebellion itself divided Scotland between the traditional semi-feudal highland chiefs and the commercial world of the Lowlands. As a consequence of the failure of the Rebellion, British law was enforced fully for the first time beyond the Highland line, while restrictions were placed of Highland customs, clothing, and language. The language of the Highlands was Gaelic (a Celtic language relate to Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton).   This was the triumph of the Scots (a dialect of English, or a language which is very close to English depending on point of view) and English speaking Lowlanders and the end of the process initiated by the early Stuart overthrow of the Lords of the Isles.

The United Kingdom was formed by the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament. Most of Ireland left to form what is now the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, but Northern Ireland remained, now with its own parliament, which is why there is still a UK, not just Great Britain.

All this history is to indicate the long historical nature and the complexity of the  relations between England and Scotland, with regard to sovereignty, identity, and so on. Scotland like England was itself a work in progress before union, and the integration of Scotland into what might be taken as a single nation, was completed over one hundred years after the Act of Union, over two hundred years after the union of crowns, under the leadership of the British crown, which at that time was unified with the German princedom of Hanover.

Scotland was never assimilated into England, even when there was no parliament, and Scotland has always been distinct from England than Wales in at least two respects:

  1. there is a higher proportion of trade within Scotland than with England, than of internal Welsh trading activity compared with trade with England;
  2. Wales’s contact with urban centres is just as much with the nearby English cities of Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool as with its own cities (principally Swansea and Cardiff) while Scotland is very focused on its own cities (principally Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, Wales is more distinct from England in language since twenty per cent  speak Welsh fluently, everyone studies Welsh at school, and Wales is officially bilingual, even gesturing towards Welsh language priority. Gaelic speakers are about one per cent of the Scottish population.

The Welsh-Scottish comparison serves to show that ways of assessing national identity and distinctness vary and that there is no one way of evaluating this, so there can be no one institutional and political strategy for accommodating national differences within a state. The level and intensity of Scottish distinctness and identity has amounted to a nation now divided almost exactly down the middle about whether it wishes to separate from the UK.

This is not just an issue of identity though, as a large part of the Scottish independence vote is based on a belief that Scotland is egalitarian, welfarist, communal, social democratic, or even socialist, in comparison with England and that the countries are polar opposites on these issues. Another part of support for independence is the hope that North Sea oil will bring more benefit to Scotland if a Scottish government is collecting the tax revenue, accompanied by the belief that taxation at the UK level is some kind of resource theft.

Building on the historical, political, and institutional account above, what conclusions am I drawing? The first thing to state is of course that Scotland has every right to leave the UK if it so wishes, that it is a good thing that a referendum is being held to test what Scots want, and that if independence is what is wanted, then the government of the residual UK use must take a positive and co-operative approach to the departure of Scotland.

However, I certainly don’t believe that Scotland should separate. Part of that is the emotional patriotism of an Englishman, call it nationalism no problem, based on centuries of shared enterprise and struggle, good (the defeat of National Socialist Germany) and bad (imperialism). The Scots took a disproportionately large part in the trading, colonising, and military aspects of that joint history, and during that history many Scots went to England and became part of English society, John Stuart Mill’s father is a notable example. One of the great flourishing moments of that history was the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others, which always involved education, travel, and interaction in England as well as Scotland.

Why peace behind centuries of joint enterprise in which despite centralising processes, differences of identity and in institutions proved to be compatible with the growth of commercial society, civil society, liberty under law, parliamentary government, science and culture, and the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism.

There’s  a lot for liberty advocates to admire there, without denying that a lot of worse things happened as well, and surely we should be disposed to favour building on that rather than destroying it. Many liberty advocates have a preference for small nations where maybe there is more chance of intelligent laws and policies, less remote from everyday reality and individual understanding of particular realities.

I can only agree with the provision that such a result can be achieved through forms of federalism which are decentralising rather than centralising so that the federal centre is largely responsible for trade, foreign and defence policy, and the lower region and national levels do everything else in an innovative, flexible, diverse, and competitive way.

There is still some benefit in the UK remaining as a unified power for defence and military purposes. It is would not be good from a liberty point of view for a country that in its military budget and capacities, its diplomatic and transnational weight, is still a match for nearly all the major powers. The UK whatever its faults is one of the more liberty  oriented parts of the world, and no good would come from lessening its strategic and diplomatic weight. Of course those liberty advocates who prefer very neutralist and almost pacifist attitudes to international relations will not be impressed, but we live in a world where states with low levels of inner liberty and little respect for the rights of others exist, and should be at least matched by powers that are more liberty oriented at home and more respectful of the rights in the international sphere. The role of liberal democracies has not always been admirable in this sphere, but better those errors than unchecked aggression from authoritarian states.

The institutions of liberty are more likely to flourish in democratic states, where a multiplicity of national and regional identities flourish, than in attempts to break away based on some inclination, of some degree of intensity, that singular national identity is better than multiplicity and that national identity needs unrestrained state sovereignty. In the particular case of Scotland, the Scottish National Party, and others for independence, are relying on the dream of a more socialist country where ‘Scottish’ oil is protected from the English to fund an expanding state, without having a plausible explanation for the currency to be used on independence, or any sense of reality about how international markets testing the prudence of a new state are likely to drive it towards high interest rates and displays of deficit reduction.

The political consequences of a subsequent disillusion with social democratic dreams mingled with existing  assumptions of a morally superior Scottish community, and related anti-English feeling, in economically disruptive circumstances could be most severe and disturbing. Even on a more optimistic assumption about the future in which Scotland moves smoothly into a more social democratic future, nothing is gained from a pro-liberty point of view. Pro-liberty commentators who think that because Hume and Smith were Scots that an independent Scotland will be guided by Enlightenment classical liberalism have completely lost the plot.

A Letter to Stuff You Should Know

SYSK recently published a podcast introducing the idea of socialism. Below is my open letter to them.


Hey guys,

I love your podcast but was bracing myself for the socialism episode (I’m an economist interested in the socialist calculation debate, I’m no expert but many economists don’t even know about this debate). You guys did a great job discussing socialism and I was pleasantly surprised. Most people think “socialism can’t work because people will be lazy” but you rightly pointed out that gulags are a strong motivator and the real problem was a sluggish adaptation to changing conditions due to a non-spontaneous price system.

Some clarifying points:

  • In economics socialism is defined as centralized control of the means of production (e.g. TV factories, but not necessarily TV sets). A socialist economy is one that takes this to its limit and as far as I know has only existed in Russia between 1918 and 1921.
  • In 1920 Ludwig von Mises wrote Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. Prior to this point the official socialist stand was essentially, “1. Capitalism lays the foundations for socialism. 2. ??? 3. Utopia!” Socialists had never described how socialism would solve economic problems (what to produce, where, by whom, for whom, etc.). Mises pointed out that those issues are solved automatically by the working of unfettered markets that match incentives with information. If the price of steel is $X/ton that tells buyers “you’d better feel pretty confident that you can use this steel to create something more valuable than that,” while telling sellers “the resources you are using would be better used elsewhere in the market if you can’t keep your cost below $X/ton.”
  • (This is expressed eloquently by Hayek’s 1945 article, The Use of Knowledge in Society.
  • Market socialism is a system where a socialist economy sets up pseudo-markets. So Josh and Chuck are each put in charge of a plant that makes shoes and each has to get the required leather. In theory they have to compete to get leather (just like in real markets) and that competition provides information about competing uses of different inputs. But if Josh turns a profit he doesn’t get to keep it for himself and if Chuck makes a loss he can’t go bankrupt (though he could get sent to the gulags). This sort of system was proposed in response to Mises’ 1920 article. This is when socialists started actually coming up with a theory of socialism (how it could work to allocate resources so that benefits exceed opportunity costs).

Here’s a great read that covers the essentials of this issue: National Economic Planning: What is Left. It boils down to this: without private property and rule of law (i.e. a situation where the “king” can’t arbitrarily interfere with people’s plans and has to follow the same universal rules as everyone else) there can’t be markets with profits and losses. Without that there can’t be prices that incorporate all the information, which is scattered and often tacit (i.e. non-reportable), relevant to economic decisions. Without those prices it becomes impossible for central planners to know the opportunity costs of their actions and so they cannot make economic decisions that are rational (i.e. weigh benefits to consumers against costs to producers). This is true even if we assume perfectly altruistic and motivated “New Soviet Man” and benevolent dictators.

Without markets central planners are groping in the dark. With markets there are no longer central planners.

Thanks for making my commute more enjoyable!

Your fan,
Rick

Why cash is beautiful

If you had $20 to spend, what would you get? Would it be the bottle of wine a guest brought to the dinner party you invited her to? No? It cost her $20, but you wanted it less than the jar of Nutella and very nice glass of whisky you bought with the last $20 you spent. Economists recognize that that gift was inefficient. She took $20 and turned it into something worth less than $20 by making it a gift for you. And you’ll do the same when she invites you over for dinner.

You agree with me, but you feel like something is fishy. I’m tricking you somehow maybe, but certainly you won’t bring an AJ with you the next time a friend invites you to a party. And you’d be disturbed if they did the same to you. A gift is just more thoughtful.

This was a common theme from my students listened to an Econtalk podcast. But I disagree with that assessment. Not as an economist (from which position I also disagree), but as a sociable person, from an aesthetic position. Cash is beautiful. When you give me a twenty dollar bill you are giving me the sweat of your brow to buy anything my heart desires. And what I receive may very well spare me the sweat of my own brow to meet my own needs. A bottle of wine is thoughtful, but cash gives me access to time and time is the most precious commodity.

Most people, when receiving a gift, would be happier with something that is less valuable to them than they would getting access to anything they want or need via a cash gift. And frankly, I’d rather try to convince them that I wronged them by not giving them cash over a bottle of wine over a bottle of wine. So the next time I go to a party I’ll bring a gift and not cash. At least if that party’s hosted by “civilians”. Economists I’ll just give cash… I’m not sure if that implies I like them more or less.

A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

After a few busy days at the office I finally have the time to take up Brandon’s challenge and write a few lines about interventions in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as Brandon writes in some of the comments the basic classical liberal and liberal position is that interventions are a bad idea. They are a breach of the sovereignty of other states, and rarely achieve their goals. Military interventions upset the international order and the international and regional balances of power, and open the door to all kinds of counter-interventions. They are especially prone to failure when their goals are extensive, such as a desire to construct democracy in countries without democratic traditions. This is an act of rationalist constructivism, long associated with communism and socialism rather than liberalism.

Whether all interventions also weaken and possibly destabilize the intervening power, as some libertarians (and Brandon) claim is another matter. This surely depends on so many other variables that it is hard to take as a general rule. Indeed, to welcome a Chinese intervention to fight ISIS/ISIL in the expectation this would seriously weaken authoritarian China (again see Brandon’s thought provoking blog a few days ago) seems a few bridges too far.

Still, it is too simple to rule out all interventions, in all circumstances. While a duty to intervene cannot easily be defended, the right to intervention is a different matter altogether. For example, while generally opposed to military interventions for humanitarian purposes, David Hume and Adam Smith did allow prudent political leaders to intervene. Hardly ever for humanitarian reasons, but for reasons of state. Important principles they embraced, for example found in the work of Hugo Grotius, were the rights to punishment, retaliation, preventive action, the protection of property rights and the protection of subjects against other countries.

Applying the wisdom of the Scots to our current world does open the door for some military action by the West against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. For the US and Britain, the beheadings of their subjects are clear reasons for action. Also, ISIL clearly upsets the fragile regional balance of power, where the West has a clear stake given the recent intervention in Iraq (regardless what one thinks of that intervention, but that is all water under the bridge). Also, ISIL’s state formation is not a case of regular secession which libertarians may sympathize with. While it has its supporters, this is mainly a  case of state formation at gun point, against the will of most people inhabiting the land controlled by ISIL.

Of course, this does not mean President Obama’s plan is going to succeed. While military action may kill many of the ISIL leaders and perhaps ultimately minimize its military capacity, it seems highly unlikely that foreign intervention is able to eradicate ISIL. After all, interventions do not change the mindsets of people. Surely, this ideology will remain with us, in one form or the other. That is no reason to abstain from intervention, yet it is a reason to set clear and limited goals, and to be honest and modest about its inevitably limited long term effects.

On Conspiracies and Immigration Reform

Late last month I asked a simple question, what does the Obama administration hope to accomplish in regards to immigration? I answered that its goal was not to reform the United States immigration system unilaterally, but to use executive action to force Congress into acting.

My prediction turned out to be correct. The administration had initially planned to announce executive actions meant to provide relief from deportation for many of the country’s illegal alien population and to make legal migration easier after the Labor Day weekend. ‘Had’ is the key word here. In its latest series of press conferences the administration has pushed back the announcement till year’s end.

Why did the administration push back its announcement? Partly because the administration doesn’t really want to issue executive actions – it merely wants to use the threat of executive action. Some opponents of the current administration, including libertarians, envision the executive branch as having unlimited powers but the truth is that the administration has all too real limits to its powers. Members of the President’s own party lobbied for the postponement in fear that a radical change in immigration policy will cause them to lose their upcoming elections.

The state is not a monolithic beast with a single mind. Rather it is composed of several competing factions who are nonetheless united in their shared goal of maintaining a functioning order. The state is usually seen as the antithesis of the market, but I think this a wrong way to think. The state is itself a product of spontaneous order and better thought of as an example of how human cooperation can do great harm.

What this means is that the Obama administration must first secure its hold over its own party before it can duke it with other factions within the state apparatus.

It also means that conspiracy theories, of the like discussed in the comments section of my last post, are unlikely. It is true that ‘open borders’ could be used to rob the United States of its sovereignty in favor of creating a larger transnational state in its favor. However it is unclear why Obama and his allies, as individuals, should wish to see the creation of a new state unless they were assured they would be leaders in it. The creation of a new state is no small feat and usually requires a long time horizon.

Monarchs of the past could afford to undergo the long process because they were assured that even if they themselves did not live to see their creations their children would. Obama has no such assurance; in a few years he will vacate the White House and go into retirement. As a matter of tradition Obama, as most US Presidents have, will leave electoral politics. He may lend his support to some charitable cause, but he will never again be active in day to day politics. His incentives are as such to maintain the United States as strong as possible to preserve his legacy.

Who then does have the incentive to see the creation of a new state? Presumably it would have to be a faction in the current state apparatus that has some power but has been relegated to a position where they cannot expect to rise any further. In times of old this would be a Duke who, although strong, could not expect to see himself made King under the current regime because of one reason or another.

Which faction could fit the bill today? The Democrats? No. As noted above, current Democrats would not be assured of their involvement in a new state and would not risk their current power given their short time horizon. The Republicans? No. The Republican Party is believed by many to be destined to become a permanent minority party at the national level, but for the foreseeable future it still has enough sway to win a healthy amount of seats in Congress and could very well win the Presidency under a charismatic candidate. Even if the Republican Party is destined to become a minority party, why would it want a stronger state replace the US? It anything it should want the south and western mountain states to secede so that it could continue to influence national politics, albeit in a new nation. What about Hawaii? The far flung state owes its political union with the US to an overthrow of its indigenous monarchy. It may harbor some desire to regain its independence, but it is unclear why it would want to see the US by a larger state still. If anything the rebellious factions in the US should desire to break up, not increase, the current state.

By no means should I be seen as saying that conspiracies cannot be in play. I simply do not see the necessary incentives for a conspiracy to arise that would wish to see the United States replaced by a transnational state.

Let us compare this with the European Union, a new state in the process of being formed from the remnants of the previously separate European countries. As many observers have noted previously, it is hard not to notice that the European Union is effectively a new German Reich. Germany was unable to secure an empire on the continent using arms, but it has been immensely successful in winning its empire through commerce. German politicians and their bureaucrat allies have a clear incentive to see the continued rise of the EU, but even here there are rival factions who oppose them. One wonders if euroskepticism in the United Kingdom is truly because the British people oppose the EU or because Germany and its allies, and not the UK, will be the center of power in the new state?

From the Comments: Western Military Intervention and the Reductio ad Hitlerum

Dr Khawaja makes an excellent point in the threads of my post the libertarianism of ISIS:

As for the Hitler comparison, I think that issue really needs to be opened and discussed from scratch. One relatively superficial problem with the Hitler/ISIS analogy is that ISIS is not plausibly regarded as the threat to us that Nazi Germany was, or could have been. But at a deeper level: instead of regarding war with Nazi Germany as beyond question, we ought to be able to ask the question why it was necessary to go to war with them. Once we grasp that nettle, I think the Hitler comparisons really lead in one of three directions: either they show us how different the Nazi regime was from ISIS, or they cast doubt on the “need” to fight the Nazis in the first place, or they prove that we “had” to fight the Nazis only because we put ourselves on a path that made fighting inevitable. But we shouldn’t walk around with the axiom that if x resembles the Nazis, well, then we better fight x…or else we’re dishonoring our forbears. Which is about the level of neo-conservative discussion on this topic.

The reason why we went to war with Nazi Germany is that the Nazis (credibly) declared war on us after we declared war on Japan–after Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor (after we challenged Japanese imperialism in East Asia…etc.). Granted, there was naval warfare in the Atlantic before December 1941, but we might have avoided that by not supporting Britain (and the USSR) against the Nazis in the first place. War with the Nazis became an inevitability because of our prior involvement in a European quarrel, not because of the unique turpitude of the Nazis (much less because of the Holocaust). I don’t mean to deny that the Nazis were uniquely evil. I mean: that’s not why we fought. The reasons we fought were highly contingent, and might, given different contingencies, have led to not fighting at all.

The preceding suggestion seems off-limits to some, but I don’t think it is. Suppose we had not supported Britain in 1940-41, not had a Lend-Lease program (“An Act to Further Promote the Defense of the United States”), and the Nazis had not declared war on us after Pearl Harbor. Was war with them necessary or obligatory? I don’t see why. If we could go decades without hot war with the USSR or China, why not adopt a similar policy vis-a-vis Germany? (Yes, Korea involved some hot war with China, but my point is: we could have avoided that, too.) And if there is no good case for war with the Nazis under a consistently isolationist policy, the Hitler comparisons in the ISIS case are worse than useless.

What we have in the ISIS case is just an exaggerated version of the “inevitabilities” that got us into war with Germany. By overthrowing Saddam Hussein, we ourselves created the path dependency that gives the illusion of requiring war against ISIS as a further “correction.” In that sense, the Hitler comparison is quite apt, but entails the opposite of what the hawks believe. We’re being led to war to correct the disasters created by the last war, themselves intended to correct the problems of the war before. Isn’t it time to stop digging? Perhaps we shouldn’t have gotten onto any of these paths. The best way to avoid traveling down the highway to hell is to take an exit ramp and get the hell off while you still can. Not that you’re disagreeing, I realize.

Indeed. Be sure to check out Dr Khawaja’s blog, too (I tacked it on to our blogroll as well). My only thoughts are additions, specifically to Irfan’s point about taking an exit ramp. I don’t think there are enough libertarians talking about exit ramps. There are plenty of reactions from libertarians to proposals put forth by interventionists, but there are precious few alternatives being forth by libertarians. Dr van de Haar’s (very good) point about alliances is one such alternative. (I wish he would blog more about this topic!) Another option is to initiate deeper political and economic ties with each other (through agreements like political federations or trading confederations). Libertarians rarely write or talk about realistic alternatives to military intervention, especially American ones.

Fairy Dust and the National Interest: Squaring the Round Humanitarian Peg

This is a further continuation of my explanation for how post-colonial societies operate and how Western military intervention makes bad situations worse in these areas of the world. Last time I wrote of the general factions that exist in the post-colonial world using the state of Syria as a case study. Again, the explanation put forth here can be applied to any poor country that was created from the ashes of European imperialism, and can be used as a stepping stone for understanding how politics works in rich, industrialized states.

Often, when one reads a tract advocating military intervention overseas, you will come across the ambiguous catchphrase “National Interest.” Social scientists and historians generally define a state’s “national interest” as _____ (fill in the blank with whatever pet policy you favor). A national interest can sometimes be used to override constitutional protections guaranteed to citizens of a state in the name of security. It can also be used to justify protectionist policies, or to justify free trade policies. In general, the national interest is an excuse for a policy or set of policies that should be taken in order to strengthen a state and its citizens (but not necessarily strengthen a state relative to other states; see Delacroix on American exceptionalism for more on this subject).

Proponents of Western military intervention in Syria seem to think that arming the weakest trifecta in the Syrian conflict – the anti-Assad national socialists – will help to stop the violence there. Thus they couch their calls for military intervention in the language of humanitarianism. Here is the rub, though: Proponents of Western military intervention in Syria believe it is also in the national interest of the United States. If the US does nothing militarily, then Russia and Iran will seize on Washington’s doting and become more powerful at the West’s expense.

Let me take a step back for moment.

  • Military interventionists seem to believe that arming the anti-Assad national socialists will prevent al-Qaeda from getting their hands on American weapons.
  • Other military interventionists seem to believe that arming the anti-Assad national socialists will prevent bloodshed.

Both – if you will notice – have not dared to elaborate upon their arguments on these two points. Both refuse to think or to talk about the implications of their policies. Both believe that their good intentions – and the good intentions of the Obama regime – are enough to stop the civil war.

In all fairness, many proponents of intervention – at least on the Right – have admitted to having at least one other motive for imperialism aside from humanitarianism: that of US national interest.

However, once the implications for a US national interest are drawn out, readers will see that these “national interests” are directly at odds with the humanitarianism hawks have been relying upon to justify their preferred policies. Here is the question I want you to keep in the back of your minds as I spell out the implications of the “national interest” argument: If the excuses for military intervention are indeed contradictory, and I think you will find them to be, is incompetence or dishonesty to blame?

The national interest angle has nothing to do with Americans or Syrians, and everything to do with Iran and, to a lesser extent, Russia. The latter two help fund the Assad regime. The Assad regime has virtually won the civil war. To the interventionist, this means that Iran and Russia have won the civil war, too, and at the expense of the West.

Therefore, the West should arm not the strongest contender (the Islamists) but the weakest of the trifecta (the anti-Assad national socialists), in order to prevent Assad’s total victory.

Makes sense, right?

Let me rephrase the goals of military interventionists who claim to be advocating policies in “our” interest in a way that is a bit more blunt: instead of letting the Assad regime win (which would stop the bloodshed), hawks want to arm the weakest rebel factions in order to keep the Assad regime from winning outright (which will guarantee more bloodshed). The implications of such a policy are squarely at odds with the supposed “humanitarian” intuition that interventionists shield their desires with.

How, exactly, does a prolonged conflict in Syria enhance US national interests?

And how, exactly, does a prolonged conflict square with the “humanitarian” desires of military interventionists?

Let me be clear: I think the contradictory arguments of military interventionists are entirely subconscious. They don’t think about the implications of their arguments because they believe that there is really no need to. When you are on the side of righteousness, of law, and of power, why think about implications? If none of those things will make the world a better place, then just sprinkle some fairy dust on every (oft-repeated) policy and watch as things turn out different this time.

I think the criticism of American libertarians and their lack of depth foreign policy-wise is a good one. This lack of sophistication is not brought up often enough. I think Dr van de Haar and Dr Delacroix are doing everybody an important service when they do bring it up (Delacroix’s penchant for strawmanning notwithstanding). And yet, a lack of depth or sophistication is not a bad problem to have; faced with whether their governments should support national socialists (such as Assad), Islamists (such as ISIS), or none of the above, American libertarians come out looking fairly good (so, too, does Syrian society). Libertarian hawks on the other hand, when presented with the same set of choices (national socialists, Islamists, or none of the above), tend to change the subject instead of giving a direct answer.

Fairy dust used in a good fairy tale is one thing. Fairy dust used as an excuse for real life policies is quite another.

Humanitarian Wars and the Political Factions of the Arab World: A Concise Primer

Take this as you will. You know where the ‘comments’ section is, and we could probably learn more together by arguing than we could by reading my informal musings.

Humanitarian war, justified theoretically and morally by the Responsibility To Protect doctrine (R2P) , has become the go-to excuse for military action by hawks on both the Left and the Right in the West for the past 20 years or so. Humanitarianism as an excuse for war has been around for as long as humans have, and it has been going in and out of fashion for just as long, but since the end of the Cold War it has become prominent in all the right circles again.

The first thing careful readers will notice about R2P proponents is their seeming inability to consider the fact that their overtly political goal is couched in the language of humanitarianism rather than for the purely political purpose that it actually is. This is entirely subconscious, which makes it all the more dangerous because proponents of R2P truly believes that what they state is pure and noble.

Is it not true that, by definition, anything the government does is the essence of the political?

Perhaps I am being unkind to advocates of R2P. Perhaps I am simply knocking down a straw man. I hope advocates will lay down a better, preferably more concise, definition for me in the ‘comments’ threads. Yet when people have such strong beliefs in their own intuitions that they actually call for a government to enforce those intuitions at all costs, how can I not be unkind?  My freedom is at stake whenever good intentions are used to empower others.

At any rate, it’s finally time to explain how factions in the post-colonial world operate. This explanation is geared toward both conservatives, Leftists, and uninitiated libertarians, and will use Syria as an informal case study. Once you grasp the principles behind my argument (and feel free to use the ‘comments’ section to flesh out any fuzziness) you can easily apply them to anywhere in the post-colonial world. You can also use these principles to better understand how politics in rich, industrialized states actually work.

I’m going to do this by quickly detailing the main factions involved in the Syrian conflict and then delving into the implications of arming one side and bombing the other, as the Obama administration has been doing.

First up is the Assad regime itself. Despite the violent protests that stared us in the face at the beginning of the upheavals in Syria, the Assad regime actually enjoys a fairly broad base of support. The regime is Ba’athist, like the Hussein regime in Iraq, and as such enjoys support from secularists, educated women, the business class, socialists, the military, religious minorities (Christian and non-Sunni Muslim) , labor unions, ethnic minorities and the professional class (lawyers, doctors, engineers and academics). These are the classes that believe that state can be wielded to further it noble ends (which includes secularizing all of Syrian society and raising the standards of living of all Syrians). The term used to describe such a conglomerate is ‘national socialist’.

Prior to the start of the civil war in Syria, the Assad regime faced a two-pronged attack from would-be reformers. As with everywhere else in the world – from Greece to Brazil to China to the United States* – Syria is facing social unrest.

One of these dissenting prongs – the weaker of the two – is composed of secularists, educated women, the business class, socialists, the military, labor unions, ethnic minorities and the professional class. You read that correctly: opposition to the Assad regime had, prior to the civil war, come from other national socialists dissatisfied with the status quo. It is this second group of national socialists that Leftists and conservatives wish to arm. Aside from the massive amounts of fairy dust such a program would require, what do R2P advocates think they would accomplish by replacing one batch of national socialists with another?

I am digressing. The second of the prongs (the more powerful one) is made up of various Islamist groups, including many branches of al-Qaeda. This faction is conservative and largely dominated by young, Arab and Sunni Muslims. Because of its religious flavor, this faction is dominated by actual peasants or the lumpenproletariat and is run by a parochial and decentralized leadership. It gets its funding from the brutal Arab Gulf regimes (which are, in turn, protected by the American state). Due to the very nature of the national socialist economy, a large population of very poor people dominates the demographic landscape of Syrian society today. GDP (PPP) per capita stood at about $5,101 in 2011.

Liberalism, the alternative to socialism and conservatism that advocates free trade, the rule of law and property rights, and individual liberty, does not exist in Syria today. It was murdered in its infancy by British and French imperialism.

When the shooting started – and we will, like the first Anglo-American War, never know who started the shooting – the national socialists opposing the Assad regime took one look at their potential allies (the Islamists) and either went crawling back to Damascus for protection or attempted to flee the country. Taking a long, slow look at the Islamists now fighting the Assad regime, it’s not hard to see why the national socialists marching against Assad took the routes that they did.

So, ideologically, there are only conservatives and socialists competing for hearts and minds in Syria. Liberals simply emigrate to the West. Letting the post-colonial world devolve into smaller and smaller political units would limit conflicts and casualties, but the road to a peaceful and prosperous Middle East is going to be a long, hard haul without  way to re-introduce liberalism into the region (Jacques has put forth a doable proposal, as has Rick, but my own is too ambitious).

* I mention this only because there is a small faction in American politics trying to argue that the Arab Spring is a direct product of the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. It is not. The unrest around the world is due to the inherent failures of the post-war economic consensus (which was anything but laissez-faire).

The New Caliphate in the Middle East: When Islamists experiment with libertarianism (and why the West should do the same)

Richard Epstein, the legal scholar and libertarian Republican known for his erudite wisdom in the fields of law and economics and tort law, has recently joined in the chorus of Right-wing critics attacking Senator Rand Paul (and President Obama) for arguing that the US government does not have enough information to carry out an attack or launch a military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and that further action on the part of Washington will only make things in the region worse rather than better.

Unfortunately, Epstein’s argument represents the best of what is essentially a quick-tempered fallacy that’s short on details and long on moral posturing. Epstein, for example, provides absolutely no outline for what action that US government should take against ISIS. Should the US bomb targets from afar as it has been doing in Pakistan? Should the US government put combat troops back on the ground in Iraq? Should the US invade Syria and strike ISIS from there? If you read carefully the arguments put forth by proponents of attacking ISIS, you’ll notice that none of them have an outline for what the US government should do about it (even the usually sharp Professor Epstein refrains from providing a coherent outline). Instead, readers are treated to ad hominem attacks that liken Senator Paul to the worst-possible person imaginable: the Big Government-loving Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, Barack Obama. Oh, the horror!

Epstein’s argument lays a great foundation for any starting point that discusses what a libertarian foreign policy should be. He writes:

Libertarian theory has always permitted the use and threat of force, including deadly force if need be, to defend one’s self, one’s property, and one’s friends. To be sure, no one is obligated to engage in humanitarian rescue of third persons, so that the decision to intervene is one that is necessarily governed by a mixture of moral and prudential principles. In addition, the justified use of force also raises hard questions of timing. In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal. In all cases, it is necessary to balance the risks of moving too early or too late.

Of course, none of this provides any helpful hints for what the US government can or should do going forward to deal with ISIS. Libertarians, like everybody else in the West save for a few disgruntled young Muslims, think that ISIS is morally bad. It does not follow, though, that the use of military force is the best (or even fifth-best) option going forward.

Unfortunately, many libertarians (though not Senator Paul) erroneously fall back on the fallacy that because the US government is unable to coherently attack ISIS (much less define it), Washington should simply adhere to a policy of non-intervention. So what follows is a modest proposal to implement a more libertarian foreign policy toward ISIS.

The interwar Austro-Jewish economist and one of libertarianism’s patron saints, Ludwig von Mises, wrote in his 1927 book Liberalism that:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars (109).

This observation – a basic tenet of libertarian political theory – ties in quite well with one stated goal of Islamist political theory, which seeks to partition the Sykes-Picot states of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon into smaller states in order to destroy the influence of Western “imperialists” in the Middle East. Lest detractors start accusing Islamists of being closet libertarians, it is worth noting that Islamists also seek to break all economic ties with the non-Muslim world in favor of an inter-regional protectionist union (to say nothing of Islamism’s views about religion and society).

The words of Mises summarize nicely not only where libertarians and Islamists can agree intellectually, but also points – if ever so subtly – to a new leadership position for a benevolent liberal hegemon like the United States to take up in an increasingly Balkanized world.

Instead of blindly attacking ISIS with no real plan in place, the West should temper the prudence of President Obama and Senator Paul with the libertarian notion of self-determination by recognizing the existence of the Islamic State and swiftly incorporating it into the existing IGOs – such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF – that the West has built up and maintained since the end of World War 2.

This policy would do much more than strike directly at the legitimacy and power of the authoritarian Assad and Maliki regimes by carving up their territories without their permission; it would also place the burden of governance directly upon the Islamists who have proclaimed an Islamic State.

ISIS has obtained power only because of the vacuum left behind by the Bush administration’s fatally flawed decision to remove regional strongman (and secularist) Saddam Hussein from power. ISIS has therefore had no responsibilities to date – despite its claim to govern territory – save to plunder and murder in the name of religion. Placing the burden of governance directly on the shoulders of ISIS would necessarily alter its foundation of power, and when it becomes apparent that Islamism’s political and economic theories leads directly to despotism and poverty, the benevolent liberal hegemon will be waiting to recognize the independence of regions within the Islamic State that aspire to independence or union with another state.

This policy would also shift the ability to make and enforce international rules and norms back to Washington and would bring a semblance of order to the Middle East by placing a benevolent liberal hegemon into a position of leadership that is capable of recognizing and engaging with the Arab public’s desire for liberty. A liberal hegemon could achieve much of this peacefully and legally.

It is unfortunate that many libertarians – especially in the United States – have adopted the reactionary stance of non-intervention in foreign affairs. Aside from being impossible, non-intervention is also inimical to libertarianism’s social individualism. In the same vein, the calls for military action and the personal attacks against politicians unwilling to act blindly in the realm of foreign affairs does more harm than good as it distracts citizens from focusing on the issue at hand: namely, what is to be done about ISIS. Senator Paul and President Obama have so far made the right decision, but unless Islamism is tackled directly – intellectually – the woes and fears of the West will only continue to mount.

It is time for the West to adopt a more libertarian foreign policy.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.

The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and  laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power.  Gaius Julius Caesar was  the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.

After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a  hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.

A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent  to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.

Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.

Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some  very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.

Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the  linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin  to elite education.

Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of   monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.

The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.

Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.

Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries.  Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of  virtue cultivated over over centuries.  Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.

Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed  by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws.  Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position  on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.

Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction  was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and  detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.

It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.

Spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed

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