All posts by Brandon Christensen

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From the Comments: The medieval Dark Ages were indeed dark

Dr Stocker answers my question about non-European canons of liberty:

Hello Brandon, sorry I didn’t have time to check the comments on this earlier. I don’t really want to say there was a 1000 year dark age for thought about liberty, but in terms of big recognised classics, it does look like a ‘Dark Age’.

Sadly I’m not equipped to discuss what was going on outside ‘Christendom’, the Medieval Christian world which largely corresponded with Europe particularly after the Arab (and in the west Berber) Muslim conquests in north Africa and south west Asia, so in what had been the Byzantine Empire outside its Balkan and Anatolian heartland.

I’m very slightly better qualified to discuss the Muslim world of this time than the cultures further east, and as far as I can see despite the riches of Muslim intellectual achievement, and the building of legal traditions, there is no major figure who could be described as pro-liberty though as with Aquinas, William of Ockam and other major political writers in Christendom of the time, there is an interest in law and respect for law from the sovereign power. I personally feel it’s a bit of a stretch to include that in any kind of liberty tradition, though the rule of law ideas to feed into it and to some degree pick up on antique republican thought, but largely in its empire of laws aspect rather than other aspects of political and social liberty.

There is a lot of really important and interesting stuff going on further east, particularly in China and India, going back to at least the time of Aristotle in Greece, in terms of philosophical, ethical, and political thought, and institutional innovation. On the institutional side though, I can’t see anything that looks very ‘republican’ or holding power accountable, or valuing challenges to excessive power. I’m sure there are texts that are important for liberty minded people to read, and some things some absolute rulers did like Buddhists who tried to abolish slavery, worth knowing about, but I’m just not competent right now to deal with this stuff properly. It is becoming better known in the west and that is going to produce results in the liberty community. I’ll see if I’m ever ready to engage, I’ve got some iras about how to get there from particular interests of mine, but it needs time.

In discussing Asian political traditions, one issue which is being discussed a lot is state hill communities in southern Asia, though from a collectivist anarchist position rather than an individualist anarchist position, the discussion has been picked up to some degree from an individualist point of view (Peter Leeson, the George Mason economist for example) and I think we’ll see more of that over time. That issue of hill peoples brings me onto something else.

Knowledge of the political structures of hill peoples comes from anthropologists (particularly the Yale anthropologist and agrarian studies specialist James C. Scott, a collectivist anarchist in inclination) rather than from texts in political theory by those stateless peoples. They were illiterate and maybe deliberately so to protect themselves from the low land state observations. Any political philosophy (or indeed philosophy of any kind) of such people comes from looking at the assumptions and everyday ‘ideologies’ of their lives. A big thing on that issue which has been getting increasing interest is that until the late 18th century European histories of philosophy included that kind of implicit philosophy of illiterate peoples observed in an ‘anthropological’ way by ancient historians like Tacitus and Herodotus. There has been a modern equivalent, roughly speaking, to that Herodotus/Tacitus observation of the supposed beliefs of peoples who seem very foreign, which is African philosophy, as studied by African scholars and outside Africa, largely by African-American scholars in US universities. This has engaged with an anthropological-philosophical study of the belief systems of colonised and pre-colonial African peoples.

There is a scholar known to me by personal acquaintance as well as academic reputation working on that sort of approach to non-literarate or not very literate non-urban societies round the world. That is Justin E.H. Smith a (white) American based at the University of Paris, who has a book due out on this in a few years, I’m certainly looking forward to it. That leads me to your point about ideology.

I agree that there is a valid area of study of philosophy, political throughout etc as it exists outside ‘ideology’ as written texts on those theme. It may have some relation to ‘ideology’ as everyday assumptions, though with less of the control/conformity associations of ‘ideology’. I am not on the whole the right person to say much about this, but over time I might be able to post a few things. I’m thinking of taking a step in that direction for next week’s post, which I’m thinking could be on the Medieval Iceland Eddas (heroic poetry) as it relates to a society, which apparently had very little in the way of a central state. That will mean breaking the timeline I’m working through, but that’s OK as I now realise I meant to cover the Roman historian Tacitus, but forgot, so next couple of posts will probably go back in history. Just working on a post on a 14th century English legal thinker, John Fortescue, for this weekend.

You can all read Dr Stocker’s promised Fortescue post here if you haven’t already (it’s excellent, of course). I have been interested in liberty from a non-European point of view ever since I first became interested in liberty (2008, thanks to Ron Paul’s presidential run, and I have always been interested in non-European cultures). A part of me wants to believe that there is an unwritten code of liberty to be found within all societies, and I think that there is a case to be made for this, if you look closely enough.

However, I was doing a search for liberal political parties throughout the world (liberal means libertarian!) and I was genuinely shocked at how few liberal parties there are outside of continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. Even Latin America, long the West’s red-headed stepchild, has a dearth of liberal political parties.

Most parties in the non-European world are based around ethnicity, nationality, or socialism. The fact that socialism is ambiguous enough that it can allow for a narrative that incorporates ethnicity or nationality into its premise probably accounts for the popularity of these political parties. (So, for example, a political party that serves the interests of an ethnic group in a post-colonial state will often name itself the “National Party of Post-Colony,” or the “People’s Party of Post-Colony.”) This is still a disheartening trend, though. In the US, both major political parties are essentially liberal, and in continental Europe most of the political parties are liberal in fact if not in name.

I note here that factions and not parties are ultimately what drives drives politics, but the lack of liberal political parties can still us something about a society’s cultural mores.

For some reason this superficial political observation, coupled with Barry’s astute thoughts, reminds of this old post by Jacques on knowledge, language, and information.

Columbus Day needs to go, but…

I deplore Columbus Day. It it a state-sponsored celebration of state-sponsored genocide. I argue that it needs to be abolished because Columbus was a bad man with bad motives.

However, there are a number of talking points, put forth by the Left, that are simply wrong and need to be debunked before we can have an honest discussion about why Columbus was such a bad guy.

The conquests of New Spain and Brazil undertaken by Spain and Portugal were state-sponsored, while the slow, eventual westward push by other European peoples were only indirectly sponsored by states (through corporate charters and the like) until the mid-nineteenth century (a time frame of over four centuries). This state sponsorship can largely explain why Latin America is the red-headed stepchild of the West today.

I don’t buy the argument, put forth by Politically Correct Leftists, that the genocide of Native Americans was perpetrated solely by white men and their cunning and guile. This counter-narrative is just as dishonest as the traditional narrative proclaiming Columbus to be a great discoverer. It takes away the agency and the complexity of Native societies with one fell, condescending swoop.

As an example, consider yesterday’s (American) football game between the Cardinals and the Redskins in Phoenix. The owner of the Redskins, under fire for keeping the name ‘Redskins’, invited the current, democratically-elected President of the Navajo nation to watch the game with him and his family. The President and his wife obliged, and wore Redskins gear to accentuate their support for the Redskins owner.

The couple did this while hundreds of anti-Redskins protesters stood outside the stadium with signs and slogans. Native fans brandished signs inside the stadium declaring their support for the Redskins name.

Many appointed Native leaders simply sold their people out to Europeans. Many more thought assimilation between their culture and the Europeans’ would be the better option going forward. Many Native factions actively slaughtered other factions for money, land, or other goods and services.

I often wonder if traditionalists don’t see what Leftists are doing when they deliberately display such a proud ignorance of historical facts. It’s as if traditionalists relish the role of bad guy in society when they play into the dishonest hands of Leftist so-called reformers.

At any rate, here is economist Bryan Caplan on Columbus Day, and here is philosopher Irfan Khawaja. Both are worth reading. Both are libertarian, to one degree or another, and both pieces move well beyond the usual garbage that passes for debate in this country.

From the Comments: Organizational Ecology, François Nielsen, and the Lack of Diversity in Higher Education

Jacques elaborates on my observations about the lack of diversity in the social sciences and humanities:

One small comment. You said “left wing thought.” It was true when I began my career in the 70s. I have seen the “thought” part perish in my lifetime. They are now simply a bastion of leftism with almost no thought at all but just tedious repetitiousness. Thought does not normally flourish in the midst of consensus. My friend Dr François Nielsen at U of North Carolina wrote some vigorous things on the subject. (He was trained in the same program as Dr Amburgey and myself.)

I asked Jacques for some sources, and he provided a couple (a pdf here and a short video here). The “same program” Jacques is writing of was Stanford’s sociology department back in the late 60s and early 70s, when Organizational Ecology was prominent (I’ll leave it up to Delacroix and Amburgey to elaborate on the details).

Speaking of diversity, Amburgey disagrees with Delacroix’s (and my) assessment. He thinks the lack of diversity has to do with the rise of STEM. The entire ‘comments’ thread is well worth reading through.

Around the Web

  1. A review of The Iraqi Christ
  2. Looks like the folks at the Atlantic have been reading NOL (though no hat tips were to be found)
  3. Men on Horseback
  4. The one area of political ingenuity where Europe still leads the world

“The Lack of Competition/Diversity”: One objection to world government that shouldn’t be made

I have recently come across an old blog post by Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy arguing against world government. Somin’s argument echoed Michelangelo’s here at the consortium, and in particular one aspect of their argument stands out for being especially short-sighted: That of a lack of competition or “diversity in governance” would be the inevitable result of a world government.

Now, a libertarian world government would be federal in nature, so if Somin and Michelangelo are arguing against a different kind of world government they may have a point (I don’t know of many arguments in favor of world government that are not federal in nature, and it wouldn’t be worth my time to read up on any such ludicrous proposals), but when addressing arguments in favor of world government from a libertarian perspective opponents must realize that it is federation they are skeptical of.

Here is how I address the opposition to a world government because competition (and, thus, diversity) would become diminished:

Libertarians generally argue that federalism is the best option we, as humans, have because it allows for competition between administrative units. This competition is enhanced and respected by the people it affects because of the rules set in place and enforced by a federal authority. So, for example, everyone in the US federation generally has their individual rights protected (there are always exceptions, of course, including blacks, Natives, felons, immigrants, and religious minorities), including freedom of movement. Under this general framework different administrative units come up with different policies concerning taxes, education, transportation, etc. This competitive framework makes policies better overall, in all 50 states, without having to resort to a central, one-size-fits-all policy.

It is true that the US could be better, and it is true that federal democracy may be inferior to anarchy, but it is also true that we live in a world of second bests, and comparatively speaking, the US has one of the highest standards of living in the world so I don’t see why this should not be taken as a sort of rough estimate for where libertarians should be aiming.

Is everybody in agreement that federalism is the least worst workable option largely because of the competition it allows for?

Okay then. It somehow follows, for opponents of world federalism, that if the US federal system were to add every administrative unit in the world into its system that competition would suddenly cease.

Huh?

Okay, I am being a jerk about this line of reasoning. It actually goes something like this: Because the US and Russia have different systems of governance, they are competing with each other. Fair enough, but it does not follow that this competition is a good thing. If I recall correctly, there are good kinds of competition and there are bad kinds of competition. Walmart versus Target is good competition. Lobbying for political favors is good competition (consider the alternatives, i.e. Russia). Building up military capabilities is bad competition. Pitting human rights-abusing regimes against liberal democracies is bad competition, too, but this last scenario is precisely what opponents of world federalism argue is desirable about the status quo.

World government wouldn’t eliminate competition, it would enhance it by focusing governmental duties on policy issues and standardizing a regime of rights protection based on the notion of the free and sovereign individual.

Comparing the US to, say, Gabon or China is not competition. It is an injustice, and one that ignores the plight of billions of people living under despotic regimes. Competition is not what happens when 5 million people live in a liberal democracy and 5 million more live in a one party socialist state. Competition is what happens when all 10 million people are free to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster whenever and wherever they please, but only half of them pay a sales tax (the other half have banned plastic bags through plebiscite, of course).

Even if my competition-is-enhanced-by-federalism argument does not convince the opponent of world government, the fact that his own argument for more competition, through state sovereignty, should.

Consider the following scenario in regards to competition and world federalism: The state of Durango, in the United States of Mexico, is fed up with Mexico City’s corruption and inefficiency. The leaders of Durango, and a significant population of Durango (say, 60-65%), all would be thrilled to leave the Mexican federation. However, Durango knows that independence would be much worse than federation, so it continues to stay within the Mexican federation and simmers with despair and loathing.

Under the status quo – competition through state sovereignty – Duranguense have no options whatsoever, except to keep electing reformers to political office at the federal level and hope for a reform bloc to coalesce. How is this competitive?

Now, consider the scenario outlined above again. The federation of 50 American states has adopted a statute that allows for disgruntled administrative units elsewhere in the world to apply for admission into the union. Duranguense suddenly have an option. Not only that, but Mexico City suddenly has competition, and little of it can be snuffed out through repressive domestic policies.

Does this make sense? Am I knocking down a straw man? If so, please don’t hesitate to take me to task in the ‘comments’ threads!

Stephen Cox Reviews Delacroix’s New Book

From the pages of Liberty:

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to [Liberty's] pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Dr Cox is a Professor of Literature at UC San Diego. Be sure to check out Peter Miller’s review of Delacroix’s book as well (Dr Miller is also a sociologist and artist). EDIT (10/2/14): You can order I Used to Be French… from Dr J himself by sending an email to iusedtobefrench@gmail.com.

I just worked my last day as a day laborer for a stone mason crew in Utah today. I’ll be on the road again, headed more or less toward Seattle, but will be contributing to the blog a bit more often (unless I can convince my co-bloggers to start producing much more material, which would make me more than content to sit back and troll the ‘comments’ threads).

PS: Did anybody see the UCLA-Arizona State game? Wow. Pac-12 football at its finest baby! It will be unfortunate if the championship game does not have a west coast representative. The country deserves better, although I think the new playoff system will ensure that the brutal Pac-12 season doesn’t eliminate the best teams simply because they have all lost one game to another championship contender. The west coast isn’t the SEC. We play hard games, week in week out.

Some ramblings on intellectual diversity (in universities and in libertarianism)

I’ve been reading through the ‘comments’ threads this weekend and especially my dialogues with Dr Amburgey (he’s at the University of Toronto’s prestigious business school). Amburgey describes himself as a “pragmatist” or a “centrist” but nevertheless has been a fairly stalwart defender of the Obama administration (except on its egregious violations of our civil liberties) and a blistering critic of the GOP’s right-wing. Reading through our dialogues (something I wish more readers would get involved in), I believe I have found the Left’s glaring weakness in today’s world: It’s de facto intellectual monopoly in Western universities today. Aside from wanting to gratefully thank him for his support and encouragement in our project via the ‘comments’ threads, I thought I would elaborate a bit upon this notion of a lack of diversity within academia.

Intellectual diversity is almost entirely absent in the US academy today. A Georgetown University Law Professor, Nick Rosenkrantz, pointed this out as far as law schools go, but is this dearth of diversity a bad thing? I would argue that ‘no’ it’s not if you’re on the Right, and ‘yes’ it is if you’re on the Left.

Universities have long been a bastion of Leftist thought (I note that this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if diversity is important to you, for reasons I hope to explain below). Universities are also amongst the most conservative organization in societies (think of what it takes to navigate through the labyrinth of requirements in order to become a member of the professoriate). This is not a coincidence. Leftist thought has, since the advent of socialism in the 18th century, been characterized by it’s conservatism (especially its paternalism). It’s rhetoriticians just disguise it as progressive.

At any rate, Rosenkrantz points out that the Supreme Court of the US (SCOTUS) has five conservative judges and four Leftists, which is extremely unreflective of the law school professoriate. The point made by Rosenkrantz is that law students may not be getting an education that accurately reflects how the real world works.

In essence, law students are getting straw man arguments when it comes to conservatives and libertarians instead of actual conservative and libertarian arguments. This is true, and it’s reflective of the social sciences and of business schools as well. Such an arrangement has served the American Right extremely well over the past three decades, too.

Consider this: If your organization is dedicated to teaching students about this or that, and you only give them half the story, who or what is going to explain the other half? What I’ve found is that nonconformist students (conservatives and libertarians) are very good at taking in the lessons that are taught by Leftists (including their straw men) and supplementing them with their own readings on conservative and libertarian thought. Now contrast this with the conforming student. The one who eats up everything the professor teaches and takes it as more or less the Truth.

Outside of academia, where the battlefield of ideas is much less focused, and has much more money at stake, which student do you think is likely to have an edge intellectually-speaking? The student who read all he was supposed to and then some extra to account for different perspectives, or the student who read all he was supposed to and took it as more or less the Truth?

Many universities have been slow to catch up with other organizations that have recognized the benefits of not only cultural diversity but of intellectual diversity as well.  If the Left wants to mount any sort of counter-attack in the near- or medium-term future, it would do well to open up to the idea of having more actual, intellectual diversity on its faculties.

Leftists often claim that they are losing the battle of ideas because of money (or lack thereof) but this is absurd on its face, and the longer Leftists try to win by this line of reasoning, the deeper will be the hole out of which they will inevitably have to climb.

There is also the argument that Leftists don’t really have an argument. They simply have reactions to new ideas being created and put forth by libertarians (and to a lesser extent, conservatives here in the US, who are heavily influenced by libertarian ideas).

While there is no diversity in academia there is obviously plenty of it outside. I think this shows a healthy “macro” picture, to be honest.

Universities were once independent (from state influence) organizations and that independence helped contribute to a culture that has given the West what it has today. If universities – with their rules and regulations and traditions – lose their place as bastions of Left-wing ideology, what would take their place? Think about it: The university, because of its extremely conservative traditions, actually tempers the thought of socialists, and if they come under assault then hardcore Leftism will simply find another way to manifest itself. Left-wing literature professors are one thing. Left-wing demagogues are quite another.

This ties in quite well with my other observation, in ‘comments’ threads not found here at NOL, that libertarians tend to be anti-education. Many of them justify this reactionary stance because of the de facto monopoly the Left has, but I think this reactionary stance has more to with the broader libertarian movement’s own intolerance of intellectual diversity.

The recently launched liberty.me community is a good example of this. I think about libertarianism’s recent reactionary nature in this way: Libertarianism got hot after Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential run. It got so hot that a small but very visible movement was sparked. After the initial success, though, the movement inevitably fell back into one of cliques, clichés, and group-think mentality for a great number of people excited by Paul’s message. Most people who became involved in libertarianism read one or two books recommended Paul and his acolytes. This process further entrenched them, but from there on out this large segment of the libertarian quadrant simply stopped exploring ideas and engaging in dialogue with intellectual adversaries. ‘Statist’ became a derisive term.

These new online communities have been created for the libertarian who seeks comfort in the presence of others like him, whereas consortiums like NOL (and those found on our blog roll) are a place for us to continue the pursuit for truth and the battle for hearts and minds in an open and competitive environment. As a libertarian I think these circle-jerks that crop up serve a useful social function, but I have to wonder aloud how much learning actually occurs in those places.

Finding Books in Cuba

Guillermo’s recent post has inspired me. Here:

I spent the next couple of days walking the streets of Havana, not only looking for Yoss’ bookseller friend but also finding other antiquarian bookstores and book stands that might have copies of de Rojas’s Espiral, Una leyenda del futuro, and El año 200. I could only put my hands on an old copy of the second one. I called Yoss again and asked for help. I also invited him out again, this time to the hotel’s tourist bar.

Cuba has two economies with their own currencies; one is for its citizens, the majority of whom live quite modestly, and the other is for tourists. Cubans aren’t welcome in the tourist establishments unless someone brings them in.

That was Yoss’s case. The bouncers at the hotel door stopped him flat, saying wearing a vest without a shirt wasn’t appropriate. I needed to go find him and say he was my guest. The bouncers complied.

It was on this occasion when Yoss gave me details about the Cuban Sci-Fi tradition. He told me it dated back to before the Communist regime but that it had flourished in the seventies as a result of the cultural exchange the country had with Russia and the Soviet Bloc.

Read the rest. It’s by Ilan Stavans, a Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. It comes as no surprise to readers here, I’m sure, that books are hard to find in Cuba (and science fiction books at that!). I have just three comments. First, notice that cultural exchange was responsible for the introduction of something new. Second, be sure to check out the photos of Yoss. He sports a t-shirt with the Batman logo in one pic, and a t-shirt with the Punisher logo in another. (The Punisher is a bad ass Marvel Comics character.) Lastly, the author could not help but insult US culture (of which he is a part of).

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?

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.

Great Review of Delacroix’s New Book

For answers as to why a young man might wish to emigrate, we must turn to History, which in France is neither remote nor distant. While Americans tend to regard anything before they were born as irrelevant, Biography and History are intertwined throughout Europe, but nowhere more intimately than in France. Delacroix, conceived in Nazi-occupied France, though in one counter-intuitive episode delivered to safety by a German soldier, his own life and that of the nation are bound together even more intimately than most. And so France, he writes, was gripped by three ‘great sadnesses’ as he was growing up.

This is from Peter Miller, a fellow sociologist and artist (and also the author of this piece here at NOL). Read the whole thing.

You can find Dr J’s book at amazon here, or on the sidebar of the blog.