From the Comments: Types of Federalisms, Good and Bad

Adrián‘s response to responses by me and Michelangelo on his initial response to a comment by Michelangelo that I highlighted in a post of mine (whew!) deserves a closer look:

Guys, thanks for your comments, and apologies for the delay in responding!

1. I share your love for idle speculation. I’d say my fundamental difference with you lies elsewhere: you grew up/are very familiar with a country where federalism has worked pretty well (with notable exceptions, such as slavery and the Jim Crow laws), while I came from another where federal institutions are full of perverse incentives. So, whenever somebody proposes a federal arrangement, I immediately perceive the costs, while you’re more open to the potential benefits.

2. That said, I think an useful way for thinking about federal structures is to analyze the incentives faced by subnational governments. (a) Some subnational governments are accountable to domestic audiences, and thus they seek a federal structure where subnational governments retain considerable autonomy, including autonomy over taxation. This is the kind of federation that fosters tax competition and experimentation, with the US and the EU as good examples. (b) In other contexts, subnational governments are not fully accountable to domestic audiences (even with elections) and thus they devise federal institutions as mechanisms for extracting and distributing rents among themselves, and they use these rents to perpetuate themselves in power. Rather than keeping authority over taxation, they purposefully delegate their tax authority in the federal government to collect taxes for themselves. In other words, the federal government acts as a enforcer of a cartel: it establishes the same tax rate everywhere, collects the money, and distributes it between the states according to some highly politicized formula. This is the kind of federalism that predominates in Latin America: Argentina, Mexico, and to a lesser extent Brazil.

In sum, my point is that creating a federation among governments that are not responsive to voters will lead to the second type of federation. I don’t see the Middle East creating a fully functional federal system unless governments in the region become fully responsive to voters, which will require much more than competitive elections.

3. Michelangelo: I agree with 95% of what you say about Turkey and Israel, especially the EU part, and I obviously believe that it is a good thing these countries trade more and develop better relationship with each other. That said, the main reason why I don’t see these countries forming a federation is a more fundamental one: (a) that neither Turkish nor Israeli politicians have anything to win by creating a federal arrangement, and (b) given Turkey’s enormous size with respect to Israel, this problem is especially important from the Israeli point of view.

There is more on federalism at NOL here. Check out Adrián’s posts here, and Michelangelo’s are here.

From the Comments: The Suprastate and the Substate

My post on American Senator Rand Paul’s recent remarks on Kurdistan elicited the following response from fellow Notewriter Michelangelo:

If a neo-Ottoman federation arises I suspect it will begin as a political alliance between Turkey and Israel. Perhaps such a federation will arise from the Mediterranean Union, who can know really. The two countries are already relatively close in interests and are, alongside a few of the Gulf States, the closest things the region has to secular liberal powers. The Turks at this time would not favor an independent Kurdistan though and I fear they might withdraw support for a federation if that was part of the package.

I think it would be easier to first form an Ottoman federation and afterward grant Kurds their independence within the federation.

It is hard for me to imagine the Arabs joining said federation either way. The Egyptian-Syrian Arab republic went nowhere. Part of me (an infinitely small part!) kind of hopes ISIS manages to defeat the Iraqi and Syrian forces and creates the core of a Pan-Arab nation.

I’ll let him have the last word here (be sure to scroll though the entire dialogue), but I just want to take this opportunity to stress the importance of thinking about the world in terms we might not be used to. The standard unit of measurement – for lack of a better term – for thinking about international affairs is the nation-state, but this way of thinking about the world has, like all devices humans use to make sense of their world, weaknesses as well as strengths. To my mind, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected thanks to liberalization, the nation-state becomes less and less useful as a tool for understanding human action.

What Michelangelo is doing here is thinking ahead of the curve; he is applying the notions of suprastate and substate to international affairs. A suprastate is an organization or union that is composed of various nation-states, such as the ones Michelangelo uses in his argument (i.e. “Mediterranean Union”). A substate is a region within a nation-state, such as Kurdistan or Scotland or Somaliland.

Often, especially in debates here at NOL, the notions of suprastate and substate are used in conjunction with the developing, or post-colonial, regions of the world. This doesn’t mean these notions can’t be applied to places like the United States or Argentina. Indeed, the US itself was created as a supranational union in order to combat the strategies of the British, French, Spanish, and various Native nations. If you can entertain the notions of suprastate and substate when you think about human action, you will be that much closer to advocating clearly for the free and open society (see this piece on the informal economy by Dr Gibson, for example).

Some notes I wrote that I’ll never finish

Here you go. Make of them what you will – BC.


I would argue that it can matter, and often does, from a certain vantage point.

The West is not open-minded when it comes to recognizing centrifugal forces in a post-colonial state, though. The argument is that smaller states will have less power than the single, unified state currently in place. (when Democrat Joe Biden borrowed my arguments by suggesting Iraq be carved up into three states.) This doesn’t refute your musings, at all, but complements them in a way.

So size does matter, from a certain point of view.


zero-sum game is not real; logic is sharp mostly in socialists and libertarians, so then we move on to facts to get at the truth of the matter.


I tend to see the West as Europe, the Anglo-Saxon world, and Latin America. Korea, Japan, and India are also Western in my mind, but I am an open-minded son-of-a-bitch and realize that some folks just can’t see the connection. They see brown and yellow people, and they see the struggle between conservatism and liberalism being played out there, and they think to themselves “those aren’t Western societies!”

Russia is somewhere in-between the West and the other West. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey, the entire Levant, North Africa, hell, the entire Arab world save for Saudi Arabia and Yemen were Western until the Cold War ramped up.

Why do Europeans and Latin Americans tend to be much more hawkish than North Americans? (I can’t say much about Indians and East Asians, though I suspect they are somewhere in between North Americans and Europeans.Latin Americans because their choices are very different from the traditional West’s; Pakistan and China are very different from Russia and the Arab world, and the US plays different roles in Asia as well.)


Fuddy-duddy conservatives and large swathes of the Left are not advancing the conversation. Jacques complains that Foucault is full of shit. Leftists – far from being offended or threatened, simply roll their eyes (if he’s lucky), or – more often – simply ignore him.

Irfan’s link to Reason Papers shows this well. I think it’s absolutely true that postmodernism is dead. I think it was invented to replace socialism. The paper is correct in all of these things. What do conservatives do in response to this simple fact? Throw poo-poo at Leftists and stay stubbornly in their ideological cage.

This is why Barry’s posts are so impressive. They advance knowledge and understanding. The reactions – from both the monkeys in the cage on the Left and the monkeys in the cage on the Right – to Barry’s pieces range from vitriolic to rudely skeptical. This signals, to me at least, that Barry is on the right track. He is much closer to the Truth than the poo-poo flingers.

Unfortunately in the post-colonial world, those fuddy-duddy conservatives and murderous Leftists dominate the conversation.



“If free enterprise becomes a proselytizing holy cause, it will be a sign that its workability and advantages have ceased to be self-evident. (111)” – Eric Hoffer, True Believer 1951 (1989 reprint)


I wonder if Falk includes supporting bad laws in this maxim?


Is ISIS Islamic? Yes and no. Obviously, it is in some respects, but it’s a new kind of Islam. It’s political and has designated its ideological others as ‘the West’, while operating against the notion of the nation-state. I think it’s postmodernism carried to its logical end, with a regional twist of course. (Think of the destruction, real and imagined, of all those ancient artifacts. That’s post-modernism at work, not the strains of Islam we’ve been accustomed to for the last 1,500 years.

From the Comments: Mass Migration and Open Borders

Fears of mass migration are overblown. Each person who migrates must cover certain costs – one must abandon one’s social network, often must abandon property, must fund transportation and the transition.

For instance, when I crossed America from Pennsylvania to California, I had to pay for transportation expenses, the first month’s rent, a security deposit, and other expenses. Migration, whether within or between countries, tends to be self-limiting.

This is from papalibertarian. Check out his blog. I am still ambivalent about the whole open borders project. Of course I support freedom of movement for individuals (“labor”) to cross arbitrary borders, just as I do for goods (“capital”). Papa L’s comment only bolsters my support for open borders, but what about the people who don’t migrate?

What about the people who, for all the reasons Papa L describes and more, cannot migrate?

Federation or some other form of political union answers this question much better than mere open borders. Think about the old couple in California who would like to move to Mexico because of its lower cost of living. Under open borders, they can do it but they wouldn’t have many rights (tit-for-tat and all that). If that old couple migrated from California to Oregon they’d still have all their rights. Why shouldn’t they have these rights simply for migrating from California to Sonora? Federation would strengthen migrants’ rights whereas mere open borders would only grant migrants the ability to cross borders.

I suspect many open borders advocates are incrementalists, so I can’t fault them for not answering my silly questions, but I do hope that they come to see open borders as an incremental phase leading to a much more politically integrated world (as well as economically and socially integrated).

From the Comments: Russia Resurgent and a Libertarian Strategy

I am working on a speculative piece about the recent assassination of liberal (i.e. libertarian, a.k.a. internationalist) politician Boris Nemtsov in front of the Kremlin. In the mean time, here is an old comment of mine on Russia’s new grand strategy:

Thanks Dr A,

I still think this is all a part of Russia’s symbolic strategy against the West. As you mention, the referendum is not legally binding and nobody aside from Moscow has recognized it.

What I think the best option available to the West would be to go ahead and recognize the independence of regions within Russia’s “official” borders (the territories you mentioned, for example).

To back this up, simply make a mockery of the whole process going on in Crimea. Have a couple of silly press conferences. Then, to add teeth to the recognitions, publicly announce some weapons deals with Georgia and Ukraine. Publicly announce that all Western arms-related bans in the Caucasus are to be repealed.

Then point out, in a rueful manner, that Canada and Mexico are under threat from domestic fascists and must be invaded in order to protect the American citizens and lovers of American citizens in those two countries.

Mocking Russia’s current moves in Crimea will have a much greater impact on policy decisions and public opinion than economic sanctions (which will only make things much, much worse).

Sanctions are a prelude to war.

There is also the issue of secession and political oppression to think about. As it stands, the Crimeans should be able to vote their way out of a political union with Kiev. So, too, should Dagestanis, Chechens, Karelians, etc., be able to vote their way out of a political union with Moscow. The fact that only guns have so far been able to secure a vote in favor of public opinion (Crimean secession from Ukraine) suggests that liberalism has yet to reach enough minds and institutions to have the positive impact that I think it could have on the world.

I also don’t buy the argument, made by some, about the fact that at least one of these oppressed post-socialist, post-Soviet regions was able to secede from a political center it deemed oppressive and should therefore be viewed in a positive light, even if it was Moscow’s guns which brought about the change. To me this line of reasoning is akin to arguing that the US invasion of Iraq was a cautious positive for the world, even though half a million people died due to the invasion, because there is now one less dictator in the world.

Secession needs to be viewed as a legitimate political option for peoples and this recognition needs to be incorporated into the legal systems of liberal societies if we want to avoid more conflicts like the one between Russia and Ukraine. The world is devolving politically, which means secessionist tendencies will increase, and if there is no political or legal mechanism (much less intellectual recognition) for dealing with these aspirations then be prepared for more problems in the post-colonial world (see this and this), but not so much in the West (see this and this). Liberals, of course, have been at the forefront of the secession debate since John Locke first brought it up in his 1689 classic Second Treatise of Government.

From the Comments: Why do France’s banlieues have 40% unemployment?

Dr Amburgey asks the question, and Dr J gives the answer:

Terry: Good question but the answer is implied: Policies that allow for much higher economic growth than has been the case since about 1985.

It’s hard to figure an explanation for persistent French economic stagnation that does not implicate government action (ACTION, not inaction). Two examples: Retail stores can only hold sales for twice two weeks in a year. (That’s as in “on sale.”) The government decides when the sales seasons take place all over France, at the same time, irrespective of local conditions. Yes, you read that right. Second example. An ideological battle has been running for at least ten years at the highest level of government about whether or not to allow large stores to be opened on Sundays. The pros just lost again! [but see Dr J’s update – bc]

I am a weak man, I can’t resist adding a third example: On Sunday mornings, you can buy delicious croissants in bakeries everywhere but they are not allowed to sell coffee! The cafes open late on Sundays. Dunking is effectively illegal in France for several hours every week.

The French political elite, almost all statist, seldom loses an opportunity to prevent employment from growing. Note that I am not especially blaming the current Socialist administration. There are almost no conservative parties in France today, have not been for many years. The word “libertarian” has no current French equivalent. (The French word “libertaire” is related but it means something else.)

French schools are mostly very bad. They are run by a centralized government bureaucracy.

Of course, economic stagnation is not about the children and grandchildren of immigrants specifically. It’s just that those least favorably positioned with respect to the job market tend to suffer most from stagnation. Children and grandchildren of immigrants are among those. If the French economy grew at an annual rate of say 2.5% – the current US rate, I think – even the children of immigrants in remote banlieues would see their employment opportunities multiply. At least, they could compete for something. There is not much leftist municipalities largely in charge of those immigrant-heavy areas can do, really. The best among them set up good soccer clubs, that’s about it.

Poor economic performance does not strike everyone equally. The offspring of immigrants are disadvantaged mostly for reasons that would not matter elsewhere, in Germany, next door, for example. I think racism and xenophobia play a small role. It seems to me that both were much much worse in the sixties and seventies yet, immigrants and their children had work then when the country’ s economy was growing at a normal pace.

Stagnation does not hit everyone equally: The outflow of graduates from the best schools (mostly engineering schools) is perceived to be so great that last year, the Socialist government created a new cabinet post for them. I suspect it’s to hold them back or to try and lure them back. Would I make this up?

Being an immigrant is just a potential basis for social organization (a la Marx). Being an immigrant from already secular Portugal or from Romania is not a good basis for such. Being an immigrant from a Muslim country (probably most immigrants to France) creates clear delineation because so much of Muslim culture is violated every day by ordinary French behavior. (Yes, some stereotypes are factually correct!)

Going back to your question about libertarianism specifically: I think that if 10 % of all government economic regulations were abolished suddenly, on a lottery basis, the French GDP growth rate would double immediately, with positive consequences for immigrants’ progeny, of course.

Terry you should read Delacroix (recently in Liberty Unbound). [“Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” – bc, again]

The rest of the thread is well worth reading, too, as Jacques and Terry size up each others’ views on the European Union.

From (Another Blog’s) Comments: An Ethic of Offense

Dr. Khawaja and his colleague Dr. Riesbeck have a very lively discussion on the ethics of offensive behavior on his blog, which I was privileged to join and offer my thoughts.

The post and discussion are all worth reading, but for now I’ll just quote the summary I gave of both Dr. Khawaja’s and Dr. Riesbeck’s points, along with some of their comments, with edits for flow:

“As a general principle, it is better to not offend than to offend. This is dependent on the nature of the offense, of the offender, of the offendee, and of the status of the place in which the offense occurs. Simply stating “don’t offend” like it is a categorical imperative ignores the nuance, the uses and abuses inherent to offensive sayings and actions.
-The nature of the offense is whether it was deliberate (I go up to a devout Muslim in the street and whisper discretely “Islam is false”) or accidental (I put up my feet in a Greek restaurant).
-The nature of the offender is a question of whether he is a deliberate or an accidental offender, which is often epistemically impossible to determine without intimate knowledge.
-The nature of the offendee is a question of how the offense will be borne, and whether it is profitable in some way to offend (see principles 2 and 3 below). If I am speaking with my friend, who is Muslim, and who I know is a relatively open-minded person, I can say to him “Islam is false” in the course of a conversation on religion, because we are both assumed to possess a nature of open enquiry, and the nature of the place in which we are speaking is considered to be open (more on this in the next point). If I am at a protest against America, where effigies of the president and the flag are being burned, and angry Muslims with Kalashnikovs are shooting into the air, prudence alone dictates that I keep my opinions to myself.
-Finally, the status of the place where the offense takes place is important. If I want to walk around naked at the Folsom Street Fair, a place specifically designated for the expression of non-mainstream sexuality, then that is okay, because it is a space for such people. If I want to do the same thing in Notre Dame cathedral, then I am infringing on the space of others, who do not want to see my nakedness, and have a stronger claim to that space. However, in neutral, public space such as a city park, it is a little bit trickier. Who really “owns” that space, especially when there are groups within the same society and culture that have different ideas for the park?

This idea is based on three principles, really just one:
1. In social intercourse, we ought to act so as to bring out the best in the people with whom we interact, and not the worst.
2. We must do this at a minimum cost to our own best principles
3. We must do this at a minimum cost to the well-being of the other parties”

Discussion centered around several thought experiments:
1. Putting up one’s feet in Greece, where it is purportedly considered offensive.
2. Printing a picture of the prophet Muhammed in a textbook and using it in class
3. Public displays of affection.
4. Saying that Islam is false.

I’ll quote Dr. Khawaja in his response to No. 2:

“I think the image should be published regardless of the offense it may cause. The ban on images of the Prophet is patently irrational. Implicitly, it involves an attack on the very idea of mimetic art, and it does so in a cultural context where mimetic art is perfectly acceptable. Arguably, it’s not even an authentically Islamic idea.

Someone may argue that an image of the Prophet Muhammad has no educational value, but I think that’s too narrowly informational a conception of educational value. Granted, the image cannot literally tell us what the Prophet Muhammad looked like. Granted, it cannot impart specific information about his life. But that isn’t its point. Image-production is an act of the imagination. We put images in books because it’s pleasant to do so–for producer as well as consumer–and students should eventually come to see that and ideally participate in it. When Muslims attack non-derisive imagistic depictions of the Prophet, they are asking those of us at home in a mimetic culture to subordinate our justifiable desire for mimetic expression to their iconoclasm. We have no reason to accept that, and we should not do so. After all, if we took iconoclasm seriously–more seriously than its tribalist defenders tend to, who haven’t quite grasped its point–we would have to emulate the Taliban and regard all images as somehow suspect and offensive. In that case, if we followed the norm to its logical conclusion, we’d have to avoid reprinting images of any kind in any public setting. We’d then have to consider dismantling all public art of a mimetic nature, as is done in Afghanistan, and as is sometimes contemplated in Pakistan.”

There is plenty of room to disagree with the eudaimonistic principle, especially concerning the many exceptions that were deemed necessary to make it coherent. For example, Dr. Khawaja highlights what I will call the “asshole clause” as an exception:

“…there are interactions in which we’re obliged to deal with people we can’t avoid dealing with, and who by their previous actions have forfeited a very strong claim to sensitivity on our part. I think such dealings should be minimized, but they can’t be entirely avoided. People like this need to be divided into those who deserve intentional offense, and those who merely deserve foreseeable but not intentional offense. You have to be a real asshole to go into the first category. You just need to have done some asshole things to fall into the second.”

With such people, we do not desire to bring out the best in them, presumably because we consider them to be irredeemably noxious individuals. The general principle to not offend is the basis for this theory of social interaction, and since it has been suspended, so too has its subordinate principles: to minimize harm to our principles, and to the sensibilities of our interlocutor. Calling an asshole an asshole to his face presents no issue, even if it is done offensively and without tact, because it may be in our best interests to retaliate more vehemently against a real ass than we would against a more sensible person.

Indeed, it might be said that doing so would do the asshole a favor. “Shocking” a person out of their bad habits through a corresponding breach of social etiquette is often an effective tactic. To cite my own experience, I once had a friend who was widely regarded as a real asshole by all the friends in his social circle, me included. Case in point: during a rainstorm he intentionally pushed me into a puddle, and then laughed as I got soaked. We eventually all told him he was an asshole and that we wouldn’t spend any more time with him. He mended his ways immediately. Dr. Riesbeck earlier credits his personal intuitions as a guide for determining the costs and benefits of giving – or not giving – offense in these cases. In general, I would agree that intuitions aren’t too far off the mark. Everyone knows an asshole when he sees one, after all.

Furthermore, even if the general principle is maintained, it will often conflict with other principles, that may have greater weight. Sometimes not giving offense, and maintaining candor, authenticity, or rationality, are opposed goals. At this point, it must be asked whether giving offense offers a greater benefit to the offender, which outweighs the harm to the offender by not giving offense, and the harm to the offendee given by the offense (apologies for the tortured prose). To quote Dr. Khawaja one more time:

“If a norm is patently irrational, it offends the dignity of any rational agent, and there can’t be a reason to respect it. Personally, I think the full-veil burqa falls into this category. Similarly, a norm that requires lying must be rejected: there are extreme conceptions of politeness in some cultures that require people to lie to one another. Arguably, the Pakistani norm of takallaf–or assiduous attention to formal etiquette–is one of them. (It’s not often remarked that both takallaf and ikhlas (sincerity) are supposed to be norms of Pakistani culture, but takallaf systematically violates iklhas.)”

I enjoyed the discussion, and I would like to open it up to further comment and critique from the fine readers of NOL. What do ya’ll think?