Category Archives: Comments

From the Comments: What’s the difference between state-sponsored terrorism and geopolitics?

In a recent thread on the conflict in Crimea, a proposal to use the CIA – the overseas spying agency of the US government – against a small Russian population in the exclave of Kaliningrad was put forth by Professor Amburgey. My response followed as thus:

Suppose that VEVAK – Iran’s intelligence agency – created an industrial accident in regards to Toronto’s water supply. You and I would rightly consider this state-sponsored terrorism, regardless of whether or not Tehran took any sort of official blame.

Now suppose that the CIA created an industrial accident in regards to Kaliningrad’s water supply. I would consider this state-sponsored terrorism. You would consider this ________ (please fill in the blank).

Dr Amburgey responded with a “savvy geopolitcs.” The only thing I noticed here is the double standard in place. Why do we label violence undertaken by certain factions or organizations “terrorism” and the same type of violence undertaken by other factions or organizations as “geopolitics” (or “patriotism” or “war”)?

There is no difference. Categorizing the actions that both you and your enemy undertake as two different things is a good way to ensure that everything remains exactly the same. How utterly conservative!

From the Comments: Power and the Rhymes of History

Over the past couple of days, Notes On Liberty‘s house conservative, Dr Delacroix, has created quite a few waves with his fanciful thoughts about punishing Russia for its bad behavior of late. (Somebody remind me again about George W Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and then let me know if that could have possibly set a bad precedent.) Professor Amburgey’s thoughts on power are worth another look:

In general, comparing a nation state to a human being is not useful. However, comparing the leader of a nation state to a human being can be sensible. The utility depends on how much power the leader has. I think there are several nation states where leaders have acquired enough power to assume that, in general, they are the decision maker. Iran springs to mind, as does North Korea. I’m beginning to think that Russia falls into that category.

I can buy this. However, dictators cannot be dictators without also having the broad support of the populace. This is why libertarians argue that it’s better to declare war than to topple a dictator.

Elsewhere, Dr Amburgey observes:

True. However Russia is turning into a dangerous regional power with dangerous territorial ambitions. Pretending otherwise is silly.

Russia only turned dangerous after the United States spread itself too thin. Keeping our own house in order will do more for world peace and prosperity than bombing other countries indiscriminately (or having the world-renowned CIA engage in “secret” terrorism!).

NEO adds his own eloquent thoughts to the mix. In response to my observation that the Cold War is over, NEO writes:

Maybe, Brandon. But the surest way to make sure it does, or something similar in Asia, is to believe it can never happen again.

The comparison for that is the “War to end all wars” leading to the new 30 years war.

That the weakness in libertarianism, actually. The oceans aren’t nearly as effective a barrier as they were in the days of the Royal Navy controlling them for us, and unless we only want free trade in CONUS, we’d best take care of it ourselves.

Will it be the same? Nope. But it will happen. If not Putin, somebody else.

As Mark Twain observed, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Again, I think NEO’s observations tie in well with Dr Amburgey’s about the potential for rising, autocratic powers to do bad things. However, we have only ourselves to blame for their rise.

For instance:

  • Was the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq a good idea?
  • Was bombing, invading, and occupying the Balkans a good idea? (Why don’t you tell me what the Russians think…)
  • Is it smart to still be occupying Afghanistan long after Osama bin Laden’s death?
  • Is it really necessary to have tens of thousands of troops along the 38th Parallel?
  • Does bombing poor countries in the name of liberation (not liberty) solve the underlying structural problems that poor states face?
  • Does supporting dictatorships that actively oppress Islamic fundamentalists help or hurt individual liberty?

In my mind, Russia has not grown to be a mid-major power. The United States has simply been caught with its pants down. This is why you read about ideas like terrorizing Russian citizens in Kaliningrad as a way to counter Moscow’s deft calculations. I cannot think of a better signal to the world that the US is weak then a resort to state-sponsored terrorism. Can you?

A Bit More on Ukraine

Evgeniy’s plea for balance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has produced, in my mind, an interesting dialogue on propaganda – both of the Western and of the Russian variety.

Let me come out and say with some conviction that I am not a supporter of the Putin regime. Nor do I believe much of the analysis that comes out of the Russian press. (This is because the vast majority of the Russian press is controlled by the state, and not because it is Russian or because it generally espouses pro-Russian sympathies.)

Evgeniy, for example, cites reports from the Russian press claiming that half a million people have fled Ukraine for Russia since the beginning of the year (when the demonstrations started). If half a million people fled from one place to another in a month, from anywhere in the world it would be headline news, but for some reason only Russian citizens have heard of this exodus? I don’t buy it.

Now, this number may be a misunderstanding based on a bad translation. In fact, I think this may be the case. My translation of Evgeniy’s comment states that the Russian press reports that “since the beginning of the year (January 2014) in Russia has resettled about 500,000 refugees from Ukraine.” Emphasis mine. Has this resettlement been ongoing since the end of the Cold War? However, judging by Evgeniy’s comment, it looks as if resettlement has only begun in January of this year, so if this is indeed the claim that the Russian press is making then it is obviously false.

Terry’s excerpted quote from the Daily Beast fares no better in the facts department, though, despite the Daily Beast being a private organization. The op-ed is an attempt to debunk “Putin’s Crimea Propaganda Machine” as if Putin has the power to control everything the Russian press publishes. State control of the media, especially in a country as large and diverse as Russia, does not mean that the bureaucratic process magically disappears. Bureaucracies and especially regulators are actors in their own right, and as such are beholden to certain constraints and processes that come with the way these institutions are organized.

So in the spirit of open inquiry and debate, there are a couple of facts I’ve gathered that I think are important to note.

  1. The President of Ukraine was ousted in a coup. He was elected by a very slim margin and accusations (from both sides) of voter fraud were rampant.
  2. The opposition that recently installed a new President therefore gave democracy the finger. This is not in itself a bad thing, but many Western observers tend to side with the pro-West faction as if it was democratic. It is not.
  3. The exiled President signed an agreement with the opposition last month guaranteeing early elections and more power to the legislature at the expense of the executive branch. This is as peaceful and as democratic as it gets, and the opposition gave, as I said, the finger to this agreement.
  4. The opposition has fascists in its cabinet. It has also installed Ukrainian Jews to high-ranking positions. The Muslim Tartars in Crimea stand to lose the most during Russia’s occupation.
  5. Ukrainians are sick of their government – right or left, pro or anti -and this has yet to be addressed by anyone other than Dr Foldvary as far as I can tell.
  6. No shots have been fired. Moscow has reiterated that it is in Crimea to protect its naval base and Russian citizens. I have a feeling that Russian troops will be back in Russia within the year. Crimea will get to keep its autonomous status within Ukraine, and Kiev will be forced to think twice before it attempts to impose its will on Crimea arbitrarily. This is a good thing, as it limits the size and scope of government.
  7. So far most, if not all, information about military activities have been coming from governments, not from the free press. This can only lead to more misunderstanding and more suspicion.
  8. War is the health of the state. In times like these, journalists should be criticizing their own governments rather than the governments of others. In the West, where the press remains relatively free, there is more criticism of government policies concerning foreign affairs than there is in Russia.

At the end of the day, I have to agree with Evgeniy’s plea for toleration and prudence: “Please do not judge this conflict only from one side.”

From the Comments: Musings on the Ukraine Fiasco

Riffing off of my post about the current crisis in Ukraine, Matthew writes:

Based on the track record of Russia vis a vis the West, I imagine the following scenario unfolding:

Russia (continues) to occupy the Crimea, while America and Europe (continue) to demand the withdrawal of Russian forces from the province. Putin, calculating that the West lacks the stomach for direct confrontation, refuses. Hysteria in the media and in government publications, which are ultimately the same thing, rises. A lack of direct conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces, however, lends little credence to the mass panic broadcast over Western media. The furor dies down in time. Russian presence becomes normalized in the Crimea.

Or, the interim government, bolstered by further illicit monetary aid from America, pulls a Georgian move and attacks the Russian forces stationed in Crimea. Russian forces will quickly rout the Ukrainians sent against them, and most likely march towards Kiev – whether they take it or not will depend on the response of the international community, as with Georgia. Regardless of who instigated the violence, the Western media will blame Russia, and the war drums will grow louder. UN sanctions are unlikely, since Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, but some form of economic punishment will occur. Russia will draw closer to China, Iran, and Syria. The status quo ante will be upended in no one’s favor: Ukraine will be in shambles, Russia and America will be set at odds.

Regardless of the above two scenarios, meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy is in free fall, and the IMF offers the dual poisons of austerity and liberalization to the interim government. Facing an intransigent Russia and the wolf-faced smile of the West, the interim government accepts the IMF’s offer. Like Russia before it, Ukraine is left even worse for wear by the rapid pace of economic liberalization, and is thus too weak to resist the Russian presence in Crimea. Thus, the West has succeeded in breaking off a chunk of post-Soviet Ukraine and bringing it into its influence, while Russia largely retains what it had beforehand: its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, along with the de facto annexed province of Crimea. It is too early to tell, but perhaps the rest of Russified Ukraine will also join their brothers in Russified Crimea, and the state will break up along linguistic lines.

Who can tell what will occur? My money is on Russia, but maybe Obama will come up with some game winning stratagem (don’t snicker!).

Does anybody else care to make their predictions? You know where the ‘comments’ sections is!

From the Comments: An embarrassment of riches, a stable full of straw

Below are some more thoughts on “total liberty” and bad faith.

My argument in the threads with Marvin has intended to be one that displays two points of view, rather than to be one of persuasion. Due to his responses to Dr Foldvary’s argument, I realized that he was uninterested in having an honest debate. I also realized that persuading him would be futile. So I instead have tried to illustrate – to readers and curious passersby – how Marvin’s arguments are fallacious (dishonest) and what to do about them by exploiting Marvin’s position. In order to do this I have kept it simple and tried to argue on Marvin’s terms (“speaking past one another”). Rick has an insightful, must-read summary of our arguments, and he also furthers our understanding of freedom in the process.

I am not quite done, though. I am still unsure if I have accomplished my task of exposing Marvin’s arguments as fallacious. I want to be sure that readers don’t take him seriously in the future should he decide to continue trolling the ‘comments’ section. Marvin states matter-of-factly that:

The problem is that I have a better handle on the truth than you do.

Now, in the interest of honest debate, I hope that everyone can see how Marvin’s assertion shows how he is being dishonest. I have pointed out his straw man fallacies for a while now, and I want to get the point across that Marvin’s characterizations of libertarian ethics are based upon the above-quoted viewpoint.

Given that Marvin believes he has a better handle on truth than I, how can I (or you as a reader) expect to get an even-handed argument from him? If you believe that I have mischaracterized Marvin’s arguments (as he has done to mine and Dr Foldvary’s and soon-to-be [?] Dr Weber’s), please point out where in the ‘comments’ thread.

Again, my task is much more simple than Rick’s. I wish to merely show how Marvin’s argument is based on falsehoods. I think his comments elsewhere suggest my hunch is right. (Rick, by the way, has been much more generous to Marvin than I, a position for which he has been rewarded by being called a homosexual with an unhealthy obsession for Marvin (“My name can’t stay off of Rick’s lips,” according to Marvin the Truthspeaker).)

Marvin’s main error in reasoning, in my judgement, is that he creates positions that nobody has made and then draws conclusions from those created positions. Sometimes he restates arguments that nobody has contested as if they were contested and then proceeds to explain why libertarians should not (or do) contest such an argument. This is sophistry at its most vulgar.

Does everybody follow? Dr Amburgey?

His last response to me in the ‘comments’ is a good example of what I mean. Marvin writes:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Society A (the one with no rules prohibiting murder) does not have total liberty because its members do not have freedom from unwarranted aggression.”

[Marvin:] If a society has a consensus that murder should be punished then it effectively has a rule prohibiting murder whether the rule is explicitly written down or not.

Yes, and what exactly does this have to do with my argument? With Fred’s? With Rick’s? With Hank’s? Marvin continues:

If a society has no agreement that murder is wrong then its sense of justice either presumes any murder is justified or is indifferent to it until it affects them personally.

Again, this may be true, but what exactly does this have to do with my argument that “Society A (the one with no rules prohibiting murder) does not have total liberty because its members do not have freedom from unwarranted aggression”? Where does it follow from this statement that rules prohibit total liberty? It’s almost as if Marvin is talking to himself rather than to a group of people. There is nothing wrong with thinking out loud, but it seems to me – based on this response and on past responses – that Marvin thinks he is replying to an argument somebody else has made rather than thinking out loud.

Marvin continues to pummel me:

(b) The meaning of “liberty” is “freedom to”, not “freedom from”. “Freedom to” means you can pursue your happiness with minimal restrictions (“total freedom” would imply no restrictions at all, a liberty to do what you please without fear of punishment).

Marvin goes on and on (and on) from there. However, this is simply wrong. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good summary of the ‘freedom to’ versus ‘freedom from’ distinction. Basically, the ‘freedom from’ folks look at external factors (such as government) that inhibit liberty, whereas the ‘freedom to’ folks look at factors that are internal to individuals (such as class). I don’t want to get into the details here, but suffice it to say this is not Marvin’s understanding of the distinction. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem explaining this misunderstanding, but given Marvin’s track record I’m going to skip out on doing so (unless somebody wants me to).

I’ve got one more example I’d like to use to hammer home my point that Marvin is not interested in having an honest debate. He writes:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Your attempt at distinguishing “private punishments” within Society A from “punishments of society” is also fallacious. Is society composed of numerous factions – most of them private – or is it a monolithic, dissent-free, homogeneous unit.”

[Marvin:] A consensus is not monolithic. If everyone had to agree to everything then nothing would be possible. To make cooperation possible, we created a democratically elected government with many checks and balances. And we agreed to respect the authority of the laws it creates, even laws we may disagree with, because we would expect others to respect the laws that we do agree with that they don’t. And the democratic process may correct or remove an unsuccessful law in the future. I may win the case today and you may win the case tomorrow.

My argument is that Marvin’s assumption about society is monolithic, not society itself. If you read my argument with an eye for understanding it you can easily see that. If you read my argument from a position of Truthspeaker it may be harder to do so.

One last point I’d like to mention is that Marvin also has a habit of changing definitions to suit his argument. Often he simply provides his own. This, of course, helps him to have that “better handle on truth” that nobody else at NOL seems to have.

Has this cleared anything up? Muddled it further? Am I coming off as an ideologue or somebody who is trying to weed out falsehoods?

There are plenty of rules in a libertarian society. The fact that there are rules does not mean that ‘total liberty’ is lost because of it. Such a characterization is the epitome of a straw man. Rick takes the idea of total freedom to the next level (so read up!), so all I’m trying to do here is make sure that everybody understands Marvin’s sophistry. I think understanding sophistry is important because it tends to mellow people out: If you can understand the falsehoods in an argument you can craft up a cooler response.

In response to a comment

In response to a comment, here’s an excerpt from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

“But–Professor, what *are* your political beliefs?”
“I’m a rational anarchist.”
“I don’t know that brand. Anarchist individualist, anarchist Communist, Christian anarchist, philosophical anarchist, syndicalist, libertarian–those I know. But what’s this? Randite?”
“I can get along with a Randite. A rational anarchist believe that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame…as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and *nowhere else*. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so
he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world…aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”
“Hear, hear!” I said. “‘Less than perfect.’ What I’ve been aiming for all my life.”
“You’ve achieved it,” said Wyoh. “Professor, your words sound good but there is something slippery about them. Too much power in the hands of individuals–surely you would not want…well, H-missiles for example–to be controlled by one irresponsible person?”
“My point is that one person *is* responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist–and they do–some *man* controls them. In terms of morals *there is no such thing as ‘state.’* Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

Wyoh plowed doggedly into Prof, certain she had all answers.But Prof was interested in questions rather than answers, which baffled her. Finally she said “Professor, I can’t understand you. I don’t insist that you call it ‘government’–I just want you to state what rules you think are necessary to ensure equal freedom for all.”
“Dear lady, I’ll happily accept your rules.”
“But you don’t seem to want *any* rules.”
“True, but I will accept any rules *you* feel necessary to *your* freedom. *I* am free no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I *alone* am morally responsible for everything I do.”
“You would not abide by a law that the majority felt was necessary?”
“Tell me what law, dear lady, and I will tell you whether I will obey it.”

Prof bowed and left, Stu and I followed him. Once in an otherwise empty capsule I tackled him. “Prof, I liked much that you said…but about taxation aren’t you going to pay for all this spending we’re doing?”
He was silent long moments, then said, “Manuel, my only ambition is to reach the day when I can stop pretending to be a chief executive.”
“Is no answer!”
“You have put your finger on the dilemma of all government–and the reason I am an anarchist. The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government–sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive-and can you think of a better way than by
requiring the governors themselves to pay the costs of their antisocial hobby?”
“Still doesn’t say how to pay for what we are doing now.”
“‘How,’ Manuel? You *know* how we are doing it. We’re *stealing* it. I’m neither proud of it nor ashamed; it’s the means we have. If they ever catch on, they may eliminate us–and that I am prepared to face. At least, in stealing, we have not created the villainous precedent of taxation.”
“Prof, I hate to say this–”
“Then why say it?”
“Because, damn it, I’m in it as deeply as you are…and want to see that money paid back! Hate to say it but what you just said sounds like hypocrisy.”
He chuckled. “Dear Manuel! Has it taken you all these years to decide that I am a hypocrite?”
“Then you admit it?”
“No. But if it makes you feel better to think that I am one, you are welcome to use me as your scapegoat. But I am not a hypocrite to myself because I was aware the day we declared the Revolution that we would need much money and would have to steal it. It did not trouble me because I considered it better than food riots six years hence, cannibalism in eight. I made my choice and have no regrets.”

From the Comments: Fallacies in the Threads

We don’t get as many trolls here as we used to, but every once in a while somebody will throw their garbage out the window as they drive by our humble consortium. Marvin’s comments in Dr Foldvary’s recent post on myths about libertarianism is a case in point. Attempting to take me to task for committing a logical fallacy, he  writes:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Dr Foldvary quit arguing with you because he has seen your fallacies over and over again throughout a long and distinguished career as an academic economist.”

Again, appealing to authority is not making a reasoned argument. You seem to be taking offense that anyone who would dare to disagree with or question anything he or you have said. Taking offense where none has been given is also rhetoric, not reason.

Just two things:

  1. An appeal to authority would have to involve me stating that Dr Foldvary is correct because he is an economist. I obviously made no such argument. I was merely trying to point out Marvin’s boorish manners and Fred’s subsequent, predictable reaction.
  2. I don’t see where I have “taken offense” in this thread. Marvin falsely charges me with doing so, and then goes on to suggest that I am angry because he disagrees with me. Now, Marvin would have a decent point if it were true that I was angry with his argument, but as it stands he is simply invoking his imagination in order to make his argument look better.

There is a reason Marvin has done this (I doubt it was a conscious one). He writes:

Brandon [again, quoting me]: “What exactly are you trying to refute, and which aspect of your argument refutes Dr Foldvary’s?”

First, it’s not Dr. Foldvary that I am having difficulty with. It is rather the unsubstantiated myths promoted by Libertarians generally that are the problem. For example, “In my judgment, when most people recognize natural moral law as the proper basis for governance, we will be able to have a truly free society.”

It is nothing but a rhetorical claim to say that my personal collection of moral laws are “natural”, “God given”, or “inherent”. Jefferson was speaking rhetorically (to sway emotional support) when he said “endowed by their Creator”. But when he said, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted” he was speaking of practical rights.

Can you spot the fallacy? I ask for an example of what Marvin is arguing against and he replies by changing the subject (from Fred’s argument to “Libertarians generally”). This particular fallacy is known as a red herring fallacy. In it, Marvin goes from ignoring Fred’s original argument to knocking down a “general” argument that he attributes to libertarians. How convenient!

Now, that’s two separate fallacies in one reply. Is it worth my time to respond? A fallacy is defined as being either a false or mistaken idea, or  as possessing a deceptive appearance. Marvin’s fallacies are a mixture of both, I think, and it would seem, based on his reasoning and on his dogmatic beliefs, that he is, in the words of alcoholics everywhere, fundamentally incapable of being honest with himself.

Nevertheless, I’d like to think that Marvin’s fallacies are based more on a false idea than on deception (I think the deception is largely for himself, anyway). So I’ll humor him one last time:

Brandon [quoting me]: “Being prohibited from killing another human being is not a restriction on freedom (same goes for stealing) because killing restricts the freedom of others.”

Actually, being prohibited from doing anything is a restriction upon the freedom of the person who wants to do that thing. The OD says, for example, freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”. Obviously if someone wants to steal and is prohibited from stealing, then his freedom is restricted.

You seem to have adopted a different definition, in which a rule against stealing is not really a restriction on freedom because it promotes the optimal freedom for everyone. I don’t think you’ll find that in the OD.

On the other hand, I do agree that all rules are intended to improve the total good and reduce the total harm for everyone. But to achieve that benefit, the rule diminishes the total liberty of everyone.

This is a much more sophisticated fallacy, but it is a fallacy nonetheless. Marvin is trying to discredit libertarianism by arguing that total freedom allows for individuals to steal and kill as they please. This is utterly false, and I’ll get to why in just a minute, but first I think it is important to highlight Marvin’s underlying logic behind this fallacy so that in the future we can all do a better job of rooting out dishonesty from our debates on liberty.

Marvin argues that total freedom must allow for killing and stealing, and only restrictions upon killing and stealing are able to prevent such occurrences from happening regularly. By framing the debate in this way, it then follows that restrictions upon other freedoms (ones that may come to be deemed harmful to society by some) are a logical and beneficial response to social problems. Do you follow? If not, you know where the ‘comments’ section is.

Marvin’s fallacious reasoning in this regard is on full display throughout the thread (please read it yourself).

Yet killing and stealing are not actions that can be found in total freedom (“the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants”). Killing and stealing are actions that can be found throughout the animal kingdom. Does this make animals free?

Of course not, and this is because freedom is a distinctly human notion. Rules and agreements do not diminish total liberty. There is the possibility that total liberty can be diminished by rules. Nobody disputes this. To suggest that (capital-L) “Libertarians generally” do dispute this is disingenuous. It’s also convenient for Marvin’s fallacy.

Total freedom will not be achieved in our lifetimes. It will not be achieved in our grandchildren’s lifetimes. This doesn’t mean it should not be held up as an ideal to aspire to. Ignoring or ceding the ideal of total freedom means that the Marvins of the world will continue to get their Social Security checks in the mail.

From the Comments: More on Property Rights

Rick chimes in on my musings about political entrepreneurship:

Reducing competition *is* a way to reduce competition. A company can invest effort in increasing value or reducing availability of substitutes (both shifting demand) or in reducing costs or shifting costs onto others (supply shifts).

(Okay, now I’m going to go into some philosophical stuff purely for my own benefit…)

That’s the high level story, but it rests on a foundation of property rights; by which I mean the de facto property rights that actually matter, not some rights assigned by Santa, or rights that are just and proper as defined by very sensible arguments by libertarians. “Society” generally accepts that the government holds particular property rights that touch on a number of possible exchanges in order to promote–we can tell that that’s the case because people aren’t willing to undergo the cost of stripping those rights away. The hotel lobby has recognized that to be the case and so has asked the state to exercise those rights in a way that benefits the hotel lobby and they have offered some sort of exchange (which may be as vague as “social capital”/reasonable expectation of future political support, or as explicit as bribes, but probably something in between). This exchange has altered the shape of the socio-political-economic environment in which similar exchanges may occur in the future.

Addendum: Pretty much all of the ‘comments‘ in Warren G’s post on the seven rhetorical weak spots of libertarians are worth re-reading, too.

From the Comments: Was Colonialism Good for the Natives?

NEO, in response to my musings on the rule of law in Africa, writes:

Thanks, Brandon. Like I said, I don’t know very much at all about Africa, right now I’m looking a bit more at the British in Egypt/Sudan. But currently I know mostly what I read and I suspect you know what I see, so I’m not about to argue with you on it.

Given what you know, I see really good things ahead for them. And that is very good, both for them and us. Somebody once said that prosperous folks try to avoid wars because its hard on the china. I know, it’s simplistic but, its also true.

I get the impression, and I could easily be wrong here, that it might have been better for everyone if the Empires had lasted a few more decades, it looks to me like the people learned the lessons but not the mechanics of creating the institutions.

Excellent point NEO, especially about wars being bad for the china.

Now, the colonial empires were bad for just about everybody (the factions that were able to capture the rent generated by imperial policies were excepted, of course). While European imperialism did open up the markets in Africa and Asia to their mercantile spheres of influence, these policies did not open up the markets to genuine world trade. This has had several ramifications for individual liberty in the post-colonial world.

In order to open up the economies of Africa and Asia to their mercantile systems, the Europeans created a great legal code for the mercantile systems. These legal codes helped reduce transaction costs and protected the private property of European citizens abroad, which helped to foster more trade within the mercantile systems. Unfortunately, the legal codes of both the British and the Dutch (I can’t speak for the Latin states, but judging by the state of affairs that these regions are now in, I assume that such policies were just as bad, if not worse) created a two-tiered system of justice: Europeans and a small number of local elites were able to count on the legal system to protect their private property, but everybody else was relegated to a second-class citizenship. This two-tiered system was not good for the populations of Africa and Asia, nor were they good for European citizens.

It goes without saying that the colonial apparatuses did not have to do much work in regards to grafting the indigenous legal and political systems of the African and Asian polities onto the mercantile system. Most of the African and Asian polities that the Europeans subdued were already protectionist and despotic, so colonial policy became a careful matter of picking the right factions to ally with. It is important to note that the policies of the polities in Africa and Asia were responsible for their weakened state, not any sort of cultural attributes. Up until the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was still pretty much on par with the rest of the world as far as living standards went. With the advent of peace on the continent, and new legal codes that extended private property rights (including rights to freer trade in the world) to a larger segment of its citizens, Europe became far too powerful for everybody else.

We could argue, of course, that certain cultural attributes of Europeans at that time contributed to successful implementation of such policies (and we would be right), but culture is always changing. It is our task to ensure that we continue to contribute to a culture that values individual liberty above all else.

Again, this is not say that African and Asian peoples have never known liberty. Private property has been around for a long time. The arrival of European states (not merchants) into these regions of the world created a burgeoning market for all things war, and as hostilities increased, so too did the health of these states.

From the Comments: Incentives, Academe, Science and Grants

In my experience scientists [including social scientists and including me] are incented to get more money for their research. The effects of funding on research can be worrisome. For example for reasons of politics and public opinion a disproportionate amount of money was devoted to HIV research. By disproportionate I mean that in my opinion there would be more bang for buck on bigger public health problems like malaria, certain cancers etc.

However does that mean that I should doubt the findings of the virologists, immunologists, and all the other -ists doing the research? I think not. Certainly not in the aggregate. Chasing the bucks might lead them to doing research in the ‘wrong’ area so to speak but it won’t lead them to falsify their results.

This is from Dr Amburgey (he’s real) and it comes from an exchange on climate change/global warming. I raised a concern I had about the incentive structure built into the scientific community of the West, but Dr Amburgey’s logic has put my skepticism to rest.

From the Comments: Iran, Nationalism and Satire

Siamak helps to clarify some things about contemporary Iranian culture that have been mischaracterized or misunderstood in the West:

Great article. About Iran part I wanted to leave a comment about two things. Fernanda Lima’s facebook page issue was so insulting and shameful. But it’s not like that Iranians are really blaming her for not having hijab. It was a sarcasm of state-run media. It was like now that we don’t have any hope for state TV to stop censorship you why didn’t you wear a better clothes. State-run TV does show foreign eomen with no hijab in movies, news, etc. But those beautiful breasts…! :-)

You should recognize the Iranian culture to know what I mean. Although it was insulting and shameful but they’re not really blaming her. It was a sarcasm of Iranian media.

The second part goes to the Iranian Nationalism. You’re right. After the Islamic Revolution, Islamic republic was completely against nationalists. That time most of the political groups were Islamic groups or Radical communists and socialists. The only liberwl group were called Nezhat Azadi (Liberty Movement) which were Moderate Liberal Muslim Nationalists. After the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic groups were completrly against nationalism. They were thinking that Islam should be the common thing between all Iranians. After 1998 that president khatami came this was going to change and Nationalism was again advertised by the government. Extreme nationalism in Iran is sourced from these two events: showing disagreement with the Islamic Radicals and the great history of Iran which has made Iranians extremely illusory about themselves.

Me myself think I’m a nationalist. But there’s a bit difference. Nationalism is not a goal for me. It’ just a medium or instrument for me. I completely believe in globalization and Peter Singer’s globalization is one of my favourite books. But I think nationalism is a medium to get closer to modernism. That’s it.

I suspect Siamak’s nationalism is a lot like the American libertarian’s patriotism.

Refugies dans l’ irrealite?

Pour des raisons techniques mysterieuse, je n’ai pas reussi a afficher une reponse au commentaire sur mon essai du 16 Novembre, “Une culture politique du n’importe quoi.” envoye par celui que j’ai nomme “Le Chouan.” J’en ai fait un essai a la place que voici:

Le chouan:

Bien sur, je suis tributaire de l’etroit menu en Francais disponible ici. Ce n’est pas grand-chose. D’ailleurs, j’interroge plus que j’affirme quand il s’agit de la France. J’aime bien “On N’est pas couche” pour une raison: Cette emission interroge en profondeur les homme politiques de maniere que je n’ai jamais vue ici, aux E.U. Et son presentateur me semble bien faire son boulot, quoique ce soit qui fasse flotter son bateau. (Traduction de l’Anglais.)

Le pessimisme de ton analyse force a se poser cette question: Comment est-ce qu’un pays de 60 millions, dont peu d’analphabetes, jouissant d’un plein acces a l’Internet, en est arrive a dependre d’un classe politique aussi nulle? S’agit-il d’une consequence d’une culture francaise plus ou moins constante ou plutot d’un deraillement. Dans le second cas, le deraillement daterait de quand?

Ou alors, assistons- nous a la gueule de bois qui suivrait trente annes de grandes vacances bien arrosees? Est-ce que la structure meme de la societe francaise rendrait l’acte de gouverner tres difficile?(Je mets en cause l’etat-nounou, bien sur, et le tout-subventionne.)

Voici une observation qui est peut-etre (peut-etre) liee a mon interrogation: Je suis en rapport avec un blog de lyceen parisiens intelligents. Ils s’expriment pourtant comme des militants communistes de 1953. On dirait qu’ils vivent dans une film, dans un mauvais film.

La societe francaise me donne d’ailleurs souvent l’impression d’etre une sorte de feuilleton. Je suis tous les jours absaourdi, par exemple, de constater les emprunts a la langue anglaises par des gens qui ne connaissent pas l’Anglais et qui possedent d’ailleurs une langue parfaitement viable. J’ai entendu avec mes propres oreilles un Francais plutot creatif utiliser le mot “gun.” dans une phrase en Francais. Cela m’etonne, bien sur, la langue francaise ne manque pas de vocable pour dire “arme a feu.” On dirait que beaucoup de Francais trouvent leur propre realite irreelle, qu’ils essaient de se refugier dans le monde des ecrans etrangers a leur proproe culture. Et ou les idees, exprimees dans une langue peu ou mal connue, sont mal saisies parceque elles sont rendues par la-meme insaisissables.

Je dis ca, moi, c’est pour causer.

From the Comments: Populism, Big Banks and the Tyranny of Ambiguity

Andrew takes time to elaborate upon his support for Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Native American law professor from Harvard who often pines for the “little guy” in public forums. I loathe populism/fascism precisely because it is short on specifics and very, very long on generalities and emotional appeal. This ambiguity is precisely why fascist/populist movements lead societies down the road to cultural, economic and political stagnation. Andrew begins his defense of populism/fascism with this:

For example, I still have more trust in Warren than in almost anyone else in Congress to hold banks accountable to the rule of law.

Banks have been following the rule of law. This is the problem libertarians have been trying to point out for hundreds of years. See Dr Gibson on bank regulations and Dr Gibson again, along with Dr Foldvaryon alternatives. This is why you see so few bankers in jail. Libertarians point to institutional barriers that are put in place by legislators at the behest of a myriad of lobbying groups. Populists/fascists decry the results of the legislation and seek a faction to blame.

If you wanted to be thought of as an open-minded, fairly intelligent individual, which framework would you present to those who you wished to impress: the institutional one that libertarians identify as the culprit for the 2008 financial crisis or the ambiguous one that the populists wield?

And populism=fascism=nationalism is a daft oversimplification. I’ll grant that there’s often overlap between the three, but it’s far from total or inevitable overlap. Populists target their own countries’ elites all the time.

Sometimes oversimplification is a good thing, especially if it helps to clarify something (see, for example, Dr Delacroix’s work on free trade and the Law of Comparative Advantage). One of the hallmarks of fascism is its anti-elitism. Fascists tend to target elites in their own countries because they are a) easy and highly visible targets, b) usually employed in professions that require a great amount of technical know-how or traditional education and c) very open to foreign cultures and as such are often perceived as being connected to elites of foreign societies.

The anti-elitism of fascists/populists is something that libertarians don’t think about enough. Anti-elitism is by its very nature anti-individualistic, anti-education and anti-cooperative. You can tell it is all of these “antis” not because of the historical results that populism/fascism has bred, but because of its ambiguous arguments. Ambiguity, of course, is a populist’s greatest weapon. There is never any substance to be found in the arguments of the populist. No details. No clarity. Only easily identifiable problems (at best) or ad hominem attacks (at worst). Senator Warren is telling in this regard. She is known for her very public attacks on banks and the rich, but when pressed for details she never elaborates. And why should she? To do so would expose her public attacks to argument. It would create a spectacle out of the sacred. For example, Andrew writes:

Still, I’d rather have people like Warren establish a fuzzy and imperfect starting point for reform than let courtiers to the wealthy and affluent dictate policy because there’s no remotely viable counterpoint to their stances [...] These doctrinaire free-market orthodoxies are where the libertarian movement loses me. There are just too many untrustworthy characters attached to that ship for me to jump on board.

Ambiguity is a better alternative than plainly stated and publicly published goals simply because there are “untrustworthy characters” associated with the latter? Why not seek plainly stated and publicly published alternatives rather than “fuzzy and imperfect starting points for reform”?

Andrew quotes a man in the street that happens to be made entirely of straw:

“Social Security has gone into the red, but instead of increasing the contribution ceiling and thoughtfully trimming benefits, let’s privatize the whole thing and encourage people to invest in my company’s private retirement accounts.”

Does the libertarian really argue that phasing out a government program implemented in the 1930s is good because it would force people to invest in his company’s private retirement accounts? I’ve never heard of such an example, but I may just be reading all the wrong stuff. Andrew could prove me wrong with a lead or two. There is more:

This ilk of concern trolls (think Megan McArdle: somewhat different emphasis, same general worldview) is one that I find thoroughly disgusting and untrustworthy and that I want absolutely no part in engaging in civil debate. Their positions are just too corrupt and outlandish to dignify with direct responses; I consider it better to marginalize them and instead engage adversaries who aren’t pushing the Overton Window to extremes that I consider bizarre and self-serving. They’re often operating from premises that a supermajority of Americans would find absurd or unconscionable, so I see no point to inviting shills and nutters into a debate [...].

Megan McArdle is so “disgusting and untrustworthy” that her arguments are not even worth discussing? Her name is worth bringing up, of course, but her arguments are not? Ambiguity is the weapon of the majority’s tyranny, and our readers deserve better. They are not idiots (our readership is still too small!), and I think they deserve an explanation for why McArdle is not worthy of their time (aside from being a shill for the rich, of course).

I think populism/fascism is often attractive to dissatisfied and otherwise intelligent individuals largely because its ambiguous nature seems to provide people with answers to tough questions that they cannot (or will not) answer themselves. Elizabeth Warren’s own tough questions, on the Senate Banking Committee, revolve around pestering banks for supposedly (supposedly) laundering money to drug lords and terrorists:

“What does it take, how many billions of dollars do you have to launder from drug lords and how many economic sanctions do you have to violate before someone will consider shutting down a financial institution?” Warren asked at a Banking Committee hearing on money laundering.

Notice how the populist/fascist simply takes the laws in place for granted (so long as they serve her desires)? The libertarian would ask not if the banks were doing something illegally, but why there are laws in place that prohibit individuals and organizations from making monetary transactions in the first place.

Senator Warren’s assumptions highlight well the difference between the ideologies of populism/fascism and libertarianism: One ideology thinks bludgeoning unpopular factions is perfectly acceptable. The other would defend an unpopular faction as if it were its own; indeed, as if its own freedom were tied up to the freedom of the faction under attack.

Unequal Poverty: Tricks (Part Two of two)

In the previous installment:

I explained how the general standard of living in America, denoted by real income, grew a great deal between 1975 and a recent date, specifically, 2007. This, in spite of a widespread rumor to the contrary. The first installment touched only a little on the following problem: It’s possible for overall growth to be accompanied by some immobility and even by some regress. Here is a made-up example:

Between the first and the second semester, grades in my class have, on the average, moved up from C to B. Yet, little Mary Steady’s grade did not change at all. It remained stuck at C. And Johnny Bad’s grade slipped from C to D.

Flummoxed by the sturdiness, the blinding obviousness of the evidence regarding general progress in the standard of living, liberal advocates like to take refuge in more or less mysterious statements about how general progress does not cover everybody. Or not everybody equally, which is a completely different statement. They are right either way and it’s trivial that they are right. Let’s look at this issue of unequally distributed economic progress in a skeptical but fair manner.

It’s awfully hard to prevent the poor, women and minorities from benefiting

I begin by repeating myself. As I noted in Part One, it’s too easy to take the issue of distribution of income growth too seriously. Some forms of improvements in living standard simply cannot practically be withheld from a any subgroup, couldn’t be if you tried. Here is another example: Since 1950, mortality from myocardial infarctus fell from 30-40% to 5-8%. (from a book review by A. Verghese in Wall Street Journal 10/26 and 10/27 2013). When you begin looking at these sort of things, unexpected facts immediately jump at you.

Fishing expeditions

The US population of 260 millions to over 300 million during the period of interest 1975-2007 can be divided in an infinity of segment, like this: Mr 1 plus Mr 2; Mr 2 plus Mrs 3; Mr 2 and Mrs3 plus Mr 332; Mr 226 plus Mrs 1,000,0001; and so forth.

Similarly, the period of interest1975 to 2007 can be divided in an infinity of subperiods, like this: Year 1 plus year 2; year 1 plus year 3; years 1, 2, 3 plus year 27; and so forth. You get the idea.

So, to the question: Is there a subset of the US population which did not share in the general progress in the American standard of living during some subperiod between 1975 and 2007?

The prudent response is “No.” It’s even difficult to imagine a version of reality where you would be right to affirm:

“There is no subset of the US population that was left behind by general economic progress at any time during the period 1975- 2007.”

Let me say the same thing in a different way: Given time and good access to info, what’s the chance that I will not find some Americans whose lot failed to improve during the period 1975 to 2007? The answer is zero or close to it.

This is one fishing expedition you can join and never come back empty-handed, if you have a little time.

Thus, liberal dyspeptics, people who hate improvement, are always on solid ground when they affirm, “Yes, but some people are not better off than they were in 1975 (or in —– -Fill in the blank.)” The possibilities for cherry-picking are endless (literally).

Everyone therefore has to decide for himself what exception to the general fact of improvement is meaningful, which trivial. This simple task is made more difficult by the liberals’ tendency to play games with numbers and sometimes even to confuse themselves in this matter. I will develop both issues below.

To illustrate the idea that you have to decide for yourself, here is a fictitious but realistic example of a category of Americans who were absolutely poorer in 2007 that they were in 1975. You have to decide whether this is something worth worrying about. You might wonder why liberals never, but never lament my subjects’ fate.

Consider any number of stock exchange crises since 1975. There were people who, that year, possessed inherited wealth of $200 million each, generating a modest income of $600,000 annually. Among those people there were a number of stubborn, risk-seeking and plain bad investors who lost half of their wealth during the period of observation. By 2007, they were only receiving an annual income of $300,000. (Forget the fact that this income was in inflation shrunk dollars.) Any way you look at it, this is a category of the population that became poorer in spite of the general (average) rise in in American incomes. Right?

Or, I could refer to the thousands of women who were making a living in 1975 by typing. (My doctoral dissertation was handwritten, believe it or not. Finding money to pay to get it typed was the hardest part of the whole doctoral project.) One of the many improvements brought about by computers is that they induced ordinary people to learn to do their own typing. Nevertheless, there was one older lady who insisted all along on making her living typing and she even brought her daughter into the trade. Both ladies starved to death in 2005. OK, I made them up and no one starved to death but you get my point: The imaginary typists fell behind, did not share in the general (average) improvement and their story is trivial.

So, I repeat, given a some time resources, I could always come up with a category of the US population whose economic progress was below average. I could even find some segment of the population that is poorer, in an absolute sense, than it was at the beginning of the period of observation. Note that those are two different finds. Within both categories, I could even locate segments that would make the liberal heart twitch. I would be a little tougher to find people who both were poorer than before the period observation and that would be deserving of liberal sympathy. It would be a little tough but I am confident it could be done.

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

Naively blatant misrepresentations

A hostile liberal commenter on this blog once said the following:

“Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children.”

That was a rebuttal of my assertion that there had been general (average) income growth.

Two problems: first, I doubt there are any American “households” of more than one person that lives on less than $2 /day. If there were then, they must all be dead now, from starvation. I think someone stretched the truth a little by choosing a misleading word. Of maybe here is an explanation. The commenter alleged fact will provide it, I hope.

Second, and more importantly, as far as real income is concerned , government benefits (“welfare”) matter a great deal. Including food stamps, they can easily triple the pitiful amount of $2 a day mentioned. That would mean that a person (not a multiple person- household ) would live on $1080 a month. I doubt free medical care, available through Medicaid, is included in the $2/day. I wonder what else is included in “government benefits.”

The author of the statement above is trying to mislead us in a crude way. I would be eager to discuss the drawbacks of income received as benefits in- instead of income earned. As a conservative, I also prefer the second to the first. Yet, income is income whatever its source, including government benefits.

The $2/day mention is intended for our guts, not for our brains. Again, this is crude deception.

Pay attention to what the other guy asserts sincerely about economic growth.

Often, it implies pretty much the reverse of what he intends. In an October 2013 discussion on this blog about alleged increasing poverty in the US, asked the following rhetorical question:

“Or have Americans’ standard of living only improved as the gap [between other countries and the US] closed?“

I meant to smite the other guy because the American standard of living has only increased, in general, as we have seen (in Part One of this essay posted). A habitual liberal commenter on my blog had flung this in my face:

“….Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households…” (posted 10/23/13)

(He means in the US. And that’s from a source I am not sure the commenter identified but I believe it exists.)

Now, suppose the statement is totally true. (It’s not; it ignores several things described in Part One.) The statement says that something like roughly 60 million Americans are richer than they, or their high income equivalents were in 1975. It also says that other households may have had almost stationary incomes (“practically”). The statement does not say in any way that anyone has a lower income in 1975. At best, the statement taken literally, should cause me to restate my position as follows:

“American standards of living have remained stationary or they have improved….”

You may not like the description of income gains in my translation of the liberal real statement above. It’s your choice. But the statement fails to invalidate my overall assertion: Americans’ standard of living improved between 1975 and 2007.

What the liberal commenter did is typical. Liberals always do it. They change the subject from economic improvement to something else they don’t name. I, for one, think they should be outed and forced to speak clearly about what they want to talk about.

Big fallacies in plain sight

Pay attention to seemingly straightforward, common liberal, statist assertions. They often conceal big fallacies, sometimes several fallacies at once.

Here is such an assertion that is double-wrong.

“In the past fifteen years the 20% of the population who receive the lowest income have seen their share of national income decrease by ten percentage points.” (Posted as a comment on my blog on 10/21/13)

Again, two – not merely one – strongly misleading things about this assertion. (The liberal commenter who sent it will assure us that he had no intention to mislead; that it’s the readers’ fault because, if…. Freaking reader!)

A The lowest 20% of the population of today are not the same as those of fifteen years ago, nor should you assume that they are their children. They may be but there is a great deal of vertical mobility in this country, up and own. (Just look at me!)The statement does not logically imply that any single, one recognizable group of social category became poorer in the interval. The statement in no way says that there are people in America who are poor and that those same people became poorer either relatively or in an absolute sense. Here is a example to think about: The month that I was finishing my doctoral program, I was easily among the 20% poorest in America. Hell, I probably qualified for the 5% poorest! Two months later, I had decisively left both groups behind; I probably immediately qualified for the top half of income earners. Yet, my progress would not have falsified the above statement. It’s misleading if you don’t think about it slowly, the way I just did.

I once tried to make the left-liberal vice-president of a Jesuit university understand this simple logical matter and I failed. He had a doctorate from a good university in other than theology. Bad mental habits are sticky.

B Percentages are routinely abused

There is yet another mislead in the single sentence above. Bear with me and ignore the first fallacy described above. The statement is intended to imply that the poorer became poorer. In reality, it implies nothing of the sort. Suppose that there are only two people: JD and my neighbor. I earn $40, neighbor earns $60. In total, we earn. $100 Thus my share of our joint income is 40%, neighbor’s is 60%. Then neighbor goes into business for himself and his income shoots up to $140. Meanwhile, I get a raise and my income is now $60.

In the new situation, my share of our joint income has gone down to 30% (60/60+140), from 40%. (Is this correct? Yes, or No; decide now.) Yet, I have enjoyed a fifty percent raise in income. That’s a raise most unions would kill for. I am not poorer, I am much richer than I was before. Yet the statement we started with stands; it’s true. And it’s misleading unless you pay attention to percentages. Many people don’t. I think that perhaps few people do.

My liberal critic was perhaps under the impression that his statement could convince readers that some Americans had become poorer in spite of a general (average rise) in real American income. I just showed you that his statement logically implies no such thing at all. If he want to demonstrate that Americans, some Americans, have become poorer, he has to try something else. The question unavoidably arises: Why didn’t he do it?

Was he using his inadequate statement to change the subject without letting you know? If you find yourself fixating on the fact that my neighbor has become even richer than I did because he more than doubled his income, the critic succeeded in changing the subject. It means you are not concerned with income growth anymore but with something else, a separate issue. That other issue is income distribution. Keep in mind when you think of this new issue that, in my illustration of percentages above, I did become considerably richer.

Liberals love the topic of unequal progress for the following reason:

They fail to show that, contrary to their best wish, Americans have become poorer. They fail almost completely to show that some people have become absolutely poorer. They are left with their last-best. It’s not very risky because, as I have already stated, it’s almost always true: Some people have become not as richer as some other people who became richer!

Policy implications of mis-direction about income growth

The topic matter because, in the hands of modern liberals any level of income inequality can be used to call for government interventions in the economy that decrease individual liberty.

Here are a very few practical, policy consequences:

A Income re-distribution nearly always involves government action that is, force. (That’s what government does: It forces one to do what one wouldn’t do out of own inclination.) That’s true for democratic constitutional governments as well as it is for pure tyrannies. In most countries, to enact a program to distribute the fruits of economic growth more equally it to organize intimidation and, in the end, violence against a part of the population. (For a few exceptions, see my old but still current journal article: “The Distributive State in the World System. “Google it.) This is a mild description pertaining to a world familiar to Americans. In the 1920s, in Russia, many people (“kulaks”) were murdered because they had two cows instead of one the 1920s twenties.

Conservatives tend to take seriously even moderate-seeming violations of individual liberty, including slow-moving ones.

B Conservatives generally believe that redistribution of income undermines future economic growth. With this belief, you have to decide between more equality or more income for all, or nearly all (see above) tomorrow?

It’s possible to favor one thing at the cost of bearing the travails the other brings. It’s possible to favor the first over the second. This choice is actually at the heart of the liberal/conservative split. It deserves to be discussed in its own right; “ Do your prefer more prosperity or more equality?” The topic should not be swept under the rug or be made to masquerade as something else.

If you are going to die for a hill, make sure it’s the right hill.

PS: There is no “income gap.”

From the Comments: The four broad pillars of the market-based economy

NEO’s response to my musings on decentralization in Africa is worth highlighting:

It strikes me , Brandon, that one of the impediments here, there may be others, I’m no expert, is that the nascent US was composed mostly of literate folks with a (at least somewhat) common outlook that specified above all honesty and a “government of laws, not men”. I would also state that this is a good bit of our problem now.

This is a great observation. An anthropologist by the name of Maya Mikdashi recently wrote an article on the effects of market-based reforms in the Middle East. She essentially argued that the market-based reforms assume that only a certain type of individual can successfully participate in the market economy (stay with me here): the rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally-protected-as-an-individual type. Over the past two decades, as more states have moved towards a market-based economy, we have seen the institutional and cultural rewards being reaped from this process. Instead of people who have known only poverty and want, the market-based economy has pushed individuals to seek to become more rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally protected as an individual.

Now, stay with me. The market-based economy, capitalism, has four broad institutional pillars that it needs to thrive: private property, individualism, the rule of law, and an internationalist spirit. From these pillars come the fountains of progress that the West has come to enjoy over the past 300 years. While I doubt she realizes it, Mikdashi is simply echoing the writings of the great classical liberal theorists of the past three centuries: institutions matter, and they matter a lot. A big point both Dr. Ayittey and myself have been trying to make is that the institutions necessary for progress and capitalism are already in place in the post-colonial world; when I was in Ghana doing research one of the things I always asked farmers is where they got their property titles and they answered “the chief.” I asked them why they didn’t go through more official routes to obtain their property titles (i.e. through the state), and I’m sure you can finish the Ghanaian farmer’s answer for him.

The fact that most, if not all, citizens of the new republic desired the rule of law is one that cannot be stressed enough, and it is definitely one of the reasons why we have grown so prosperous, and answers why we are in trouble today. However: Africans don’t desire the rule of law?