From the Comments: Sovereignty, the Commons, and International Relations

There have been a number of excellent discussions in the ‘comments’ threads these days. Dr Khawaja adds more depth to the discussion on Iran and foreign policy. Me and Chhay Lin are in the midst of a debate on democracy and libertarianism. Michelangelo’s post on splitting up California generated a good discussion. You can see what’s hot in the threads by looking to your right, of course. I wanted to highlight this ‘comment’ by Rick in the threads of Edwin’s recent post on liberalism and sovereignty:

“[S]overeignty is a constitutional idea of the rights and duties of the governments and citizens or subjects of particular states.”

To me, a constitution is like a contract. It’s close to set in stone and it lays out these rights and duties. But the idea of sovereignty Jackson is pointing toward in that quote would be better understood as laying out a sort of meta-prize; it’s a delineation of the commons that potential groups within that area may compete over or cooperate in. To be fair, a constitution is a similar sort of commons (especially when that constitution includes the right to collect tax and lead armies). The question of how to govern the commons is *the* question on the domestic side.

On the international end of things, anarcho-capitalism calls for muddying the borders of these commons. This has obvious costs and benefits: it makes the emergence of a productive polycentric order easier, but it also opens access to what would have been relatively closed commons. I think the missing piece in the world governance question, whether from a classical liberal, minarchist, or anarchist perspective is the question of how a polycentric order would emerge and function (e.g. standards associations, norms of arbitration/dispute resolution, etc.).

More discussion is needed on this point…

Basic income: a debate where demand magically disappears!

For a few months now, the case for the basic income has resurged (I thought it died with Milton Friedman in 2006, if not earlier). In the wake of this debate, I have been stunned by the level of disconnect between the pundits and what the outcome of the few experiments of basic income have been. The most egregious illustration of this disconnect is the case of the work disincentive.

To be clear, most of the studies find a minor effect on labor supply overall which in itself does not seem dramatic (see Robert Moffitt’s work here). Yet, this is a incomplete way to reflect on the equilibrium effect of a massive reform that would be a basic income.

Personally, I think that there is a good reason to believe that the labor supply reaction would be limited. At present, many tax systems have”bubbles” of increasing marginal tax rates. In some countries like Canada, the phasing out of tax credits for children actually mean that the effective marginal tax rate increases as income increases from the low 20,000$ to the mid 40,000$. As a result, a basic income would flatten the marginal tax rate for those whose labor supply curve is not likely to bend backward. In such a situation, labor supply could actually increase!

Yet, even if that point was wrong, labor supply could shift but without any changes in total labor provided. Under most basic income proposals, tax rates are dropped significantly as a result of a reduced bureaucracy and of a unified tax base (i.e. the elimination of tax credits). In such a situation, marginal tax rates are also lowered. This means greater incentives to invest (save) and acquire human capital. This will affect the demand for labor!

A paper in the Journal of Socio-Economics by  Karl Widerquist makes this crucial point. None of the experiments actually could estimate the demand-side reaction of the market. Obviously, a very inelastic labor demand would mean very little change in hours worked and the reverse if it was very elastic. But what happens if the demand curve shifts? Widerquist does not elaborate on shifts of the demand curve, but they could easily occur if a basic income consolidates all transfers (in kind and conditional monetary) allows a reduction in overall spending and thus the tax take needed to fund activities. In that case, demand for labor would shift to the right. A paper on the health effects of MINCOME in Manitoba (Canada) shows that improvement in health outcomes are cheaply attained through basic income which would entail substantial health care expenditures reduction.

I have surveyed the articles compiled by Widerquist and added those who have emerged since. None consider the possibility of a shift of the demand curve. Even libertarian scholars like Matt Zwolinski (who has been making the case forcibly for a basic income for sometime now) have not made this rebuttal point!

Yet, the case is relatively straightforward: current transfers are inefficient, basic income is more efficient at obtaining each unit of poverty reduction, basic income requires lower taxes, basic income means lower marginal tax rates, lower marginal tax rates mean more demand for investment and labor and thus more long-term growth and a counter-balance to any supply-side effect.

I hope that the Bleeding Heart Libertarians will take notice of this crucial point in favor of their argument!

From the Comments: Military intervention, democracy, and stability

Longtime reader (and excellent blogger in his own right) Tam has an interesting response to Chhay Lin’s thoughts on the Paris terrorist attacks:

It is an interesting read indeed but there are two or even more sides to every story. What we are also noting is that many of these groups that hate Western interventionist policies also hate their own people for being different in one way or the other. However, I agree that the misplaced perception of democracy as the superior form of governance overlooks the essential internal historical and socio-political factors behind the politics of the different countries that have become victims of Western ‘sanctification’ processes fronted by bombs after daring to opt not to embrace democracy. Libya and Iraq were stable before Western intervention.

Tam’s point strikes at the heart of the difference between military interventionists and non-interventionists, I think. Libya and Iraq were indeed stable, but not everybody was free. In Iraq, Shias, Kurds, liberals, and religious Sunnis were all brutally suppressed, and this oppression stood in stark contrast to the freedoms that secularists, women, union members, some socialists, and the politically apathetic enjoyed. The sociopolitical dynamics in Libya were the same, though with different local actors.

This reality is something that both sides of the interventionist debate recognize, though the interventionist side seems to place much more faith in government when it comes to “doing something.” Jacques and Edwin, for example, have both argued that bombing ambiguous factions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya would contribute to the freedoms of the oppressed factions in those countries. Looking back on the debate makes it clear that they weren’t wrong, but look at what those freedoms have produced. Those freedoms have come at the expense of the freedoms of the factions that the dictators were protecting.

What this situation shows me is that the states of the post-colonial world are unviable. Stability comes at too steep a price (dictatorship), and democracy’s unpredictability only leads to predictably violent results in the post-colonial world.

This impasse, which I cannot be the only one in the world who recognizes, has led me to take a hard glance at two specific peace processes in the Western world: The diplomatic efforts of Europeans after the Napoleonic Wars (“Concert of Europe”) and the founding of the American republic, which is, in my mind, the most successful endeavor in the history of international relations. Neither of these efforts led to the complete abolition of war, but both have helped to maintain a relatively peaceful co-existence between large numbers of factions for long periods of time.

The Concert of Europe bought time for factions in the region to solidify their legitimacy at home, culminating in both the creation of Germany and Italy in the late nineteenth century and the infamous overseas imperial  domains of France, the UK, and the Netherlands (among a few others). While this peace process brought about prosperity for Western Europe, it was not inclusive and it still adhered to the Westphalian notion of state sovereignty. What state sovereignty means is that each state, in the context of international affairs, has a right to do whatever it pleases within the confines of its own borders (such as massacre hundreds of thousands of people in the name of stability). The Concert of Europe was also the precursor to the post-1945 peace process that created the state system that we all live with today, though I would argue that there are some elements that could be republican, such as the IMF and World Bank, provided some changes in mindset.

Aside from the problems produced by the notion of state sovereignty, the states of the post-colonial world today suffer from an issue of legitimacy, both from domestic populations and from foreign ones. Domestically, all of the factions that stability-inducing dictatorships oppress do not buy in to the argument that the states purporting to govern them are legitimate. In foreign affairs, many factions do not believe that these post-colonial states are legitimate either. Hence the calls for bombing campaigns, proxy wars, or outright invasions and occupations of states like Iraq and Libya by states like the US or France (even if these invasions come at the expense of domestic and international rule of law).

This situation, where post-colonial states claim to have sovereignty within an international state system but where domestic and international factions ignore such claims, is where we’re at today. It’s the status quo, and while it worked relatively well in a small part of the world for about hundred years or so, it’s obviously failing today.

Enter the founding of the American republic. Unlike the Concert of Europe, self-determination à la breaking away from the UK was a guiding principle of the federal system, rather than state sovereignty. Like the Concert of Europe, the statesmen who crafted the American republic were concerned about invasion, hegemony, and all of the other bad stuff that happens in the international arena. So they set up an inclusive, republican system of states rather than attempt to balance power off on each other, like they did in Europe. The republican, or federal, system tied each state up into the affairs of the other states, whereas the balance of power system contributed to the formation of rival blocs within the system. This is why Europe switched from trying to maintain yet another balancing act to building an actual confederation (though one that is far too complex than it has to be) after World War II.

From a strictly war and peace view, the republican state system has led to one war so far (dating from 1789). From the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, to today, the balance of power state system has led to numerous wars.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy was based on self-determination, and his foreign policy was a disaster. This is true, though I would argue that Wilson was simply confused about what self-determination actually implied. For Wilson, recognizing the self-determination of various groups within empires would lead to state sovereignty for these groups, and that this state sovereignty would then be protected by the institutions trying to maintain a balance of power. Wilson never entertained the notion of republicanism when it came to recognizing the self-determination of peoples living in empires, he simply thought empires were undemocratic. Thus, he was actually a proponent of state sovereignty rather than self-determination.

What I am not arguing for here is a Concert of Europe-type effort for Middle Eastern actors. I think it would be a disaster, largely because regional efforts at peace-building (rather than, say, trade agreements) are useless in today’s globalized world. The Middle East needs the West, and vice-versa. Peace will only be achieved if self-determination is embraced (by not only large swathes of Mideast factions, but Western ones as well) and the new polities can be incorporated into existing republican-esque institutions. This way, more factions have a voice, and bad actors can be more easily isolated. I am not necessarily arguing that the US or EU should welcome burgeoning Mideast states into their federations, but policymakers and statesmen from these countries should at least start thinking about how to encourage and embrace the notion of a Middle East that looks a lot like our own republican world and less like the one we gave them following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

Stability is overrated, especially if the notion of creative destruction is taken into account.

From the Comments: Why did Cambodians trade foreign terror for domestic horror?

John Cyberome pitches the question to Chhay Lin on his post about the terrorist attacks in Paris. Chhay Lin’s response (which I have broken up into smaller paragraphs) deserves a closer look:

I don’t understand why Cambodians traded foreign terror for native horror. It’s something I’ve always wanted to understand. I don’t remember a time when I did not have such questions as: how can people be so cruel to each other or would they (the friends I had) be able to commit such horrendous acts to me if they would live during the Khmer Rouge period? It seems like there is a terrible part of human nature that is called upon in certain circumstances. I think the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment have been examples of how peaceful people can move to extremely horrifying acts. I also think that the Khmer Rouge had good intentions. In their eyes, they were saving the nation from corruption, from immorality, from foreign invaders and from domestic traitors.

Cambodia by the way, is a country that is quite paranoid. Until this day, they still fear that the Thai or the Vietnamese will one day take over the country. Some already believe that the country only exists by name, but that it’s actually under Vietnamese rule. According to them, after the Vietnamese occupation from 1979-1989, they have installed a pro-Vietnamese ‘puppet’. This paranoia feeds nationalism – a sentiment, I believe, that can be easily manipulated into hatred towards foreign Khmer like Sino-khmer or Vietnamese-khmer.

Besides that, I also think that the poorer people were envious of the wealthy class. When the Khmer Rouge came into power and turned the social hierarchy upside down by installing the poor people into higher social positions, they may have been especially cruel to those fellow Cambodians who they believed were better off.

I also think that we can partly blame it on the Cambodian culture. The culture is very hierarchical. People of status look down on poorer people and treat them like crap. The poor don’t even dare to look the better-off in their eyes. It’s a culture that breeds envy and discontents between classes. I think these are a few reasons why the Cambodians had traded foreign terror for native horror. In all honesty, I find the culture quite backward :P.

This is a whole lotta insight packed into one short ‘comment’.

For starters, I would be comfortable in suggesting that land is the crucial factor of production in Cambodia, rather than capital. (I am not as confident as Rick in arguing that land, labor, and capital are basically obsolete tools, in large part because there are big swathes of the world that don’t share the institutions that have created the West.) Land-based societies that I have read about all share the same general cultural characteristics as those mentioned by Chhay Lin (though none would dare call these characteristics ‘backward’!).

Trade has, in my reading of history, been the traditional arbiter of destruction for land-based interests. Does anybody have any good information on international trade and Cambodia? I’ve looked in to a few sources (World Bank, OECD, Heritage) and it looks like the volume of trade has been increasing since at least 2010, but that there are institutional problems which have yet to be addressed.

‘Creative destruction’ is such a strange concept, especially to a libertarian like me.

From the Comments: So what should the US do with Syrian refugees?

There have been a number of excellent discussions in the ‘comments’ threads recently. I have been following them all, but I’m trying to space out, for beauty’s sweet sake, what I think are especially good insights here (my fellow Notewriters are welcome to do the same).

Dr Khawaja’s answer to Dr Delacroix’s question about what he would do “with respect to the Syrian refugees coming to this country” is worth another look:

I would do exactly what the Obama Administration is doing. Let the Syrian refugees in, vet them, and accept the risks. I more or less said that in one of the links I posted [here – BC]. Here’s the vetting procedure, by the way:

I haven’t heard anyone explain what’s wrong with it. Its rigor far exceeds anything applied to student visas or tourist visas.

As for the “Zionist extremists who helped during the war of independence,” the Irgun and Lehi were by all accounts terrorist organizations. They began a campaign of terror well before the war of independence. Their doing so was instrumental to bringing about the mass exodus of Palestinians from what was to become Israel. The Irgun was led by Menachem Begin, who was later to become Prime Minister of Israel. In other words, Israel was not only founded by terrorists, but the Israelis had no compunction electing the self same terrorists to lead their country in subsequent years (Shamir and Sharon being the other two).

I don’t know where you get the idea that “the Jews that the US failed to take in before WWII were German Jews.” Why couldn’t they have been, say, Polish or Russian? And where is the difficulty in imagining militantly communist or fascist Polish or Russian Jews?

“I think it’s not difficult separating Muslims from Christians. Boko Haram does it all the time.”

Well, if we’re going to use arguments like that, why don’t I just say that it’s not difficult separating terrorists from non-terrorists. The TSA does it all the time. Now, if you’d like to propose that we start hiring members of Boko Haram for positions in the TSA, I’m skeptical, but all ears.

I should point out that in one of the posts I pasted up there, I was the one pointing out to someone at my blog that there is no eliminating the risks if we allow the Syrian refugees in. The risks are ineliminable. But I live in the New York City area. I go in to Manhattan whenever I get the chance. If there is a terrorist attack, it’s likely to take place right here. It’s not as though I’m merely imposing risks on other people and cowering somewhere else in safety.

Well? Is the vetting process as it stands good enough? Without reading the link Dr Khawaja provided, I feel confident claiming that it is. Violent criminals shouldn’t be allowed into this country (unless the crimes were committed a long, long time ago), of course. Sex offenders is too tricky a topic to deal with right now (think about getting in trouble for mooning in Russia or something like that), but if the crimes weren’t violent I’d opt for a let ’em in and wait approach. Terrorists of the Islamist variety that come from failed Arab states tend to be good boys at home. What about people with military backgrounds? What about the fact that states in the Arab world have laughable bureaucracies and that records should be taken with a big ole’ dose of salt?

Irfan hasn’t had the pleasure of knowing Jacques as long as me or Dr Terry, so his responses are bit more polite and more serious than what we tend to throw at him now. I forget sometimes just how important obstinate, bellicose ignorance can be for igniting important dialogues (Donald Trump, anyone? Bernie Sanders?).

On a slightly different note: I wonder if the uncomfortable fact that some of Israel’s founders were terrorists, coupled with the fact that Israel is the most successful state in the post-Ottoman world today, is an unacknowledged reason why Arabs have turned to the same tactics today. Why would anybody want to copy a failure, after all?

From the Comments: A libertarian solution to Daesh (ISIS/ISIL) and the civil war in Syria

I have 3 scenarios in mind, and multilateralism is a must for all of them. 1) I’m still a proponent of recognizing the separatist aspirations of Mideast factions and introducing new, smaller states into the international order (haphazard though it may be). This was done after WWI but in the wrong manner. There was an international element to it then (UK, France, etc. working together), but there were also representatives of various Mideast factions at the table and they were ignored (the reasons why are many and I won’t delve into them here). This time, placing those Mideast factions on an equal footing with Western players (and Russia) is a must for things to work out.

2) North America has to perform a delicate balancing act now that Ankara screwed up. NATO has to stand strong against Putin’s public condemnations and tough talk and back Turkey in all public and behind-the-scenes forums. At the same time I would use Turkey’s mistake to initiate a new state in the Kurdish region, one that is not explicitly Kurdish of course but one that encompasses most of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. Use the UN Security Council to do it; exploit Putin’s anger and get him to renege on his policy of not recognizing separatist aspirations because of the sovereignty argument. Then get him to recognize that a new state in the Kurdish region (that doesn’t change Turkey’s current borders) is more than enough revenge for shooting down a plane.

3) North America should get out of France’s and Russia’s way in Syria for the time being (this should be done in tandem with the diplomacy I advocate above). Let them work together and let off some steam. The two of them, with Assad’s help, might be able to destroy ISIS (neither Russia nor France is as careful as the US when it comes to civilians, and in this scenario their ruthlessness might be a plus for long-term peace; the fact that the US won’t get blamed for the violence is a big plus, too). Assad would then be able to stay in power, but this is a big MAYBE and he will have lost the the Kurdish part of the state (remember Russia helps with Kurdistan becoming a reality because it angers the Turks). With hundreds of thousands of dead people from all over the world and millions of displaced people, Assad’s record of incompetency will most likely force the French and Russians to find a way to push him out of office and usher in a new strong man (only a strong man can govern a state like Syria). While Paris and Moscow search for a strong man, the West should continue its policy of recognizing regions that want out of Damascus’s orbit; keep Russia in the loop on this. By the time Paris and Moscow find a new strong man, what’s left of Syria might actually be able to hold elections and have a government that is constrained by a constitution and the strong man won’t be needed.

3b) ISIS in Iraq: Recognize ISIS’s territorial claims in Iraq (the ones that don’t overlap with Kurdistan’s, of course). That’ll force it to actually govern and will bind it to international law. We’ll see ISIS quickly collapse, and in its place will be a small country that is war-torn but with manageable problems (unlike in a large state like Iraq). This new country would be free to join up with Baghdad again or it could choose to go its own way. There would be at least three states in what is now Iraq, a big step forward in a world that is more interconnected economically and thus less in need of a big bad military to fight massive, bloody wars over territory.

(I’d be happy to argue with others about how libertarian my argument is, too.)

This is from yours truly, in response to a question from Professor Amburgey about libertarian foreign policy. Is this feasible? Absolutely. Is it likely? No, but when has that ever stopped libertarians from using logic and history to debunk statist fantasies?

Libertarians try to build off of the individual when it comes to policy, which means their policies are going to be both internationalist and skeptical of the state’s ability to accomplish an aim. I think my short answer in the threads does this in a mostly competent manner. It’s a multilateral approach which eliminates any ‘central planning’ aspect, and it acknowledges both the process of the rule of law (however haphazard it may be) and the inability of large states to govern populations competently (thus my argument for decentralization – through the legal process).

From the Comments: Money, Currency, and Bitcoins

Dr Gibson chimes in on Chhay Lin‘s most recent post about bitcoins (I hope there will be more):

“Unspent dollars means reduced sales, and as sales decline, profits drop, layoffs increase, and the total social income decreases, making less money available for consumption. Hoarding induces more hoarding as the economy sinks into a downward spiral.” (Smith, 2009)

That’s a lot of nonsense in just two sentences. (Note this is Smith’s paraphrase of the anti-hoarding argument, which he ably disputes.)

First, there is no distinction between “spent” and “unspent” dollars. Money jumps instantly from one pocket to another whenever it is used in a transaction. All money is “idle” between jumps. This could refer to the demand to hold money which is the inverse of the velocity of money. We hold money for convenience, safety, and occasionally as a hedge against deflation.

Second, decreased velocity means price deflation, other things being equal, and if a fall in velocity happens suddenly and unexpectedly, it can be a temporary boon to buyers and a detriment to sellers. But the idea of a deflationary spiral feeding on itself is silly, if only because we all have to eat. Low prices are the cure for low prices, as bargain-hunters move in and prices stabilize.

Then there’s this “social income” phrase. Real social income is not enhanced by faster spending. It is enhanced by greater productivity which depends on private saving, which in turn depends largely on property-friendly institutions. We cannot spend our way to prosperity.

I’ll also comment on Kaminska’s claim that bitcoins “do not benefit the economy” because they do not bear interest. Along with currency and (in their time) gold and silver coins, bitcoins are what economists call “outside money” meaning they are an asset that is no one’s liability. Checking account balances are a form of “inside money” because they are at once an asset of the account holder and a liability of the bank. When outside money is deposited in a fractional-reserve bank where it becomes inside money, some is kept in reserve and some is loaned out. This apparently what is meant by “benefit to the economy” but in fact it’s a benefit to the bank which can earn profits on the new loans and to the borrower, if all goes well. It’s a detriment to the rest of us because there is an increase in the money supply which causes price inflation.

There is nothing anti-social about holding outside money. Some of us see marginal benefits in holding outside money (security, convenience) that exceed the cost in foregone interest. So what?

My own two cents on this (get it?) is merely that Dr Gibson needs to spend more time at NOL fixing the mistakes of financial journalists and keeping his fellow economists honest. (Notereaders and Notewriters, holla at me and Warren in the ‘comments’ threads if you agree!)