Category Archives: Current Events

A few remarks on interventions in Syria and Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

On Conspiracies and Immigration Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me take a step back for moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes sense, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does the Obama administration hope to accomplish?

It is widely believed that the Obama administration will extend deferred action to include a significant portion of the United States illegal alien population following Labor Day. Some analysts are estimating that as many as five million illegal aliens will be provided some form of amnesty. I am skeptical this is the case, and believe it is more likely we will see smaller actions taken. The executive branch has a high degree of freedom when it comes to applying immigration law, but there are limits. The President’s actions thus far have been made with the goal of getting Congress to pass immigration reform, and any future actions are likely to follow that trend.

Let us consider for example the announcement of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA has provided temporary relief for half a million migrants in the form of work permits and legal presence. Perhaps more importantly it also strengthened a constituency that has a strong stake in seeing immigration reform passed by Congress. A cynic is tempted to say that the ultimate purpose of DACA was to create several thousand lobbyists.

Earlier this year the Obama administration also mused with the idea of extending the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program to include those who had received DACA relief. The MAVNI program allows those who enter it an opportunity to earn US citizenship by serving in vital military roles. The actual perquisites to join the MAVNI program are high and it is doubtful more than a handful of DACA recipients will ever earn citizenship in this manner. As it is clear that this program is of little practical use, why did the administration bother with it at all? I suspect it was because it was hoping to win over support for immigration reform from military constituencies.

The administration has also proposed allowing spouses of certain legal migrants to acquire work authorization. Here too the idea is better in principle than actual practice, as only spouses of H-1B visa holders already in the process of gaining permanent residency are eligible. It is clear that the purpose of this proposal had more to do with gaining support among skilled migrants and their employers than it was about actually providing relief.

Opponents of increased immigration may consider the above actions to be instances of executive abuse, but they are all minor compared to what the Obama administration could do.

The Obama administration could, for example, lower the threshold necessary for a waiver of inadmissibility to be approved. A significant portion of the illegal alien population would be eligible to readjust their legal status either through their family connections to US citizens or by employer sponsorship, but they are barred from doing so because they have accrued unlawful presence. A waiver of inadmissibility is an existing process that pardons said unlawful presence, and it may suffice for the Obama administration to instruct US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to be more generous when it decides whether to grant the waiver. Allowing illegal aliens to attain permanent residency and citizenship via this method would be a significant departure from past executive actions by providing long term relief.

The Obama administration has previously altered how the waiver of inadmissibility is granted by allowing it to be filed inside the United States instead of requiring applicants to do so in a consulate abroad. I am therefore skeptical that the administration is not aware of how relatively easy it would be to use the existing system to grant massive relief to the illegal alien population.

Furthermore I doubt the administration wishes to grant deferred action for a large portion of the illegal alien population as it may then find a decreased willingness to include a pathway to citizenship as a perquisite for immigration reform. Prior to DACA’s announcement there was broad support for passing a version of the Dream Act, but said support was lost as many saw DACA as being a de facto Dream Act. Few people know or care about the marginal differences between the two and many have perceived DACA as being sufficient. A large expansion of deferred action for the illegal alien population may, in the short term, provide them relief at the expense of making others perceive that there is no need for further action to help them. It may also lead to the current pro-immigration reform coalition to break apart and make it more difficult to increase the number of legal immigrants.

Liberalization of immigration law paradoxically makes it more difficult to find support for fully open borders. How much support would there be for open borders if all one had to do to legally enter a given country was sing the national anthem and pay for a ten dollar entrance visa? I suspect under such loose regulations the desire for open borders would be restricted to a handful of individuals interested in it on philosophical grounds.

The Obama administration cannot create any new pathways to citizenship for the United States’ illegal alien population. Nor can it create new pathways for legal immigration. It can however provide relief for the illegal alien population and ease the process for legal immigration. I doubt it will though, as its goal is to get Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform with as few as possible executive orders.

О психологии законодательной системы в России

Привет, друзья!

Давно ничего не писал, так как не имел такой возможности по причине частичной блокировки сайта в России и соответственно сообщества Notes On Liberty, которое базируется на этой платформе. Как говорится у нас в стране, “горе от ума”, что означает: “чем больше знаешь – тем больше проблем имеешь”. В данном случае с wordpress сработала российская система цензуры. На одном из сайтов, который базируется на этом популярном хостинге, была обнаружена переписка, затрагивающая интересы кого-то из членов правительства. В итоге была команда на удаление. Так как наша организация, отвечающая за блокировку “неугодных” ресурсов не обладает широкими возможностями в области коммуникаций с держателями данных ресурсов, было принято гениальное решение: зачем блокировать отдельный сайт? Давайте заблокируем весь ресурс полностью. Так мы на некоторое время лишились возможности пользоваться wordpress. Однако через неделю решение было найдено и сайт разблокировали, удалив лишь “запрещенный материал”. К сожалению, такая политика действует и с другими ресурсами. Вместо того чтобы лечить вывих пальца – ампутируют руку. Вместо того, чтобы заблокировать один сайт – блокируют весь ресурс, оставляя миллионы пользователей без возможности вести блоги и работать в сети.

Последние недели были не самыми лучшими в российской политике. Я осознанно не затрагиваю вопрос с Украиной и Крымом, потому что меня уже бесит эта тема. Она мне надоела. Помимо этого в мире много всего еще происходит. Если кто-нибудь хочет узнать мое мнение по этому вопросу – я с радостью включусь в дискуссию.

Думаю, что наиболее обсуждаемая тема в мире сейчас – это санкции, которые Россия ввела против стран Европейского Союза и Америки. Как часто бывает, русских граждан они задели даже больше, чем страны, против которых они вводились. Это тоже особенная черта нашей политики: “бей своих, чтобы враги боялись”. Давайте вспомним закон Магнитского. После того как Америка внесла русских политиков, причастных к этому делу в черные списки, – каков был наш ответ? Правильно. Мы запретили американцам усыновлять русских детей из детских домов и фактически перекрыли многим детям дорогу в другую счастливую жизнь. Сейчас примерно такая же ситуация. Стараясь максимально навредить странам, которые ввели против нас санкции, мы бьем по своим же гражданам, лишая их возможности покупать импортные продукты, которые по определенным показателям лучше российских. Фактически нам навязывают, что мы должны есть. Живешь в России – ешь русское. Здесь дело даже не в том, что я или кто-то еще не переживет без норвежской рыбы или французского сыра. Переживем отлично. Проблема в том, что некоторые специфические продукты питания в принципе не производят в России. Например, безлактозное молоко, которое пьют люди со специфическими болезнями, например с непереносимостью молочного сахара. Фактически, эти люди лишаются возможности употреблять молоко вовсе.

Теперь, собственно, о том, как у нас составляются законы.

Недавно я вернулся из поездки в Париж и в Голландию, где прожил суммарно 10 дней. За это время я имел неплохой опыт общения с коренными голландцами и французами. С голландцами общался больше, поэтому буду говорить применительно к Голландии. Я думаю, что принципиальная разница в законотворчестве России и Голландии кроется в психологии законодателей. Так, например, большинство российских законов направлены на запрещение или ограничение чего-либо. Таким образом, в России работает принцип “запретить то, что не разрешено”. С психологической точки зрения – это негативная практика. Человек открывает сборник законов и видит одни лишь запреты, упуская из виду все разрешенное. В Голландии немного другой принцип – “разрешить то, что не запрещено”. На вид обе формулировки одинаковые, но на самом деле они имеют важное принципиальное различие. Имея перед глазами четкий список того, что “можно”, человек будет подсознательно следовать ему. В то время как у нас человеку приходится догадываться самостоятельно – что можно делать, а что нельзя. Незнание законов не освобождает от ответственности, поэтому человеку приходится идти на хитрости.

Мне кажется, что эта изначально “запретительная” система негативно сказывается на настроении людей.

Tamny on Fractional-Reserve Banking: Right Conclusion, Faulty Analysis

John Tamny has posted a long and thought-provoking piece entitled “The Closing of the Austrian School’s Economic Mind.” He begins with a cogent critique of the anti-fractional-reserve stance of certain Austrian economists at the Mises Institute. Unfortunately, he follows that with a discussion of fractional reserves, the money multiplier, and other issues in which he goes badly astray.

As Tamny says, it is only some Austrians who have a problem with fractional-reserve banking. I consider myself an Austrian but I do not share the view of fractional reserves of the Mises Institute contingent, whom I prefer to call hard-money advocates.

The alleged problem, as the hard money people have it, is that under fractional reserves it appears that two people have a claim on the same dollar. This, they say, is fraud. But it is not fraud if the arrangement is disclosed to all parties. There are problems with our present-day fractional-reserve system, which I discuss below, but fraud is not one of them. (Incidentally, Tamny scores a point when he wonders about the hard money people calling in the state to crush the alleged fraud, but I believe most of them are anarchists and would have private protection agencies do the job. Just how this might work is beyond me.)

Tamny recognizes that fractional-reserve banking is the norm in all modern societies but he goes a little too far when he says fractional-reserve banking is a tautology. Modern banks do offer warehousing of money to those few who want it, via safe-deposit boxes. Anybody can rent one and stuff it full of currency or near-money assets like gold coins, and of course pay an annual fee. This is a minor sideline for banks, but it exists, so there is no tautology.

Also, contrary to Tamny, it is possible for a well-run business to fail for lack of money. This can happen if the supply of money in an economy falls short of the demand to hold it. (We must not mistake the demand to hold money with the demand to acquire money for spending. We all want to hold a certain level of cash, enough to cover emergencies or unexpected bargains but not so much as to pass up good opportunities for spending or investing it.) Money supply can get out of balance with money demand when there is a monopoly supplier, as there is in all modern economies, which has no market forces to tell it how much money to issue. There would be such forces in a free banking system, which is a topic for another time.

I promised to mention problems with fractional-reserve banking. The first is that government control of the banking system has short-circuited market forces that would signal to bank managers the amount of reserves they ought to keep on hand. If managers keep too little in reserves, they risk a liquidity crisis, or short of that, fear of a crisis on the part of depositors or would-be depositors. If they keep too much, they pass up profit opportunities and dis-serve their shareholders. The safety of a fractional-reserve bank depends critically on its reputation for prudence in lending. Without government interference in the forms of both controls (among them reserve requirements, capital requirements, and asset restrictions) and support (two that come to mind are Federal deposit insurance and the privilege of borrowing from the Federal Reserve), managers would very likely be more prudent about lending, and even more, about maintaining their reputation for prudent lending. Depositors would come to understand banks as something more like a mutual fund than a piggy bank.

This first point is not a strike against fractional reserves, but the government’s failure to let a free-market fractional-reserve system work honestly and efficiently.

The second problem is the flip side of the first. Federal Deposit Insurance relieves depositors of any incentive to question the soundness of their bank’s lending process. Depositors have no reason to look beyond the FDIC sticker in the window. Such is not the case with mutual funds which bear some resemblance to fractional-reserve banks. Most fund investors look carefully at ratings before investing. FDIC insurance does not eliminate risk, it socializes it, wreaking all sorts of distortions in the process.

I agree with Rothbard that occasional bank failures, leaving depositors and shareholders as well as other bank creditors empty-handed, should be welcomed because they put the fear of God into managers and depositors alike.

An advantage of a fractional reserve system over a 100% gold-backed system is that the latter would suck almost all the world’s supply of gold into underground vaults leaving very little for industrial or ornamental uses. Fractional reserves free up a lot of that gold for these uses, more so over time as the reserve levels needed to maintain confidence in the system fall as the system works well and confidence increases.

Tamny next takes up the money multiplier, and in so doing goes wildly off the rails. He cites the textbook example:

  • Someone deposits $1,000 cash in bank A
  • Bank A lends out $900 and keeps $100 cash as reserves
  • The recipient of the $900 deposits it in bank B which loans out $810 and keeps $90 cash as reserves
  • The $810 is deposited in bank C, and on it goes.

Textbooks use this example to show how money is created by fractional-reserve banks via a multiplier which approaches 1/r where r is the fraction of deposits maintained as reserves by each bank, 1/0.1=10 in the example. The new money is categorized as M1, which includes currency and travelers’ checks in addition to demand deposits (checking account balances).

So is M1 really money? Most definitely, because it fits the definition perfectly: a generally accepted medium of exchange. Is there anyone reading this piece who does not keep much more of his money in a checking account than in cash? How often do we pay cash these days? We use our debit cards, paper checks, or on-line transfers instead of currency. Or we use credit cards which we pay off by on-line transfer or check. All this is M1 money, all created by private banks under the aegis of fractional reserve banking. Notwithstanding the problems cited above, it all works rather well.

Tamny will have none of it. He goes through the same textbook exercise, imagining a group of friends in a room instead of a sequence of banks. He is wrong to say that no money is created in the process. To be sure, the amount of currency in circulation has not increased but he fails to notice that M1 money has increased. That’s because each loan recipient has, in addition to some currency, a bank balance that he correctly believes he can spend without ever converting it into currency: M1 money. Tamny could give each borrower in his thought experiment an old-fashioned bank book as evidence of the new money. We have here the nub of Tamny’s problem: his failure to recognize that M1 money (or rather the demand deposits that dominate that category) is real spendable money.

Tamny says money doesn’t grow on trees, but he’s wrong. The Fed creates base money out of thin air, as I’m sure Tamny agrees, but most money creation is done by private banks via the multiplier. And in truth, a fractional reserve system does create real wealth in the long run relative to a 100% reserve system because it increases the efficiency of the money and banking system, freeing up resources for alternate productive uses.

Is the fractional-reserve system inflationary? Yes, when currency flows into banks and is multiplied, it is. The reverse process is deflationary. But if overall bank reserve levels hold steady no price inflation is triggered, other things being equal.

Tamny’s use of NetJets as an analogy to fractional-reserve banking is flawed. The same jet plane cannot be in two different places at the same time. But two dollars of checking account money, each having its origin in the same dollar of currency deposited, can both be spent. Yes, money does grow on fractional-reserve trees. No, real wealth does not.

Tamny asks, if banks can multiply money, why can’t the same be done by “enterprising entrepreneurs eager to quickly turn $1,000 into $10,000 without doing anything?” They can actually, but they must do a lot of work first, like raising capital, setting up an office and web site, rounding up depositors and borrowers. To see details, go to The barriers to entry caused by licensing and such are actually rather modest.

Incidentally, the failure to recognize demand deposits as money goes back at least to the Currency School in 1840’s England. This school of thought held that bank notes should be backed 100% by gold but failed to understand that checks payable on demand were also money and required backing.

“Credit is not money,” says Tamny. What is it, then? “Credit is real resources.” But this is a wide departure from the accepted meaning of the term and one that leads to all sorts of confusion. The common definition of credit is a willingness or commitment of lenders to provide loans to certain parties under certain conditions. Businesses often carry lines of credit with banks. Individuals have credit limits on their credit card accounts. No, credit is not money, but it comes close. We feel reassured by credit commitments which we can tap into when needed. Credit is a way to buy stuff, not the stuff itself. I should add that later in the same paragraph Tamny calls credit access to real resources (my emphasis). This is closer to the mark but is not the defining characteristic of credit. Stuff can be bought on credit or with currency or barter. Again, credit is the willingness or commitments of lenders to loan money. But later in the piece Tamny flips back to credit as “resources in the real economy.”

At one point he says true inflation is “devaluation of the dollar.” No, devaluation refers to a drop in exchange rates for a particular currency relative to other currencies. Devaluation is often but not always accompanied by inflation. I’ll give him a pass on this and assume he means true inflation is a drop in the dollar’s purchasing power.

Elsewhere he denies any role for Fed-induced “easy credit” in the housing bubble. It may not have been the dominant factor, and it may have been overpowered by countervailing factors in the examples he cites, but can there be any doubt that lower interest rates stimulate the quantity of housing demanded, other things being equal? Don’t mortgage payments consist almost entirely of interest in the early years? Exercise for the reader: how much more house can you afford given $3,000 per month to spend on a 30-year mortgage if the rate drops from 5% to 4%? Answer: a lot more.

Another Tamny claim is that a growing economy always needs more money. This seems right, since growth generally means more of everything. But as clearing and payment system efficiencies increase, as we turn more to debit cards, credit cards, PayPal, and whatever comes next, our desire to hold money declines. This countervailing tendency could cancel out most or all of the effects of growth on money demand.

Tamny calls government oversight of money “horrid” and wishes for abolition of the Fed. Amen to both, but how can he be sure that, as he claims, credit would soar as a result? It probably would in the long run as sound money prompted increased confidence, but in the short run there could be liquidation of mal-investments and a general hesitation to save and invest pending clarification about where things were headed under the new setup.

John Tamny is correct: the anti-fractional-reserve crusade of the hard-money people is misguided. That case has been made repeatedly, deftly, and at length by Larry White and George Selgin, two of the best contemporary monetary economists. Sad to say, Tamny’s analysis, riddled as it is with errors and confusions, falls far short of their work.

Israel-Palestine: Is a reasonable debate possible?

The question in the title is to be taken very seriously and not just as a prelude to a comforting ‘of course there is’ answer and a few helpful hints to how to engage in respectful debate. This is a debate which stretches at the  limits of debate, at all attempts at civility and respect for other points of view in debate. I am trying to find a way to discuss the issues in a way that is equally considerate of the rights and interests of all parties to the debate, while also finding that debates about Arab Palestinian and Jewish Israeli positions may at some point just not be open to rational debate, and can only be settled by pragmatic compromise at best, and violent imposition  in the less happy scenarios.

This started with a social media post on my part condemning George Galloway, a very left socialist British politician for making remarks in response to Israeli Defence Force operations in Gaza that to my mind cross a line between criticism of the government of Israel or acts of the Israeli state into anti-Semitism, in demanding that Israeli tourists be excluded from the English city, Bradford, he represents in Parliament. I paired it with a social media message condemning the University of Illinois for withdrawing a tenure track job offer to Steven Salaita (just before the start of semester and after he had resigned from another job), evidently as a result of social media messages criticising Israel and Jewish settlers in land outside Israel’s 1967 boundaries in a quite extreme way. Both Salaita and Galloway have the right of free speech, as recognised in the United States in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Less protection exists for free speech in the UK, I am sorry to say, if the speech is deemed racist or to be ‘hate speech’, and I have to say I am very unhappy that the police in Britain are investigating Galloway’s comments, and I will certainly condemn any attempt to prosecute him. Unfortunately if a public university in the US withdraws a job offer over a free speech issue, then the situation there is also open to improvement.  I am against Salaita’s speech in the same way as I am against what Galloway said, both stepped over a line.

I won’t dwell any further on Galloway and Salaita, but will now move into some discussion of what distinguishes criticism of Israel as a state from anti-Semitism, posing as just standing up for Palestinians suffering from the actions of Israel’s armed forces, and will then move onto more general comments about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First of all though I accept that not not all those who define themselves as anti-Zionist are anti-Semites, condemning all Zionism is anti-Semitic. Yes there are Jews who are proud of their identity who define themselves as anti-Zionists, but they are complicit with views discriminatory against Jews if they condemn all Zionism.

There is a stream of bi-national Zionism, that is a state shared between Jews and Arabs, which has always had some appeal to liberal and left leaning Jewish intellectuals, and which was certainly prominent amongst some of the early European migrants to Ottoman and then British Palestine, before the state of Israel was established. They were arguing for non-discrimination against the Arab population and peaceful forms of settlement. Dismissing this as just an expression of the European colonialism and racism of the time is completely wrong. The wish to create peacefully a national homeland without discrimination  against the existing Arab population and to create a state for both peoples cannot reasonably be defined in  this way, and the more aggressive forms of Zionism should not lead anyone to deny the existence of a form of Zionism that was not based on aggressive nationalism.

Even before the Zionist movement got going in the late nineteenth century, there was a Jewish population in Ottoman Palestine that could trace its history back to ancient Biblical times. Inevitably estimates of what per cent age of the population  was Jewish before the modern Zionist movement are contentious, but I have not seen any figure less than 5 per cent. Was it inherently racist and aggressive for those people to have some corner of Palestine for a Jewish state? That is war implied in saying that all Zionism is to be condemned and adopting an anti-Zionist political posture. Was it inherently racist and aggressive to hope that Jews persecuted in Europe and elsewhere might seek a homeland with that historic population in some part of Ottoman Palestine, presuming there was no intention of pressure on the Arab population to give up land or deprive that population of full rights?

I will return to the historical issues soon and what I say will not all lean towards the Israeli side at all. Picking up on current ways of discussing Israel and Palestine, all attempts to burden all Jews everywhere with some responsibility for the most unpleasant acts of the Israeli state, and target them with demands for condemnation, or worse, are anti-Semitic. Moving to a more contentious discussion, while I accept that many who target Israeli citizens or non-state institutions for sanctions are not deliberately anti-Semitic and may again be Jews who are proud of their identity, that is a discourse which is at the very least unintentionally complicit with anti-Semitism.

Demands for  boycotts of Israeli universities, unless they condemn the actions of the government are highly discriminatory unless part of a more general and global scheme for boycotts of academic institutions in countries where the government is doing very bad things. I would not welcome such a global scheme, which is applied strictly and consistently could have disastrous affects on international academic life, for no proven benefit, but it would have the merit of consistency. Demands to boycott Israeli universities are not part of such a plan. Since they are linked to demands for academics and university boards to take positions contrary to Israeli government polices, they look very much like attempts to control to speech of Israeli academics and tell them what opinions they are allowed to have. While public universities are by definition supported by the state, they should be treated as educational institutions not arms of state propaganda, or as on a level with armed parts of the state inflicting violence on civilians, and indeed Israeli universities are quite successful in promoting free thinking education, which it should not be forgotten benefits Israeli Arabs as well as Jews.

Demands to restrict, or end, contacts with the Israeli government or military are a different matter, but punishing the educational sector or indeed discriminating against ordinary Israeli Jews travelling outside Israel is not something to be welcomed by advocates of liberty, or by anyone concerned with equal rights for everyone. Where is the evidence that boycotts will bring any benefit to Palestinian Arabs?

The short term material effects of reducing Israeli economic activity and employment opportunities would be very negative for Palestinian Arabs, and the long term political return no more than speculative. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are presumably going to respond that their movement is popular with Palestinians suffering from Israeli military, administrative, and economic pressure, but it is a movement committed to ‘return of refugees’, which for reasons I explain below is simply not going to happen except at some very small level in a period of much happier relations than exist now between Israelis and Palestinians. A movement committed to full return, even if it does include some Jewish supporter, is committed to unrealistic maximalism. Since it exists, I can only hope it has some effect in moderating the actions of Israeli governments, but I fear it is more likely to foster polarised reactions and with no real change to the benefit of Palestinians.  Israel looks more not less nationalistic at a time when its international reputation has declined, and moments like BDS have grown. The sort of economic pressure from the major western economies, particularly America that could force change is not on offer now, or in any foreseeable future. The biggest impact would come from Israel’s neighbours becoming economically dynamic democracies with much improved individual right, eager to trade with Israel and benefit from its technological achievements. The activism of a far left minority in the west, supporting some of the most implausible and damaging maximalist Palestinian demands has rather less potential to influence Israel in the right way.  A campaign that condemned the anti-Semitism and terrorism of Hamas, as well as the not entirely pure record of Fatah on these issues, as much as the brutality of the Israeli state, might just have more influence on Israel than BDS in its present form.

Getting onto the broader issues, I have to say that whatever impression the above gives, I do not find that there was any strong original justification for an Israeli state dominating all of, or most of, the land between the eastern Mediterranean and the Jordan River. However, it is also the case that I do not find there was any strong original justification for a Palestinian state dominating the same land area.

The problem with the Zionist claims, leaving aside bi-national Zionism or a Zionist project in one corner of what was Ottoman Palestine, and concentrating on what Zionism has largely been in practice, is that the Jewish population of Ottoman Palestine, was a small per cent age of the population. The historical and religious affinities of Jews elsewhere to the land of the Biblical Jews, and the persecution they endured, might justify some concessions of land to create a state in what was Ottoman Palestine beyond the population per cent age of the time, but some large part of the Zionist movement  (roughly speaking Revisionist or right-wing Zionism)was always ready to take all of Ottoman Palestine regardless of the wishes and rights of the Arab population, and some other large part (roughly speaking Theodor Herzl Zionism, which defined the mainstream of the original large scale Zionist movement) simply evaded the issue of how the majority of Ottoman Palestine could be settled without conflict emerging between Jews and Arabs, and without violating any hopes Arabs in the area might have or, might come to develop, for sovereign national existence. Given that Zionism emerged as an imitation of 19th century European nationalist movements, and the growing tendency of European peoples with some kind of collective historic identity to express that identity in state sovereignty, it is not too much to ask that the original Zionists should have been aware of the likely development of Arab nationalism, on a general scale, and in distinct pre-national parts of the Arab world (i.e. nearly all of it) under Ottoman or European colonial control.

Arab nationalism grew rather later than Zionism, and the Palestinian aspect of it was definitely later. If there had been no Zionist movement, it seems likely that Palestine would have been part of a post-Ottoman Syrian or possibly Jordanian state, with no more than regional consciousness within than entity. Can we justify the emergence of an Israeli state of its current extent on the grounds that European Jews develop a Zionist movement more speedily than Arab national and in independence movements developed? That is not just a question inviting the reply ‘no’ though it might appear so. The reality is that throughout history states emerged where one people was more strongly organised than another and could imposed its will on another people, or at least a state elite could impose a statehood more suited to one group than others. The same applies to modern nationalist movements which drew on various democratic, republican, and populist ideas of self-government, or at least monarchy with popular legitimacy, for self-contained peoples, with anything that contaminated a pure self-contained identity pushed out of public recognition (or violently eliminated). If Israel’s existence in its current form in its current borders is simply based on winning out in struggles about who get to define the people who ‘own’ that land, then it is not obviously weaker in its foundations than many other states. Enthusiasts for the Israeli state often like to find some justification of pure right in the Balfour Declaration, that is the letter Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary directed at the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, via Lord Rothschild:

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious’ rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

The declaration was written into the League of Nations Mandate that legitimated British occupation and administration on Palestine until 1948. However, the same people eager to take the letter and the League of Nations recognition of it, as the basis for Israel’s domination of most of what was British Palestine (and the more radical kind of Zionist thinks that what is now Jordan was promised to them, because it was included within the first borders of mandate Palestine, before a division was effected) are not so eager to mention United Nations resolutions after the 1947 resolution that envisaged an Israel state. What was envisaged, in any case, was a partition of almost 50-50 proportions between an Israeli state and a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as a bi-national enclave under UN administration, so well short of the boundaries Israel established. Of course the selective approach to League of Nations or United Nations resolutions is also practised on the Arab side. In any case, the Balfour Declaration was not the result of consultation with the Arab population of Palestine, who were placed under British administration with no regard for their opinion in the matter, and seems a poor example of a purely just foundation for a state

Of course if Israel’s existence is justified by struggle rather than pure right, then Palestinian domination would be no more or no less just if the Palestinian people had been better organised or just more lucky early on in the Zionist movement, or even before the Zionist movement. However, there was no Palestinian national movement before the Zionist movement, it was a reaction against that movement. The word Palestine was used, sometimes, during Ottoman times to refer to the parts of what was then the Province of Syria round Jerusalem, Haifa and so on, with no idea of a separate identity or people there. There was no idea of a Palestinian people until the British Mandate, which inadvertently became the hot house for two mutually hostile national movements.

The 1948 attack of several Arab states on Israel, as it existed within the boundaries defined by the 1947 UN Resolution, was not an attempt to institute a Palestinian state. The Arab Legion (that army of the Jordanian monarchy) grabbed the West Bank and the East Jerusalem, and Egypt seized Gaza. Syria certainly hoped to turn Palestine into a southern part of its own territory. Palestinians fled their homes in all Israeli controlled territory, because of a mixture of Zionist violence and incitement by Arab states who promised to arrange a rapid return. The balance between these two causes is of course hopelessly contentious, but I will at least say that no one who denies that both were a reality is engaged in reasonable discussion. The emergent Israeli army succeeded in establishing the 1967 boundaries, which are still the recognised boundaries of Israel, though in practice Israel now exists as the completely sovereign power in East Jerusalem  and a number of settlements in the West Bank.

The 1947 UN Resolution was preceded by a British plan to award 17% of Mandate Palestine to a Jewish state. Palestinian nationalists succeeded in negotiating quasi-statehood in Gaza and some parts of the West Bank in the 1990s, but the idea of a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank as well as Gaza is now essentially dead, though various people find it necessary to claim in public that a two state solution on that basis is coming. One obvious point here is that if the Palestinians had negotiated pragmatically on the basis of existing realities instead of trying to go back to some earlier situation, at various times, they would have much  more territory in a viable state. Maybe 83% per cent of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. Of course it is also the case that many Zionists would not have settled happily for 17% during the Mandate or even 50% in 1948, except as a short term expedient before establishing a state in all of, or at least the great majority of, Mandate Palestine, but at least the Palestinians would have gained some credit with the international community, and how would they now be worse off, it they had accepted those deals and tried to make them work?

The Arab states did not bring the Palestinian refugees of 1948 back to their homes and did not give them equal citizenship in the independent Arab nations either. Leaving them as symbols of Arab unity in refugee camps was a ‘solution’ which simply adds to the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most people in refugee camps were born after 1948 and increasingly so. Their numbers have grown and cannot be absorbed into their ‘home’ towns or villages, without a complete transformation of Israel’s demography. This is simply not going to happen, except though a massive military defeat of Israel, which is most unlikely anyway because Israel would use its nuclear arsenal in such a situation, and the US would probably intervene massively before that point. It is not a reasonable demand for anyone who genuinely wants a settlement. Arab states should integrate refugees and their decedents with full citizenship rights in the places where they have been based for decades. In such circumstances, some very limited ‘return’ of refugees and descendants might be negotiated, though by that time whenever it might be, I doubt any original refugees will still be alive.

The current situation is that the Palestinians have not succeeded in creating well functioning institutions in the West Bank or Gaza. No doubt some blame belongs to Israel. If any Israeli government ever genuinely hoped for a viable Palestinian state as a neighbour, the idea is certainly dead now. Palestine for the foreseeable future will only exist as a fragmented entity, increasingly hemmed in by West bank settlements and security measures, which are turning that area into an aggregate of not very well connected Palestinian zones side by side with element of Israeli sovereignty. This is not a viable long term basis for peace and stability.

The only long term solutions now are: the forcible expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza, which is not likely, but might just happen if war breaks out between Israel and neighbouring Arab states; the removal of West Bank settlements, because Israel decides that full Palestinian sovereignty is a welcome prospect, but I presume there are too many settlements too deeply embedded for that to happen now; a complete defeat of Israel by a military alliance of Arab states, but that would lead to the use of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, if not massive US intervention before that stage; gradual movement towards a binational state of Israel-Palestine. I believe that last option is the most likely long term result, but I mean long term, and I expect much polarisation, violence and suffering in the meantime. Gradual pragmatic adjustment will I believe lead both sides to see that total victory or total separation between two national entities is just not viable.

Personally I’m deeply disturbed by the Israeli treatment of Palestinian civilians now and in the past. However, dramatic gestures, boycott calls, and anti-Zionist discourse will not resolve the issue. Realistically errors and crimes on the Arab side have brought us here as much as the bad things done by Zionists, and the Zionist movement did not destroy an existing national entity. The early pacific binational Zionists were often in practice irrelevant and naive, as well as paternalistic and patronising towards Arabs, but their ideas are the only basis now for an enduring settlement. That will require some Arab equivalent, some new ways of thinking about Palestinian nationality and sovereignty, which can find precedents such as the sympathy of the Saudi monarchy at the end of World War One, for a Jewish presence in Palestine (not that the House of Saud is without great faults. Such a movement will progress at a micro-level only for decades and maybe generations, involving Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews and the Palestinian of the West Bank and Gaza. At some point a critical mass on both sides will realise that exclusivist nationalism cannot win a complete victory, certainly not if the wish is to live in a democracy with individual rights and flourishing civil society.

Ken White explains the legal logic of the Ferguson shooting

Read the whole damned good post at Popehat.

In other news, I read a post from somewhere calling out libertarians for not voicing an opinion about the Ferguson shooting. I think the post also managed to blame libertarians for the militarization of police forces across the country.


Dave Weigel points out the obvious over at Slate; Ilya Somin takes the writer who tried to claim libertarians didn’t care about black people getting shot by police departments to task over at Volokh Conspiracy (a very good blog, by the way); Dan Balz (hehe) points out in the WaPo that Ferguson is only strengthening the libertarian wing of the GOP; Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in Time is required reading if you take your US citizenship seriously.

Update 8/18: Here is Congressman Ron Paul in 2002 asking rhetorically, on floor of the House of Representatives (the lower parliamentary house in the US federal government), if America has become a police state.

From the Comments: On the Impossibility of Secession Within the European Union

Dr Stocker brings my musings on secession and the European Union back to reality:

Some good historical analysis here, but I’m not so sure about the conclusion. I certainly support a right for regions to secede, but not all EU member states recognise such a right. Spain is the obvious example, since while it gives a high degree of autonomy to regions, including enhanced autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque country, it does not recognise any right to secede except through a law passed by the Cortes (parliament of Spain), which is extremely adverse to allowing any procedure for secession.

Greece has been extremely adverse to secession by Kosovo from Serbia, and does not recognise Kosovo, on the basis that a majority vote within a region-aspirant nation is not enough to justify secession under international law, if opposed by the nation from which the secession is taking place. I suspect there are some other countries with similar barriers to secession.

They’d do well to recognise that right, but the EU can’t force this kind of change on existing member states since unanimous consent would be required for the necessary treaty changes, and even without that barrier, the idea of the EU forcing countries to accept a right to secede and then define when and how that right to secede, which could create conflict with counties like the UK which do recognise the possibility of secession by referendum within the relevant region-aspirant nation, as in the current Scottish vote.

The time might come in the future when all EU countries might recognise a right to secede and then recognising that right could be a requirement for membership. However, it is not Putin’s Russia that would be concerned. Recent events in Ukraine show Putin’s agents fomenting violent secessionism in Crimea etc and a rigged referendum in Crimea. Of course Putin’s meddling is not the same a secessionism exercised peacefully and through fair voting, but such differences are likely to be overlooked by many in light of the still unfinished Ukraine crisis.

My response can be found here. Longtime reader A. Herkenhoff chimes in as well.

A Brief Glimpse into Autarky: Russian Edition

Libertarians loathe autarky (economic, and therefore political and cultural, isolationism), and for good reason. As Dr Delacroix puts it, economic autarky (protectionism) is the “royal road to collective poverty.”

The recent invasion and occupation of Crimea by the Russian state has led many observers to bring up the still unofficial ideology of the Kremlin these days. One part neo-imperialism and one part pan-Slavism, and mixed together with shards of religious conservatism, ecology (Russia has a long tradition of ecology that is distinct from the West, but still similar since it’s an idea and ideas tend to outweigh cultural and material differences in societies; our own Dr Znamenski is an expert on just this subject), and socialism, the Kremlin’s ideological glue is slowly being melded into something that resembles a Russian-led bloc that is completely self-sufficient from the West and culturally distinct from its trading partners on Russia’s China-led eastern border and its Muslim-led southern border.

If Moscow is trying to forge a society that is completely self-sufficient from the West, we have little to fear from such actions (I say ‘little’ because there is the possibility that such an order would end up like North Korea, and the irrational actions associated with Pyongyang would have a much bigger influence if transposed to a Moscow-led autarky; I don’t think such a scenario likely because of the sheer geographic size of the Russian state and its clients).

Here is a glimpse of what a self-sufficient Russia would like (thanks to the sanctions currently in place):

[...m]ore than 6,000 animals in Russia’s largest zoo have been caught up in the worst fight between Russia and the West since the Cold War. A wide-ranging ban on Western food announced this week by the Kremlin has forced a sudden diet change for creatures that eat newly forbidden fruit.

The sanctions against meat, fish, fruits and vegetables from the United States, the European Union and other Western countries were intended to strike a counterblow to nations that have hit Russia over its role in Ukraine’s roiling insurgency. But the measures will also have an impact on stomachs at the zoo.

The sea lions crack open Norwegian shellfish. The cranes peck at Latvian herring. The orangutans snack on Dutch bell peppers. Now the venerable Moscow Zoo needs to find politically acceptable substitutes to satisfy finicky animal palates.

“They don’t like Russian food,” zoo spokeswoman Anna Kachurovskaya said. “They’re extremely attached to what they like, so it’s a hard question for us.


None of the animals eat such a specialized diet that they will starve, she said [...]

The Russian people are not worried, of course. The response to Moscow’s sanctions on Western food is one that hearkens back to history: The Russian people have been through worse times. This is nothing to them, and Putin is fighting a righteous war against an immoral West so the sacrifices are worth it.

WordPress was recently unblocked in Russia, so hopefully Evgeniy can offer readers some insights into the logic of the Russian street.

From the Comments: Does Israel have the moral upper hand on Palestinians in Gaza?

In the ‘comments’ thread on his excellent post about Israel/Palestine (I hope he produces Part 2 soon), Matthew reveals some of the skepticism he has regarding Israel’s current policy towards Gaza. You should read the whole thing. Matthew does an exceptional job of summarizing the thoughts of millions of Americans – especially younger ones – regarding the US’s relationship with the Jewish state. Here was my response:

I think the allegations of anti-Semitism can be found if you follow along with me while I tease this out.

First, though, an important geopolitical thought. The settlements in the West Bank are the worst policy to come out of a Western government since overthrowing democratically-elected Leftist governments during the Cold War. The settlements are absolutely toxic to peace and prosperity in the region, and for this reason I cannot count myself among the “supporters” of Israel.

The reasoning behind this policy probably has to do with the buffer zone, though. If I were an Israeli I would view the settlements as an important “human buffer,” if you will, to another (another) invasion from the east. I don’t think the settlements are a nefarious attempt on behalf of Right-wing Israelis to ethnically cleanse the West Bank of indigenous Muslims (that is a charge being leveled by some otherwise serious Leftist quarters). My opposition to the settlements in the West Bank is more of a strategic one than a moral one (though the moral argument underlies the strategic). A human buffer zone will not prevent another invasion from the east any more than an Iron Dome will discourage rocket attacks from Gaza. All these settlements do is stir bad blood between already hated enemies, and that is as stupid as you can get.

Speaking of Gaza, I can agree to an extent that Israelis should try to limit civilian casualties as much as possible. This is a standard that should be held up to all of the world’s states (even if it is not). However, Israel and Hamas are fighting an undeclared war and as such I do not think it just to condemn Israel and overlook the targeting of civilians by Hamas. (I am sure you are in agreement on this.) As a rule of thumb I don’t trust governments to take necessary precautions of any kind when it comes to interests of state, but I think the overwhelming scrutiny that Israel faces from the international community pressures it to take precautions that would be unheard of in the non-Western world. Hence I am caught between disavowing war – as all good libertarians must do – and acknowledging that Israel is fighting a just one.

On to the implicit anti-Semitism of Israeli criticism. Usually I can spot anti-Semitism by the reliance upon conspiracies or money to explain events pertaining to Jews or Israel, but the pinkwashing argument – which I suspect is anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Western – is a tougher nut to crack.

Pinkwashing is certainly anti-Western, as you don’t see many organizations – especially those on the Left – criticizing policies of despotic non-Western governments that would be condemned outright in Western states. Anti-Semitism exists, indeed permeates, Arab and European societies in a way that is hard to fathom in places like the United States or, say, India. Thus I conclude that the criticisms of Israel that do not include equal criticisms of Hamas or other non-Western organizations, and that stem exclusively from Arab or European capitals, are anti-Semitic. I know this is a broad brush and there are certainly principled dissenters among the ranks of anti-Israeli critics in these regions, but sometimes all you can do is call a ‘cat’ a ‘cat’.

If you delve into the critiques of Israel that come from European or Arab capitals, you will often find such critiques to be superficial and, indeed, relying upon conspiratorial explanations for Israeli actions. This is of course not true in the American or Israeli media, where critics are often more principled and have a better understanding of the mechanisms of Israeli society.

In this sense, you are right to criticize Netanyahu for dissemblingly conflating Israeli society with Jewish society, but in another sense Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians are dealing with factions that extend far beyond the borders of the United States or Israel, and these are factions that I would describe as being most savage in nature.

Your responses to my analysis would be most welcome. It seems to me that the global Left and the Arab Right is unwilling to look at the issue at fairly. Israel is a state, and it exists in the Middle East. Opponents of Israeli tactics in the most recent fighting hardly mention this, though. Instead, I can barely sort through the muddle of ‘Zionist’ or ‘imperialist’ epithets hurled its way (and at anybody willing to suggest that Israel is not 100% at fault for the violence).

Some of this, especially from Western Leftist quarters, can be viewed as more of an opposition to colonialism than to Israel itself, but for the most part – after reading accounts from many different sides – I find the opponents of Israel to be engaging in a battle that is far removed from reality.

This is not to say that Israel should not be criticized (especially given its socialist roots), but in order for criticism to be effective it has to be smart and objective, and this is completely lacking in the accounts offered up by many Leftists and virtually all Muslims.

Again I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially from our Middle Eastern readers.