Category Archives: Current Events

Complex interdependence turned around

An interesting analysis in one of the Dutch quality papers today. The analysis was about Russia’s power politics, and especially how it used all kinds of formal and informal tactics in different areas, for example traditional diplomatic canals, covert military action, media, energy politics, espionage, et cetera. Special attention was drawn to the economic aspect. Not so much the economic sanctions, which are mainly making life more expensive for the Russian population, are a nuisance to the people in power, yet lack any pacifying effect.

More interesting was the point that the entanglement between the Russian en European economies actually allows the Russian leaders to more belligerent, and to make use of the Ukraine crisis to prolong the life of their rule. This is due to the fear of Western governments to lose Russian investments, gas supplies and capital. President Putin and his followers know this too well, and are therefore prepared to take more risks in the Ukraine crisis. Sure there are other factors important as well, yet this economic factor is significant in their power game.

For liberal theory in international relations this is complex interdependence turned around. In 1978 Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye published their influential book Power and Interdependence, which focused on the importance of the multiple ways societies and countries are interconnected. Although a lot can, and has been, said about their analysis, as well as the broader discussion following the book, many liberals read the book as a confirmation of their belief in the pacifying effects of economic interdependence. However, this was not the actual position of Keohane and Nye, who emphasized that interdependence would not necessarily lead to international cooperation, nor did they assume any other automatic benign effects (see page 249 of the second edition, 1989).

If anything, the current situation in the crisis between Russia, Ukraine and the West shows the truth of these careful theoretical remarks. The political effect of economic ties is not automatically benign or peace enhancing.

Columbus Day needs to go, but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restore the Turkish Empire!

The Turkish Empire, also called the Ottoman Empire, was founded in 1299 and lasted until 1922. At the start of World War I, the Turkish Empire still included much of the Levant, including what are now Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and part of Saudi Arabia. The Sultan, as the emperor, was also the head of the Caliphate, the realm of Islam.

Libertarians are generally opposed to empires. However, a great historical error was made by the victors of World War I. The chiefs of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, broke up the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Turkish Empire. Whereas the Arabs helped the British defeat the Turks in the expectation that they would achieve independence, the British and French betrayed these hopes by making the Arab lands colonies. The British obtained Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq, while the French took Lebanon and Syria.

Under the Turkish Empire, the diverse religions of the Middle East were able to co-exist. The Empire had a policy of local self-governance under the “millet” system whereby people could use their own religious laws. The term derives from the Arabic word millah, for meaning “nation.” Because they were all under one empire, the ethnic groups such as Kurds and the religious minorities did not fight over land.

Today’s problems in the Middle East, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Syrian civil wars, the dictatorship and war in Iraq, the violence in Lebanon, and the rise of supremacists, all stem from the breakup of the Turkish Empire. That realm had its problems, including violence against Armenians and others, but most of the residents of the former Turkish areas would probably wish they had stayed in the Empire.

With the discovery and development of oil Iraq became of strategic interest. If the Turkish Empire had not been broken up then the oil would have served the Empire; and the dictatorships and tyrannies of Syria and Iraq would have been prevented. Most likely, the Turkish Empire would have been a constitutional monarchy. The retention of the Caliphate would have avoided the nostalgic yearning of Muslims for its restoration by violence.

But now, is it too late? We cannot restore broken Humpty Dumpty, can we? Maybe not, but what is the alternative? Nobody is talking about restoring the Turkish Empire, but there does not seem to be any better solution.

The restoration of the Turkish empire does seem crazy, ridiculous, and absurd. But it would unify the region. There was no Sunni-Shia war under the Turks. Christians were able to follow their faith. Jews who had lived in the region since the BC times did not have to flee.

The new Turkish Empire would include Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq. Kuwait was separate from the Empire, and could join or not as it wished. The government of Turkey would start the process by sending in troops to take control of Syria and sections of Iraq. The other states would be invited to join in.

The new empire would not be called “Turkish,” although Turkey would be the major power holding it together. It could be called the Confederation of the Levant. The states of the confederation would retain their own institutions. Israelis and Palestinians would benefit by joining the new Turkish empire. Just as Muslim cities once had Jewish quarters, the Empire would regard Israel as the Jewish quarter of a Muslim empire, while Palestinian Arabs would no longer be under Israeli occupation; they would constitute a state within a Muslim Caliphate, and the Israeli settlers would recognize the Palestinian jurisdiction by paying rent.

The US is now reluctant to send in troops to pacify the Levant, and Turkey is in the best position to do so. Having become more Islamic, now is the time for it to take the next step and restore an Islamic empire with a Caliphate, but a peaceful, democratic, and tolerant one.

Just as breaking up the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a big mistake, which allowed Nazi Germany to swallow up Austria and then Czechoslovakia, so was the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. The European Union has replaced the old European realms as it becomes a new empire of democratic states. Nothing like that is happening in the Middle East.

It’s time to talk Turkey!

Sanctions, restrictions and other “accumulations of peace”

Hello there. Long time no blog. I hadn’t enough time and there were a lot of work. From now on I will write in english. As you know, english is not my native language, so I expect a lot of mistakes: please reload your facepalms. By the way, it’s not a point of discussion. I do my best – keep in mind that I live in Russia and I don’t have very special abilities in your-language-speaking. Anyway, I hope that you will understand “main course” of every single post that I’ll write. So.

There are a lot of new restrictions from Happy West now: individual sanctions, military and trading restrictions. Many people think that Russia is “main problem” in Ukrainian issue. I don’t want to argue, because The Great Machine Of Propaganda works well – you have your own position, and I have mine. Every single toaster and fridge in Russia (rest of the world) scream that we not using military force in Ukraine (that Empire Of Evil Soviets trying to conqueer our asses, so behold!!!1). That’s why I don’t want to argue about that. I want to tell you how we live under that restrictions: how workers, engineers and house-hold-wifes are living. Another “by the way” here: I speak russian and english, and now learning norsk, but I don’t have a big vocabulary in my head, so sometimes I will use words that probably did not exist. I will combine simple words that I know in one lo-o-o-o-ong word to describe some events. For example, under “house-hold-wifes” I mean “a wife who sitting at home, preparing food, acting with children, etc.”. So on… Excuse my english.

We have a lot of problems now. Prices are getting higher and there’s lack of foreign food in our stores: milk productions, cheeses, yogurts, fish, sea-products and so on. We are not starving – there are a lot of russian food, but prices getting higher and higher, while salaries are still the same. Sometimes we riding to Finland and buying foreign food from the Union in suomi-shops, but it works well only for ones, who live near that country: people from Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and so on are riding to Finland or Estonia so often… I like these countries, they are beautiful! Nature, lakes, forests, you know. And you can buy everything – if you have money, of course!

I don’t like how all the world are looking at us now. I don’t want to be a part of a country that is under a bullet-less fire, because it’s unfair. Seems that I and every single person in Russia did nothing personally to Union or mr. Obama – but we have problems. Not our government – but we. Citizens. On every single foreign forum I try to make people understand us too, but it’s like a farting in the pond – loud but useless.

But I keep trying.

Around the Web

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

Brazilian Elections 2014: Preview

Tomorrow, when Brazilians vote for President, the most likely outcome is that we’ll know the names of two candidates that made the cut for the second round of elections. And the incumbent Dilma Rousseff is likely to be one of them.

The candidates

Labour Party candidate and current President Rousseff is leading the polls, but in everyday conversation she’s arguably the least popular candidate. There’s nothing fresh in her platform, and it’s safe to assume a second Rousseff term would look pretty much the same as the first term: unimpressive.

Environmentalist Marina Silva, of the Socialist Party, has surprisingly defended a centrist and pragmatic economic agenda, a slight shift to the right, if compared to Rousseff’s platform. Amongst other things, Silva would push for the autonomy of Brazil’s Central Bank, along the lines of the Fed in the US.

Aécio Neves, a Social-Democrat, has a similar centrist agenda, but clothed in small-government rhetoric – again, out of pragmatism and in pursuit of more efficiency, and not necessarily out of principle. Pundits have analysed Neves’ debate performance and he seems to come across as the most well-prepared candidate in the field.

Compulsory Democracy

We’re to expect a large turnout, due to a peculiar arrangement in Brazilian law: voting is compulsory to all citizens, residents and non-residents alike, over the age of 18, with few exceptions.

In order to vote, it’s necessary to show a voter’s ‘permit.’ If a citizen fails to turn up to vote, that permit number will have a negative record. Citizens who can’t make it in time will have a deadline to turn up in electoral court to justify why they didn’t vote. If there’s a good reason, they get a stamp and a document clearing their voters ‘record’. If the absence isn’t ‘justified,’ then a fine is due.

Votes are cast electronically. Each voter will use a cabin with a machine where a candidate number must be entered. In case the number is incorrect, it’s possible to correct the vote. In case the number hasn’t been assigned to any candidate, the vote is ‘nullified’. Citizens also have the right to a blank vote. The transparency of this system has ben questioned on several occasions, not least because of the risk of tampering with the machines.

Final Sprint

Marina Silva’s campaign was a great surprise, since her party’s nominee died in a plane crash. She quickly rose in popularity and took the second place in the polls. Critics pointed out that Silva was one of the founders of the Labour Party – President Rousseff’s party, and then defected to the Green Party and later joined the Socialist Party, where she currently is. A key objection to her campaign was the similarity between her ideological background and that of the President’s.

Speaking of background, Aécio Neves’ family story was another factor emerging in this campaign. Neves was an unlikely nominee initially, because most of his party’s base and its inner circle are concentrated in São Paulo, whereas Neves made his political career in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais. Neves’ grandfather was the first President elected after the end of military rule in Brazil (1985), but he died tragically before being sworn in. Since then, the name Neves has been associated to the many political ironies of Brazilian history.

For a few weeks, Silva sat comfortably in the second position. However, after a series of TV debates, it became clear that President Rousseff was struggling to get her points across, and that Neves was well-prepared and well-advised. The incumbent lost some points in the polls while Neves came to a surprising rise in the final sprint, overtaking Silva in the second place.

The common outcome of Brazilian presidential elections is a smaller question mark – from a pool of five or more candidates, the top most voted are generally selected for a second round, to take place a few weeks later. This is likely to happen again, but it’s hard to predict who will get the ticket to challenge Rousseff.

Stephen Cox Reviews Delacroix’s New Book

From the pages of Liberty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland, Nation, and Liberty

As I start writing voting is coming to an end in Scotland with regard to a referendum on whether Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. There are those in Cornwall, a peninsula on the extreme south-west of England who argue that is should be represented as an entity on  level with those four components of the UK, as it was regarded as distinct from England into the sixteenth century, never having being properly incorporated into Roman Britannia or Anglo-Saxon Wessex (the Old English kingdom in the south west, which became the nucleus of the Medieval English state).

From the 10th century onwards Anglo-Saxon kings asserted supremacy over Scotland with varying degrees of success in obtaining some recognition of overlordship from Scottish kings. Wars between Scotland and England led to victory for Scotland in the fourteenth century when the English monarchy ended attempts to use force to demand Scottish subordination, or even incorporation of Scotland, and European states accepted Scotland as a sovereign entity. In the early seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth I of England died childless so that the heir to the English crown was King James VI of Scotland who became James I of England. He moved his court from Edinburgh to London, and pushed for the union of two kingdoms in his person to become a state union of England and Scotland as Great Britain. (At this time, Wales was treated as a part of England.)

The English Parliament resisted the creation of Great Britain, but by the early eighteenth century there was mutual interest in the trade and economic advantages of state union with accompany reductions on trade barriers, particularly after the failure of a brief attempt at Scottish empire building in Central America.  An Act of Union was passed by the English Parliament in 1707 and then by the Scottish Parliament in 1708, which abolished the Scottish Parliament. It also left in place major differences in laws, the legal system, education, and the state church, which have lasted until the present day.

Before the personal union of Scotland and England under James VI/I, Scotland itself went through a process of internal integration, or colonisation of the peripheral regions by the centre, as all nations have. This included the 1493  abolition of the Lord of the Isles, which indicated sovereignty over an area covering the highland and island areas of Scotland, and which has a complex history in relation to all the neighbouring powers. The incorporation  of that region, what could easily have been a separate sovereign nation if history had gone a bit differently, was not completed until 1745, that is after the Act of Union, when a British army destroyed an attempted restoration of the Stuart family of James VI/I. The attempted restoration is known as the Jacobite Rebellion. Jacobite refers to the latinised form of James, in honour of James II, who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 due to his Catholic religion, fears that he was attempting to enforce that religion as a state church instead of the existing Protestant established church, and fears that he was creating an absolute monarchy with a decorative role only for Parliament.

The Jacobite  Rebellion itself divided Scotland between the traditional semi-feudal highland chiefs and the commercial world of the Lowlands. As a consequence of the failure of the Rebellion, British law was enforced fully for the first time beyond the Highland line, while restrictions were placed of Highland customs, clothing, and language. The language of the Highlands was Gaelic (a Celtic language relate to Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton).   This was the triumph of the Scots (a dialect of English, or a language which is very close to English depending on point of view) and English speaking Lowlanders and the end of the process initiated by the early Stuart overthrow of the Lords of the Isles.

The United Kingdom was formed by the 1800 Act of Union, which abolished the Irish parliament. Most of Ireland left to form what is now the Republic of Ireland in the early 1920s, but Northern Ireland remained, now with its own parliament, which is why there is still a UK, not just Great Britain.

All this history is to indicate the long historical nature and the complexity of the  relations between England and Scotland, with regard to sovereignty, identity, and so on. Scotland like England was itself a work in progress before union, and the integration of Scotland into what might be taken as a single nation, was completed over one hundred years after the Act of Union, over two hundred years after the union of crowns, under the leadership of the British crown, which at that time was unified with the German princedom of Hanover.

Scotland was never assimilated into England, even when there was no parliament, and Scotland has always been distinct from England than Wales in at least two respects:

  1. there is a higher proportion of trade within Scotland than with England, than of internal Welsh trading activity compared with trade with England;
  2. Wales’s contact with urban centres is just as much with the nearby English cities of Bristol, Birmingham, and Liverpool as with its own cities (principally Swansea and Cardiff) while Scotland is very focused on its own cities (principally Edinburgh and Glasgow).

However, Wales is more distinct from England in language since twenty per cent  speak Welsh fluently, everyone studies Welsh at school, and Wales is officially bilingual, even gesturing towards Welsh language priority. Gaelic speakers are about one per cent of the Scottish population.

The Welsh-Scottish comparison serves to show that ways of assessing national identity and distinctness vary and that there is no one way of evaluating this, so there can be no one institutional and political strategy for accommodating national differences within a state. The level and intensity of Scottish distinctness and identity has amounted to a nation now divided almost exactly down the middle about whether it wishes to separate from the UK.

This is not just an issue of identity though, as a large part of the Scottish independence vote is based on a belief that Scotland is egalitarian, welfarist, communal, social democratic, or even socialist, in comparison with England and that the countries are polar opposites on these issues. Another part of support for independence is the hope that North Sea oil will bring more benefit to Scotland if a Scottish government is collecting the tax revenue, accompanied by the belief that taxation at the UK level is some kind of resource theft.

Building on the historical, political, and institutional account above, what conclusions am I drawing? The first thing to state is of course that Scotland has every right to leave the UK if it so wishes, that it is a good thing that a referendum is being held to test what Scots want, and that if independence is what is wanted, then the government of the residual UK use must take a positive and co-operative approach to the departure of Scotland.

However, I certainly don’t believe that Scotland should separate. Part of that is the emotional patriotism of an Englishman, call it nationalism no problem, based on centuries of shared enterprise and struggle, good (the defeat of National Socialist Germany) and bad (imperialism). The Scots took a disproportionately large part in the trading, colonising, and military aspects of that joint history, and during that history many Scots went to England and became part of English society, John Stuart Mill’s father is a notable example. One of the great flourishing moments of that history was the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume, Adam Smith, and others, which always involved education, travel, and interaction in England as well as Scotland.

Why peace behind centuries of joint enterprise in which despite centralising processes, differences of identity and in institutions proved to be compatible with the growth of commercial society, civil society, liberty under law, parliamentary government, science and culture, and the twentieth century struggle against totalitarianism.

There’s  a lot for liberty advocates to admire there, without denying that a lot of worse things happened as well, and surely we should be disposed to favour building on that rather than destroying it. Many liberty advocates have a preference for small nations where maybe there is more chance of intelligent laws and policies, less remote from everyday reality and individual understanding of particular realities.

I can only agree with the provision that such a result can be achieved through forms of federalism which are decentralising rather than centralising so that the federal centre is largely responsible for trade, foreign and defence policy, and the lower region and national levels do everything else in an innovative, flexible, diverse, and competitive way.

There is still some benefit in the UK remaining as a unified power for defence and military purposes. It is would not be good from a liberty point of view for a country that in its military budget and capacities, its diplomatic and transnational weight, is still a match for nearly all the major powers. The UK whatever its faults is one of the more liberty  oriented parts of the world, and no good would come from lessening its strategic and diplomatic weight. Of course those liberty advocates who prefer very neutralist and almost pacifist attitudes to international relations will not be impressed, but we live in a world where states with low levels of inner liberty and little respect for the rights of others exist, and should be at least matched by powers that are more liberty oriented at home and more respectful of the rights in the international sphere. The role of liberal democracies has not always been admirable in this sphere, but better those errors than unchecked aggression from authoritarian states.

The institutions of liberty are more likely to flourish in democratic states, where a multiplicity of national and regional identities flourish, than in attempts to break away based on some inclination, of some degree of intensity, that singular national identity is better than multiplicity and that national identity needs unrestrained state sovereignty. In the particular case of Scotland, the Scottish National Party, and others for independence, are relying on the dream of a more socialist country where ‘Scottish’ oil is protected from the English to fund an expanding state, without having a plausible explanation for the currency to be used on independence, or any sense of reality about how international markets testing the prudence of a new state are likely to drive it towards high interest rates and displays of deficit reduction.

The political consequences of a subsequent disillusion with social democratic dreams mingled with existing  assumptions of a morally superior Scottish community, and related anti-English feeling, in economically disruptive circumstances could be most severe and disturbing. Even on a more optimistic assumption about the future in which Scotland moves smoothly into a more social democratic future, nothing is gained from a pro-liberty point of view. Pro-liberty commentators who think that because Hume and Smith were Scots that an independent Scotland will be guided by Enlightenment classical liberalism have completely lost the plot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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