Category Archives: Political Thought

Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka

I write in response to Fred Folvary’s post on this site, “Restore the Turkish Empire!” Living as I do in the largest city the Republic of Turkey, Istanbul which is its commercial and cultural centre, with a formidable concentration of universities (explaining my presence here), it made an impact, but of the most irritating kind I have to say. To say the least I find it bracing to find the foundation of the state where I live rejected, since I believe the foundation of that republic was a positive event in twentieth century, which in its vices has been mo worse than the Ottoman Empire and in its virtues considerably superior, even if much needs to be done by way of securing liberty here.

I will expand on the Ottoman Empire to Republic of Turkey transition and then move onto the other object of Fred’s nostalgia, the Habsburg Empire and an explanation of the Kaka (not a typo for Kafka, but a literary allusion) reference in the title. A belief that the Ottoman state (the Turkish word for ‘empire'; ‘Imparatorluk’ is imported, evidently coming from the Latin word for military chief which became associated with the rulers of Rome after Caesar) was better for liberty than the Republic has been expressed  by a few scholars over here, most notably Mustafa Akyol, author of Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.

Akyol’s credibility on these matters was increasingly compromised though by his loyalty to the AKP government of Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, now President of Turkey after 12 years as Prime Minister. The AKP  had some support from secular, and mildly religious, liberty advocates (not including me though) when it came to power in 2002 in the belief that a religious based political party would correct the authoritarian aspects of secularism in Turkey. By the time the Gezi Park protests started in 2013, that kind of support was largely eroded by the evident determination of the AKP to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of a new religious conservative elite, which was no less authoritarian than its secular predecessors (which anyway often flirted with religious conservatism) and had built up more power than any government since the end of the one party system in the late 1940s.

Akyol was a hold out, providing apparently liberal intellectual credibility for the AKP for an international audience, as he writes in English and sometimes speaks at international pro-liberty events. Akyol initially condemned the Gezi activists for peaceful resistance, this neo-Ottoman liberal undermining his credibility by showing he did not understand the place of non-violent civil disobedience in the liberty tradition, certainly suggesting to me that his view of ‘liberty’ was excessively tied to deference to traditional authority. He did, however, come to see that something was wrong with the AKP government, announcing that the problems would be resolved in a forum for AKP intellectuals. He was to learn the hard way that the AKP cared nothing for its remnant liberal intellectuals and did finally recognise that the AKP is a corrupt authoritarian nightmare.

That’s the story of one individual, but it illustrates the dangers of any kind of liberty thought defined with reference to  traditional   sources of authority, and indeed nostalgia for lost authority. Such dangers are why I do not support, at all, the most conservative aspects of liberty advocacy, that is any tendency to think aristocratic and religious sources of authority in the past provide some model for contesting the expansion and intrusion of the administrative state in the modern world.

Returning to the Ottoman case, the Akyol style preference for Ottomanism over republicanism is linked to objections to the centralising nationalist statist tendencies of the early Republican governments under Kemal Atatürk and then İsmet İnönü.

The process starts with the revolt of Turkish nationalists and various local interests against the occupation and proposed partition of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. An Ottoman general with republican and nationalist leanings, Mustafa Kemal (later adopting the surname Atatürk, which was his only surname since he received that name as a part of a law establishing surnames for Muslims for the first time in 1934) was able to leave occupied Istanbul, where the residual Ottoman government was collaborating with the occupying powers, for eastern Anatolia, becoming the political and military leader of the forces of the National Pact and first National Assembly, against the occupying powers and a Greek invasion of Anatolia.

The Ottoman government simply had no meaningful power base independent of Britain and the other occupying powers, and was swept away from Mustafa Kemal’s forces defeated those countries that the Sultan was unwilling or unable to resist in their ambitions to turn the Ottoman Empire into some mere central Anatolian sultanate.

The victory of the National forces was a very bloody matter, with ethnic violence deeply rooted in the long breakup of the Ottoman Empire on all sides. Anyway, it was the first major victory against the Imperial powers of the time, who had steadily eroded Ottoman territories and Ottoman sovereignty over what remained. The Turkish national movement received support from Muslims in southern Asia, living under British rule, and its success was noted by the Hindu population as well. It was part of the process behind the independence of India at the end of 1947, which was the beginning of the end for the injustice of European colonialism.

In power the nationalist-republicans under Mustafa Kemal abolished the sultanate and then the caliphate (the residual and never fully effective claim of the Ottoman dynasty to provide the leader of world Islam). Public segregation of the sexes was ended, women received the vote, religion was removed from political life, education became secular, legal codes were imported from the west, the official language was reformed to make it closer to colloquial Turkish and less of an elite literary-bureaucratic language, the economic policies were statist, but not socialist and private capital and a new Muslim entrepreneurial class did develop. The politics and methods were authoritarian and considerable state violence was directed against those not adapting to the state program.

However, much of what was achieved was what one would for from a liberty standpoint if not the methods, and the worst aspects of what happened had already taken place under the Ottoman state, particularly Sultan Abdul Hamid II (ruling from 1876 to 1909) who destroyed an Ottoman constitution, began the intense persecution of Armenians, and constructed a more centralised bureaucratised form of government. So we cannot say that the Ottoman system in the period for which we can make meaningful comparisons with republican national governments was any better from a pro-liberty point of view than the early Turkish republic.

Abdul Hamit lost power in 1909 to a movement that was constitutional and pluralist at first, but turned into the domination of the Committee of Union and Progress under a three-man collective dictatorship. The trio and various CUP thinkers were influenced by republican and nationalist thought, but also by Ottomanist and Islamist identity, so really mixed everything until it could become clear what the fate of the Empire was to be.

Persecution of the Armenians continued and increasingly there was persecution  of Arabs, particularly in the province of Syria, so that any idea of an Ottoman Empire that could contain either substantial Christian or Arab populations was eroding though not as part of a preconceived plan, but because the ways that Ottoman power operated and reacted to opposing forces were already pushing in the direction of a centralised state dominated by the Turks of Anatolia.  This all culminated in the 1915 deportations and massacres of Armenians, in which 1 500 000 Armenian subjects of the Sultan lost their lives, accompanied by high levels of state violence against an Arab population ready to listen to what turned out to dishonest promises from the colonial European powers.

I hope that the above shows that the idea of rescuing to the Ottoman Empire, even as a confederation on liberal grounds, was a complete irrelevance at the end of World War One and any attempt to have imposed such a thing would have ended in a  mixture of political farce and mass killing as unwilling millions found themselves herded into a state system no one had wanted. The Ottoman Empire would have had to start liberalising and democratising in the eighteenth century before modern nationalism became a force for it to have had any hope at all of surviving as a multi-national confederation into out time.

1919 was far, far too late to hope the ethnic nationalism would be replaced by co-operation through liberal democracy and that the remaining Ottoman Empire could emulate Switzerland, which emerged as confederation of self-governing cantons in the middle ages. Whatever else might be said about Atatürk, and certainly there are criticisms to be made, his leadership and the memory of it, founded and stabilised an independent state of laws with a modernising ideology, which used authoritarian means, but was willing to democratise.

Atatürk’s friend and successor İsmet İnönü accepted a multi-party system and his own ejection from power in a process of  the late forties culminating in the elections of 1950, with Turkey emerging as the main democratic moderate Muslim power and an important ally of the western democracies against Soviet totalitiarianism.

Whatever can be said about Atarürk the statism, including violence, of his time, was not extreme compared with a Europe increasingly full of dictators, running nationalist, corporatist, fascist, national socialist, and Bolshevik regimes, and neither was the violence extreme compared with that exercised by the leading liberal European powers of the time, France and Britain, in their colonies including mandates neighbouring Turkey.

I’ll have less detail to offer on the Habsburg Empire, but as with the Ottoman Empire, reform came far too late and far too cautiously for it to become a larger version of Switzerland. I doubt there was any chance at all given the survival of the Habsburg Empire, as the Austrian Empire, after Napoleon destroyed the Holy Roman Empire (the de facto German confederation loosely under the leadership of the Habsburgs who had their real power in hereditary territories of central Europe), since the old power structures remained with no question of federalisation, confederalisation, or cantonisation, or any movement for any such thing from anyone. The last vestiges of a chance were certainly destroyed in 1848 when Austria acted as the central force in the destruction of constitutional and national movements in the Spring Time of the Peoples in that year. Bright spring turned into a terrible winter as the Habsburg forces destroyed new constitutions in Italy, crushed resistance to its own rule in Italy, and crushed Hungarian revolutionaries, along with Austrian liberals.

In 1867, the Habsbugs did see the necessity for compromise with Hungary, by which time it had already lost territory in Italy and used particularly appalling violence in what is now Ukraine against a a reformist and insurgent aristocracy. The Habsburg state became a dual monarchy (building on the dynasty’s titles which included King of Hungary as well as Emperor of Austria), so Hungary received its own assembly, and was at least formally an equal parter in the old state with Austria. Croatia also had autonomy and the title of King of Bohemia was newly emphasised to satisfy Czech sensibilities, but all too little to late. Since Vienna believed Budapest wished to secede and could not be trusted with its own strong army, there was very weak Habsburg army in Hungary by the time of World War One. So the Habsburg state could not even allow half the country to have a meaningful army.

So World War One? How did that start? Well first a Bosnian Serb believer in south Slav unity assassinated the heir to the dual monarchy, then the Emperor-King’s government decided to make demands that would destroy Serbian independence. It is true that Pirincep’s group the Black Hand was manipulated by the chief of military intelligence in Belgrade who ran a secret deep state in parallel with, but outside the control of, the legal government. That legal government did accede to just about all the Habsburg demands, asking for delay on just one question. In fact the government and general staff in Vienna wanted to invade Serbia anyway, did so, sparking a predictable reaction from Russia, sparking a further predictable reaction from Germany, which activated plans to invade France and Belgium with well-known results.

Now the Habsburgs were not solely responsible for the four-year catastrophe, but we could not have done it over here in Europe without the blundering irresponsible aggression of a government, which was afraid to allow a decent army to exist in half of its own land, but still invited war with Russia! A state bursting at the seams with nationalist demands, almost impossible to reconcile, and which the state had no means to deal with except to play one group off against another in the hope of better times. The assassinated heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, did have a plan for some form of federalisation, but even had he lived to implement it, the state would have broken up and violent as secessionist nationalities fought against what they believed was a Habsburg prison-house of the nations and against each other.

Of course the claim that the Habsburg Empire was breaking up violently one way or the other, whatever the Emperor-King’s government did is a hypothetical. I suggest that at any rate it is a far more plausible and modest hypothetical than Fred’s belief that the victorious powers of World War One should have patched up the Empire and helped it along.

How?

The state was disintregrating in 1918 as Italian forces invested Habsburg lands. It is not a hypothetical to say that the nationalities under the Habsburgs would no longer fight for the old Empire, it is what happened.

And how were Britain, France, Italy, and America to hold together an empire n central Europe which started the war with mobilisation against Serbia, which was an ally of Britain and France?

Were Serbia and Italy going to add to considerable preceding sacrifices  by going to war to protect the Habsburgs from rebellious nations?

Were France and Britain going to add to a desperate four years of mass bloodshed by launching a war to protect an enemy power from people who wished to break away from it?

These are all preposterous ideas, and there is no remotely plausible idea for preserving the Habsburg Empire in 1918-1919. Those with a taste for comforting counterfactual history would do better to dream of a Habsburg confederation developing centuries before. That Empire was ready to collapse like a rotten old house in 1914 under any major impact with large force, never mind 1919.

And Kaka? That is the source of the name bestowed on the Dual Monarchy by one of the great Viennese writers, one of the great twentieth century writers, Robert Musil who died in 1942 as the author or the unfinished masterpiece The Man Without Qualities, one of the major literary achievements of the last century. He refers to the dying Habsburg Empire’s designation of ‘Kaiserlich und Königlich’, that is to say Imperial and Kingly, frequently shortened to K.K., which when spoken sound like ‘Kaka’, a childish word for faeces, something like poo poo in English. Inevitably this led to references to the Empire as ‘Kakanien’, Kakania, something like Crap Land. This bit of politically charged silliness became known to readers of modernist classics of literature, because Musil plays on it.

So the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, both Kakania, both rotten old state structures ready to collapse as they had proved unable to adapt to nationalist and centrifugal movements in a timely and effective manner for over a century. That a confederation under a residual  monarch would have been better than violent nationalist disintegration is beyond doubt, however, there is no possible way in which those empires were going to exist beyond a core national territory (Turkey and Austria respectively) after World War One, and the collapse of legitimacy in that core territory was anyway final due to military defeat, so that we cannot even begin to discuss in any way that is at all realistic how they could have survived as the unifying factor in large complex confederations of many nationalities, languages,and religions. They were just both Kakania.

Why not world government? Part 2

In Part 1 we gave a general definition to what world government, or ‘monopolis’ as I’ve suggested, was. Key to our definition was that a monopolis was neither inherently libertarian nor anti-libertarian. Some readers might scratch their heads and wonder if such a vague definition is of any helpful. After all if a standard dictionary were written in similar vague terms we would have entries that read like:

Broccoli: noun. A vegetable that can taste nasty except when it doesn’t.

Nonetheless I argue that my definition of monopolis is invaluable in that it clarifies that whether a world government is desirable or not depends on the details. This is an advancement over the extreme positions that world government, or any other ‘large’ government, is inherently bad or good in that it allows us to attempt to reach a middle ground. In other words the size of government has a bell-shaped curve relationship in terms of efficiency. Larger governments benefit from returns to scale, but there is a point where these returns to scale become decreasing or even negative. The ideal size of government is at the middle point – but it is unclear where exactly that middle point is.

Federal government.
What is the optimum level of federal government?

At heart I am an anarchist and would prefer a world composed of countless city-states that freely traded with one another. One would still be part of a government, but which government you were part of would be no more important than what baseball team you rooted for. If possible I’d do away with the city-states as well and allow individuals to contract with one another directly but alas we have not yet reached the conditions necessary for that!

Even in my anarchist utopia though there would be the need for a federal government that promoted inter-city trade. Without a strong federal government local states could easily erect trade barriers to protect themselves from outside competition. A federal government’s chief benefit would be in that it would act to reduce transaction costs between member-states.

At the same time there would be a cost to introducing a federal government in my anarchist utopia. A federal government strong enough to defy member-states can use the same power to give itself more duties. Indeed, the individuals who compose federal governments have strong personal incentives to grant themselves further powers. How else can the growth of the United States federal government be explained? At its inception the United States was little more than a trade and common defense pact – it didn’t even have the power to levy taxes and had to request funds from the constituent states. Compare that to today’s US federal government, whose tentacles can be found in almost every aspect of life.

Federal governments do nonetheless face internal and external constraints to what they can do. Federal governments have the ability to defy individual member-states, but they have less ability to confront several local elites at once. Take for example the Real ID act; passed in the early 2000s the Real ID act would have created a de facto national ID in the United States but it has thus far been stalled due to the opposition of several state governments. Externally federal governments are also constrained by competing federal governments. The United States federal government cannot devote itself entirely to dominating its constituent member-states, it must also pay attention to the actions of Russia, China, India, and other rival powers.

It is due to the latter reason that I do not favor world government; I fear that in the absence of competing federal powers the remaining federal government would be able to devote itself to centralizing power away from local elites.
I concede that there are two scenarios where my concerns would be lessened.

  1. In the first scenario the constituent member-states are strong enough that a small fraction of them can restrain the actions of the federal government. This would require a few member-states to be both significantly larger than the other constituent member-states and to have conflicting views on public policy than the federal government. A world federal government would need a ‘California’ or ‘Texas’ if you would.California and Texas could both become independent nations and safely be great powers. This position has allowed them to defy the federal government on several occasions as there is an implicit understanding that they could secure their independence if their long run interests differ sharply from the United States’ interests. Brandon Christensen has often pointed out the importance of allowing member-states to secede from their federations, and here I agree fully with him.

    The existence of a ‘California’ or ‘Texas’ is tricky though. Member-states will only stay in a federal government if they benefit from doing so and there are several scenarios where a member-state like ‘California’ might actually secede. Secession, done rightly, could induce the federal government to seek compromise or internal reform. Or it might attack ‘California’ and assert that secession is illegitimate. Peaceful secession, such as the break up of Czechoslovakia, is certainly possible but they are rare.

  2. The second scenario would be one where the federal government was constrained by its future self. Let us posit a monopolis, a world government, that was secure in its rule. Would the rulers of such a monopolis set tax rates at 100%? Not if they were concerned about future revenues. A monopolis would likely prefer to smooth its consumption over time and to do this it would have to find a tax rate that did not hinder future economic productivity of its citizenry too much. This scenario however would only arise if the ruling elite at the top of the monopolis governing structure were assured that they and their descendants would continue to be ruling elites for the foreseeable future. A monopolis would have to be a monarchy in essence.

In summary, a monopolis would be desirable if the details were properly adjusted to avoid reaching decreasing or negative returns to scale in efficiency. A monopolis would have to face constraints of some sort, which in the absence of external competitors would have to be either strong member-states that could achieve independence if desired and/or a ruling elite that was strong enough that it had no serious concerns about being overthrown. If these conditions could be met then a monopolis would be well worth it.

I for one am skeptical about our ability to achieve these prerequisites, but the argument is no longer a theoretical one. The question of whether a world government is desirable has become an empirical question as we need to find some way of measuring the likelihood of achieving the above mentioned perquisites.

Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements? Comment below.

From the Comments: The medieval Dark Ages were indeed dark

Dr Stocker answers my question about non-European canons of liberty:

Hello Brandon, sorry I didn’t have time to check the comments on this earlier. I don’t really want to say there was a 1000 year dark age for thought about liberty, but in terms of big recognised classics, it does look like a ‘Dark Age’.

Sadly I’m not equipped to discuss what was going on outside ‘Christendom’, the Medieval Christian world which largely corresponded with Europe particularly after the Arab (and in the west Berber) Muslim conquests in north Africa and south west Asia, so in what had been the Byzantine Empire outside its Balkan and Anatolian heartland.

I’m very slightly better qualified to discuss the Muslim world of this time than the cultures further east, and as far as I can see despite the riches of Muslim intellectual achievement, and the building of legal traditions, there is no major figure who could be described as pro-liberty though as with Aquinas, William of Ockam and other major political writers in Christendom of the time, there is an interest in law and respect for law from the sovereign power. I personally feel it’s a bit of a stretch to include that in any kind of liberty tradition, though the rule of law ideas to feed into it and to some degree pick up on antique republican thought, but largely in its empire of laws aspect rather than other aspects of political and social liberty.

There is a lot of really important and interesting stuff going on further east, particularly in China and India, going back to at least the time of Aristotle in Greece, in terms of philosophical, ethical, and political thought, and institutional innovation. On the institutional side though, I can’t see anything that looks very ‘republican’ or holding power accountable, or valuing challenges to excessive power. I’m sure there are texts that are important for liberty minded people to read, and some things some absolute rulers did like Buddhists who tried to abolish slavery, worth knowing about, but I’m just not competent right now to deal with this stuff properly. It is becoming better known in the west and that is going to produce results in the liberty community. I’ll see if I’m ever ready to engage, I’ve got some iras about how to get there from particular interests of mine, but it needs time.

In discussing Asian political traditions, one issue which is being discussed a lot is state hill communities in southern Asia, though from a collectivist anarchist position rather than an individualist anarchist position, the discussion has been picked up to some degree from an individualist point of view (Peter Leeson, the George Mason economist for example) and I think we’ll see more of that over time. That issue of hill peoples brings me onto something else.

Knowledge of the political structures of hill peoples comes from anthropologists (particularly the Yale anthropologist and agrarian studies specialist James C. Scott, a collectivist anarchist in inclination) rather than from texts in political theory by those stateless peoples. They were illiterate and maybe deliberately so to protect themselves from the low land state observations. Any political philosophy (or indeed philosophy of any kind) of such people comes from looking at the assumptions and everyday ‘ideologies’ of their lives. A big thing on that issue which has been getting increasing interest is that until the late 18th century European histories of philosophy included that kind of implicit philosophy of illiterate peoples observed in an ‘anthropological’ way by ancient historians like Tacitus and Herodotus. There has been a modern equivalent, roughly speaking, to that Herodotus/Tacitus observation of the supposed beliefs of peoples who seem very foreign, which is African philosophy, as studied by African scholars and outside Africa, largely by African-American scholars in US universities. This has engaged with an anthropological-philosophical study of the belief systems of colonised and pre-colonial African peoples.

There is a scholar known to me by personal acquaintance as well as academic reputation working on that sort of approach to non-literarate or not very literate non-urban societies round the world. That is Justin E.H. Smith a (white) American based at the University of Paris, who has a book due out on this in a few years, I’m certainly looking forward to it. That leads me to your point about ideology.

I agree that there is a valid area of study of philosophy, political throughout etc as it exists outside ‘ideology’ as written texts on those theme. It may have some relation to ‘ideology’ as everyday assumptions, though with less of the control/conformity associations of ‘ideology’. I am not on the whole the right person to say much about this, but over time I might be able to post a few things. I’m thinking of taking a step in that direction for next week’s post, which I’m thinking could be on the Medieval Iceland Eddas (heroic poetry) as it relates to a society, which apparently had very little in the way of a central state. That will mean breaking the timeline I’m working through, but that’s OK as I now realise I meant to cover the Roman historian Tacitus, but forgot, so next couple of posts will probably go back in history. Just working on a post on a 14th century English legal thinker, John Fortescue, for this weekend.

You can all read Dr Stocker’s promised Fortescue post here if you haven’t already (it’s excellent, of course). I have been interested in liberty from a non-European point of view ever since I first became interested in liberty (2008, thanks to Ron Paul’s presidential run, and I have always been interested in non-European cultures). A part of me wants to believe that there is an unwritten code of liberty to be found within all societies, and I think that there is a case to be made for this, if you look closely enough.

However, I was doing a search for liberal political parties throughout the world (liberal means libertarian!) and I was genuinely shocked at how few liberal parties there are outside of continental Europe and the Anglo-Saxon world. Even Latin America, long the West’s red-headed stepchild, has a dearth of liberal political parties.

Most parties in the non-European world are based around ethnicity, nationality, or socialism. The fact that socialism is ambiguous enough that it can allow for a narrative that incorporates ethnicity or nationality into its premise probably accounts for the popularity of these political parties. (So, for example, a political party that serves the interests of an ethnic group in a post-colonial state will often name itself the “National Party of Post-Colony,” or the “People’s Party of Post-Colony.”) This is still a disheartening trend, though. In the US, both major political parties are essentially liberal, and in continental Europe most of the political parties are liberal in fact if not in name.

I note here that factions and not parties are ultimately what drives drives politics, but the lack of liberal political parties can still us something about a society’s cultural mores.

For some reason this superficial political observation, coupled with Barry’s astute thoughts, reminds of this old post by Jacques on knowledge, language, and information.

The 100th Anniversary of the Defeat of Economic Land

The year 2014 is the 100th anniversary of an economics article that was the final nail in the coffin of classical economics, as it marked the victory of the neoclassical economics war against land. This was a victory so great that economists today do not even realize that there had been such an academic war.

Alvin Saunders Johnson (1874-1971) was an American economist at several universities, including Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Cornell. He was a co-founder of the New School at New York City. In 1902 he wrote “Rent in Modern Economic Theory: An Essay in Distribution.” Johnson, along with other economists who were turning the classical theories of the 1800s into the neoclassical doctrines of the 1900s, generalized “rent,” from the yield of land, into any surplus above opportunity cost, i.e. above the cost needed to put a resource to its most productive use. For example, a movie star paid $1 million to act in a movie, whose next best opportunity is being a salesman earning $100,000, has an economic rent of $900,000.

In 1914, Johnson published “The Case against the Single Tax” in The Atlantic Monthly. As has been well explained by Prof. Mason Gaffney in The Corruption of Economics, Johnson played a major role in suppressing, by falsification, the land-tax ideas of Henry George. Land is now visible everywhere except in academic economics. For example, the generation of land value by public goods is not even mentioned in the general textbooks.

Johnson correctly stated that a tax on the entire rent of land would bring the purchase price down to zero, but he expressed it as: “the value kernel of landed property will have been seized by the state.” In policy analysis, we need to examine inflammatory vocabulary. The moral case for land-value taxation rests in the proposition that the benefits of nature belong to all humanity equally, that the creation of local land values by population and commerce belongs in equal shares to the members of those communities, and that the rentals generated by public works may be used to pay the providers, whether this be private-sector or government providers. None of this is confiscation or seizing by the state.

In Georgist ethics, the people own the rent, not the chiefs of state. A government may justly act as the agent of the people to protect their property, such as the atmosphere, from damage, and a government may, as the agent of the people, collect the rent to distribute it among them, or to use to pay for public goods. The premise that the rent belongs to the people implies that the rent is not being seized from the landowners as though these title holders are the morally legitimate owners, but rather that the state is facilitating the collection of the rent to the proper owners, the people. Hence the terminology used by Johnson taints his analysis and begs the question of the proper ownership of land rent.

Johnson continues his attack by calling the single tax on land value “propaganda for the universal confiscation of land.” Henry George had unfortunately stated in Progress and Poverty that “It is not necessary to confiscate land; it is only necessary to confiscate rent.” The Latin origin of “confiscate” is “confiscare,” from “fiscus” meaning the government’s treasury. Fiscal policy is about governmental revenue and spending. Thus in linguistic origin, to confiscate means simply to tax, to transfer assets to the public treasury. But in modern popular usage, to “confiscate” means to take by force, with the implication that the state is seizing property that was legitimately owned. And despite George’s statement that it is only the rent, not the land itself, that is being “confiscated,” Johnson attacks the single tax as confiscating the land.

Moreover, by dismissing the theory behind the single tax as “propaganda,” Johnson denigrated the logic and evidence for land-value taxation in an anti-scholarly manner, and thus he himself indulged in propaganda.

Johnson’s mixing up the ownership of land and of its rent is also shown by his statement that if all the value of land is taxed, the revenue would cover the costs of government, “provided, of course, that the public can manage the lands as efficiently as they are now managed by their private owners.” This despite the statement of George that “I do not propose either to purchase or to confiscate private property in land.” Land-value taxation would not disturb private titles; it would not alter private control and possession. The government would not “manage the lands.”

Johnson states that much of the financial wealth of the middle class is in land value, and that the full taxation of land value would take more value from them than they would regain in the removal of other taxes. Of course in 1914, the 16th Amendment had just been enacted in 1913, and the middle class did not yet suffer from the income tax.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s statement is illogical. Suppose the total land rent is $1 trillion, and the cost of government is half of that; then the rent does not disappear, but is distributed back to the people in cash. So the effect of land value taxation would be to equalize the ownership of the rent, and a person who owned an average amount of rent would get half back in cash, and half back, ideally, in valued public goods. If government is squandering some of the rent, then the remedy is to give it all back to the people. Then the average land owner is in a neutral position.

Johnson falsely declared that “The Single Tax is, then, essentially a device for the spoilation of the middle class.” One could justly say that Johnson’s malicious attack was a device for the spoilation of the remedy for poverty, depressions, and land conflicts. What has spoiled the middle class is high taxes on their wages and on the goods they buy. Johnson’s falsifications were the spoilation of a policy that could have promoted sustainable prosperity and prevented needless economic inequality. Johnson’s propaganda succeeded in helping squash land-value taxation, but to the ruin of economies worldwide.

With the neoclassical victory against land, most economists today suffer from cognitive dissonance. Even if economists reject an egalitarian view of natural resources, they know that the supply of land is inelastic, so public revenue from land rent avoids the excess burden that other taxes have. But they do not extend this knowledge to the rest of theory and to policy. Mason Gaffney calls this the “corruption of economics.” I call it “academic brain freeze.” At any rate, it is worth marking the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s attack.

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!

Expanding the Liberty Canon: John Fortescue on the Laws and Government of England

John Fortescue (who was knighted and so is also known as Sir John Fortescue) lived from approximately from 1394  to 1480,  and so endured the Wars of the Roses, the highly destructive struggle of two families in the late Middle Ages for possession of the English crown. These wars were fictionalised and mythologised in the Shakespeare plays on Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, so there is a perfect literary way of obtaining an introduction to the political struggles of that time, though of course that is not the same as reliable scholarly history of that period.

Fortescue was from the gentry, as the lower level of the English aristocracy are known, of southwestern England. He was therefore in a good position to follow a career as a lawyer and Member of Parliament (which in Britain refers to someone elected to the House of Commons, but not members of the House of Lords). That combination of careers is still a frequent one in Britain and I believe even more so in the United States, and is an important part of the history of the modern state and of modern politics. The relevance of Fortescue’s career to the emergence of  the modern state is enhanced when we consider that as well as those roles he was engaged in the administrative aspects of judicial-administrative inquiries, a judge, and crown minister responsible for the judiciary, that is Chancellor then the most senior office under the crown so the nearest thing to a modern Prime Minister.

He only held the latter office during the exile of Henry VI to Scotland (then a completely separate state from England), while Edward IV was the king in possession of power. In any case, we can see that Fortescue was at the centre of politics and of royal power structures. His exile with Henry VI as a result of the War of the Roses included a period in France as tutor to Henry VI’s son. On the death of Henry, Fortescue was able to return to England and made his peace with Edward, who returned confiscated properties.

There might seem to be some irony in  discussing liberty with regard to a servant of the crown at the time monarchs claimed some kind of divinely instituted power above human interference and accountability, and were busy dragging their peoples into destructive and expensive dynastic war . There are, however, various examples of liberty oriented thinkers linked with not very restrained beneficiaries of royal power. Aristotle was a tutor to Alexander the  Great, Seneca was tutor and advisor to Nero, and Marsilius of Padua was under the protection of the Emperor Ludwig. Such closeness to power may be beneficial with regard to knowledge of state power and with regard to acquiring understanding of the dangers of unlimited state of power. Later great liberty thinkers such as Montaigne and Montesquieu (to be discussed later) were both judges whose experience of interpreting and administering the law enhanced their understanding of the possible benefits and dangers of law and legal institutions for liberty.

Fortescue was approaching from a more monarchical and less republican direction than Marsilius, as his writings on law and politics are largely about the correct form of monarchy. However, the difference between the two writers and the two orientations if we address a trio of issues.

Marsilius was a dependent of the Emperor of Germany, while Fortescue held elected office. Marsilius’ understanding of law was very focused on the great codification of Roman law undertaken by the eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century, while Fortescue was a defended of an English legal tradition independent of the sovereignty of princes, which Justinian made the central source of law.

The thinking of servants of the crown, even of princes themselves, in England, and across Catholic Latin (for the purposes of state, church, and scholarly business) was deeply conditioned by the republicanism of Cicero, which educated people could and did read in the original language, since Cicero was central to the Latin curriculum,  and the republicanism of Aristotle, widely known through Latin translations and commentaries.

It should be noted that England had a monarchy, a Senate (known as the House of Lords), and an assembly representing the ‘common’ (in practice gentry, local notables, and  merchants) people. Cicero’s Roman model had annual consuls in the place of a king, and an assembly of all citizens’ rather than an elected body for them, but the triad in England was that recommend by Cicero, even if existed for reasons other than enthusiasm for Roman republicanism. Other European monarchies had similar ‘estates’ which they felt obliged to consult at least on occasion, in Fortescue’s time.

A useful, if crude, generalisation about modern liberty tendencies is that they come out of two streams: a monarchist stream which emphasises that princes should act under the law and with other political institutions; a republican stream in which the ‘people’ institutes laws and governments in a spirit of respect for customary laws and institutions. These streams often become one river, but we can sometimes see them separate out and it is useful, at least some of the time, to think about the difference.

Fortescue’s work in administration, government and direct service of the royal family, refers to an aspect of the emergent modern state other than the role of law and of representative institutions.  The modern state is one of administrative growth and has been ever since the consolidation of monarchical power over barons and over dispersed agents of power during the Middle Ages.

It is hard to say when exactly it began, but the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is as good a starting point as any, allowing as it did for the enhancement of royal state powers through eradication of the Anglo-Saxon elite and many associated institutions, proving a model of modern monarchy. The thirteenth century revival of the study and application of  Roman law, as codified under Justinian, is maybe  the best known way in which that growth of a centralised monarchical administration expressed itself. Fortescue’s crossing over between private legal, parliamentary, administrative, judicial and political roles itself expresses the way that the judicial-legal aspect of the state was often at the heart of regularising the increase of administrative machinery as well as political sovereignty.

The issue  of growing ‘Roman’ law is the appropriate point at which to bring in some consideration of Fortescue’s most influential texts: In Praise of the Laws of England and The Governance of England. In these texts, Fortescue is very  critical of what he calls ‘civil law’, which is a standard way, then and now, of referring to the Roman law tradition, containing the assumption of law made by the supreme civil political institution. His understanding of Civil Law comes directly from the texts that were produced during the Justinian directed codification, which is correct in terms of origins and the scholarly approach to civil law at that time, but maybe gives a distorting view of a legal approach which has evolved over time in a  multiplicity of codes round the world.

What Fortescue opposes to civil law is the law of England, which is now generally known as common law. Common law refers to the role of judicial precedence in English courts, where preceding judgements, and the judge’s understanding of natural justice, along with role of a jury of citizens in reaching a verdict are distinct features. Judges in the civil law tradition are comparatively concerned with the meaning of statues rather than preceding judgements, and verdicts are given by judges rather than juries.

In Fortescue’s understanding earlier English kings (going back to the time of Norman kings and Francophone Angevin kings with more land in western France than England) tried to impose civil law, but failed. This is a bit one-sided since the law of England, or common law, as Fortescue knew it, was rooted in Norman impositions and Angevin codification of the various laws of the different parts of England, but does refer to a reality of a greater role for juries and judicial precedent than in civil law systems.

The laws of England, in Fortescue’s account, are what gives content to a  political state alongside the royal state. This is a distinction that Fortescue attributes to Aquinas (so a philosopher from civil law Italy) and which has clear roots in antique republicanism. The political state refers to the laws that do not come from royal edict, or which at least were passed by parliament as laws rather than just remaining commands from the king, and the institutions which have some basis in the nation rather than the designs of the monarchy alone.

Fortescue’s historical explication of the origin of the English political state is highly mythologised, as he claims it comes from the Trojan prince Brutus. This comes from the twelfth century ‘historical’ writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which is largely myths about King Arthur, the Trojan origins of England, and the like. The belief that a Trojan prince founded England goes back to the antique Roman claim to be descended from refugees from the fall of Troy (as described by Homer) under Prince Aeneas (as described by Virgil). Medieval and early modern monarchies all thought of their sovereignty as modelled on Rome under Julius Caesar and Augustus, so welcomed localised versions of the mythical Trojan prince founder.

For Fortescue, the Brutus myth shows the English nation to have been a voluntary political creation with a monarchy existing by popular consent (so in a republican kind of way, though Fortescue does not say so).  The evolution of the law of England or common law over time, interrupted and transformed by political traumas, almost requires a foundational myth to give it some underlying legitimacy, given there was never a moment of collective political will to adopt it. It can also be argued that the non-political, relatively non state centric evolution  of law is good for liberty, a liberty defined in a rather indirect tacit way from the movement of parliamentary laws, verdicts of juries, and judicial interpretations.

Fortescue’s portrait of the advantages of the law of England over civil law leads him to a highly coloured picture of France as containing a common people on the verge of destruction from poverty and lack of self-respect as a consequence of the unrestrained power of the king in a civil law system. Some of his negative portrayals have some truth in them, but France did not collapse from destitution and demoralisation as Fortescue’s description would lead you to expect.

While French kings were less influenced by the Estates General than English kings were influenced by parliament, aristocratic judges in local courts known as ‘parlements’ exercised the right to resist and protest with regard to royal edicts they did not like. France was rather less centralised and uniform than England in its administration and laws right up to the  French Revolution, even under monarchs who claimed absolute powers ordained by God and did their best to erode local privileges and liberties.

The projection  of bad things onto France, presumably at least in part so as to condemn royal abuse of power without appearing to criticise the English crown, extends to Fortescue’s condemnation  of judicial torture, though even in his own account it can be seen that extreme torture was used in England to extract false confessions and accusations as part of a judicial process. Anyway, certainly Fortescue’s condemnation of such practices is very admirable and ahead of his time, as it was then widely assumed that torture was a good way of getting at the truth, for the purpose of a trial, and was not to be considered disturbing. Fortescue was disturbed and did believe that it was against humanity to use torture, as well as being ineffective from the point of view of determining guilt in a reliable manner.  Fortescue greatly helped further the cause of liberty in this and other ways.

Why not world government? Part 1

Since I joined the Notes On Liberty symposium Brandon Christensen and I have had a series of playful back and forth on the issue of world government. I initially intended to offer a comprehensive response on why I disagreed with Christensen, but after reading through older posts and comments I’ve decided that it would be best to clarify what we mean when we mean by world government. The point of this back and forth is not to have a ‘winner’ after all, but to better understand one another’s concerns and hopefully come to agreement after hashing out the details.

By world government I am referring to a polity that has jurisdiction over the practically inhabited universe. If humanity inhabited Mars, the Moon, Earth, and a few asteroids then a government that had jurisdiction over only Mars would not be a ‘world government’ despite it clearly controlling the governance of a planet. Conversely a monopolis needn’t cover a whole planet; the Roman and Chinese empires were both near-monopolis that controlled much of the practically inhabited world at their respective times. I understand that this might be confusing so I propose the term monopolis, “single city”, to refer to this concept.

A monopolis does not necessarily have to be ruled in a given manner. A monopolis could be an intergalactic feudal monarchy, such as the government of the Padishah Emperor and the Landsraad in the Dune series. Or it can be ruled as a decentralized federation of planets such as the Foundation in its title series. For our purposes we are dealing largely with a federal-monopolis, where several smaller polities exist as part of the larger federation that assures a minimum degree of individual rights are enjoyed by all federal citizens and that a reasonably free movement in goods (and people!) exists.

Is world government anti-libertarian? As a libertarian my knee jerk reaction is to view any government with deep suspicion, with an appropriately larger knee jerk as the government in discussion is larger. That is to say that I distrust the United States federal government more than I distrust the city government of my beloved Los Angeles. Christensen has written on this habit of libertarians to fall into this habit before. I agree with Christensen fully that his knee jerk reaction can be troublesome when it leads libertarians to reject large government policies as a matter of principle without further inspection on the details.

For example the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others are ‘large’ government policies that I think all libertarians should support because they promote greater trade liberalization. By no means are any of these agreements about genuine free trade, and they contain several trade restrictions, but overall they have led to a reduction in trade barriers across the world.

I disagree with Christensen, or at least disagree in a matter of degree, in that I don’t think this knee jerk reaction is unwarranted. Individuals have less control over government affairs over as the government unit grows in size. I can go find my local councilman and harass him about my city’s poor budget with relative ease, but doing the same with my federal House of Representative is almost impossible. This lack of accountability to their constituents sets up incentives for public officials to indulge their private preferences. On occasion the private preferences of public officials align with the interests of constituents, hence the existence of things like NAFTA. However the latter is an exception, not a rule, in large governments.

In summary; most libertarians view monopolis as being inherently anti-libertarian. I do not believe that monopolis are inherently anti-libertarian and concede that a monopolis could in theory adopt libertarian public policy under specific institutional arrangements that aligned the interests of public officials and their constituents. I am however skeptical about how likely it is that this can be achieved. Christensen is apparently more optimistic on the matter than I.

A monopolis does not necessarily have to allow constituent members to leave freely. A monopolis could very well have arisen as a product of conquest. For our purposes though we assume that the monopolis allows constituent members to leave freely through some sort of referendum process. Christensen has discussed this in his latest post on the issue.

A monopolis has an over-arching form of ‘citizenship’ that guarantees its individual citizens a minimum of liberties. As I discussed in my last post, I prefer local citizenship, but I am willing to imagine a monopolis where an individual has a federal citizenship in addition to sub-level citizenships.

A monopolis in short:

  • Is a government that has jurisdiction over the practically inhabited universe,
  • Not necessarily organized in any specific manner, but for our purposes we assume a loose federation,
  • Not necessarily anti-libertarian in its public policies (but not necessarily libertarian either!),
  • Not necessarily the product of conquest, but not neither is it necessarily the product of members voluntarily joining,
  • And offers a form of federal citizenship that guarantees a minimum degree of liberties.

I ask that Christensen responds on whether he is willing to accept this definition of a monopolis, or world government, or offer his counter-proposal for a definition before we continue further.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Marsilius of Padua on the Defence of civic Peace

There is a leap of more than a millenium from  my last post on Seneca to Marsilius (originally Marsiglio) of Padua (c. 1275 to c. 1342). I am not saying that no one wrote any texts advancing liberty during that time, but the major texts of late antiquity and the Middle Ages up to the thirteenth century concerning political ideas lean towards the desirability, or at least unavoidability, of law making and governmental powers centralised in a monarchical figure, rather than constraints on power,  or a positive vision of individual autonomy.

One might argue that the spread of Christian monotheism enhanced the value placed on individuality, and that the codification of Roman law in Constantinople in the sixth century CE (commanded by the Emperor Justinian) advanced the idea of liberty under law. Even if we take a very positive view of those developments, and they are certainly deeply important, they can be no more than elements in the creation of laws and institutions that promote liberty.

There must be more to social and political liberty than a belief in an inner soul and the institutionalisation  of the law outside the individual. The importance of the individual and the rule of law at least require some further articulation in how to form a political community that recognises the merits of individual liberty in every sense.

There were great thinkers who addressed political questions  during the time between the early Roman Empire (Seneca) and the late Middle Ages (Marsilius of Padua), most obviously Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Al-Farabi (872-950), and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), but in my judgement they lean too far towards emphasising the sovereign power, assumed to be be ideally a monarch, who can enforce law and religiously inflected notions of virtue, to be regarded as promoters of liberty, even if much of what they wrote is of value from a liberty advocating point of view.

Others may disagree, Murray Rothbard for example thought of Aquinas as very close to his own individualist anarchist point of view, which however does not strike me as the strongest point in his writings. My argument is that Marsilius made a decisive step in turning a rich tradition of writing on virtue, civil law, natural law, and sovereignty, towards  a concern with individual diversity and the right for everyone to play some part in determining the laws that one is obliged to obey.

In this, he was maybe anticipated by Florentine humanist and republican thinking, but not by any great historical distance, and there is lack of readily obtained in print or online texts in English from that time in Florentine history, though I hope to return to this in a  future post.

The historical background to Marsilius’ thought includes the political life of medieval north Italian city states, little republics often known as communes. Conflict between the Papacy and German Emperors gave them the opportunity to maintain independence through playing off the great medieval political powers against each other.

Their independence, like that of the ancient Greek city states, ,involved a good deal of conflict with each other about boundaries and alliances, and internally with regard to governmental power. This of course was a violent process, but there was violence elsewhere with less productive results for liberty.

Some background on  the Papacy and the Empire is necessary here, as general background, and with regard to the life of Marsilius, who was very much part of the struggle between the two. The Roman Empire was revived, in name anyway, in 800 for Charlemagne, the ruler of what is now France, Germany, Austria and neighbouring territories, including northern Italy.

Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope in Rome in a move the emphasised separation from the continuing eastern Empire in Constantinople and a strong ally for the power of a Roman centred Catholic church in the west. By the time of Marsilius, the title of Emperor had disappeared, revised, and evolved in its meaning.

The stage reached was the the Emperor was elected by major German princes and was known as the Emperor of Germany, though also as Holy Roman Emperor, or Emperor of the Romans, in recognition of his preeminence in Catholic Europe, and apparent role of providing secular partnership to the divinely ordained role of the Papacy.

The Emperor’s power over most of Germany, outside the hereditary lands of the prince elected, was very limited, so that Germany was essentially a patchwork of a very large number of very varied kinds of sovereign entity (city republics, bishoprics, monasteries, domains of a margrave, duke, knight, etc) under a grand  but weak monarch, who had some claim to universal monarchy within the Catholic world but only at the level of symbolism .

The Emperors had continuing claims in northern Italy, which brought them into conflict with the political ambitions of Popes to dominate the region, and generally the supposed partnership of throne and alter led to violent conflict about how to share the power.

It was also a time of growing commercial life in Europe, with northern Italy as part of the vanguard. The erosion of traditional forms of authority and loyalty which accompanied increasing commerce, combined with an intensification of conflicts between Emperor and Pope, along with competing candidates to be Emperor or Pope.

Marsilius was in the middle of this, born in northern Italy, in the city of Padua as his name indicates. He trained as a doctor, after a period as an Imperial solider and became Rector of the University of Paris, then engaging in work on theology and politics which led to conflict with the Papacy. He was sheltered by the German Emperor at his base in Munich.

The major result of this was the large book, The Defender of the Peace, often known by its Latin title of Defensor Pacis. It contains three discourses, the first of which is less than half the book, but contains his thought on the nature of politics, civil law, and the state. This might be seen as a defence of the role of the Emperor as defender of the peace, who the right to autonomy from the Pope with regard to worldly matters.

However, there is much about the First Discourse, which challenges the role of princes. That Marsilius was able to do so while relying on the Emperor for protection from accusations of heresy, is suggestive of the value of the papacy-empire and church-state splits in medieval Europe along with competition between states and the the contestation of Church doctrine by ‘heretical’ groups, in fostering liberty in a Europe, which lacked any absolute overarching political or religious power centre.

As is normal with medieval philosophy, Marsilius writes with regard to the text of the Bible and even more with regard to the writings of Aristotle, which in this case means mostly the Politics and the politically oriented parts of the Nicomachean Ethics. As normal, there is also reference to the Commentator, that is Ibn Rushd, known in Latin as Averroes (1126-1198), a Muslim philosopher who like Seneca was born in Cordoba, Spain. His commentaries on Aristotle transformed Medieval philosophy, Christian and Jewish, as well as Muslim.

Marsilius builds up his political ideas taking Aristotle as the major philosophical source, which raises questions about the correctness of his view of Aristotle. I won’t go into that issue any further and will just note that since Marsilius, one way of taking Aristotle has been as a proponent of republicanism with a democratic emphasis. The ‘republican’ thinking is not about abolishing monarchs, and strictly speaking republican political thought has always been about how to share power between all citizens, or some significant part of the citizen body, rather than the abolition of all monarchical titles. This is why Marsilius can be both a republican and support the power of the Emperor, at least in relation to the Pope.

The argument is built up through reading of Aristotle, which emphasises the merits of elective monarchy, so turning the monarch into an elected for life president. If that life time tenure rests on the will of citizens, then at least some possibility is raised on ending that tenure early should the monarch prove unsatisfactory.

Of course the German Emperor was elected by a few princes, but Marsilius is very clear that he is referring to a broader electorate of all citizens. He contests readings of Aristotle, according to which Aristotle only allows for the election of a king by a small aristocracy of those citizens supposed to be very best. Marsilius both denies this is what Aristotle supports and makes his own arguments for saying that the wisdom of all citizens collectively is greater than that of a few privileged citizens taken to be particularly wise.

The wisdom of a few, however intellectually accomplished, cannot match the wisdom of all citizens as that collective wisdom contains all the knowledge there is of the society concerned. Social knowledge comes from the many thousands and even millions of individual perspectives on experienced reality, not the distanced theoretical wisdom of a few. Therefore the wisdom to elected the best candidate as monarch must come from all citizens, and they must all have the right to participate in the vote.

A decision resting on such a multitude also creates a strength and endurance in the state, with regard to external enemies, but more importably with reference to the capacity of the state to sustain itself and allow a ‘sufficient’ life for citizens. That is a sufficient life of fully developed human faculties, not just pure physical survival which might take place without laws, but only in conditions of insecurity and with little hope of a ‘sufficient’ life.

The laws which allow sufficient life are more a matter of codifying the wisdom and experience of history, in forms which are acceptable to all citizens, than the kind of innovations in state power we have come to associated with new law in more recent times. The citizen body which participates in electing the head of the government must also participate in making laws since the same arguments invoked for electing a leader must apply to the laws. Laws, which Marsilius understands as what has the  consent of of all, or close enough, rather than the imposition of the views of a narrow temporary majority on everyone.

He does not make explicit barriers to majoritarian abuse of power, but does not need to since law clearly means to him what is acceptable to the community as a whole with regard to its collective wisdom and the historical experience of laws. The ‘monarch’ or ‘prince’ is clearly expected to apply those laws and to exercise no further powers beyond what defends the existence of the community from lawlessness and external aggression.

Marsilius emphasises the viability and sustainability of the community as a community of sufficient life rather than as a deduction of law making sovereignty from individual rights. His approach, grounded in antique political and legal thought, might sound less respectful of individual liberty than the deduction from individual rights, but the modern tradition of such deductions, these days forming the major part of ‘normative’ political theory/analytic political philosophy, have not proved at all immune to statist ideas, while individual rights to pursue ‘sufficiency’ are so deeply embedded in Marsilius’ assumptions as what is natural to an individual and to a sustainable community, that it does not need articulation in the form of pure abstract rights detached from the necessary conditions of lived communities.

How democratic Marsilius is, by our standards, can be debated on at least two counts. One count is that at this time, and right into the nineteenth century, ‘democratic’ politics might might still exclude ‘dependent’ individuals from political rights, that is those who were thought to be lacking in the economic independence and self-dependence, which would supposedly allow for free and considered judgement .

Those excluded included those making a living from employment by someone else rather than through property, self-employment as a skilled worker, or membership of some legally recognised corporation of individuals with equal rights (like a university or a trade guild).  Farm labourers, employees of urban enterprises,  vagrants, and domestic servants were likely to be excluded along with women, religious minorities, and those still  carrying the vestiges of medieval serfdom in their legal status.

The second count is that Marsilius offers little indication of how his democratic ideas could be applied in practice, though he was presumably relying on memories of Italian communed, still leaving a huge gap on how to apply such principles to a political community as large as the German Empire, leaving the suspicion that he was mainly arguing for the power of the Emperor on the basis of pretended democracy, and a supposed rule by laws rather by any individual.

There is neverthless more than enough in Defensor Pacis overall to stimulate considerable creative thinking about what it is to create the laws and government best suited to liberty. His criticisms of the supposed wisdom of  few at the top, are very powerful and necessary now with regard to the pretences of state planning and regulation. His understanding of how wisdom arises from the multiple experiences of the multitude, with regard to the limited   goals of government and legislation, have great application to the role of markets and voluntary co-operation in a society of free individuals.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Seneca on Mercy and on Anger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4-65 CE) was born in the Roman Spanish city of Cordoba. Southern Spain was one of the most Romanised parts of the Roman Empire outside Italy , so it is not surprising that Seneca made his way to Rome where he became a writer and it seems a money lender. He was also tutor to and then adviser to the Emperor Nero. He had previously been in conflict with the Emperor Claudius, for own known reasons, and was exiled to Corsica for a while as a consequence.

Seneca’s writing career covered philosophical essays, tragedies, and letters which amounted to an exploration of his philosophical interests. He followed the Stoic school of philosophy, which goes back to the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium (334-226BCE), and was influential on the Roman upper classes. So much so that the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180CE) wrote his Meditations with regard to Stoic thinking on character and ways of living. It was written in Greek, indicating how far Roman thought on ethics, politics, and other topics was continuous with, or at least engaged with, ancient Greek thought.

Seneca’s relations with Nero turned out to be even more destructive than those with Claudius. Seneca tried to educate and advise Nero to be honest, just, and restrained in the use of power. However, Nero turned out to be one of the most infamously cruel, paranoiac, and violent Emperors. These negative tendencies were turned on Seneca, so that even after Seneca had retired to the countryside to avoid the bad atmosphere round Nero, he was forced to commit suicide on suspicion of complicity with a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. Nero himself was overthrown and pressured to commit suicide thee years later. Suicide was a relatively honourable form of death for Romans, and it was a privilege to allowed to commit suicide rather than face execution, nevertheless Seneca and Nero can be said to have both met sorry ends as a result of political turmoil initiated by Nero.

Nero’s behaviour was really the direct opposite of that recommended to rulers by Seneca  the essays on anger and on mercy, and was a painful failure for Seneca who had tried to educate him from childhood for a moderate self-restrained use of power. Seneca’s approach to politics is to advise an absolute ruler in the use of power, so he might seem a bit paradoxical as part of a series on liberty. However, Seneca was considered as a major supporter of republics, of government based on individual liberty in the early modern period, so that Thomas Hobbes, the authoritarian minded philosopher and political thinker, considered his thought a danger to sovereign state power.

Seneca’s thought certainly did mark the death of the Roman Republic, which was essentially abolished in substance (after a historical phase of hollowing out) by Julius Caesar in his period of absolute power from 49BCE until his assassination in 44BCE. The failure of the assassins to restore the republic led to the absolute power of Augustus and the inauguration of the autocratic  emperor system.

Seneca refers unfavourably to those who use the Greek idea of ‘parrhesia’, that is free and critical public speaking, to excess, going against what had been taken as central to the liberty of citizens. The reason Seneca can be placed in the liberty tradition is that even when criticising excess in free speech, he praises a Macedonian-Greek king on the receiving end for the restraint of his reaction. Living in an age of absolute rulers, Seneca’s main concern is that they rule as the foundation of individual rights rather than as a source of arbitrary power over citizens.

The essays on mercy and anger bring together the fields of person virtue and the best ways of governing. Virtue for Seneca, as was normal for ancient thinkers, was deeply embedded in ideas of self-restraint and moderation. From this point of view anger damages the angry person, as an example of self-harming extreme behaviour. Anger is a negative painful state of mind and to act under its influence leads to great harm.

Seneca is not simply saying that a ruler should follow general moral virtue in the manner of ruling. He places a particular responsibility on the ruler to resist anger and show mercy. The individual may harbour resentment against some enemy who caused harm, but the ruler must avoid such resentment. The ruler who publishes and executes all those regarded with suspicion as present or future enemies harms the state and the public good. Harsh treatment of individuals by rulers leads to those individuals becoming angry with the ruler so conspiring against that person. Executions will only stimulate further rebellion by those who were closest to the executed and leads to an increasingly violent period of rule. All the violence and revenge has negative consequences for the public good as well as for those persecuted.

The ruler should regard all individuals as part of the state, which he should be trying to manage responsibly. The state is harmed if any individual within the state is harmed, as the state exists to promote the public good. The ruler who cannot restrain desires for cruelty and who ignores the rights of individuals is suffering from a self-harming weakness of character and is likely to suffer violent revenge. Seneca mentions the third Roman Emperor, Caligula, in this context,  who was assassinated in 41CE, four years after succeeding Tiberius.

The best thing the ruler can do is show mercy. Those who receive mercy, even after plotting assassination, are likely to start supporting the ruler, and even work for the ruler. It is better to forgive and try to integrate a conspirator than kill the conspirator so that others will wish to avenge that murder. The ruler should obey laws as much as ordinary citizens, and should be mild in applying laws. Everyone is guilty of some fault, of some minor breach of law, at some time, so that punishing all wrong-doers will lead to the destruction of a society, as nearly all inhabitants of the territory of the state disappear.

While Seneca assumes that political power rests with one person, he argues that the continuing exercise of the power rests both on reliable justice with regard to the execution of laws and restraint from the most extreme or obsessive punishment. The powers of the state are understood as different from those of an individual, and as what must be much more limited in use than the power of citizens. The rights and welfare of citizens depends on a ruler who follows law and assumes less power than individuals, which makes a worthy contribution to thought about liberty.

Local Citizenship

In his latest blog over in Openborders.info, my usual stamping grounds, Nathan Smith discusses the need for citizenship to be voluntary. I agree with Nathan Smith wholeheartedly here. What value is citizenship if a man is forced to have it? A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to share a meal with during the bests of time. A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to trust in the trenches during times of war. A meal is never pleasant when your company is forced to be there, and I for one wouldn’t want to fight alongside an unwilling ally.

If citizenship is to be voluntary however the offer of citizenship should also be voluntary.  That is to say that a polity should be able to decide who it wishes to offer citizenship to. United States immigration law currently adds new citizens without much consultation to current citizens on whether they wish to accept newcomers. This is a plain violation of the right to free association.

It is for this reason that I disagree on granting US citizenship to its current illegal alien population. It is true that on occasion a majority of the US public favors granting a pathway to citizenship to the illegal alien population, but even during the best of times a substantial portion are opposed to it. I cannot see a justification to force someone to associate with another in political union when alternatives exist. To be fair, I also oppose granting citizenship to newborn babies regardless of whether their parents are recent Pakistani migrants or from Nebraska.

I favor instead replacing national citizenship in the United States with local citizenship. Cities are small enough that disgruntled minorities can easily move to somewhere more favorable to their views. City formation is also fluid enough that they can be broken up much more easily than their larger counterparts.

By no means is my proposal to radically change citizenship. The concept of citizenship was born in the Greek polis, and carried into the modern era through the Italian city-states and, to a lesser extent, the Swiss cantons and the Hanseatic League cities. Movement towards local citizenship would be the return to tradition, not a departure from it.

It was only after the French Revolution that we saw the rise of national citizenship as an idea in the western world. Arguably in the United States local citizenship was important up till the passage of the 14th amendment, which allowed the federal government to effectively nationalize citizenship.

We can already see early signs of local citizenship regaining popularity. In my home city of Los Angeles local citizenship is offered to residents who can prove they have a ‘stake’ in the future of the city. Stakeholder status is independent of migrant status and allows one to both vote and run in local elections. Stakeholder status can be achieved by showing that one lives, works, or owns property in Los Angeles.

Article 9, Section 906 of the Los Angeles City Charter readers:

“(2) neighborhood council membership will be open to everyone who lives, works or owns property in the area (stakeholders);”

In New York State there is a proposed bill, ‘The New York is Home Act’, that would grant New York state citizenship to those who have paid state taxes, have no substantial criminal record, and lived in the state for a certain number of years. This proposal is independent of one’s federal migration status.

The European Union also offers a model on how local citizenship can exist in union with federal citizenship. I favor this model the least as the EU regulates the obligations of member states towards federal citizens so heavily that the difference between local citizenships are becoming increasingly marginal. I fear that the ultimate outcome will be that, as in the United States, federal citizenship in Europe will simply become national citizenship.

My ideal world is composed of three pillars (1) local citizenship, (2) open borders, and (3) a common market. Cities could elect who they wish to grant the privilege of being involved in political life, and individuals themselves would be free to decide which city, if any, they would wish to join. There would still be those who felt they were being forced to politically associate but, an open borders regime coupled with fluid city formation and a common market, should allow this number to be minimized.


In his latest blog post on world government Brandon Christensen implicitly discusses world citizenship. I have previously aired my disagreement with Christensen on the issue of world government, but feel obliged to point out that the matter of citizenship is also one of the areas that leave me skeptical of world government. Namely my concerns are that:

(1) World citizenship would force all of humanity to associate politically, even if we rather not.

(2) World citizenship would create free rider problems among political actors. Why should one forgo the costs of becoming informed on political issues if their marginal effect on world issues is close to nill? Meanwhile larger governments, even if initially federal in nature, have a nasty tendency to increasingly take over local affairs. We need only look at the progression of transportation and education in the United States from being local affairs to federal ones.

On my to do list is to explore what the optimal amount of citizens is and a more detailed response to Christensen on the issue of world government. On the off chance that I should die before I can write the latter response, let me state for the record that I am actually quite supportive of international agreements such as NAFTA that bring us closer to a common market. I am even in favor of formalizing the loose federation that composes the western world. Where I stray is that I prefer an international order where powers like the Chinese and Russian spheres are strong enough to compete with the west.

P.P.S. I offer apologies if I drop off here and there. I lurk the consortium daily, and if I don’t reply it is because I’ve not yet mastered time management as well as others.

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?

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Cicero’s On the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a prominent lawyer, politician, and thinker in the last years of the Roman Republic. His death was a murder in revenge for his attacks on Marcus Antonius (known in English as Mark Anthony), in the form of a speech in the Senate against tyranny known as the First Philippic. It is known as the Philippic in tribute to the speeches of Demosthenes (384-322 BC), which attacked the tyranny of Philipp II of Macedon over Athens and the other Greek city states.

The background to this is that the Roman Republic had been falling into the hands of military strong men for some time, who stretched the institutions and  laws of the republic in order to exercise supreme power.  Gaius Julius Caesar was  the last in this sequence. After his conquest of Gaul (France) he taken supreme power in Rome out of a mixture extreme drive for power and as a protective measure against enemies after the lost the immunity associated with the governor’s post he had during his war of expansion.

After winning a way against his most important rival, Caesar offered mercy to previous opponents allowing them to be influential in Rome. However, Caesar was increasingly looking like a new king, a  hated office in Rome, and the political system was designed to prevent any one person having complete power except for a short period in exceptional circumstnces. Caesar used this office of dictator, originally designed to offer emergency powers to a general during a time of military crisis for no more than six months, to become the permanent absolute ruler of Rome. He publicly rejected the offer of a crown from Mark Anthony, but was suspected of waiting for the right moment to proclaim himself king.

A conspiracy developed against Caesar amongst aristocrats who wished to preserve republican practices in which no one man could dominate Rome, so that power was shared between the aristocracy, with some influence granted to the common people. Cicero was a not a member of the conspiracy, but approved of its action against Caesar, which was led by Cicero’s friend Marcus Junius Brutus. It is highly pertinent  to Cicero’s vision of the republic that Brutus was, or appeared to be, the descendent of the Marcus Junius Brutus who led the overthrow of the last King of Rome in the early years of the sixth century BCE.

The conspiracy against Caesar resulted in his assassination by a group of senators in 44 BCE. However, the assassins were not able to take over Rome and moved to eastern Mediterranean parts of the Roman lands to raise forces and organise for a war against Caesar’s followers. After the assassination Caesar’s friend and colleague, mark Anthony allied with an 18 year old nephew of Caesar, who was his legal heir. The boy became the Emperor Augustus. The rest of the story would go beyond the limits of this post, so it will enough for now just to mention that Mark Anthony took power in the city of Rome, leading to the murder of Cicero, while the future Augustus built up a position which enabled him to become the political successor to Caesar, not Mark Anthony.

Mark Anthony is reported to have ordered Cicero’s hands to be removed during the assassination and nailed to the door of the Senate house, in a tribute of a kind to the power of an eloquent speaker arguing for liberty and demonstrating liberty in the act of speaking, using his hands as ancients did in a rhetorically guided way as a major part of emphasising points. Though after the First Philippic the likelihood of violent retribution from Mark Anthony led Cicero to confine himself to writing further Philippics that were not read out in the Senate.

Cicero had previously served as consul (one of two officers of the Republic who shared the powers of a king for one year), the governor of Cilicia (modern day Adana in Turkey), and other offices. His political career included some  very rough measures to defend the republic against what he thought of as existential danger and we should not turn Cicero into defender of pure constitutionalism and law in life, as well as in his writings. His writings do suggest a strong wish to live under laws rigorously enforced, and it has to be conceded that it was practically impossible to participate in politics at that time without being party to some very rough actions.

Cicero’s writings are not merely an important moment in antique thinking about liberty, but a major event in the  linguistic and conceptual translation of Greek philosophy into Latin. Cicero’s Latin became the model for educated Latin style and usage under the Empire. His influence as a Latin stylist, thinker, and republican, was important on many generations of the more educated members of the aristocracy and the upper classes in Europe into the 19th century, because of the centrality of Latin  to elite education.

Cicero wrote a number of texts concerned with liberty apart from On the Republic, including On the Laws, On Duties as well as various texts about oratory, letters and speeches. Online versions of On the Republic can be found here and here. The book connects with the issue of the apparent lineage of Brutus the assassin of Caesar going back to Brutus overthrower of   monarchy, because it emphasises tradition. Laws are understood to be good if coming from venerable custom and that reinforced the arguments for a Senate connected with the Roman past through the ancestry emphasised by the aristocracy. Cicero was himself from a provincial family that had recently became rich, but felt that the connections of many other Senators with the deep Roman past was very valuable.

The aristocracy, organised politically in the Senate, provides the real heart of Cicero’s ideal republic as it provides a means of government midway between the disorder of democracy and the tyranny of one man rule. The people should have a share in the political system, but one constrained to prevent imbalances arising. Monarchy existed in the Roman republic, in the form the consuls who shared power for two years. Democracy existed in the role of citizen assemblies and tribunes who had veto powers and were elected by the lower classes as a guarantee of their rights.

Cicero saw the benefits of aristocratic power as a so great that except where the people had become unusually virtuous it is a good thing for the aristocracy to be able the how the lower classes voted, so that patrons could influence the votes of those who depended on them financially. This could be seen as very self-interested on the part of Cicero since he was a member of the aristocracy, but also fits in with his argument about the importance of avoiding the bad government of individuals with absolute power and of disorderly democratic assemblies. Both extremes are bad for a republic.

Cicero was certainly very horrified by the idea of a tyrant, suggesting that such people were vicious beasts and enemies of humanity. Unfortunately, like the other ancient thinkers, it just seemed obvious to him that Romans were a free people not worthy of slavery, while other peoples were worthy only of slavery. Roman readiness for liberty was based on customs and traditions that endured over the centuries.  Cicero’s vision of law was as the outcome of  virtue cultivated over over centuries.  Laws were based on what could be found in customs so reducing the chances of laws appearing that impinged on the rights of any citizen.

Cicero’s understanding of law, custom, rights, and virtue was rooted in Roman history, in which he thought the early Roman kings Romulus and Numa, had built the institutions needed  by a republic concerned with respect for a divine sanction underlying laws.  Cicero probably did not believe in the standard Roman paganism, but evidently thought it suitable for making the laws as respected as possible. Cicero’s view of virtue also led him to favour a republic not too open to trade and other forms of connection with the outside world. He thought that Rome’s position  on a river rather than the sea was ideal for keeping foreign influences down to an acceptable level. Carthage, Rome’s old enemy in what is now Tunisia, was less blessed in that it was a city on the sea and had been dominated by trade.

Cicero’s suspicions of trade and cosmopolitan interaction  was regrettable, but was part of the antique way of thinking in which individual liberty in a city rested on virtue, state enforcement of public behaviour, as was the responsibility of Roman ‘censors’, and  detachment from money making activities. Liberty could only fully existed where an aristocracy accustomed to self restraint dominated institutions in which the recklessness of the lower classes and the greed of those trying to rise up could be held down.

It was difficult for Cicero to imagine strong laws and institutions, as able to guarantee liberty, except in a society where the rapid innovations and changes of trade and commerce were sufficiently dampened to allow the old to remain in place. There are modern problems in integrating effective laws and institutions with change and variety, and no one had an obviously better idea of how find a balance than Cicero did in antiquity.

Riding Coach Through Atlas Shrugged: Part 4 – Governor’s Ball

Pages 48 – 53

Chapter Summary – A group of industrialists sit around a shadowy table plotting the downfall of our favorite rugged individualist.

[Part 3]

I love how cliché this chapter is. Four figures sitting around a table, their faces shrouded in darkness as they scheme over the fate of the world, the sycophant politician sniveling his consent to their plans. This is one of those times where I am not quite sure if the fiction created the trope or the fiction is following the trope but it is okay either way, it is delightful to read.

We have at our table:

James Taggert: Who is far less whiny when not in the presence of his sister.

Orren Boyle: Our socialist-industrialist representative in the story.

Wesley Mouch: Our aforementioned politician, in the pay of Hank Rearden but in the pocket of Orren Boyle.

And finally -

Paul Larkin: The man at Rearden’s dinner party last chapter.

Essentially they spend the chapter plotting against Hank Rearden and promoting a philosophy of non-competition among businesses. From a historical standpoint this is essentially what happened with Hoover and the industrialists leading up to the great depression. A series of price and wage controls were set up that distorted normal market activity leading to the boom-and-bust cycle as described by Ludwig von Mises. As a side-note it is an interesting historical misconception that Hoover “did nothing” during the great depression. Hoover was arguably the most meddling president up to that point in regards to the economy except perhaps for Abraham Lincoln, but total economic warfare is hard to beat.

But to get back on track here, for what it lacks in literary creativity this chapter makes up for with pure economic and political insight that is delightful to read. The most illuminating part is a speech, or perhaps rant, by Orren Boyle that goes as follows, some of Taggert’s responses are edited out for brevity:

“Listen Jim…” He began heavily.

“Jim, you will agree, I’m sure, that there’s nothing more destructive than a monopoly.”

“Yes.” Said Taggart, “on the one hand. On the other, theres the blight of unbridled competition.”

“That’s true. That’s very true. The proper course is always, in my opinion, in the middle. So it is, I think, the duty of society to snip the extremes, now isn’t it.”

“Yes,” said Taggart, “it isn’t fair.”

“Most of us don’t own iron mines: How can we compete with a man who’s got a corner on God’s natural resources? Is it any wonder that he can always deliver steel, while we have to struggle and wait and lose our customers and go out of business? Is it in the public interest to let one man destroy an entire industry?”

“No,” said Taggart, “it isn’t.”

“It seems to me that the national policy ought to be aimed at the objective of giving everybody a chance at his fair share of iron ore, with a view towards the preservation of the industry as a whole. Don’t you think so?”

“I think so.”

This exchange is a fantastic summary of the process involved when the government gives special privileges to favored industries under the guise of regulation. Essentially Rearden is out-competing his fellow steel producers and since they cannot compete under market conditions they intend to compete politically by ham-stringing his business through the legal process.

This process has happened time and time again throughout history and the ironic part is that these actions have almost universally been heralded as “anti-business” when in fact it is the businesses itself that propose this regulation. The first anti-monopoly laws in America were lobbied for by the competitors of the successful oil, rail, and steel businesses which resulted in the *rise* in prices of those goods. It seemed the “natural” monopolies were pro-consumer while the regulation was pro-business.

There are also historical comparisons to be made to the great depression. The whole concept of “protecting an industry” at the expense of a single, productive, individual was the cornerstone of “Hoover-nomics” especially in the farm industry. The industrial revolution brought about a massive increase in farming productivity which naturally led to a decline in prices and a surplus of labor in that industry that came to a head during the “dirty thirties”.

The natural course of the market would be for inefficient firms in that industry to liquidate; with the entrepreneurs and workforce moving to other industries. This would cause a short period of transitional unemployment as workers moved into similar or growing industries while the more efficient firms and prospective entrepreneurs would buy the liquidated capital goods of the inefficient businesses at a discount.

Consumer goods prices would fall to equilibrium where only firms able to produce goods below that price would be able to maintain production. This would have the net effect of expanding the labor pool and be a net gain for society as new areas of production would be made available by the increases in productivity. Instead, Hoover organized industrial cartels that maintained price and wage controls over the entire economy propping up inefficient businesses that continued to waste and malinvest resources resulting in what we know today as the great depression.

To summarize, this chapter is a fantastic must read five page tour de force of economic insight.

Next chapter: More Dagny, more snark, and more family drama.