Category Archives: Political Thought

Short blurb on Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) was an economist at UNLV and is considered to be one of the most important figures of the post-war libertarian movement. Rothbard earned his BA and PhD from Columbia (his dissertation on the banking panic of 1819 is still cited by economic historians), so it’s not like he was some hack with an unwarranted vendetta against the government. His contributions to a more libertarian world can be felt in numerous ways, from think tanks to economics graduate programs to the presidential campaigns of Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012. His daring foray into anarchy is, of course, his most important contribution to the scholarly world. However, I don’t see why this man has such a cult classic following within the libertarian movement. Could somebody explain this to me?

My best guess is that Rothbard’s strategy of appealing to the intelligent layman with well-disguised fallacies instead of discussing his research with the scholarly community has something to do with it, but this is only a guess.

His work just has “Cold War” written all over it. For instance, the first book of Rothbard’s that I cracked open, Conceived in Liberty Volume 1, read like a 1970s Marxist diatribe on economic development (by the way: see Dr Delacroix’s “The Export of Raw Materials and Economic Growth: A Cross-National Study” in the American Sociological Review for an excellent rebuttal of Marxist development theory). Again, I think part of this can be blamed on the time period he was writing in (mid-1970s), but even though it must have really sucked to be a scholar during the Cold War era there is really no good excuse for Rothbard’s present-day status as a saint within libertarian circles.

Not only has his scholarship become a stepping stone rather than a shrine (as all scholarship inevitably becomes), but the cult-like attitudes of some of his fans makes me cringe as a libertarian. At any rate, I’d really like to know why he has such a devoted following, and why his followers seem to think that their devotion to him is a good thing for the movement.

Australia may ban [more] boycotts…

Australia has been in the news quite often in the last year for its new Prime Minister’s controversial legislation that protest groups say put vast areas of Australian nature in threat of destruction.  Environmental issues are one of the more complex issues facing libertarians today.  The vast entanglement of property rights can make explaining those issues to non-libertarians quickly and clearly quite difficult.  Luckily for me the Australian government is currently attempting to assault a far more basic set of rights.  The right to organize, the right to persuade, and the right to spend your money and time how you wish.  We are, as the title implies discussing the right to organize a boycott of a product or products.

The Australian secretary of agriculture Richard Colbeck wants to “remove an exemption for environmental groups from the consumer law ban on so-called “secondary boycotts”.  These secondary boycotts are also illegal in the UK and the United States.  For clarification a secondary action is industrial action by a trade union in support of a strike initiated by workers in another, separate enterprise”.  

Libertarians often find themselves on the wrong side of both environmental and union actions but it is important to remember that liberty also means the freedom to refuse to purchase a product for any reason you can imagine; whether it is because the company that makes the product is partaking in actions you disagree with or because their logo is yellow.

Even though libertarians disagree with the end goals of the hard-line environmentalist movements (namely government control of industry) we cannot forget to support situations like this on principle and also to remember that environmental issues are essentially property rights issues and thus core to libertarian ethics.

3,278 Americans Are Serving Life Sentences for Nonviolent Crimes, Report Says

Around 79 percent of the nonviolent life sentences without parole are drug-related, according to the ACLU, and around 20 percent are for property crimes. The remaining 1 percent are for traffic and other infractions in Alabama and Florida”

This seems like as good an opportunity as any to talk about libertarian law.  First of all, to the libertarian, there is no such thing as non-violent or “victimless” crime.  There can be no “crime against the state” or “crime against society” since there would be no state and “society” is an abstract concept that cannot be a victim.  Crime can only occur when there is a clear perpetrator and a clear victim.

This is the logic used to deduce that there can be no punishment for consuming or selling drugs for example.

Second, libertarian punishment is confined to the concept of “proportionality”.  Proportionality is described by Murray Rothbard as:

“…the criminal, or invader, loses his own right to the extent that he has deprived another man of his. If a man deprives another man of some of his self-ownership or its extension in physical property, to that extent does he lose his own rights.  From this principle immediately derives the proportionality theory of punishment-best summed up in the old adage: “let the punishment fit the crime.””

Walter Block famously expanded on this concept with his “Two Teeth for a Tooth” rule saying:

“In encapsulated form, it calls for two teeth for a tooth, plus costs of capture and a
premium for scaring. How does this work?

Suppose I steal a TV set from you. Surely, the first thing that should occur when I am captured is that I be forced to return to you my ill-gotten gains.

So, based on the first of two “teeth,” I must return this appliance to you.

But this is hardly enough. Merely returning the TV to you its rightful owner is certainly no punishment to me the criminal.

All I have been forced to do is not give up my
own TV to you, but to return yours to you.

Thus enters the second tooth: what I did (tried to do) to you should instead be done to me. I took your TV set;
therefore, as punishment, you should be able to get mine (or some monetary equivalent). This is the second tooth.2″

The claim is often made that a libertarian society would be less just for the poor and disadvantaged but take this list of crimes that caused human beings to be sent to prison for the rest of their lives and compare it to the logical corresponding punishment called for by the proportionality rule and tell me which is more just.

“Among the most obscure offenses – mostly from Louisiana and Mississippi – documented in the report as the impetus for life sentences:

  • Possessing stolen wrenches
  • Siphoning gasoline from a truck
  • Shoplifting a computer from WalMart
  • Shoplifting three belts from a department store
  • Shoplifting digital cameras from WalMart
  • Shoplifting two jerseys from an athletics store
  • Breaking into a parked car and stealing a bag containing a woman’s lunch
  • Stealing a 16-year-old car’s radio
  • Drunkenly threatening a police officer while handcuffed in a patrol car”

May I Present

…the estimable Kyle Dix:

Kyle Dix (personal homepage) was born in Miami and raised in the mountains of North Georgia.  He graduated from the University of Georgia in 2010 with dual degrees in Spanish and Management.  Kyle currently resides in Philadelphia, PA where he works and attends class at University of Pennsylvania, studying history with an eye on entering academia.  Between UGA and Penn he worked in a welfare-to-work NPO in North Philly, teaching job skills, career planning, and basic English.

The historical questions Kyle asks are largely rooted in his experiences: What is the nature of the discourse between individuals and government?  How do ideologies guide institutions as they grow and change?  How do globalization and modernization act as drivers for this discourse?  Kyle seeks to offer answers to these questions from the historical context of US-Latin American relations and via over-eager observations of current events.

Check out his introductory post at Notes On Liberty here. Welcome him accordingly!

Another Warm Welcome

I’ve got exciting news: Notes On Liberty is finally going to have an international relations specialist on board. Without further adieu:

Edwin van de Haar is an independent scholar who specializes in the liberal tradition in international political theory. In the recent past he has taught international relations at Leiden University and Ateneo de Manila University. He is the author of Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory: Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (2009) and Beloved Yet Unknown: The Political Philosophy of Liberalism (2011, in Dutch).

His most recent publications are a chapter entitled ‘Adam Smith on Empire and International Relations’ published in the Oxford Handbook on Adam Smith (Oxford University Press, 2013) and a chapter entitled ‘David Hume and Adam Smith on International Ethics and Humanitarian Intervention’ in Just and Unjust Military Intervention: European Thinkers from Vitoria to Mill(Cambridge University Press, 2013). He also published articles and numerous other pieces on Smith, Hume, and the wider liberal tradition in political thought, among others in The Review of International StudiesInternational Relations, and The Independent Review.

Van de Haar works and lives in The Hague, The Netherlands. With Lucas Grassi Freire and a number of other scholars he runs the Facebook group ‘Libertarianism and IR’. He received a M.A. in Political Science from Leiden University, holds a M.Sc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and got his Ph.D in International Political Theory from Maastricht University.

Not too shabby, eh? Dr van de Haar’s article in the libertarian journal The Independent Review can be found here if you want to become more acquainted with his work before he starts blogging.

Dr van de Haar, coupled with Mike, Kyle, and Dave, will give the blog a number of new voices and perspectives on what liberty is and what it means. Stay tuned, and keep those ‘comments’ coming!

More regions contemplating independence?

The historically great city-state of Venice is contemplating independence from Italy. “Over two million residents,” nearly half of the total population, “of the Veneto region took part in the week-long survey, with 89 percent voting in favour of independence from Italy.” The  Indipendenza Veneta party believes that the centralized Italian government is unable “to stamp out corruption, protect its citizens from a damaging recession and plug waste in the poorer south.” Venice joins Catalonia and, for better or worse, Crimea this year in considering breaking away from it’s central government. Catalonia’s request for an independence referendum denied by the Spanish prime minister while we all know how long Crimean independence lasted.  All is not lost however.

These types of referendum must be celebrated by libertarians throughout the world. The further decentralization of governments is a goal that can directly lead to a freer, more libertarian society and will serve as a siphon weakening governments worldwide. To quote, as I do so often, the great Murray Rothbard:

“Once one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as in a state of impermissible ‘anarchy’, why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighbourhood? Each block? Each house? Each person?”

Why not indeed.

Polystate – book 3

This is my nth response to Polystate and covers the third and final portion of the book (for the 1st through n-1th responses see here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, the purpose of this book is to consider a possible political structure where individuals choose their own government (“anthrostate”) and these governments operate in the same geographic area (under a “polystate”). This is in contrast to the current system of geographical monopolies on coercion (“geostates”).

Book three attempts to identify insoluble problems with the idea of a polystate. The first problem is the potential for bureaucracy explosion (no, not that kind). A greater (which is to say any) degree of customized service in our current government would surely come with increased costs. There may be technological solutions to this problem, and competition between anthrostates would surely add pressure to get around these costs. In any event, the administrative questions are actually quite interesting. I suspect that many government services would end up moving back into civil society and private markets and the result would be lower monitoring costs in the case of civil society (e.g. for social security through mutual aid societies), and greater use of specialization and innovation in the case of market goods (e.g. for safety standards).

Another big one is the importance of “sacred locations.” If we had always lived in a polystate, Jerusalem might be considered a state of mind. But in the world we live in, it’s a geographical location, and different groups want it for themselves. A market with private property allows these groups to express the importance of this location by outbidding others for its purchase, but such a system is likely not good enough for some members of the relevant groups, and it’s plausible that violence could be resorted to. At the risk of sounding like an insensitive social Darwinist… maybe that’s not the worst possible outcome?… But certainly still a bad, though the root problem is the beliefs of those people; determining which political structure (all of which have costs and benefits) is “best” is an interesting question.

I think the biggest area of potential contention (by non-libertarians) is demonstrated by the issue of gun control. One anthrostate’s gun control is meaningless if it coexists with another that doesn’t have gun control. In other words, a polystate is less polycentric confederacy and more anarchist default plus an odd contract structure for particular firms. This leads to the final problem: transition.

The epilogue discusses the “issue” that the proposal is for a minimal polystate. We can think of this as a contemplation of federalism. This is a thought experiment in radical federalism that is so far down the spectrum of possibilities that it puts the onus of governance on the individual. In many ways, discussions by libertarian political economists can be thought of more as discussions of federalism than discussions of liberty; I think it’s worth thinking about the connection between federalism and freedom, as well as different potential forms of federalism.

Here are my overall thoughts: The book presents an interesting thought experiment and the author does an excellent job of providing well thought out analysis without going overboard. There is plenty to think about, and plenty more discussion to be had (note: read this book with friends and discuss it over beers). ZW had a choice of going into more detail and making a stronger case, or going into less detail and leaving more of the thought experiment to the reader. I think he perfectly balanced these two goals.

Note: an ungated version of that last link is available here. The article is “Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum” by James Buchanan.

Polystate: Book 2

This is my third entry on Polystate and will cover book 2 (entries one and two covered book 1). This section covers a thought experiment in polystates and begins immediately with the flattering implication that macroeconomists can make speculative predictions about complex systems. This is typically where an Austrian would say “the world is too complex to make speculative predictions which is why  we need a flexible system.”

Quick reminder: a polystate is a state that contains non-geographical anthrostates. Anthrostates have rules relevant to their members, while polystates have rules relevant to the interaction of anthrostates and their members.

My first qualm with ZW’s conception of anthrostates is that there are local spillovers in governance, culture, etc. that would likely lead to enclaves. ZW addresses this now with rule number one of polystates being that no anthrostate may claim territory. My general feeling on federalism is that the higher units will have rules that are more universally accepted, so that a nation will have prohibitions on murder, while regions of states/provinces may have fairly uniform rules on abortion, drug use, etc., individual states have their own traffic laws, and cities have their own rules on neighborly conduct. Polystates are a radical form of federalism, but in order for them to work adequately, they must start with fairly uniform basic rules on property rights over land.

Rule two is that individuals choose their anthrostate annually (by birthday). The specific interval is fairly arbitrary but it seems obvious that it should be neither too long (in which case anthrostates gain monopoly power) or too short (in which case they can’t credibly commit to govern in difficult situations such as collecting taxes or enforcing punishments). The alternative to a time-based restriction would be a social-stigma based restriction which has pros and cons of its own but I’m tempted to think would be more effective (though with some very important caveats that warrant further discussion!). The birthday rule is interesting as it staggers political change leading to greater stability than having “global revolution” at each shift; we face a similar problem in today’s world of election days.

Rule three is where things get tricky: anthrostates that take territory lose their government status under the polystate order. This creates a collective action problem among other anthrostates as enforcing this rule won’t be free and won’t have uniform benefits to others. ZW recognizes this, but the problem still stands. This is essentially the same as the national defense problem. This is really the big one: are geostates unnecessary but inevitable? Essentially this book is considering a special form of anarchy and so belongs in the same category of other classic thought experiments.

It obviously isn’t statelessness, and so it isn’t quite anarchy, but I’m not so sure anarchy is quite anarchy either. Even the sort of state imagined by David Friedman has coercion, it’s just decentralized. Likewise, polystates specifically allow anthrostates to act coercively, but it subjects them to competition. In essence, the polystate proposal is to increase competition among governance structures by allowing them to be geographically diffuse.

An interesting institutional feature of polystates is that anthrostates are no longer bound to seek something like an end state. Where as the USA tries to set up a system for the median voter who is expected to be there for life, an anthrostate could specialize in particular stages of individuals’ lives. There could be a state for students and one for seniors (… I wonder what a world with AARP running an anthrostate would look like…).

ZW doesn’t mention this, but if individuals can be members of more than one anthrostate (of course, based on the rules and enforcement of those rules by the relevant anthrostates) then it is conceivable that government services not be so horizontally integrated. This raises an interesting line of inquiry: is a polycentric polystate possible?

A big problem is the “inherent goodness” of imposing rules on people who don’t want them. It’s easy for libertarians to say that drug laws are dumb (because they are), but as Ryan Murphy surely writes somewhere, where people see value/justification in imposing their views on others we run into problems. We’re pretty much all cool with prohibiting murder, but what about less clear cut issues? If I saw veganism as having the same moral weight as murder (“I don’t think humans should be treated like that.”) then I would be morally justified in striking down with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers with icky lentils. The best solution would be for me to stay the hell away from Berkeley. Again, we’ve got local spillovers in governance. We also have tribalistic barriers to the sort of integration economists want to see for the good of everyone.

In the final section on war ZW raises an interesting point regarding the possibility of war-mongers self-selecting into aggressive anthrostates. This is a troubling notion, but such behavior is expensive. North Korea is aggressive, but manageable because Kim Jong Un isn’t wealthy enough to pose a more drastic threat to NATO. With self-sorting, a North Korean anthrostate would lose many of its productive people and be even less of a threat. But ZW doesn’t raise the question of nuclear weapons…

The example of Kidnappocracy drives home the point that ultimately coercion underlies any system of governance. Rights are as rights are enforced. Political structures are created to resolve rights disputes in an amicable (sort of) fashion, and polystates will still need means of resolving these disputes. Even in a geostate, some people are willing to fight and die for their views, but the institutional change to a polystate seems somewhat orthogonal to such issues. Anthrostates will serve as focal points, and having more disparate focal points may increase the possibility for conflict. But mostly it would just be a different sort of federalism; if we don’t see violence between people from different states, and if effective institutions emerge quickly enough, this problem may be small and quickly swamped by other benefits.

Ultimately the resolution of problems between members of different anthrostates would require that 1) their disputes are matters of honest disagreement that can be resolved with arbitration, 2) interactions that may lead to such disputes are minimized by a general refusal to interact, or 3) there is a strong and near universal support for (this sort of) federalism such that people are willing to resolve differences to support the overarching system. The second seems most likely, supporting the hypothesis that geostates will typically be more successful even if they will be less prosperous.

I come away increasingly convinced that perhaps the most fundamental aspect of governance is geographical sorting. I don’t like geostates (I don’t think many people truly do), but I think geographically localized governance is effective because it reduces interaction by people with contradictory conceptions about good behavior and so reduces conflict while supporting order. I think ZW’s ideas are largely influenced by a sort of a sci-fi view (that I’m highly sympathetic to) which reflects the sort of governance we see on the Internet. 4chan is a very different place from Facebook and every subreddit has it’s own unique culture. In such a world, “geography” is a different matter; it takes a different form, but it’s still there.

Secession and libertarianism – Ukraine Edition

The most basic rule of schoolyard behavior is this: Don’t challenge the school bully if your knees are buckling under you. Mr Obama keeps ignoring the rule, with predictable results: One tyrant, one despot after another receives his confirmation that the USA is no dangerous, no matter what you do. Thinking the US in not dangerous is very dangerous for the world. I keep challenging the ones and the others, including mainstream libertarians, to say what will, or should replace the pax americana that has given us relative peace since 1945. No one cares to answer.

This introduction, not by way of beginning to argue that the US should have gone to war over Crimea. I don’t believe it should have; I don’t even think the US should have risked war ever so little because of Crimea. I think rather that Mr Obama should have been absent, with a pass for the nurse’s office, for example. Neither am I being pathetically “realistic,” here. Mine is a principled position. Let me explain.

Anyone who has any libertarian fiber but who maintains his criticality should be instinctively in favor of secessions. Two reasons.

First if being governed is an assault on individual liberty, being governed by those who are unlike you in some fundamental way is a doubly liberticide. Fundamental differences include, but are not limited to, language. That’s because your language largely determines the way you see the world and your sensitivities, what’s important to you as a person. Governors who have different beliefs, who operate on the basis of different assumptions, who nurture different dislikes than you are bound to commit slow rape on you every day of your life. That’s true even if they harbor zero hostile intention toward you. And that’s unless you volunteer, of course, as many immigrants like me – do.

I wish good luck to the Catalan independentists and to the Scottish autonomists. I would even if you proved to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that powerful economic interests undergirth their efforts. It’s true that Catalonia is more prosperous than the rest of Spain. It does not prevent Catalans from feelings how they do. They probably would, if they were less prosperous. I don’t know if the Scots would like to split from the UK absent North Sea oil but, if they do, they do, and that’s it. I believe, of course, that the Tibetans have had a solid claim for secession for all the time they have been under Chinese rule. (And, yes, it may well be that the objective quality of their lives has improved under Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.)

Am I saying that it’s better to be oppressed by those you think of as your kin?


The Crimean population overwhelmingly wanted secession from Ukraine. Without the presence of Russian guns, the referendum would have been, maybe, 76 % in favor rather than 96%. The final result would have been the same. It’s not difficult to entertain this double thought: Putin is a gangster and the Crimeans would rather be Russian citizens.

Speaking of Putin: The fact that he used exactly the same arguments as Hitler in 1939 does not logically imply that he did something like dismantling and gobbling up independent Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and the Slovaks, were not volunteers the way most Crimeans are. The annexation of Crimea by Russia changes little to all this. (See below.) Crimeans did not feel Ukrainian, overall and they were tired of being very poor under the Ukraine. They would rather be moderately poor as Russians. It’s not hard to believe either.

The second reason for libertarians to favor secession instinctively is that rational people cannot treat the boundaries of nation-states as if they were sacred, the way most governments pretend to do. At best, one could argue that that fiction contributes to world stability. (I doubt it but it’s not a stupid position.) Rather, the borders of existing nation-states are often the result of centuries of sometimes successful wars (France), or of recent shameless robbery of one’s neighbors (the US), or of colonial bureaucratic insouciance (Iraq). In some cases, the tracing of boundaries looks like a joke: Take for example the long penis-like extension of Afghanistan into China in the eastern part of the former country. The mapmaker, probably a junior English officer must have chuckled with relief in his loneliness.

National boundaries may be useful or even indispensable (to control entry, of undesirables, for example) that makes them a necessity, or a necessary evil. Nothing confers on them a status above critical thinking: Sometimes, the violation of existing borders should not be countenanced; sometimes, such violation deserves only a shrug.

Note with respect to the present annexation of Crimea by Russia following this secession, I am saying nothing about the ensuing strengthening of the Russian kleptocracy. The encouragement of tyrants inherent in the Putin impunity also belongs in another essay.

The fact is that the prevention of secession has always produced tons of mischief, most of it violent, much of it an affront to basic human decency.

Hitler used the existence of a sizable German minority in a strategically important part of Czechoslovakia, of smaller Hungarians-speaking and of Ukrainian-speaking smaller minorities elsewhere to start World War II. It’s possible, even likely that Hitler would have used another excuse absent this one. But linguistic minority aspirations gave a cover of semi-legitimacy to his aggressive action. Without such legitimacy, it is quite conceivable that British and French public opinions would have demanded that Hitler be stopped while it was still possible. (The whole sorry story of Western passivity and vacillation in 1938-39 is recounted in minute, hour-by hour detail in William Shirer’ s classic: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.)

In more recent times, we witnessed violent and massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo , the three-year long siege of a large city one hour flight from Rome, Sarajevo, and the starvation and daily bombing of its civilian population, and the massacre of thousands of men and boys, also in Bosnia. Most of these horrors could have been avoided by finely wrought enough secessions, even at county level if necessary.

A contrario examples abound of the healthful, virtuous nature of secession as a solution to intercommunal tensions. Some come from the most unlikely places.

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia – a radical form of secession – in 1993 was so peaceful that it went almost unperceived . The resulting Czech and Slovak Republics have since continued separately on their fairly prosperous paths. They maintain sound relationships as good neighbors (as very good neighbors, more or less like the US and Canada).

Paradoxically, today’s Iraq offers a striking example of the virtuousness of secession. The world follows with a tired eye Iraqi Arabs eviscerating each other along communal lines. That is, the Sunni Muslim Arabs there and the Shiite Muslim Arabs there are slaughtering each other every day, same as when the presence of Americans was said to cause all the murderous civil strife. Many Sunnis and many Shiites consider themselves members of existentially different groups. They do so for reasons that are probably difficult for Westerners to understand (except those who remember the Wars of Religion in Europe, of course, between 1520 and 1648.) It matters not; as far as they are concerned, those are reasons worth killing and dying for. Keeping them bottled up together, forced co-habitation, is not likely to attenuate these sentiments. (Think of ill-matched college roommates.)

In the meantime, you hardly ever hear of the Northern third of the same country, bloodied Iraq. I refer to “Kurdistan,” still formally a part of the Iraqi republic. Kurdistan, which does not exist officially, is people mostly by Kurds, a group with a distinctive language unrelated to Arabic. They comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. As far as the facts on the ground are concerned, Iraqi “Kurdistan” has achieved secession from its bloodied mother country. No shot was fired in spite of the quick-trigger violence of the Middle-East. The Kurdish area is so prosperous and so peaceful that others go there on vacation. The vacationers are first of all, Arabs from other parts of Iraq seeking relief from incessant violence in their part of the country. Second, Turks are crossing their southern border in increasing numbers for the same purpose . (May of those Turkish tourists are probably themselves ethnic Kurds.)

And we should not lose track of the fact that the 25 years of Saddam tyranny over all of Iraq, accompanied by internal massacres and two wars he started deliberately found what legitimacy it possessed in the supposedly sacred duty to keep Iraq unified. (Keep in mind that the Saddamite regime utterly lacked traditional legitimacy and religious legitimacy, or the political legitimacy that comes from winning fair elections, or any other source of legitimacy.)

Had Iraq broken up earlier into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south, the world and, especially, the martyred Iraqi people, would have been spared enormous misery. It’s not too late to achieve this end.

I am speculating that many people’s unexamined attachment to the general concept of national border harks back to an earlier time, a time when they were coterminous with economic boundaries and with information boundaries. Not long ago, French citizens ate almost only French food, they wore only French-made clothing (there was even a lively traffic in illegal, smuggled blue jeans), and heard and read only news originating in France in French. All was produced almost entirely with French capital. National boundaries were then the very containers of our existence defined in the most concrete ways. None of this is true anymore for most countries. Borders are porous to most things including words (if not yet to people). Many people are thus ready to fight for a reality that disappeared quite a while ago.

A major more or less unintended effect of this pursuit of ghosts is that it easily turns to bloodshed, domestic and international. So, many Spaniard are resisting the threatened secession of Catalonia as if it would become a catastrophe of sorts for them. There is still little realization that nations that perceived themselves as homogeneous (for whatever reason) are spared major conflicts, including civil conflict. Homogeneous Denmark, with a similar level of development, is more peaceful than bi-community (linguistic communities) Belgium. Either a Walloon or a Flemish secession there would improve the lives of both Walloon and Fleming.

Secession is usually a good thing overall, for peace, and for individual liberties. Let them go and they will lose the ability to stab you in your own kitchen with your own kitchen knife. They may even become your friends, after a while.

N.B. I still have not heard anyone, or heard of anyone saying that he regretted voting for Obama. Amazing!

Demos sin cracia


Las democracias modernas instituidas como “el gobierno de la mayoría” comenzaron a aparecer ya entrado el siglo XIX y se popularizaron velozmente.  Al lado de ella, la promoción de los ideales del sufragio universal, la igualdad de derechos y obligaciones entre hombre y mujer, la abolición de la esclavitud y del trabajo forzoso de curso legal, entre otros principios empezaron a dispersarse como un veloz germen en las sociedades occidentales y sus ex-colonias.  Han pasado ya 200 años desde que el germen democrático se dispersó por el mundo.  Sin embargo, los más recientes acontecimientos que han perturbado el flujo de las democracias de mayorías se ha visto afectado en Ucrania, Venezuela y desde hace dos días en El Salvador.

¿Por qué será que el ideal de la democracia ha “fallado” en estos países? 

Los argumentos a favor y en contra son muchos y muy complejos. Deben ser comprendidos desde distintas perspectivas y entender las posiciones tomadas por todos los actores que se han visto afectados de manera directa e indirecta por estos eventos.  Nosotros, el resto del mundo observador, podemos participar con ideas para ojalá descubrir más preguntas en nuestro camino. Hoy quiero compartirles una idea que cruzó por mi mente.

¿Acaso nuestro problema no ha sido que hemos tenído más “demos” que “cracia” en nuestro gobierno y en el desarrollo de nuestro rol ciudadano?

¿A qué me refiero con esto?

El término democracia es antiguo y complejo y se forma a partir de los vocablos “demos” traducido al castellano como -pueblo y/o poder- y “cracia” que indica un -gobierno o sistema-.  Así y actualizando el término desde la antigua Grecia a nuestros días, la democracia se refiere al gobierno del pueblo.

¿Pero acaso no ha sido el pueblo el que se ha volcado a la rebelión en Ucrania, Venezuela y El Salvador? Entonces, ¿la democracia reaccionó en estos países contra la democracia?

Quizás lo que ocurre en estos tres países (que son producto de la colonización y de la subyugación a los imperios durante la Guerra Fría) es que quizás no han pasado el suficiente tiempo en independencia institucional y maduración de sus gobiernos como para lanzarse desbocados a procesos democráticos que deben ir de la mano de una reforma educativa y cultural de la ciudadanía.  Pero, ¡alto! Que conste, que no me refiero a que estos países post-coloniales y post-guerra fría deban regresar bajo el control de un dictador o de una metrópoli.  Sino que, la participación del pueblo (demos) no debería avanzar cuando se ha descuidado o se ha impedido continuar el proceso de institucionalización de la democracia en la vida ciudadana.

Ucrania, Venezuela y El Salvador tienen como un común denominador la inmensa pobreza y la enorme desigualdad educativa y cultural entre la elite gobernante que heredó el poder de sus antiguos amos colonizadores y el grueso de la población. La mayoría de la población en estos países ha sido condicionada a servir como un “agente legitimador” al momento de ejercer su voto pero no se le ha permitido adquirir conciencia absoluta de su rol como “ciudadano legitimador empoderado”. Porque es su voto el que le permite exigir responsabilidad, honestidad y resultados en el equipo de gobierno que eligió en las urnas.

Titulo: 7 killed in post-election protests
Via: FoxNews

En Venezuela ha sido la población cansada y agotada de la corrupción la que ha tomado conciencia del poder de su voto al exigir la renuncia del gobierno revolucionario (aún a pesar de que recientemente había sido electo por el voto de las mayorías).  Es acá que el pueblo ha empezado a ilustrarse en su poder como votante y garante.

Titulo: Days of Protest in Ukraine
Via: The Atlantic

En Ucrania ha sido el pueblo el que también ha tomado conciencia del poder de su voto y de su derecho de autodeterminación pidiendo la anexión de Crimea y su mayoría étnica rusa a Rusia debido a sus distintos intereses económicos, políticos y culturales con el resto del país.

Titulo: El TSE pidió a los contendientes que respeten los resultados que el pueblo decida.

Y en El Salvador desde el día lunes debido a que las elecciones presidenciales concluyeron con una cercana diferencia de votos entre los partidos ARENA y FMLN. ARENA rechazó el conteo de las elecciones luego del anuncio de su derrota. 6,000 votos marcaron la diferencia y el partido ARENA rechazó la legalidad del proceso democrático.

Espero que no sea aún tarde para extender una invitación a reflexionar a los ciudadanos salvadoreños sobre el funcionamiento del gobierno democrático y de la necesidad de estudiarlo a más profundidad y, quizás, comprender que el voto de la mayoría (aún si efectivamente ganará por 6mil votos de diferencia) no es garante suficiente de legitimidad.  Y que, es urgente que ambos partidos realicen un pacto serio, democrático y honesto antes de queso se derramé una sola gota de sangre.

En Venezuela, Ucrania y El Salvador es aún posible alcanzar acuerdo y pactos de concertación que partan del respeto al gobierno democrático y que busquen una inclusión de ideas, actores y modificaciones a los actuales procesos en los que el Pueblo (demos) colabore en la construcción y progreso del del Sistema de gobierno (cracia).

Esto evitará muertes y violaciones a los derechos individuales.  Pero más importante aún, permitirá la evolución y maduración de sistemas democráticos de gobierno en estos países que aún ahora se vieron afectados por la injerencia de los poderes imperiales en sus asuntos. Que envidia que en estos países quizás estén a las puertas de un desarrollo democrático del cual nuestros países vecinos podrían aprender mucho.

El legado de Hugo Chávez

Propuesta del Candidato de la Patria Comandante Hugo Chávez Para la gestión Bolivariana socialista 2013-2019. Via:

Hace un año el actual presidente de Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, anunció la muerte de Hugo Chávez.  Chávez fue el líder de la Revolución  Bolivariana en Venezuela y gobernó el país durante 14 años.  Maduro fue juramentado luego Presidente y recientemente ganó la reelección popular con una campaña que prometía continuar  con el legado de su mentor.

En el 2013, los datos del legado que dejaban los 14 años del gobierno socialista presentados por el Centre for Research on Globalization y por la Embajada Venezolana en los Estados Unidos son reveladores:

  • Venezuela cuenta con servicios de salud y educación universales gratuitos. Antes, 70% de los venezolanos no tenía acceso a servicios de salud.
  • Se eliminó el analfabetismo en el país.  Antes, 40% de los venezolanos eran analfabetos.
  • En los últimos 10 años, el PIB venezolano ha crecido al ubicarse en un nivel alrededor de los 300 mil millones de dólares. Esto representa un crecimiento sustancial frente a la década de los noventa cuando el PIB del país no llegaba a los 100 mil millones de dólares.
  • Se redujo en un 40% el costo de los productos de la canasta básica.
  • Aumentó el salario mínimo en más del 600%
  • Redujo el desempleo del 20% al 6%
  • El Índice de Desarrollo Humano (IDH) en Venezuela aumentó de 0,69 en  1998 a 0,84 en  2008, lo cual eleva a Venezuela a ser un país con rango de desarrollo humano medio a uno con rango alto.
  • De 2008 a 2012, el IDH descendió a 0,748 y alcanza el puesto 71 de 187 naciones y territorios que participaron de la medición.
  • Venezuela ocupa el puesto 71 entre los 179 países que figuran, según el informe anual del Programa de Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo (PNUD). El coeficiente de Gini, que mide la desigualdad de ingresos, alcanzaron en 0.390 en 2012, el nivel más bajo en la historia de Venezuela y el más bajo en el Continente latinoamericano. En 1998, era de 0,4865.
  • Desde 1999, Venezuela incrementó sus relaciones comerciales con otros países en el hemisferio, así como con otras regiones del mundo. La mayor parte del comercio de Venezuela continúa siendo llevado a cabo en la región, con alrededor del 70% de las exportaciones de petróleo con destino a los países de las Américas, y los mercados de América del Sur, América Central y el Caribe están ganando importancia.
  • En 2012, un año antes de la muerte de Chávez, Venezuela era el tercer socio comercial más grande de Estados Unidos en América Latina y el número 14 más grande en el mundo, además de ser el cuarto proveedor de petróleo a EE UU.

Pero no todo ha sido fácil de conseguir en esta bonanza de estadísticas sociales y los drásticos cambios en el nivel de vida del pueblo venezolano han sido el resultado de muchos sacrificios impuestos en la población venezolana.

Con el ascenso de Chávez y el éxito inmediato de los cambios socioeconómicos en la población, la élite política chavista se aseguró el poder absoluto al conseguir el voto mayoritario en elecciones democráticas gracias a millones de venezolanos beneficiados por las reformas socialistas.  Este poder absoluto (democrático) permitió al gobierno socialista continuar con su plan e imponer restricciones a la libertad de expresión de la oposición, expropió sin muchos problemas industrias, eliminó fácilmente y sin mucha oposición el derecho a la propiedad privada y capturó los ahorros de millones de venezolanos.

Para Maduro, Chávez y muchos otros ideólogos socialistas antes de ellos, cualquier medio era justificable para la consecución del ideal revolucionario socialista.  Latino América, que durante décadas sirvió de laboratorio para experimentos económicos y políticos de líderes del mundo desarrollado fue la arena idónea para regresar a la dulce tentación socialista que había sido lograda con relativo éxito en otros continentes.

La fórmula del legado de Chávez es simple y poderoso:

Populismo anti-imperialista


petróleo nacionalizado


Socialismo clientelista 

Titulo: Sembrar petróleo. Por Emiliano Teran Mantovani. via:

La movilización y apoyo de los votantes en una nación democrática es fácil de conseguir cuando se posee el capital económico, político y/o militar para ofrecer al pueblo una salida de los sistemas de economía mixta extractivos que durante el siglo XX fueron implementados por las naciones desarrolladas del Norte Global y que fueron apoyadas por elites patrimonialistas en los territorios del Sur. El éxito de la revolución Bolivariana aseguró para otros países interesados en este experimento una segura y jugosa fuente de donativos para facilitar el efecto domino socialista que tanto temieron los ideólogos realistas gringos durante la Guerra Fría.  Sin duda, el legado de Chávez sigue vivo un año después de su muerte.

En los últimos dos meses la movilización de un importante grupo de la población venezolana causó manifestaciones en las ciudades más importantes del país.  Los manifestantes tenían muchas peticiones que iban desde reclamos por la corrupción del partido gobernante, reclamos por los altos índices de inflación que afronta el país y solicitudes de renuncia de los líderes de la revolución bolivariana.

Independientemente de cuántos  años más dure el partido revolucionario en el poder es seguro que su legado fue la implementación de una exitosa revolución socialista clientelista sostenida en la venta de petróleo a las economías mixtas del resto del mundo que mejoro los índices de desarrollo humano como nunca antes habíamos visto.  Así es que mientras el mundo siga dependiendo del oro negro, el mundo seguirá escuchando del legado de Chávez.

Este caro legado ha costado la libertad y los derechos de propiedad de miles de individuos. Venezuela sigue y continuará enfrentando desafíos en materia de seguridad, pues la tasa de homicidios de la región es la más alta del mundo. El regimen chavista es diariamente acusado de corrupción, incompetencia y la probabilidad de que esto cambie no es del interés de nadie. El año pasado la inflación fue del 56% y la escasez de productos básicos continuó agudizándose hasta este año.  Caracas se ha convertido en una de las ciudades más caras del mundo ocupando el puesto #6 según datos del WSJ.

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Polystate, part 2

After much distraction I’m back to continue my review of Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government (part 1 is here). But now that I think about it, this isn’t so much a review, as a book club (of one…) where I respond to the book.

In this section, ZW gets into the benefits of polystates. He starts with the benefit of choice. Someone born into North Korea is utterly screwed, but someone born into an unattractive anthrostate can simply leave when they reach the age of consent. The reverse is also true: someone may join an anthrostate that the rest of us see as distasteful. Want to join a cult? You’re free to. The thought of that possibility will certainly make your inner-paternalist squeamish, but remember that if you aren’t free to make mistakes, you simply aren’t free.

Another benefit I wouldn’t have thought of is that traditionally problematic systems of government have a higher chance of success when they are separated from geography. For example:

It may be that the failure of collectivization has not got to do with the individual so much as the aggregate. If 95% of people work poorly in a collectivized environment, any random collectivized farm will perform poorly. But it may be the case that 5% of people would excel in such an environment.

I would expect a communist to protest that geographic seclusion is necessary to create New Communist Man. How are people supposed to learn how to shed their egoism if they cannot help but see the vulgar bourgeoisie all around them? But that sword cuts both ways and shows a benefit of polystates ZW didn’t bring up: a child raised in a fascist anthrostate can see non-fascists and so make a more informed decision of whether to stick with fascism when they get older.

ZW sees the polystate as offering a sort of decentralized Tiebout competition. That covers the demand side (what benefits to provide to whom). Adding in the supply side (who will face what opportunity costs) raises the problem of economic calculation in socialism. But ZW takes it in a different direction, hypothesizing that sorting between anthrostates would lessen decision making costs due to more homogeneous populations.

Choice ensures we get more of what we want with less hassle but also provides the option of exit at low cost. Taking geography out of the equation means that there is a larger number of potential state-competitors, as well as more credible movement on the part of citizens.

He raises an interesting problem related to a recent post of mine:

[T]here may be a difference between good governance and governance which pleases one’s constituency… But, regardless of the philosophy of good government, there is an extent to which good governance must have to do with what voluntary citizens decide is good.

First off: No! Government and governance are two different things! But putting that aside, the big problem we face is how to not just aggregate preferences (a difficult problem in itself), but how to ensure that (or even determine if) our method of aggregation results in something good.

I think cable TV is pretty good at giving people what they want, but I also think that the product is overwhelmingly bad. It’s not a big deal with TV because there are so many alternative sources of entertainment and information (although cable news might have existential dangers). Similarly, I think government broadly gives people what they want (not peace and prosperity, but xenophobia, “doing something“, paternalism, and the like) but that’s not a good thing. The idea of the U.S. senate was to prevent people from having too much choice so that good institutions could be preserved. So could the degree of choice offered by polystates be to much? On the other hand, how could you determine an answer without incorporating the revealed preferences of the governed?

Finally, ZW gets into an especially meaty benefit of anthrostates: peace. It’s hard to start a war with a disbursed enemy (“semi-random geographic distribution), and hard to finance one when your citizens can switch to a more peaceful government. This could be especially important in avoiding territory disputes as humans explore and colonize space (for example, if resources on the moon become valuable enough to justify the expense of following Newt Gingrich up there).

That concludes Book 1 of Polystate, and that’s where I’ll stop for now. I’ll be picking through the book fairly slowly, so I recommend that you buy the book for yourself!

A review in n parts: Polystate, part 1

Zach Weinersmith of SMBC comics just published Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. I’ve started reading it and immediately needed to start commenting. Before I get into the review, let me say that SMBC comics is an excellent web comic that everyone should read.

The basic idea ZW introduces is the polystate, a system of government comprised of anthrostates. An anthrostate is “a set of laws and institutions that govern the behavior of individuals, but which do not govern a behavior within geographic borders.” It is essentially government that individuals get to choose in the same manner that they get to choose their insurance company; so to neighbors can live under a different set of laws and any disputes between them are a matter for their anthrostates to sort out. At this point you should be thinking: Nozick did it. The idea of a polystate is essentially Nozick’s Utopia of Utopias.

He contrasts poly/anthrostates with geostates, the geographically defined monopolies on the use of force we are used to today. Does it need to be thus?

Why should we suppose that a person who likes hot dogs, is familiar with a two-party electoral system, and believes Abraham Lincoln was a great man is necessarily someone who should live in a temperate climate in the Western hemisphere?… This is not to deny that history and culture and the choices of individuals matter, but rather to assert that many of the “essential” qualities of nationhood are not, in the long run, meaningful ones.

I’ll agree and disagree. These qualities are relevant to some sense of cultural identity, but are not essential for defining the boundaries of a state. This cultural identity is part of the environment of informal institutions, which are part of a broader polycentric order. This is the underpinning of law (the way Hayek characterized it) which is much broader than legislation.

ZW approaches the problem like a mathematician and sets himself up with a hard sell, by assuming there will be a huge need for technological advances to overcome transaction costs. His argument rests largely on technological possibility and is highly concerned with interaction at the anthrostate level.

A polystate would likely increase the complexity of business and legal transaction. In a world with only 200 or so geostates, most commerce is not interstate and even if it were, geometry tells us that the number of possible two-state transactions is given by n(n-1)/2.

Nobody thinks the distribution of such transactions is uniform, and in real life we see a large proportion of international transactions go through countries that specialize in trade. Hong Kong would surely have an anthrostate analog. In fact, there are historical antecedents. He foresees rules being designed at the polystate level to simplify interactions but, “whatever rules were put in place, the results would be too burdensome to exist without a large bureaucracy or some sort of computational way to arbitrate these many interactions.”

The basic flaw in ZW’s approach is that institutions and laws are provided from the state, and so technology is the answer to transaction costs problems. In fact, the issue is that ZW (though he’s not alone on this) wants a change in institutions that will require a new order to emerge. His book will help to peacefully guide the process of societal change towards that new order. Technology will surely play an important role as well.

That gets us through the first four chapters. I will continue with more tomorrow evening.

People: neither blithering idiots nor towering geniuses

Or is it that they’re both?

As a young libertarian first exposed to economics (actually it was my third exposure where it took) I was struck with an exciting proposition: people don’t need the government to look after them because (we’ve assumed that) they’re rational! In that case, government can almost only ever do harm. Add in some public choice and Austrian insights and you’ve got a water tight defense of liberty.

But actually you don’t. Because as it turns out, people might actually be complete morons. I’ll bet if you marketed a brand of bottled water as having never been warm–cleaned with pre-chilled filters made in iceland, and never poured into room temperature bottles–it would sell. But if that’s the case, the world should be a scary place. People would be doing ridiculous things and electing ridiculous politicians to help them act even more absurdly.

I’m an economist and I still do plenty of irrational things. But it turns out that first taste of economics was econ of a particular variety: the study of what is rational. Not the study of how people rationally act. That’s not to say it’s worthless. David Friedman put it well in Hidden Order: if people are rational some times and act randomly other times, then we can still make useful predictions about their behavior. But I don’t think that economics is some sort of half-science that assumes away randomness in order to study some portion of people’s actions.

Mostly, I think the study of rationality lays a foundation, and offers a puzzle, to allow further study of ecological rationality. The world is orderly and roughly follows the predictions we make when we assume individuals are rational. And yet people seem far from rational. What gives?!

It turns out we have to pay attention to institutions. These often hidden rules of the game direct our actions and embed our learning in social rules. Those crazy (probably imaginary) sociologists might have been on to something when they said that individuals’ actions are shaped by social forces. It’s not that people don’t have autonomy, it’s that people don’t exist in a vacuum.

Yes they are.

What’s my point? Learning a little bit of economics goes a long way to making good arguments for liberty, but it doesn’t go far enough. We live in an a much more interesting world than the one we learn about in econ 101.

My Thoughts on Marvin

Addendum: I’m sure Marvin is sick of Marvin the Martian references by this point in his life but I’m keeping the picture because Marvin the Martian my favorite WB character, and is apropos enough…

Other than that, please understand that this post is made with respect to Marvin, and made public in order to offer an organized presentation of some recent exchanges here on Notes on Liberty.

Man, things are really heating up on NoL!

The outsider…

It begins…

I suspect the totally free society is where all civilizations started. Then someone stole something from someone else, and the people got together to deal with the problem of theft. The consensus decided that there should be a right to property, and they reached an agreement with each other to respect that right for each other and to come to each other’s aid when necessary to defend that right.

… with Marvin contemplating Buchanan’s constitutional moment. He continues with an amusing story of a quasi-voluntary provision of police, and an ad hoc ideological opposition from the first hold-out. He continued with a near analogous argument by a would be thief.

But I’m not going to follow that argument. For me, the interesting thing here, the pivotal term that tells us something meaningful about Marvin is “totally free”.

For Marvin, freedom means a lack of punishment for a given action. Therefore total freedom means no socially sanctioned punishment for any action. That state of affairs is one lacking in governance. The only person who remotely approaches that is Kim Jong-Un, but even he is ultimately constrained by (the apparently unlikely) possibility of revolution, and his near-total freedom is only within his borders. This contrasts with Brandon’s idea of mutually consistent freedom which depends on individuals having the right to not be subject to coercion.

Following Marvin’s commentary has been confusion over the terms liberty, freedom, and rights. What we all think of when we hear the term “free society” would not have what Marvin calls total freedom. This in turn has lead to dispute over the term law. Let me offer my own clarifications, focusing on the issue of law and rules.

When Dr. Foldvary used the term “truly free” he had in mind a situation with governance, but without top-down intervention. Marvin, I suspect, has confused this for a situation entirely lacking governance, or at least effective governance. I think this has roots in his belief that competition for scarce resources, as directed through the profit and loss system, will lead to unchecked cheating (e.g. pollution) in the absence of some disinterested third-party to enforce rules that reasonable people, if they’re being honest, would agree to. There are two problems with this:

First, the unmentioned one, is that the government isn’t a disinterested third-party and rules aren’t set behind a veil of ignorance (ensuring honest agreement among reasonable people). Marvin starts with the Hobbesian Jungle and arrives at the position that there is something like a social contract whereby we all (implicitly) agree to rules (restrictions on our choice set) for our mutual betterment. I don’t disagree that rules restrict our choice set and can (can!) be for our mutual betterment. What’s missing is the appreciation for the distinction between constitutional and post-constitutional rules (but that a can of worms unto itself). Beyond issues of incompatible incentives, there are also significant information problems.

Second, the government isn’t the only source of governance. Brandon and Marvin both use the term “law” in an all-encompassing way. I prefer Hayek’s distinction between law and legislation. Law, is the set of informal institutions that underlie (we hope) formal legislation. Law is emergent, but legislation is static (although it does change, just in punctuated equilibria). When government is responsive legislation will simply codify law, but when the two diverge it sets the stage for upheaval.

With that in mind, let me briefly respond to Marvin’s question:

In response to the loss of lives in the mining and manufacturing industries, government regulation requires safety precautions and inspections, like under OSHA. Should this type of regulation be eliminated to make the market “truly free”?

First off, nobody here is advocating for an unbound choice set. “Truly free” should be understood to mean “free from external [i.e. government] coercion, rule-setting, and back-room politics that are enforced at gun point.” With that in mind, the basic regulatory framework will be based on property rights and voluntary choice. Mines that acquire a reputation for being unsafe will soon be unable to find workers, unless they increase their wages. If we see poor working conditions at low pay, it doesn’t mean an injustice is being done, it means that the people working there see it as their best available option.

Final thoughts:

I think Brandon and Marvin have been largely talking past each other, but despite that the conversation has been interesting. I would like to see them engage in a debate on some particular topic. I propose that we find a topic agreeable to both, they both respond to that topic, open comments ensue for a few days, then each writes their final thoughts in a second blog post. I will summarize their points here.