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

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

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

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

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

More discussion is needed on this point…

Liberalism and Sovereignty

More than a year ago I promised Jacques a post on sovereignty and while I am not always able to follow up very quickly, I tend to do what I promise. So here it is! Jacques’ main cri de coeur was why (classical) liberals should care about sovereignty at all.

When it comes to the theoretical discussion about sovereignty (the literature is huge), I think there is no better start than the work of international relations theorist Robert Jackson. Or better and broader: any thinking about international relations benefits from this Canadian, former Boston University professor, especially his magnum opus The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford University Press, 2000). But this is a side step.

In his 2008 book Sovereignty: Evolution of an Idea (Polity Press) he argues that:

sovereignty is an idea of authority embodied in those bordered territorial organizations we refer to as states, and is expressed in their various relations and activities, both domestic and foreign. It originates from the controversies and wars, religious and political of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. It has become the fundamental idea of authority of the modern era, arguably the most fundamental.

Also in regions where other kinds of arrangements existed before Western imperialism.

It is at the same time both an idea of supreme authority in the state, and an idea of political and legal independence of geographically separate states. Hence, sovereignty is a constitutional idea of the rights and duties of the governments and citizens or subjects of particular states. It is also an international idea of multiple states in relation to each other, each one occupying its own territories and having foreign relations and dealing with others, including peaceful and cooperative relations as well as discordant relations and periodical wars.

Of course a lot of popular and academic discussion follows from this, for example about the particular form of sovereignty (popular, or not), the relation between power and sovereignty, sovereignty and globalization, or if and when sovereignty may be breached to protect others through intervention. Yet here I solely  focus on the relation between sovereignty and liberal political theory.

Concerning the domestic supremacy side of sovereignty a lot has been written by liberals. Most liberals (classical, social, and even libertarian minarchists, such as Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick; see my Degrees of Freedom for the precise definitions) realize some form of state is needed to protect individual rights. A state embodied with sovereignty. At the same time most liberals (social liberals less so, because they favor a relatively large state) recognize the state is also the largest danger to individual freedom. How to balance the two is the perpetual question of liberal political thought, one also without a definitive answer or solution, so far.

Less attention has been given to the international side of sovereignty. There are a number of libertarians, such as the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard, or his intellectual successor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who think there should not be states, hence no issues of sovereignty exist once their stateless world has materialized (they remain largely silent about how to reach that situation). Yet it seems to me the thinking should not stop there. These same thinkers romanticize the idea of secession, yet seem to overlook that those seceded groups or communities also need to deal with other seceded groups and communities. They are a bit lazy when stating everybody should look after themselves, and only defend themselves in case of attack by others. If everything would be nice and neat among people this might be ok. Yet of course history shows (also in those areas where sovereignty never played a big role before Western imperialism) that people interfere all the time in each others affairs, some rulers may have malign intentions, others belief some parts of the seceded lands belong to their community, let alone issues about religion, et cetera. In short, chances on a peaceful world with the occasional conflict that can be solved by self defense are zero.

Funnily enough, social liberals share the idea of the possibility of a world peace and cosmopolitan harmony. They also favor the abolition of sovereign states, not through secession but through the pooling of sovereignty at the transnational level, with the European Union as an example and a world federation as the ultimate end goal. This seems just as unrealistic, as even the EU is still mainly governed from the member states, as the current refugee crisis and the possible dissolution of the Schengen agreement illustrates. More generally, the pooling of sovereignty proves rather difficult, also in other parts of the world. ASEAN in South East Asia is an example.

More realistic are classical liberals, such as Hume, Smith, and Hayek, who acknowledged an emotional tie between the individual and his country, as well as the constant need to defend individual property rights against invasion by others, through standing armies, diplomacy, some international treaties, the balance of power, et cetera.  Human nature does not allow for starry eyed fantasies about international harmony, let alone international peace. Hence, it is rather normal to care about external sovereignty, as it is foremost a means of protection.  Not the sole means, but an important and fundamental institution of international relations.

What is the proper role of government? Galactic Edition

Mordanicus of Fascinating Future, a sci-fi blog, is musing over the purpose of galactic government. As Mordanicus points out, galactic empires are a staple of science fiction. They can be found in the Star Wars, Star Trek, Dune, Firefly and Foundation universes.

…the feasibility of a galactic empire is questionable.

In Asimov’s description of the galactic empire, it consists of 25 million inhabited planets and 500 quadrillion people, 20 billion per planet on average. It is hard to even imagine a planetary empire, and no such thing has ever existed in human history, let alone such enormous empire.

The fundamental issue with an empire of this size is effective control by the central government. Its sheer size makes it inevitable to delegate many administrative powers to “local” planetary official. But the more power is transferred to individual planets, the less power remains with the central government. The question is then what is the proper function of the imperial government?

What is the purpose of these empires though? In those sci-fi universes with aliens these empires serve some defensive role for our Milky Way galaxy, but in many sci-fi universes there is no clear visible external threat.  What is the purpose of the empire then? Or is it simply a way for wealth distribution by those living in the Saturn beltway?

I personally view merit in a galactic empire if it were able to maintain internal peace. I have no doubt that in a space faring civilization there will be pirates and I believe that there are economies of scale in galactic trade route policing.

There is also merit in an empire that can keep rogue planetary governments in check. A galactic empire would be restrained in its ability to govern on its own given the largess of space and would need to delegate many functions to different layers of government. An empire would however still serve as a last layer of resort for those petitioning against their planetary government.

What about NOL readers? Are you convinced that space piracy warrants an empire? Or would a space faring civilization be better government by planetary or sub-planetary governments?

Read the full post from Mordanicus here.

Basic income: a debate where demand magically disappears!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Uber, cab drivers and compensation

What a title for a blog post right? Where am I going with this? A few days ago, I debated a few of my academic colleagues who tend towards libertarianism in the predominantly left-leaning province of Quebec. The topic? How the rise of Uber is killing the taxi cartel? I authored a paper on ride-sharing a year ago and I cannot be more enthusiastic towards such technologies that are allowing consumers much more choices at lower prices than with the taxi cartel. Thus, we were all in agreement. The point of contention appeared when the topic of compensation was raised. I favor partial compensation of the owners of taxi licences. Instantly, I was cast in the minority position and branded as a statist. A debate ensued and I made the case that it was not acceptable to right a wrong by committing another wrong (how Christian of me).

First, let me lay out some facts first and some assumptions

  1. A taxi licence restricting competition is a subsidy. But it is a strange type of subsidy that occurs through a redistribution of property rights (limiting the right to use one’s own car to carry individuals in exchange for payment to those who buy the transferable right to do so). Unlike cash subsidies, quotas, trade barriers and tax credits, it is the only form of income transfer that exists that is a property. You can abolish any cash subsidy, tariff, quota, tax, tax credits or legal monopoly without having to compensate since no one has property of such things. That is the source of the odd nature of the taxi licence – a subsidy with a property deed.
  2. The two benefits from these licences occur through limiting competition and thus allowing higher prices/quality ratios and through higher asset value (the permit’s value). The extent of those benefits depends on the extent of the curtailment of the liberties of other to compete. The more restrictive the policy, the greater the redistribution from consumers to producers in the long-run.
  3. However, new drivers have to pay a high price and they must have some time to recoup the acquisition of the asset. Their recovery will take some time as they also hike prices and lower quality.

So, if you want to abolish a taxi licensing scheme, is it acceptable not to compensate? According to my colleagues, yes it is. Since the benefits of higher prices were so considerable to those drivers (at the expense of consumers), compensation is not necessary.

Yet, the drivers do own property don’t they? The licence is worth many thousands of dollars, basically the value of a small house. Many drivers rely on this asset for their retirement. Now, let me make another presumption which is crucial to this discussion: the change is caused by legal changes, not technological changes.

I believe that, in the presence of the technological change, there is no case for compensation. Nobody would compensate telecoms companies for the rise of Skype since it is a process of entrepreneurship. However, the case is different if a government decides to abolish the licences. So here, my entire reasoning for compensation is contingent to a case where the state abolishes the licences, not a situation where technologies render the licences worthless like the car killed the street horses.

Clearly, it was unjust for consumers to deal with a cartel that gouged them and which was legally sanctioned to do so. But can you right an injustice by committing another injustice (the de facto dispossession of an asset)? Normatively speaking, I simply believe that using the monopoly of violence of the state to right the abuses caused by past uses of the monopoly of violence of the state is not that productive. Why? Because I have this assumption lodged firmly in my head as a result of my training in public choice theory: rent-seeking matters.

Rent-seekers will always exist. They are the social-science equivalent of gravity in physics. You just have to deal with their existence. Rent-seekers are basically political entrepreneurs who have very concentrated benefits from applying policies whose costs are not that obvious or that important for a large population. These political entrepreneurs are very alert to opportunities and they will seize them. Sometimes, they discover that their preferred course of action leads to resistance. They will automatically shift gear and find another way to obtain an unearned reward thanks to the complicity of those they bargain with (politicians and bureaucrats). Their rhetoric will change, their narratives will change, their arguments will evolve, but at the core, they will continue to rent-seek. True, you can conceive constitutional rules that limit rent-seeking (I am a big fan of that). However, one way or another, it will remain and some will find ways to connive with politicians and bureaucrats to obtain undue rewards. And even if there was such a utopia free of rent-seekers (I just won’t buy that for a dollar) where a constitution would ban their activities or even a stateless utopia (again, I am not buying it), is it acceptable to justify all means possible to reach such a destination?

What if associations of cab drivers lobby for special tax discounts on gasoline since they provide a public service? What if they lobby for stricter security checks on drivers (needless security checks) which end up having the same effects? What if they convinced regulators that only certain types of vehicles (less than 5 years old for example) should be allowed to operate? What if they mandated association with a dispatcher to better avoid traffic jams? How could a politician oppose special tax treatment for drivers, better security for consumers or all these other bogus motives? In the end, they will find a way to rent-seek. However, by dispossessing them of an asset worth many hundred of thousands of dollars, you are basically creating the certainty that they will aggressively rent-seek to recuperate their losses. Thus, you don’t end up breaking a vicious policy cycle, you end up encouraging its continuation in stranger, hidden and subtle manners whose perniciousness continues equally.

Hence my case that you can’t right a wrong by committing a wrong. Respect the rule of law, liberalize the market and compensate and attempt to rewrite constitutions to prevent arbitrary redistribution of property rights.

Giving Up On The Masses

In 2012, during Ron Paul’s second presidential candidacy as a Republican, I felt deflated with the masses again. Again, the masses were not going to vote a libertarian into office. It was the same year in which I read Murray Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty and Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed. What struck me at that time was the realization that democracy is actually an extremely poor political system to make society become more libertarian. Democracy is not even a guarantee whatsoever for political and economic freedoms. Its success is dependent on the uprightness of the masses, but where are the masses to stand up against war, bank bailouts, taxation, police aggression etc? If the government is truly a gang of thieves and murderers, as I believe it is, then the voting masses are advocates of theft, harassment, assault, and murder.

I do not believe that the masses are ready for freedom, because freedom means taking responsibility for one’s life and actions – a frightening prospect for the masses who lack the strength to face insecurities in life. Ingrained with fear of their own and their neighbours’ incapability to live a ‘responsible’ life, they are attracted to masters who can arrange their lives for them. The masses have also never thirsted for truth. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master, and whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim. They want to be comfortable and cuddled to death. Thinking is too much hassle for the mass-man. The masses have moreover a love for egalitarianism and a disdain for those who are different, who are more successful and more beautiful. They hate freedom, because in freedom man naturally maintains his distance from his fellow human beings.

Being discontent with the masses and deflated in my philosophical views on politics and economics, I took Peter Thiel’s following dictum to heart: “The masses have given up on unregulated capitalism, so those who still support unregulated capitalism should give up on the masses.” Instead, I have put my hope on such technological advances of decentralization as cryptocurrencies, seasteading, 3D-printing, and localized energy conservation and production.

The Incredible Bread Machine (R.W. Grant)

This is a legend of success and plunder
And a man, Tom Smith, who squelched world hunger.
Now, Smith, an inventor, had specialized
In toys. So, people were surprised
When they found that he instead
Of making toys, was BAKING BREAD!

The way to make bread he’d conceived
Cost less than people could believe.
And not just make it! This device
Could, in addition, wrap and slice!
The price per loaf, one loaf or many:
The miniscule sum of under a penny.

Can you imagine what this meant?
Can you comprehend the consequent?
The first time yet the world well fed!
And all because of Tom Smith’s bread.

A citation from the President
For Smith’s amazing bread.
This and other honors too
Were heaped upon his head.

But isn’t it a wondrous thing
How quickly fame is flown?
Smith, the hero of today
Tomorrow, scarcely known.

Yes, the fickle years passed by;
Smith was a millionaire,
But Smith himself was now forgot
Though bread was everywhere.

People, asked from where it came,
Would very seldom know.
They would simply eat and ask,
“Was not it always so?”

However, Smith cared not a bit,
For millions ate his bread,
And “Everything is fine,” thought he,
“I am rich and they are fed!”

Everything was fine, he thought?
He reckoned not with fate.
Note the sequence of events
Starting on the date
On which the business tax went up.
Then, to a slight extent,
The price on every loaf rose too:
Up to one full cent!

“What’s going on?” the public cried,
“He’s guilty of pure plunder.
He has no right to get so rich
On other people’s hunger!”

(A prize cartoon depicted Smith
With fat and drooping jowls
Snatching bread from hungry babes
Indifferent to their howls!)

Well, since the Public does come first,
It could not be denied
That in matters such as this,
The Public must decide.

So, antitrust now took a hand.
Of course, it was appalled
At what it found was going on.
The “bread trust,” it was called.

Now this was getting serious.
So Smith felt that he must
Have a friendly interview
With the men in antitrust.
So, hat in hand, he went to them.
They’d surely been misled;
No rule of law had he defied.
But then their lawyer said:

The rule of law, in complex times,
Has proved itself deficient.
We much prefer the rule of men!
It’s vastly more efficient.
Now, let me state the present rules.

The lawyer then went on,
These very simpIe guidelines
You can rely upon:
You’re gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it’s unfair competition
If you think you can charge less.

A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion:
Don’t try to charge the same amount:
That would be collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do, you see,
Then the market would be yours
And that’s monopoly!”

Price too high? Or price too low?
Now, which charge did they make?
Well, they weren’t loath to charging both
With Public Good at stake!

In fact, they went one better
They charged “monopoly!”
No muss, no fuss, oh woe is us,
Egad, they charged all three!

“Five years in jail,” the judge then said.
“You’re lucky it’s not worse.
Robber Barons must be taught
Society Comes First!”

Now, bread is baked by government.
And as might be expected,
Everything is well controlled;
The public well protected.

True, loaves cost a dollar each.
But our leaders do their best.
The selling price is half a cent.
(Taxes pay the rest!)