An Excellent Analysis of Karl Marx and His System by Leszek Kolakowski

Many Western Marxists used to repeat that socialism such as it existed in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Marxist theory and that, deplorable as it might be, it was best explained by some specific conditions in Russia. If this is the case, how could it have happened that so many people in the nineteenth century, especially the anarchists, predicted fairly exactly what socialism based on Marxist principles would turn out to be namely, state slavery? Proudhon argued that Marx’s ideal is to make human beings state property. According to Bakunin, Marxian socialism would consist in the rule of the renegades of the ruling class, and it would be based on exploitation and oppression worse than anything previously known. According to the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Edward Abramowski, if communism were by some miracle to win in the moral conditions of contemporary society, it would result in class division and exploitation worse than what existed at the time (because institutional changes do not alter human motivations and moral behavior). Benjamin Tucker said that Marxism knows only one cure for monopolies, and that is a single monopoly.

These predictions were made in the nineteenth century, decades before the Russian Revolution. Were these people clairvoyant? No. Rather, one could make such predictions rationally, and infer from Marxian anticipations the system of socialized serfdom.

Read the whole thing. It’s relatively short and has a lot of good insights. The part about Marx cheating on the wages of European workers, and his views on the non-European world, are alone worth the price of admission. Kolakowski was a Polish philosopher and Cold War dissident.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Sophocles, the Tragedies of Oedipus and Antigone

Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post.  Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.

The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.

The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.

The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.

However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.

The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution.  ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.

The Theban plays are: Oedipus the KingOedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.

The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.

Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.

Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power. 

Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.

Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.

It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.

Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.

Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning  her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.

In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.

There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.

She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity. 

The Concept of Profit

The basic concept of “profit” is simple: profit equals revenue minus costs. But “cost” is a complex concept, and “revenue” too is not all that simple, so the economic analysis of “profit” ends up being complicated.

A business typically calculates the appearance of profit rather than the economic reality. Most enterprises use money for purchases and sales, so for accounting, the appearance of profit is easy to understand. The revenue equals the proceeds from sales, and the costs are what is paid for the inputs: wages, rentals, interest, and materials. In economics, this is called “accounting profit,” which equals revenue minus the explicit costs, costs paid to others.

But the payments for inputs can include capital goods – inventory, buildings, machines and other tools – that last a long time. If an enterprise buys a machine that lasts for ten years, the cost is really spread out over the duration of the capital good. So in the accounting, rather than treat the purchase as a cost in the year purchased, the cost is the depreciation, the loss of value, in each year. For simplicity, the accounting can depreciate the tool in equal amounts each year, or, following tax laws, it could accelerate the depreciation, deducting more in the first years than the last years. The annual depreciation is an explicit cost, since the original purchase consists of funds paid to others.

This accounting convention ignores the effect of price inflation. Suppose a tool costs $100 and lasts for 20 years. Without inflation, the depreciation would be $5 per year. But if during that time, prices have doubled, it will cost $200 to replace the same tool. In the 20th year, the actual depreciation should be $10, but for the income tax in the USA, inflation is ignored, so the company has to record a $5 expense.

To get the real cost, we have to move from accounting profit, which only subtracts explicit nominal costs (not adjusted for inflation), to economic profit, which also subtracts the implicit costs, those which are not paid in money to others, but are nevertheless real.

The implicit costs include all the “opportunity costs,” the costs of giving up next-best opportunities. Suppose you are the sole owner of a business, and your accounting profit is $200,000 per year. Your next best opportunity would be to be employed at another firm for $80,000 per year. Since you give up a $80,000 wage by being self-employed, that is a cost of your business, and in effect you are paying yourself the $80,000 out of your accounting profit.

Suppose also that you own the real estate used by your firm. If you rented, the rental would be $60,000 per year. The opportunity cost of owing your business is the $60,000 you give up if you instead rented the place to a tenant. In effect, your business is paying you as property owner the $60,000 rent from your accounting profit.

Subtract $80,000 and $60,000 from your accounting profit, and your real gain is $60,000. That is the economic profit from your self-owned business.

The same concept applies to corporate profits. Suppose a corporation has an accounting profit of $10 million per year. It owns assets worth $100 million. If the assets were sold and converted into safe bonds, suppose the bonds would pay four percent interest, or $4 million annually. That foregone income is subtracted from the accounting profit, for an economic profit of $6 million. The firm obtains $4 million as an asset owner, and $6 million as an enterprise.

Another aspect of profit is honesty. If a thief steals $1000, this is not economic profit. True profit means that the gain came from voluntary enterprise and legitimately owned assets. Gains from force and fraud are not economic profit. From the viewpoint of the whole economy, profit also has to take into account costs imposed on others, such as from pollution. The absence of compensation for damages is really an implicit theft.

Accounting profit can include government subsidies. But since such subsidies are not from voluntary production, they are not included in economic profit, the real gain from production.

Profit can also consist of capital gains. If you buy shares of stock at $1000 and sell them later for $1500 (after paying the broker’s fee), the $500 capital gain is profit. If you instead had the $1000 in safe bonds and obtained $100 in interest, that would be the opportunity cost of the capital gain, so the economic profit from the asset is $400.

We can also look at opportunity cost from the point of view of society and the whole economy. The opportunity cost of government spending is what the taxpayers would have spent on. Land has an individual opportunity cost for the owner, but for the economy, land has no opportunity cost. The land is here by nature, and no more can be built or imported. Therefore, for the whole economy, all land rent is economic profit.

Economic profit has three origins. First there is entrepreneurial profit, the economic profit of an entrepreneur, due to his skills, insights, and talents. Second is monopoly profit, the economic profit that comes from a price greater than a competitive price, such as the profit from holding a patent. Third is the gains from asset appreciation.

Profit can be negative and zero. When an enterprise has costs greater than revenues, the loss constitutes negative profit. In a highly competitive industry, economic profits tend towards zero, as firms enter to gain profits and exit to avoid losses. But zero economic profit implies just enough accounting profit to pay for all costs, including normal returns on assets values.

If you want to be clear when talking about profits, you should not just say “profit” but indicate whether you mean accounting profit or economic profit. It gets a bit confusing, because when economists say “profit,” they mean economic profit, but when anyone else says “profit,” they mean accounting profit. It may be difficult to calculate economic profit, but we need to do it, because economic profit keeps it real.
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A Brief Glimpse into Autarky: Russian Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

From the Comments: Military Alliances and the Free Rider Problem

Dr van de Haar’s excellent post on secession and alliances prompted the following from yours truly:

I think you highlight well the difference in opinion, on foreign policy, between libertarians/classical liberals in Europe and the United States. Alliances are sometimes a good option, and it pains me to see American libertarians dogmatically reject alliances in a spirit of reaction.

At the same time, European libertarians have yet to acknowledge a problem as old as Thucydides’ writings on the Delian League: that of free-riding. As NATO stands today, the European partners in the alliance (save for the UK and some newer, Eastern members) have been taking the US taxpayer for a ride.

This is a small injustice in the grand scheme of things, but it is an injustice nonetheless. The problem of alliances and free-riding extends far beyond NATO, of course. This is why I argue that alliances should be eschewed in favor of federations. I got this this idea from the likes of Ludwig von Mises, Adam Smith, and FA Hayek. The logic behind opting for federation over alliance runs something like this: if two or more countries can pledge mutual military aid to each other, but cannot abide forging closer economic and political ties, then the likelihood of each member of the alliance adhering to an agreed-upon charter is going to be very low.

Federation gets around this problem. Isolationism and empire do not.

Be sure to check out the back-and-forth between Edwin and General Magoon, too.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Aeschylus, Tragedy and the Oresteia

Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.

The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine.  Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable  individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.

The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author.  Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.

So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre,  and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.

It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.

One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics. 

It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form  that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.

Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made.  These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.

This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).

Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.

The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even  more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of  obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.

The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra,  Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time.  There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.

The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son.  They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.

In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to  a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .

However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.

The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.

Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .

The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.

Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak  and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.

The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change  That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.

Individual Sovereignty

Individual sovereignty means that it is evil for any other person to interfere with one’s honest and peaceful choices. This prescription comes from natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic:

1) “Harm” means a invasion into another’s domain.
2) All acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others, are evil.
3) Welcomed benefits are good.
4) All other acts are morally neutral.

Natural moral law is derived from human individuality and equality, and the premise of equality implies individual sovereignty. For if one is not sovereign, some other person has the moral authority to be a master, and equality does not exist. Individual sovereignty is moral equality taken to its logical conclusion. The concept of “self ownership” is the same as individual sovereignty.

Because individual sovereignty derives from the universal ethic and its premise of human equality, it does not imply that a sovereign individual may do anything he pleases. A self-owner may not impose coercive harm on others. One may do as one pleases so long as one’s actions are honest and peaceful. An honest action does not coercively harm others through fraud.

“A person has a functioning mind and the actual or potential ability to make choices based on reason and awareness” (Dictionary of Free-Market Economics). Young children have such minds and are therefore also sovereign. But the ability to use reason is something that develops as children mature, and therefore the parents have a responsibility to exercise some of the sovereignty rights on behalf of their children. Conversely, creating a child also creates a moral obligation of the parent to provide judgment as well as material needs for their children. Upon some age of maturity, the child becomes a fully sovereign human being.

In political theory monarchs have been said to be sovereign, and are called “the Sovereign”. But even if the king has absolute legal power, he is a human being equal to all others, and any coercive power he has over others is a usurpation of individual sovereignty.

When republics and democracies replaced absolute monarchs, the state and its government were said to be sovereign. A country is sovereign when there is no other political body above it. In the United States, the federal and state governments have parallel sovereignty, and the native Indian nations are supposed to have some elements of national sovereignty. The US federal government has entered into treaty obligations and has joined international organizations such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, but it could withdraw from these organizations and treaties, as the UN and WTO have no sovereignty, but only delegated powers.

Power is always exercised by individual persons, not by mental constructs. Governments and states are mental constructs, having no reality other than what people believe. If a government exercises its sovereign power, in reality, it is the president or prime minister applying the forces of government, ultimately its army, police, and prison guards. Arbitrary state power is ultimately the unequal power of some individuals over others. There is no moral authority or legitimacy for government other than to enforce the universal ethic, which implies that it is immoral for government to interfere with peaceful and honest individual sovereignty. If government makes theft legally a crime, it is already morally a crime, and government simply acts as an agent of the people to enforce moral law, although if it does that, the financing must also be moral.

Therefore individual sovereignty implies peaceful anarchism, with no imposed government, because even if the government confines itself to enforcing the universal ethic, the rulers are human beings who have no greater wisdom, in general, than others, and they could end up imposing their wills to alter peaceful choices. Therefore, pure equality implies that there be no rulers imposed on unwilling persons.

Anarchism, as the absence of imposed government, does not imply chaos and disorder, as connoted by the unfortunate other meaning of “anarchy”. Human beings have always lived in organized communities. In anarchism, most people would join associations such as condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities (owners with tenants). These local communities would federate into broader or higher associations, ultimately covering a continent or the whole planet. The benefit of government – a uniform rule of law – would be provided, without its fatal flaw, the denial of individual sovereignty.

One more element of individual sovereignty needs to be addressed: the issue of land ownership. Self-ownership implies the ownership of one’s labor, the products of labor, and the wages of labor. But self-ownership does not apply to nature, all that is apart from persons and human action. The premise of human equality implies that all persons own an equal share of the benefits of natural resources, and that can be accomplished by collecting the economic rent of land, its yield when put to optimal use, and distributing that rent equally.

The local site rentals, generated by the local population, commerce, and public goods, would be paid to the community’s providers of civic goods. The multi-level federations of voluntary communities and associations would implement the collection of land rent and local rentals, and this geo-anarchism would provide the funding needed to implement the voluntary governance.

Individual sovereignty is therefore feasible and is consistent with, and indeed best generates, peace and prosperity. Wars, such as in the Middle East, would cease if most people recognized individual sovereignty and equal rights to natural benefits, rather than fight over the coercively collective and fictitious sovereignty of states.
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Fiction Reading

I’m not really a big fan of fiction. I’m a big non-fiction kind of guy. I like my economics from textbooks, my ethnographies under 200 pages, my political theory in thick books, my history riddled with theory, and my law in blog form. If I do read fiction I normally pick up something by a Nobel Laureate or a popular foreign work rather than whatever is in fashion at the moment here in the States. Over the past four months, though, I’ve found myself delving in to some stuff I never thought I’d be interested in. I recently read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and have just begun reading George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

Rand’s book was excellent. The speech at the end was weird, though, but it was not enough to keep me from putting Atlas Shrugged on my “to do” list. I know many of the Notewriters have issues with Rand’s non-fiction work, and many of them have clashed with Objectivists over the years (libertarians and Objectivists are old enemies, largely because the latter are a cultist bunch), but I found myself unable to put down The Fountainhead. I have a tendency to put a work of fiction into the context of the time period it was written in, so for me Rand’s work is all the more compelling (The Fountainhead came out when news traveled slowly and uneven reports of communist atrocities in the USSR and China were derided as ‘political’ by Western Leftists).

Martin’s book is equally excellent. I have never tackled a fantasy book before, but I have so far been pleasantly surprised. Fantasy books are looooong, but I am enjoying the plot line so far. I like the Night Watch guys the best (I am only in Chapter 17, of 72, so nobody spoil anything!), and I do not like the Lannisters.

Nobody leave any spoilers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cut the crap about the gender pay gap”

That is the title of this piece in the Left-wing British zine spiked online by Joanna Williams, a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent. Here is the money shot:

A gender pay gap, albeit one that is rapidly decreasing, still exists; but the good news is that when occupation, contracted hours and most significantly age are taken into account, it all but disappears. In fact, the youngest women today, even those working part-time, are already earning more each hour than men. We need to ask why this is not more widely known and question the motives of those who seem so desperate to cling to a last-ditch attempt to prove that women remain disadvantaged. We should be telling today’s girls that the potential to do whatever job they want and earn as much money as they please is theirs for the taking, rather than burdening them with the mantle of victimhood.

The emphasis is mine. I know Jacques has dealt with the pay gap canard many times on this blog before (“Yes, women earn less than men but it’s not a case of unequal pay for equal work. It’s a case of unequal pay for unequal work.“), but it is still worth asking why politicians and so-called feminists are still beating such an obviously dead horse.

Politicians, especially anti-market ones, can use the pay gap to gain votes and hurt their rivals. This is an easy one.

Feminists are a horse of a different color, though, largely because there are so many variants of feminism out there (I am feminist in the sense that I think women are people, just like the old bumper sticker says!). Again, some of the peddling of this myth in feminist quarters is due to Left-wing animosity against markets, and some of it is just women in their thirties trying to remember what it was like to be in college.

Another reason might simply be economic. If an individual can get away with playing the victim in a business setting, why would she not do so? That is to say, if the rules are set to reward “playing the victim,” or if the rules were made several decades ago in order to combat an injustice (whether real or perceived), the most logical thing to do would be to play along with such rules.

The pay gap is therefore a political problem, not an economic one, and political solutions tend to be ones gained from obfuscating or ignoring outright the relevant facts of the matter.

The political undertones of the pay gap are exemplified by this 1995 paper (h/t Dr A) by two academic sociologists whose empirical work justifies Dr Delacroix’s and Dr Williams’s arguments (“it’s not a case of unequal pay for equal work”). In the conclusion of the paper, though, the sociologists go on to suggest that more legislation is needed to account for the overall pay gap. Why? Because men tend to find work in fields that pay more than women, and men don’t have vaginas with which to push out babies. In the minds of the sociologists, then, the best thing to do to ameliorate a non-existent problem (the pay gap that does not account for occupation, age, or hours worked) is to pass legislation that will somehow create more female engineers out of thin air (hello double standards, or hello decline in quality education).

h/t Mark Perry

Around the Web

  1. Arms in the Several States. This is a great post by a law professor at Fordham (Nicholas Johnson) on the legal history behind the struggle of black Americans to arm themselves in the face of State oppression.
  2. World War I and Australia
  3. Held up in customs: Life in China gave Brittany Griner more than she bargained for. This is an excellent piece on the life of a female (former) college basketball star living in China.
  4. Putin’s Cold New World. This is a piece in Dissent magazine by a Polish Left-wing sociologist who deplores what he thinks of as inadequate protection from the United States. Interesting to read in tandem with the knowledge of factions and rent-seeking that is often addressed here at NOL.
  5. The House sues Obama: Political theatre, political pain. A penetrating insight from Will Wilkinson into the House’s decision to sue the Obama administration. The best account I’ve read of the drama so far.

Classifying America: Government’s Power to Define is the Power to Discriminate

In one of the most famous phrases uttered by a Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart defended his ruling in an obscenity case (1964) by refusing to offer a clear definition. Instead, he stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (emphasis added)

Judges can make such decisions on a case by case basis. Legal concepts don’t lend themselves to strict classifications that can be ruled upon robotically by men and women in black robes.

The administrative apparatus of the U.S. government (federal, state and local) is another matter. Collectively, the bureaucracies of this sprawling Leviathan extract and expend over $6 trillion annually. (For a folksy way of explaining that sum to friends and family, see my essay “The Power of Numbers: Simplify! Simplify!”)

Government spending does not capture the reach and power of U.S. bureaucracies. With so much legislative power delegated to administrative agencies, these agencies have become bureaucratic oligarchs. Regulations, unfunded mandates, distributions and preferences for some groups require detailed, complex, and often arbitrary definitions concocted by “public servants” cloaked in anonymity. These mid-level bureaucrats possess the immense power to define and classify. To define a group as eligible for benefits or preferences is to exclude those outside the group of the same treatment. Equal protection of the law goes out the window as individuals or business in government-defined preferential groups benefit from “affirmative discrimination” while those not-so-defined suffer.

Yet, here is the dirty secret of the State: the definitions upon which so many programs and policies are based are at their root LIES. For example: Congress called upon agencies to use objective criteria to determine the definition of a “small business” or a “disadvantaged group”; yet, mid-level bureaucrats simply made the classifications based on prejudice, convenience or a seat-of-the-pants judgment! We live with the consequences of categories that objectively have little or no meaning. To paraphrase a popular TV show title, the administrative state is a “House of Lies.” Challenging the basis of definition is an effective way of demonstrating that “the Emperor (State) has no clothes” when it purports to aid groups that it made out of thin air.

The problem of defining groups is the “problem with no name” in policy circles. I first encountered this fundamental problem when writing a history of the Small Business Administration (Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration, 2001). The agency had tens of billions of dollars to disburse or award annually but first it had to define “small.” [This problem is worldwide—one rather long book discussed the many definitions of “small” enterprise under governments around the world—even in the communist sector! (Hertz, In Search of a Small Business Definition: An Exploration of the Small-business definitions of the U.S., the U.K., Israel and the People's Republic of China, 1982)] Excerpts from my book highlight the dilemma:

“The small business community fell into the category of a large group with conflicting internal interests. What did a ‘Mom-and-Pop’ grocery have in common with a ‘small’ manufacturer employing hundreds of people in a high-tech industry? At what point did a ‘small’ business become a ‘big’ business?” “The public definition of small business encompassed ‘Mom-and-Pop’ firms with fewer than ten employees, yet SBA size standards included companies with hundreds or even thousands of employees because they were ‘small’ within their industry.”

A company once defined as “small” could retain those benefits even if it grew well beyond the size standard. Who was going to check? Being defined as “small” meant the SBA discriminated against those businesses that were not “small.” So, what is a “big” business to do? Purchase or control a “small” firm defined as such by the government. The subsidiary will front for lucrative contracts “set aside” for small business. (Yes, America’s largest corporations engage in this fraud). This isn’t illegal because the SBA doesn’t routinely remove firms from the “small” category

Aye, there is the rub. In a stinging critique of the SBA’s scandalous behavior, The New Republic put forth “TRB’s law of scandals, which holds that the real outrage isn’t what’s illegal: it’s what’s legal.

The SBA was also an early pioneer in defining racial groups that did not exist under statutory law until agency bureaucrats subverted the Civil Rights Act, which demanded no discrimination based on group status. SBA bureaucrats, together with their counterparts at other agencies, set about transforming a nondiscrimination law into a vehicle of government-sponsored discrimination. There is no better demonstration that we are ruled by bureaucrats than this outright contempt for the plain meaning of the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The use of group definitions is most disturbing when it touches upon race, color, creed or national origin. In Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader, 2009), I anthologized the classical liberal struggle for liberty and equality regardless of group status. When Frederick Douglass married a white woman, the Washington Post questioned whether his doing so disrespected “the colored people, who look to you as a leader.” Douglass retorted that his skin color was irrelevant: “I am not an African, as may be seen from my features and hair, and it is equally easy to discern that I am not a Caucasian.” “I conceive that there is no division of races. God Almighty made but one race. . . . You may say that Frederick Douglass considers himself a member of the one race that exists.”

Douglass’s colorblind self-definition epitomized that element of the classical liberal tradition of civil rights—one that even the NAACP held to as late as the 1960s when it rejected all government racial classifications as a step backward toward discrimination.

Yet here we are today with racial classifications that conceal the divisions within the so-called “races.” The SBA ran into this problem in the 1970s. In a rare moment of clarity, someone at the SBA wrote that:

“This principle [of racial classification] could have sweeping implication through the social order. There might also be administrative problems in applying a purely racial or ethnic standard. Would a person who is one-quarter Indian be eligible? One-sixteenth? How is racial background proven? Who is a Spanish-speaking American?”

Who remembers that today’s category of “Hispanic” was preceded by “Spanish-speaking American” and “Spanish-surnamed American”? Do any of these groups have any meaning other than to discriminate for some and against others?

In a recent op-ed, “The Triumph and Trashing of the Civil Rights Act,” I summarized how the revival of racial classifications made possible the division of America into racial blocs.

“This mischief was made possible by the creation of arbitrarily-defined racial categories. The Civil Rights Act did not list any groups by name. Regardless of group status, there was to be no discrimination. Categories such as ‘Negro’ (later Black, African American), Mexican (later Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed and lastly, Hispanic) came after the fact. This process of ‘check boxing’ America began in 1965, when bureaucrats . . . placed racial categories on government forms. Armed with check boxes, bureaucrats, judges and politicians treated individuals differently based on their group status—plainly prohibited by the Civil Rights Act.”

Sadly, the Supreme Court dithers on the issue of whether racial “diversity” practices are constitutional or not. Noting the illogic of racial classification, Justices Scalia and Thomas point out the legal nonsense of courts accepting dubious racial classifications: “Does a half-Latino, half-American Indian have Latino interests, American-Indian interests, both, half of both?” (See my op-ed “Are Some Groups More Equal Than Others?”)

Here is the lie of government classification: definitions that are so vague, broad and absurd (“Spanish-Surnamed?”) beg for mockery. Advocates of liberty need to strike at the root by pointing out the absurdity of classifications underlying so many policies. Arguing about whether the policies are good or bad, help a “group” or not are pointless: if the group doesn’t exist or isn’t worth recognizing, then any further debate is moot!

This rather lengthy post offered two examples of the fallacy and folly of government classification. If “small” business doesn’t exist, then abolish the SBA. If the government can’t define race in a way that captures, in any meaningful sense, the multitude of individuals making up the “group,” then abolish all race-based programs. Restore the Civil Rights Act to that “plain meaning” of no discrimination. Period.

Lastly, this “striking at the root” approach is worth taking in other areas. Time and again, I’ve attended conferences where scholars deliver papers on tax policy. These authors lament that our income tax code isn’t “more progressive.” But what does that mean if the tax code’s definition of money (to be taxed on a nominal basis) is meaningless because it fails to account for huge differences in the real value of the money being taxed? To the IRS, $100,000 income in Carbondale, Illinois is the same as a $100,000 income in San Francisco. In reality, the person in San Francisco has a cost-of-living adjusted income worth $36,700 in Carbondale, IL. Such is the illusion of money earned without reference to its real worth. Ask the “experts” whether the tax code’s inherent inequity ought to be rectified to reflect real income (in purchasing power) and you will get a “deer in the headlight” look.

Everyone” takes for granted what should not be “taken for granted.” “Everyone” knows or accepts the definitions and meanings put forth by a government dressing itself in a cloth of lies and confusion.

Perhaps it is time to be like the small child who pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. That child saw what was plain as day. We “experts” pontificate about the merits or shortcomings of the “clothes” (policies) when, in fact, there are no clothes.

Updates and Accolades

Hello loyal readers. I apologize for being so absent from this blog lately (not that most of you are here for me, but I digress). I’ve been hitchhiking around Colorado and Utah and trying to “suck out all the marrow of life,” as it were. I’ve been busy preparing for graduate school applications, and enjoying the company of my family.

First off, updates. LA Repucci, a guest blogger here at the consortium, has launched a project of his own, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with. Please be sure to support his endeavor.

Second, I’ve been in talks with a number of scholars around the world and am pleased to announce that I suckered a number of them into participating in this experiment with spontaneous order. You may have noticed that the ‘Recommendations‘ section, for example, has been revamped and that the Fundación Instituto David Hume, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is now placed prominently alongside some of the other organizations with which Notewriters are associated with.

This is because Federico Sosa Valle and Eliana Santanatoglia – the founders and most prominent researchers for the institute – will soon be blogging with us, and mostly in Spanish to boot! Federico, if you’ll remember, has actually started already.

I’ve also managed to convince Lucas Freire, who works with Dr van de Haar on libertarianism and International Relations, to begin blogging with us in both English and Portuguese. Be sure to give him a warm, NOL-style welcome when he begins.

You’ve already met Dr Barry Stocker, but in any case here is his official profile page. Be sure to keep those ‘comments’ coming!

I’ve managed to pester two historians into contributing the blog, Andrei Znamenski and Jonathan Bean. Dr Znamenski already made his debut post and you can find out more about him on his profile page. Dr Bean is currently enjoying his summer but you can check out his most recent book, Race and Liberty in America, on the sidebar.

Last but certainly not least is Michelangelo Landgrave, an economics graduate student at Cal-State Long Beach. You can check out his profile page here, and here is some of his work at .Mic and more here at Open Borders. I’m very excited to have him on board.

Our work here at Notes On Liberty has recently been featured at RealClearMarkets and at Reason magazine’s Hit & Run blog. While this is nothing to the authors who were actually featured, Dr Foldvary and Dr Hummel respectively, it is always nice to know that your project – started from scratch – has gained such a prominent readership. We couldn’t have done it without your support and especially your comments. Have a great weekend!

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Pericles and the Funeral Oration

Pericles (495-429 BCE)  was one the most remarkable figures of an age of great figures, that is Golden Age Athens, the time of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in philosophy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, in tragedy, and so on. The building most associated with Golden Age Athens, the Parthenon temple on the Acropolis (sacred hill at the centre of ancient Athens) was commissioned by Pericles. He was a friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras, sponsored tragic performances, and so was a full part of the city life, apart from his political role.

Pericles was an aristocrat descended from powerful figures in Athenian political history, and though he was associated with furthering Athenian democracy, was respected as a personality of admirable character by critics of democracy like Plato and Aristotle. In the ancient context, democracy means direct decision making by citizens gathered at in an assembly, where they make laws and decide on the major state actions of the time.

For the contemporary critics of democracy, Pericles’ excellence as a character enabled him to ameliorate what they saw as the irrationality and short term thinking of the citizen mass, and İt seems to me there is a kind of groping towards the modern understanding of democracy as the best way of getting the best leaders (of the least bad available) into power through a competitive character testing process. The Athenian city state, like other Greek states of the time was small compared with any modern city, so the political process was very personalised.

As I pointed out with regard to Aristotle, the Greek city states, including Athens, were not ideal with regard to equally of rights by modern standards.  A significant part of the population (estimates of the proportion vary) were slaves, or unfree in some way, women had no political rights, and very limited legal rights, and the respect for the right  individuals to be different from, or independent of, majority religious and customary thinking, was very limited by modern standards. However, we have to make some allowance for the times when judging thinkers and give credit to those who made some progress with regard to liberty, however limited they seem by our standards. Our standards came from somewhere and evolved over time, so that we should take some interest and give some respect, with regard to those who something to move thinking in the right direction.

Pericles is different from most people, maybe everyone in this series of posts, because despite his high level of culture he was not a writer, or even a practitioner of philosophical debate like Socrates, who wrote nothing but inspired others to write down what they thought was true to his thought. What we have from Pericles is the record of his life, and most importantly for present purposes, a speech attributed to him by Thucydides (460-395 BCE). That is the historian, usually recorded as the second known historian (in the west) after Herodotus. He was an Athenian aristocrat and army general who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War after being pushed out of his command role. The war concerned was a thirty year war between Athens and Sparta, which like its closest allies was  located in the Peloponnesus land mass south of Athens. The book is unfinished but is still a classic of history, international relations, and military thought, widely read by students and specialists  within those fields. It is a book that should be read by anyone interested in the history of political thought and ideas of liberty, though more because of its importance in adjacent fields rather than its own contribution to political thought.

The exception is the few pages of a speech Pericles apparently made at a funeral of soldiers during the war. We have no way of knowing how far the speech records any words ever uttered by Pericles. Thucydides was and is respected for his commitment to objectivity and reliable evidence, particularly by way of contrast with Herodotus, so it seems plausible that the recorded speech is at least as honest attempt to report what Pericles really thought, given what Thucydides knew about him. The lack of any other record, and the tendency of ancient historians even Thucydides, to report speeches based on what they thought people should have said in certain situations makes it hazardous to presume any further.

Here is a link to the speech. Other versions and postings should be available through an online search for ‘Pericles Funeral Speech’, and the same applies to Thucydides text as a whole.  Anyway, here is a link to the translation by Thomas Hobbes, edited by the nineteenth century English radical William Molesworth, posted at the Online Library of Liberty.

What Pericles (strictly speaking what Thucydides tells us Pericles said, but I will leave that as assumed from now on) argues in his speed is that the fallen soldiers did not just die in the cause of defending their homeland, but an idea of a political system represented by that homeland.  That is, according to Pericles, Athens makes concrete the best principles by which a city can organise itself and people can live together.

Those principles are listed in order to contract Athens with Sparta, in which citizens formed a military aristocracy, and supposedly led an ascetic military life style in every way, according to the strictest morality and with minimal private property. Pericles proclaims that in Athens everyone can share in government  and that no one is excluded from office by poverty. Thought poverty is not shameful failure to struggle to overcome poverty is. Everyone can live their life their own way and respects everyone else’s rights in that regard. The Athenians show courage in war which comes from their determination to defend their way of life, not a life time of brutal military discipline. Their courage is even greater than the Spartans and is based on a life that recognises goods and values other than military courage.

The Athenians are not closed off from the world (an implicit contrast with the apparently autarkic Spartans) and enjoy items imported from all countries. They have wealth, but want to use if for great things not just to be rich for its own sake. Their society includes beauty and variety to such an extent that they are educating all of Greece in such things. The Athenians do not need a Homer to glorify their courage in way, which has its own motivation. The point of the reference to Homer is presumably that the heroes in Homer’s epics are motivated by the glory of war, and the hope of living on in memory and poetry as great warriors. Homer referring of course to the two epic poems attributed to a poet of that name, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in which the idea of war as the means to the greatest possible glory plays a large part. Pericles is presumably saying that the Athenians have more to their lives and the society which they are defending then the desire to achieve status through slaughter in battle. Pericles is still advocating a spirit that might seem brutal to us, in which states celebrate their triumphs over states; as Pericles suggests it is great to be famous for terrible  acts as well as acts of goodness. If we compare Pericles with Homer, we can see some progress.

Pericles of course represented a people of state which turned other Greek states into colonies, and destroyed them if they did not comply, and forced them to pay for its architectural glories, but it is a sad reality that nations in which liberty advanced in some significant respects were often involved at the same time in imperialist and exploitative projects, in which people excluded from moral sympathy and political rights paid a terrible price. We do not need to overlook or excuse the the very considerable faults of Pericles and the ancient Athenians, however, to recognise that they were drawn to ideas which in the course of human history have become applied in universal and inclusive ways.

A brief conclusion to Pericles’ speech endorses one of those inexcusable Athenian attitudes, which is the assumption of women’s inferiority and the desirability of their social invisibility.  A major qualification needs to be made to Pericles’ deplorable remarks. He lived with and had children with one of the remarkable women of his time who was certainly not socially invisible, Aspasia (470-400 BCE). She was from the Greek colony in Miletus, western Anatolia and is known through attacks made upon her at the time. There is a lack of definitive evidence about her life, but it seems definite that she had wealt of her own and paid tax. Additionally, it can at least it can be said that she was used to attack Pericles because she was taken as a woman who was too free in her opinions, and led too public a life in which she displayed her considerable culture and intelligence.  So even in this area where Pericles’ thoughts are disappointing, the status of women, he may have had a personal influence undercutting the words attributed to him.



Is Australia’s Carbon Tax Repeal Really Market Enhancing?

Some libertarians cheer whenever there is any tax repeal. However, we need to distinguish taxes in form versus taxes in substance. Taxes in substance have no relation to a benefit or penalty attached to the payment. Taxes in form, but not in substance, pay funds to the government, but are tied to some benefit or compensation for damages.

It is standard economic theory that the best way to prevent pollution, as with other negative The effects, is to make the polluter, hence also the buyer of its products, pay the social cost of the pollution. The economist Arthur Cecil Pigou provided a thorough explanation in his 1920 book The Economics of Welfare. A tax on pollution has since then been called “Pigovian.”

One of the most discussed Pigovian taxes has been on the use of carbon-based fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil. A “carbon tax” can be on the fuel inputs or on the emission outputs. The most effective Pigovian levy is on the emissions, as that provides an incentive to reduce pollution such as by capturing the carbon before it gets spewed out. If the polluter does not compensate society for dumping on the commons, then in effect it gets subsidized, as it sells its output at less than the total social cost of production.

Many countries have been confronting pollution with inefficient policies such as regulations, credits for offsetting pollution with purchases of forest lands, and permits that can be traded. Australia enacted what was called a “carbon tax” with the Clean Energy Act of 2011, implemented in July 2012. But this was not a Pigovian tax. The Act created a “carbon price mechanism,” a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme that at first set a price per ton of emissions. This mandated price had the effect of a ‘carbon tax’. But after 2015, the mechanism would have transitioned to a trading scheme.

However, in 2013 the newly elected prime minister sought a repeal of the “carbon tax” emissions trading scheme. In 2014, parliament passed the repeal.

The opponents of emissions taxes claim that this increases costs to business and households. This is narrowly true, but policy should consider the total costs to society. The pollution imposes a social cost on Australia and the rest of the world. This is not a cost paid in explicit money, but costs in the form of illness, a less productive environment, and possible effects on the climate.

The opponents of emission levies overlook that the absence of compensation for the pollution costs is in effect a subsidy to the polluters and their customers. A pollution charge is not a tax in substance, but rather the prevention of this subsidy, and compensation for dumping toxic materials on other people’s property.

The repeal did not provide a replacement, and this creates uncertainty for business about any future anti-pollution policy. This policy uncertainty reduces investment and growth.

The best way to implement a pollution tax is as a replacement of other taxes. Taxes in income, sales, and value added impose the excess burden of higher costs and less output and employment. If politicians are concerned with tax costs, why are they not repealing these taxes? When a pollution tax replaces such market-hampering taxes, the total costs paid by consumers does not increase, but rather shifts in favor of less- polluting products.

Actually, the revenue obtained from Australia’s brief carbon tax was used to compensate taxpayers and affected companies. But the most effective policy would have been to have an explicit tax on pollution instead of a trading scheme, and to lower other tax rates, along with a transitional compensation to those with net losses.

Some opponents claim that Pigovian charges would be good if applied globally, but in a single country, would put its industries at a disadvantage. But that would not happen with a “green tax shift,” the replacement of inefficient taxes with a “green tax” on pollution. A green tax shift would reduce the environmental cost of pollution while not increasing the total tax costs for the country’s economy.

Spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed


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