Another Liberty Canon: Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was one of the more influential writers on political thought during the twentieth century. Born in Germany, her political views and Jewish origins (she was also Jewish in identity though not in religion) meant not only that she had to leave Germany after the Nazi takeover, but that she had to escape from Gestapo interrogation. A period in Paris was ended by the 1940 German invasion, which led to another escape from detention, and her final destination of the United States. She was able draw on this direct experience of totalitarianism and antisemitism to write The Origins of Totalitarianism, one of the classic works on this topic, which also considers the role of political anti-Semitism, as distinct from older religious prejudice, in the formation of the modern phenomenon of totalitarianism.

Arendt reached beyond an academic and scholarly audience in her most widely ready book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, based on her journalistic reporting on the trial of one of the major administrators of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Though the book did much to draw attention to the extreme horror of  Holocaust, and and its history, which strange as it might seem now was not the object of a great deal of public or scholarly discussion in the immediate postwar period, also led Arendt into a morass of angry criticism and even hatred, in part for supposedly trivialising Eichmann’s criminality. However, the point of referring to the ‘banality of evil’ was not to say that the Holocaust was trivial, or to deny Eichmann’s criminality, but to suggest that as a person he was more of a small minded conformist than a grandiose anti-hero of apocalyptic evil.

From the point of view of Arendt’s work in political theory, her writing on the Holocaust and totalitarianism, contributed to her understanding of modern politics in its darkest possibilities, which were distinct from older forms of tyranny. That understanding itself drew on the breadth of her historical approach, including literary and cultural interest, which went back to the Ancient Greek beginnings of western political thought. Her understanding also included the ethical and religious thought of late antiquity, as can be seen in her doctoral dissertation, Love and Saint Augustine. She had a general appreciation of the whole of human life, with regard to consciousness and action, which is behind The Life of the Mind and can be found in some of her political theory, most obviously The Human Condition.

Arendt’s interest and appreciation of ancient politics, particularly the democracy of city state Athens,  sometimes leads to her being labelled a nostalgic and a believer in anti-individiualistic integrated communities. This can only be a parody though, Arendt thought that there might be some things to learn about modern politics through comparison with antiquity, but she did not advocate a return, and her interest in antiquity was in those communities like Athens and the Roman Republic, where we can see individualism growing and a decline in community based on adherence to tradition and to communal assumptions.

Arendt thought that the Athenians had achieved liberty of a significant kind for the aristocracy, and to some degree for the lower classes, on a real but limited basis in which some had the leisure to think and argue about the rules and laws of the city state. That form of library rested on ‘heroic’ and patriarchal values according to which the home and family are the place of economic production and therefore the place of necessity.

Liberty was understood with reference to the tradition of  heroes going to war or to a more recently evolved habit of widespread public free speech about public affairs. Arendt did not argue for this as the all time ideal, but as a moment with some ideal aspects, which was bound to fail. Partly it failed because law was understood as custom and communal obligation, rather than as concerned with contracts between free individuals.  In her historical analysis, the Romans made progress on the legal front, because they saw  that law can and should evolve with regard to the best ways of grounding freely chosen contracts,  while also failing to maintain political liberty as the republic gave way to Imperial autocracy

Arendt emphasised that the Roman model inspired modern movements for liberty, particularly the French and American Revolutions (the comparison is made in On Revolution). Though she wrote about the motives and early actions of French revolutionaries with great sympathy, she pointed out that it had all ended in revolutionary terror and then country-revolutionary autocracy, so that the American Revolution had created a better model, as shown in the long lasting nature of the Constitution. She both respected that achievement and pointed out that it rested on assumptions about the dominance of a land owning class, so that it could not in itself provide all the answers for modern liberty, even it established an enduring framework, which survived major shifts in the location of economic wealth and the sources of political power.

For Arendt, the modern capitalist world undermined the idea of a strict separation between a private realm of economic production, based on family ownership and use of land, as economic activity became what happened in factories and other enterprises, with regard to national and world markets. The social-cultural result was an undermining of the antique assumption that intellectual life is superior to, and dominant over, physical activity and economic life. It also  resulted in states that seemed more remote from traditional forms of allegiance and everyday customs, because the state became increasingly something concerned with legislative and administrative activity that aimed to enable production and trade, so for the first time establishing the state as something that aims to constantly elevate material wealth and ‘national welfare’. Arendt, in this way, argues that commercial society tends to create its own statist reaction.

Arendt equivocated to some degree about whether capitalism was to be preferred to socialism, but in political writing emphasised enhancing individuality and a spirit of competition and that can only be seen as directed against the expanding administrative state, particularly as she argued for more separation between political questions and social welfare questions. She looked for ways in which modern political participation could focus on the best parts of the antique legacy: public speech focused on the conditions of liberty rather than on expanding state activity, contests for esteem in the public sphere rather than levelling down egalitarianism.  Perhaps her equivocation about socialism can be seen as leaving the way open for ‘socialism’ as defined by left libertarians, markets without a state that promotes politically inspired concentrations of wealth and power. She was certainly a prominent critic of Soviet style state socialism.

Arendt had a grasp based in rather classically oriented political theory, of how capitalism tends to produce statist reactions to itself, which parallels the more political economy and economics oriented work of Austrian economics and Virginia Public Choice theory on  the rise of the administrative state and rent seeking.  Together with her interests in how to avoid antique tyranny and modern totalitarianism, this makes her a great twentieth century pro-liberty voice, particularly for those interested in the historical, psychological, moral, and literary aspects of political thinking.

All of Arendt’s major contributions to political thought are mentioned above. A good starting point for those new to Arendt might be the essays collected in Between Past and Future or The Promise of Politics

Entendiendo la inmigración a los Estados Unidos

El día de hoy murieron una o dos personas intentando cruzar la frontera entre México y Estados Unidos. El número de fallecidos es, sin embargo, ignorado pues la mayoría de la información existente sobre la situación migratoria en el sur de Estados Unidos se encuentra oculta por un manto de ignorancia y desinterés político crónico que ha desgastado los incentivos para discutir y explorar el tema migratorio.

Los datos provistos por el gobierno de los Estados Unidos de América son, sin embargo, alarmantes. Desde octubre, 2013 hasta junio de este año más de 52,000 niños sin acompañantes alcanzaron la fronteras superando en un 200% la cantidad reportada por el gobierno el año anterior.  Se espera que en el año 2014 más de 70,000 niños intentaran cruzar la frontera.

Tres niñas en vestido de quinceañeras juegan en Tijuana al lado del muro de la frontera México-USA. Fotografía: Romel Jacinto. Flickr. CC.
Tres niñas en vestido de quinceañeras juegan en Tijuana al lado del muro de la frontera México-USA.
Fotografía: Romel Jacinto. Flickr. CC.

La crisis aumentó cuando las imágenes de niños en campos de deportación empezaron a ser compartidas en las redes noticiosas y redes sociales. El gobierno de Barack Obama (quien ganó el premio Nobel de la Paz en el año 2009) reaccionó solicitando al Congreso de los Estados Unidos la cantidad de US$3,700 millones para empezar a responder a la emergencia humanitaria. El plan, en general, es una campaña cortoplacista que busca apaciguar las aguas en espera de que los medios de comunicación se interesen por otros temas.

En los países centroamericanos (la región de donde provienen la mayoría de estos niños) los gobiernos también reaccionaron rápidamente solicitando recursos económicos para financiar campañas de ‘educación’ y ‘concientización’ sobre las amenazas que representa realizar el viaje de alrededor de 2,000 millas. Estos gobiernos también reaccionan en espera de que la atención de este urgente problema se desvíe hacia los otros problemas cotidianos de seguridad, hambre, corrupción, insalubridad y pobreza que afectan la región.

La única solución para frenar esta crisis humanitaria, sin embargo, está muy lejos o es prácticamente imposible de conseguir si las condiciones globales actuales no cambian. Además, la solución a la situación migratoria requerirá que acciones legales, económicas y sociales sean tomadas en los países de Estados Unidos, México y Centro América para encontrar respuestas a largo plazo en estos países. De no hacerse nada, la actual situación migratoria continuará sin solucionarse de la misma manera en que la Guerra contra las Drogas continúa año con año aumentando.

Actualmente, la reforma migratoria no será discutida en el Congreso de los Estados Unidos de América y las acciones necesarias para atacar el flujo originario de inmigrantes indocumentados en los países de origen implican un reto dantesco. Los migrantes centroamericanos viajan al norte en busca de empleos y escapando de la violencia en la que fue inmersa el Istmo Centroamericano desde finales del siglo XX por el crecimiento del crimen organizado, las mafias del narcotráfico y la incapacidad de los gobiernos por afrontar los cambios globales fomentando un desarrollo económico sostenible para responder a las demandas de la economía mundial.

A pesar de la firma de un tratado de comercio regulado entre Estados Unidos y Centroamérica en el año 2005 conocido como DR-CAFTA, los países centroamericanos han sido incapaces de aprovechar las ventajas competitivas del tratado y los beneficios han sido para tan solo algunos sectores económicos.

Inmigrantes hondureños y salvadoreños que cruzaron la frontera entre Mexico-USA detenidos en Tejas.  Fotografía: Eric Gay/AP
Inmigrantes hondureños y salvadoreños que cruzaron la frontera entre Mexico-USA detenidos en Tejas.
Fotografía: Eric Gay/AP

Pero no crea estimado lector que la batalla está totalmente perdida para las miles de personas que buscan mejorar sus condiciones de vida mediante la migración forzosa de la que son víctimas. A continuación les comparto algunos estudios y ensayos que analizan el tema y profundizan en la compleja situación migratoria que enfrenta el continente americano. Al final del día, es solo educándonos y compartiendo el conocimiento adquirido que podremos contribuir a la búsqueda de soluciones a este tema migratorio que hasta el día de hoy ha sido detenido por una filosofía política inmoral y inhumana.



The European Union Needs More States, Not More Territory

The recent uproar over the upcoming vote on the potential secession of Scotland from Great Britain illustrates well the European Union’s foreign policy weaknesses. The EU’s potential to increase the number of states within its borders without having to expand its geographic space is an overlooked avenue to reaching a bolder, more sophisticated foreign policy.

Regional aspirations for more political autonomy have been voiced since the time of the creation of Germany and Italy in the late 19th century, but wars, nationalism, economic concerns, and fear of wars have largely kept these aspirations on the fringe of domestic political debates in Europe.

Steven Erlanger’s 2012 piece in the New York Times explains well why this is changing and what is currently happening in the European Union:

The great paradox of the European Union, which is built on the concept of shared sovereignty, is that it lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence.

Erlanger also goes on to quote a scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations:

‘The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing,’ said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. ‘They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.’

The European Union has essentially taken the place of the nation-state as the chief entity in charge of standardizing trading policies in Europe. This political setup is a great opportunity for regions that have been absorbed into larger nation-states to assert more fiscal and political independence because of these regions’ new interdependence with a larger part of the European economy. The confederation has provided an opportunity for smaller states to emerge while at the same time providing these small state polities with a range of options and allies that are often missing from small states’ repertoires. The best of both worlds has a chance to flower: local governance and total participation in world trade.

This is better understood with a quick historical sketch of 19th and 20th century Europe in mind.

In the last decades of the 19th century the large nation-states of central Europe – Germany and Italy – had just been formed after centuries of being composed of hundreds of small polities. These small polities were parochial, and many of these polities’ elite factions had erected protectionist barriers around their small territories. These newly established nation-states were flanked on their eastern borders by cosmopolitan-but-despotic empires operating from Vienna, Moscow and Istanbul, and to the south were small Muslim polities haphazardly connected to the Ottoman Empire and economically dependent on Mediterranean piracy and Saharan trade routes. To the north and west: oceans and the seafaring, imperial regimes of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France.

A map of Europe in 1800 AD. Look at how many polities are in what is now Germany and Italy. Thanks goes to

The formation of these larger nation-states were undertaken, generally speaking, in order to unify territories considered to be connected under various broad cultural domains into a cohesive political units and mercantile trading blocs.

After Germany and Italy achieved political unification, programs geared towards creating economic spheres of influence within the territory of the new nation-states began to be implemented. The creation of nation-states in central Europe had the contradictory result of opening up free trade zones within the territories of nation-states while simultaneously erecting new trading barriers that targeted individuals and factions not connected with the new nation-states. Free trade won in the domestic arena of these new states, but it also lost out internationally.

The political unification of these nation-states did not go down well with a myriad of factions. The reasons for resistance were varied, but suffice it to say that there was an intense backlash against the centralization of power and the nationalization of everyday life in the new nation-states of central Europe.

To counter regional resistance, proponents of political centralization argued that political union halted the wars that had wracked Europe for centuries (the economic benefits of freer trade were touted as well, but this argument did not have the same clout as it does today). However, this intellectual argument was framed in nationalistic terms, so when it trickled down into the public sphere of European life what emerged was a solid case against regional fracture that involved one part peace and one part national chauvinism.

The end result of this was the destruction of Europe through two large-scale, horrific wars.

The European Union has succeeded where the nation-states of Germany and Italy failed: by creating a massive free trade zone that eliminates protectionism (as the German and Italian nation-states did), and the necessity of cultural chauvinism (“nationalism”)  to maintain legitimacy (which the German and Italian nation-states could not do), the European Union has provided Europe with an incredible opportunity to build a lasting peace.

Adopting a requirement for member states  to incorporate a constitutional option that allows for referendums on secession would be a bold move that would not only bring a higher level of sophistication to EU foreign policy, but also fluster Moscow without edging closer to its borders (think about the example this would set in Russia’s own self-styled federation).

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Deviant Tendency: An inside look at the politics of Iran

[Editor's note: the following is a short essay by Payam Ghorbanian. Payam was born in Tehran, Iran. He got his bachelor of science in Engineering from Zanjan University in Zanjan, Iran. He has been participating in liberal political activities and he was involved with some think tanks in Iran. He is doing research in the field of international relations and Iran's foreign policy as an independent activist. He is now living in San Jose, California.

I am excited to post his thoughts because of their potential as a conduit for intercultural dialogue and exchange. I have left his essay largely intact, but did break up some of his longer paragraphs for clarity's sake. Thanks to Payam for taking the time to write this, and you can find his other essay at Notes On Liberty here, here, and here]

Last month was kind of exciting for me. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s brother said “… my brother has gotten rid of his deviant friends…”. The term “Deviant Tendency” has been using in Iran for calling Mr. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei and his followers. Mr. Mashaei had been represented by Ahmadinejad for being the next president of Iran but the Guardian Council of the Constitution turned that willing down. Therefore Ahmadinejad left his office while he was so disappointed and at that time he said that the council has just deprived Iran of having a distinguished president. Although with “Approbation Supervision”, which implies the right for acceptance or rejection of elections legality and candidate’s competency, probably just the supreme leader and his followers can be qualified through the barrier of the Guardian Council.

I do not really care about this rumor whether or not Ahmadinejad and Mashaei are separated, the issue would be what Mr Mashaei’s political and social views are and what it is wrong with that. Also why the supreme leader and his followers do not like him? Why they tried to make him isolated even though he has no official title? As you might know during the second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Mashaei was the chief of staff of the president of Iran. But why are they still scared of him? I should mention this that from my point of view, I am 100 percent sure that they (Ahmadinejad and Mashaei) just made this ending relations story up to have this chance for getting qualified for the next presidency election. But why are the supreme leader’s followers so excited of hearing that rumor? Apparently they still like Ahmadinejad but just him and as they said there would not be another chance for the combination of Ahmadinejad plus Mashaei to survive.

Now pay attention to these quotes:

“The area of Islamism has come to end, we had an Islamic revolution in 1979 but the area of Islamism is finished”


“Today, Iran is friend with American and Israeli people, No nation in the world is our enemy.”

These sentences and quotes have been told by the nearest person to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is Mr. Rahim Mashaei. Obviously one could talk about these ideas in the free world and no one is going to be prosecuted because of that. However, talking about ending of Islamism inside a revolutionary country like Iran would be insane. I believe these types of moderation comments about Islam and also talking about people of Israel and United States not to be enemy of the Iranian people were all about politics, and Mr. Mashaei did not believe in what he said. But what were his points at that time?

It was the time that Green Movement and protestors confronted against rigged election. I would say Mashaei did all these things to reduce pressures over Ahmadinejad and in order to deceiving and poisoning the people’s mind, those people of the middle class who desperately believe in the new relations between Iran and the free world. Also I believe Mashaei did all these things to be a target instead of AhmadiNejad, which is literally about what old friends do for each other.

In Iran and especially in Shia beliefs of Islam, an ultimate savior of humankind and the final Imam of the twelve Imams will emerge with Jesus Christ and will set the kingdom of heaven on the earth to bring peace and justice to the world. It is the belief that the twelfth Imam disappeared hundreds of years ago and went into occultation state, but he will definitely re-appear around the end of the world, before the Day of Judgment. Before the Islamic revolution in Iran and probably before uprising of Ayatollah Khomein, there was a common trend that Shia would wait up until its survivor comes back. However, Khomeini argued that government should be run with traditional Islamic rules and for this to happen a leading Islamic jurist must provide “Guardianship” and as he said “Wilayat” over the people. This guardianship would be remained till the Twelfth Imam returns.

At that time this theory was accepted by the revolutionists and as the result of that, the last king of Iran felt down and “Wilayat AL Faqih” (guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) popped up. The terms of your majesty were destroyed and the Imam and the Wilayat was established and then the supreme leader was considered as the twelfth Imam’s deputy, which means that his orders are the lord’s orders and any questions or criticizes would be called as hostility against the twelfth Imam. This chart will help you out to understand more clearly about the hierarchy of Imams in Shia.

When I was living in Iran I always heard some rumors about the distinguished people who they or their followers believe that they are in connection with the twelfth Imam. They claim they can talk to him in person and get orders from him without any problem. Probably in the past they could take advantage of people’s stupidities. However, they had never been accepted by the politicians inside Iran before Ahmadinejad’s presidency started. Now you can tell why they have been called as Deviant Tendency. Mashaei claimed that he could talk to the twelfth Imam in person and he believed that when we can have access to the real source, why we should follow his deputy, who does not have any confirmation from the real lord.

chart of persian imams

Before Mashaei tried to extend his theory, the revolutionary guard crippled all of his ambitions subsequently. His followers were arrested and he was about to get caught too but it seemed that Ahmadinejad was completely in agreement with what he was saying. Ahmadinejad tried to protect Mashaei but as you know he lost the protection of the supreme leader. As a result, his authority dropped considerably. He got teased and he lost his connections and finally he got kicked out of the power circle and all of these were about his friendship with Mashaei, which he truly believed in him.

And now the new game has just started. First it was announced by Ahmadinejad’s brother that there would not be any connection between his brother and the deviant tendency. Then Ahmadinejad had a speech in Mashahd, one of the most religious cities in Iran where the 8th Imam of Shia has been buried, and he said:

“… the only way to overcome the enemies of the nation is standing on the value of our goals in the same way that Khomeini has showed us. I would totally remain on that way to serve the nation and revolution and its values and principles.”

He also tried to imply on revolution principles, the principles that revolutionists believe has been neglected after Rohani became a president.

Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche

The political interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a constantly fraught issue . Amongst other things he has been taken as an anti- or non-political thinker and as responsible for the worst aspects of German politics in the twentieth century. However, that latter view is  not taken supported by any Nietzsche scholars.

The reasons for that include his opposition to the anti-Semites of his time (after a youthful leaning in that direction with regard culture rather than race) and his opposition to the militarist-statist-nationalist  aspects of Prussian and German politics in his time, again after early leanings towards culturally oriented nationalism. The tendency to put culture above the state and and take it as something of a replacement for politics was constant.

The anti-politics is itself not incompatible with some kinds of libertarian and classical liberal thinking, though in Nietzsche’s case it goes along with a constant inclination to talk about power, the state, and other politically charged issues. He was stateless for most of adult life, as he had to renounce Prussian citizenship to  take up a Professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1869, not long before the King of Prussia became the Emperor of a newly unified Germany, dominated by Prussia. Nietzsche himself was in any case from a part of Saxony, annexed by Prussia early in the nineteenth century.

In any case, Nietzsche did not present himself as a Saxon or a Prussian after leaving Germany and only lived in Germany after after 1889, when he was incapacitated by paralysis, now generally believed to the the result of a brain tumour, and was looked after by his mother and sister.  Nietzsche did not have any citizenship after moving to Basel and though it was easier to travel round Europe in those days  without a state issued passport, it is still a remarkable position.

Nietzsche was not completely free of racist assumptions, but hardly to a degree at all unusual for his time, and he did not see race as a suitable basis for analysing the Europe of his time, since he though races had become completely mingled in antiquity. He was inclined towards various forms of elitism, sometimes in a quite extreme way as when he claimed admiration for the Indian caste system, though in a very brief provocative  way.

On the whole his elitism was devoted towards the self-creation of an individuality of great strength, great plural possibilities and the capacity to unify those possibilities in creation and in a creatively lived life. He had anxieties about mass culture and the rise of democracy, but there is not much to separate his substantive concerns from the general concerns of liberals of the nineteenth century, as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and democratic mediocrity in culture in Democracy in America.

Nietzsche is sometimes referred to as the definitive anti-liberal, but a lot of this rests on associating liberalism with egalitarian (i.e. left, progressivist) liberalism. If we look at the classical liberals from Locke to Mill (who is a bit transitional between the two broad liberal approaches), we of course see that egalitarianism at least with regard to distribution of income and property, is not a central goal. There is growing interest in expanding legal and political equality beyond an aristocratic elite to the population as a whole, and criticism of aristocratic, monarchical, guild, and merchant-financial wealth where linked to political-monopolistic-protectionist privileges.

Nietzsche regards threats to personal, intellectual and cultural excellence as a possible outcome of democracy, but is also critical of the traditional state, referring to it sometimes as monstrous, and allows for the possibility of it becoming much reduced through transferring functions to the private economy. He was concerned what liberalism might betray liberty by building institutions which constrain the original liberal ideas. So he was not a complete critic of liberalism, but rather sets out ideals of  self-development and individual flouring which are likely to be constrained by the state.

Though he mentions the possibility of replacing state functions with private economic activity, he was critical of commercial spirit. He feared that  commercial orientation tends to reduce individual capacities, because of the ways in which it leads to individuals concerning themselves with the wants of other individuals. For most pro-liberty people, this is Nietzsche accurately identifying something good about capitalism and then rejecting it, which does at least leave Nietzsche as a good analyst.

Beyond this  though, Nietzsche who never advocates a socialist economy or a return to pre-capitalist economics, is doing something similar to his criticism of liberal political institutions. He is showing that liberal commercial society both sets up an ideal of strong individuality, which it needs and then undermines it through the constraints of economic life. So the reason for a critical attitude towards capitalism is recognition of the tension between the kind of individuality produced by earlier societies which revolves around struggling with nature for survival and often wars with other states, and the kind of individuality produced by working to provide more than the mere means of survival for others in societies based round rising economic prosperity.

This tension was recognised by classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Nietzsche takes further the concern that individualism requires an individual self-directed struggle for increased physical and psychological capacities, and that the culture of commercial society produces an economic elite that seems hardly distinguished from the mass in its personal style and culture, so fails to provide any example of greatness and excellence in these respects.

A classical style liberal of the twentieth century Joseph Schumpeter (most famous as author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942) argued that individualistic capitalism tends to undermine itself through the creation of corporate bureaucracies, where commercial constraints may become separate from much decision making, and where individual creativity is stifled. Many liberty oriented thinkers have noted the tendency of capitalists to undermine capitalism by seeking a privileged relation with the state, so accepting the mediocrity of state imposed uniformity.

Nietzsche was hyperbolic and expression and little informed about economics, but the hyperbole has a precise aim in drawing our attention to problems, and Nietzsche’s cultural capacities (including a strong interest in natural sciences) made him sensitive to some features of capitalist and democratic societies, which need to be counteracted if excellence is to flourish.

If one thinks that liberty merely, only, and purely means lack of state constraint, Nietzsche’s thoughts may not seem so meaningful. However, if we see liberty as including not only restraints on state power, but the value of individual pursuit of excellence for its own sake and to produce individuals who are not conformist and state centred, then Nietzsche must be one of the great thinkers about liberty.

As with Kierkegaard, it is difficult to recommend a single major Nietzsche text on political thought. On the Genealogy of Morality tends to be the starting point for discussion of his political ideas, but covers many other topics, and Human, All Too Human contains his thoughts on the possibility of a reduced state in a commercial society. Untimely MeditationsDawnThus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the IdolsThe Anti-Christ, Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, and The Gay Science are the other books of Nietzsche, and all contain passages discussed  by commentators on Nietzsche and politics.

From the Comments: Has the deontological puzzle been solved?

Dr Fred Foldvary (yes, THE Fred Foldvary, the one who predicted the 2008 crash in 1998writes:

It is not clear what the policy consequences are regarding those who lose out due to competition. If we are free to choose our friends, there will be losers who lose someone’s friendship. Should we be forced to stay friends with those we no longer like? If not, then such a loss has no policy implication. Such incidental injuries have less damaging consequences than a law that prohibits ending a friendship. Thus the deontological and consequential effects are complements: Likewise, the consequences of prohibiting economic competition are worse than the losses due to competition. And entrepreneurs should know that the system is a profit and loss system, and anyone in business is vulnerable to losses. The losses due to competition are not torts and they are not coercive harms. They are injuries not deliberately inflicted but incidental to individuals and firms pursuing their happiness.

This is in response to my short post on the ethical divide within libertarianism between deontologists and consequentialists. I don’t think there is too much that we disagree on here; Indeed, it seems as if we are complimenting each other quite nicely (if I do say so myself!).

My one quibble is more of a question than a quibble: Although we cannot predict who will lose out to competition in markets, shouldn’t we be able to make some solid inferences? For example, if the US and Europe were to abolish subsidies to farmers and open up their markets to foreign competition, it stands safe to reason that Western farmers will lose out, at least in the short-run.

The logic behind Dr Foldvary’s comment is relatively clear: abolish protectionist subsidies (which are aggressive legislative acts perpetrated against Western consumers and foreign farmers) and this paves the way for non-aggression. Not only is this logic clear, it is irrefutable. It also shows how deontology and consequentialism are complimentary. However, logic and facts are not very useful when it comes to persuading the public. Philosophically this argument makes perfect sense, and politically and rhetorically Dr Foldvary makes it work, but in the general public sphere (especially the internet) the appeal to deontology has earmarked liberalization for disaster.

I suppose, if we follow Jacob Huebert’s line of reasoning, that the politics and the rhetoric of our ideas should not matter, but on the other hand we live in a world where even in the West libertarians have become a minority. The world will continue to liberalize as long as libertarians continue to be as lucid as Dr Foldvary, but I fear that men of his caliber are in very short supply today.

Are drugs actually bad for you?

There are a lot of psychedelic substances coming out of tribal cultures and we’re finding them to be of immense benefit for mental health issues in the West.

This is from an interview with Scottish filmmaker David Graham Scott conducted by Chem Squier for Vice. The whole interview is worth reading, and it is about using psychedelics to wean people off of opiates (pharmaceutical and illicit). One of the things that bothers me about proponents of drug liberalization is the phrase “We all know drug use is harmful, but…” because it’s not necessarily true that “drug use is harmful.”

Drug use can lead to addiction, but this is not the same thing as drug use is harmful. In fact, echoing Audrey’s recent post on heroin markets, I would argue that the War on Drugs actually creates the dangers associated with drug use. This is so because the base product that illicit drugs are made from is very different from the product that appears on the streets (or in the pharmacy), and the product that hits the streets is different from the initial base product because of the initial product’s illegality.

Slow down Brandon. Let me see if I can rephrase that last sentence. Drugs are made of plants. Drugs in their final street form are not usually consumed in their natural plant form because drug manufacturers have an incentive to alter the plant to avoid detection by government authorities.

Does this make sense? So cocaine, for example, is snorted in a powder form because it is illegal, not because drug manufacturers are trying to get more people hooked on their product.

Drugs have been with us since we first became human beings. So-called “tribal” peoples have continued to show us this through their long-running practices associated with psychedelics and opiates (and cannabinoids for that matter). In fact, there is some archaeological evidence that drugs were with other humanoids long before we homo sapiens were even around. Aside from the fact that “tribal” peoples still have a lot to teach us about ourselves and about the world in general, their drug use habits also show that there is a distinct, legitimate place in society for the use of drugs. Passing legislation to punish this long-held practice will only make life worse for everybody in society (it is important to note that addicts and recreational drug users are not the only ones affected by the War on Drugs).

Think about coffee. Coffee is essentially an addictive product of a plant that may, in the years to come, be recognized as such. Remember that cocaine was consumed in much the same way coffee was a hundred years ago. Should coffee be outlawed by government?

Lastly, addiction rates have hovered around 2% of a given population since data on vices have been available (the early to mid 19th century). This trend has continued to the present day. The only difference between then and now is that drug markets and drug use have become much more dangerous because of government laws that pretentiously state individuals should not consume a product government agents (drugs users themselves, no doubt) think is bad for society. (h/t Ben Huh?)

Immigrant Children Victims of Drug War

Thousands of children are entering the US to escape threats by drug gangs and drug lords. The US has for many years exported its war on drug users to Mexico. The increasing force applied in Mexico has driven the drug dealers to Central America, and now the governments of those countries are being increasingly corrupted and destabilized.

Anti-immigrant voices in the USA are obsessed with the effects of their policies, the child migrants, and seek to strengthen immigration barriers rather than confront the causes. The children are not coming to the USA to take advantage of welfare aid. They are fleeing from physical danger.

The drug gangs in Central America are forcing teenagers to join them, or else get killed. That is how they recruit new members. That is why children are fleeing.

US immigration policy contributes to the problem. With legal immigration restricted, and paths to legal residency blocked, immigrants are forced to work in the underground economy, where they are vulnerable to being arrested by the immigration authorities. The undocumented persons then become victims of extortion rackets. Traffickers tell parents that their children left behind in the home country are in danger, and demand money to bring them into the USA. But often the children are abandoned in the desert or used to carry drugs.

The US government is telling the Mexican government to do more to stop children from entering Mexico. But when a child’s parents have been killed in the drug war, and the children are threatened with death, they will swim across rivers, trek through jungles, and cross deserts to save their lives. The US government is committing policy child abuse by refusing to remedy the causes.

Now US government officials are offering the Central American governments aid to programs to keep children in their home country. But until the violence stops, children will not stay in a school where the drug gangs will kill them or make them miserable.

The only way to stop this tragedy is to end the war on drug users and to legalize immigration. Children are not being victimized in the production and sale of alcohol, because it is legal. When a substance is legal, there is a competitive market, and profits are competed down to normal. There is advertizing, and goods can be transported and traded at normal costs.

When a substance is illegal, we get turf wars and coerced children. The criminal systems treat minors with special care, especially when they have been forced to help criminals. Therefore, the drug lords use helpless children, who are also more dependent on adults.

Besides decriminalizing drugs, as Portugal has done successfully, the US should legalize the immigration of all persons who are not threats. US policy has created violence in Latin America, and then the US refuses entry to the victims of that violence.

Critics of immigration claim that the new residents take jobs from American citizens. This claim has been disproved by economic studies. But immigrants would be even less dependent on governmental welfare if labor were fully legalized. It is illegal even for American citizens to freely engage in labor in the USA; the penalty for labor is a levy on the wages earned. When labor is fully legal, it is free of any tax or minimum wage law. A tax on wages has an excess burden or deadweight loss, making it a penalty for working.

In this way, three deeply unjust policies have created the crisis of immigrant children. First, the prohibition of drugs drives the industry towards drug lords and gangs that enslave children, who seek escape by emigrating. Secondly, anti-immigration policies make children have to suffer long and dangerous trips without protection, to evade immigration controls, and risk getting deported. Third, the children are not allowed to work, work opportunities for undocumented adults are limited, and legal labor is suppressed with heavy taxes.

One hundred years ago, prior to World War I, the US did not suffer this inflow of children. The causes were absent. There was no war on drugs, there were no immigration barriers, and there was no tax on wages. Millions of immigrants entered legally, became employed, and contributed to American prosperity. Now we have a declining labor participation rate, drug violence, and a big immigration problem. Our technology is better, but smarter phones will not save us from fundamentally bad government policy.

Increased/Deadly Potency in Heroin Markets due to Fentanyl

The Boston Globe put out a piece yesterday entitled “DEA details path of deadly heroin blend to N.E.: Potent painkiller fentanyl believed added in Mexico.”

This headline could not be more representative of the problems Dr. Mark Thornton mentions in his book The Economics of Prohibition. To summarize Thornton:

“Prohibition statutes generally consist of three parts. First, to be illegal, products must contain a minimum amount of a certain drug… Second, penalties are generally levied on the basis of weight… Finally, penalties are established for production, distribution, and possession. The prohibition statutes consistently define the product in terms of minimum potency (without constraining the maximum). Also, the heavier the shipment, the more severe the penalty.” (Thornton, 1991, p. 96).

Therefore distributors and traffickers (the Mexican drug cartels moving the heroin that originated in Colombia to the U.S.) have every incentive, in order to avoid detection but keep revenue high, to increase the potency of the drugs they are moving such that they can move the same value of heroin but in a smaller quantity. This is what we see currently happening with Mexican cartels mixing heroin with fentanyl.

From the Boston Globe article, “Ruthless drug organizations are including fentanyl, an opioid 30 times more powerful than heroin, to provide a new, extreme high for addicts who often are unaware the synthetic painkiller has been added.” The final point of this quote is critical. There is a huge information asymmetry between traffickers and the end consumer. Because drugs often change many hands before they reach the final user, quality standards are hard to track and verify. Furthermore, end users have minimal recourse to deal with issues of product contamination or inferior quality. They cannot sue their dealer. They cannot take anyone to court. Therefore, as a direct result of the illegal status of heroin trade, consumers have very few rights and outlets to verify that their product contains what they were expecting. While many people want to point out the Mexican cartels as the villains (and they may very well be on other margins like the relentless killing that is going on as we speak) in this scenario, these cartels are only responding to the incentives set in front of them. If we want to take issue with anyone, we need to look at the laws that have been in place since 1924, and even back to 1914. Since then, these laws have only gotten more restrictive and deadlier to everyone involved in illicit drug trade.

Ed Lazear’s WSJ op-ed on California’s water problems

Ed Lazear had an outstanding op-ed, “Government Dries Up California’s Water Supply,” in the June 26 Wall Street Journal

It brings me back to 1982, when I first moved to California from Texas. Less Antman had the California Libertarian Party hire me as research director, and one of the biggest political issues at the time was water. The fight was over a ballot initiative authorizing construction of a Peripheral Canal around the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta to divert more water to Central Valley farmers and southern California. It would have been an enormous, expensive boondoggle that united environmentalist and libertarians in opposition. I ended up not only writing but speaking before all sorts of audiences about the issue. My studies made me quite familiar with the socialist bureaucracy, much of unelected with taxing power, which manages California’s feudalistic water system, severely mispricing and misallocating water.

Fortunately, the Peripheral Canal went down to defeat. But little was done to reform California’s water system, and Lazear provides an excellent survey of the myriad drawbacks still plaguing it today. His solution: “Rather than praying for rain, we should get government out of the water-allocation business.” One noteworthy detail he doesn’t mention is that even in non-drought years, because the system encourages overuse of water, the Central Valley’s ground water continues to get depleted. This ensures that each subsequent drought will generate ever more serious problems. Worst of all, one solution being pushed during the current drought is a jazzed up version of the Peripheral Canal.

HT: Corrie Foos

Around the Web

  1. Stiglitz and Toward a Theory of the Rent-Seeking Society
  2. The Truth About Our Libertarian Age; Straw men like this explain why libertarianism will continue to grow stronger.
  3. The Return of Karl Polanyi; Another article full of straw. See if you can spot the piles.
  4. What is the optimal number of immigrants to allow into the US? This is as close to a libertarian answer as you can get.
  5. Hayek and the Intellectuals

Surowiecki on Intellectual Piracy

James Surowiecki had an excellent article in the June 9 issue of the New Yorker about countries committing intellectual piracy. It includes a nice summary of how “stealing” patented ideas played a major role in the early economic development of the United States. In the process, it surveys some of the considerable historical evidence debunking the widespread myth that intellectual property is necessary for, or even makes a contribution to, economic growth.

Deontology versus Consequentialism: The Great Libertarian Divide

I am not a philosopher. In fact, the two courses I took on philosophy in college (Honors courses on ancient Greek ethics and modern ethics) were the two courses where I received my lowest grades ever in college (B+’s). Nevertheless, I have been thinking about the great divide within libertarianism regarding the concept of ‘rights’.

I don’t want to delve into the concept of ‘rights’ here, largely because I have only a superficial understanding of the notion, but for the sake of non-libertarian readers I’d like to briefly explain that, within libertarianism, there is an argument about whether or not deontological ethics (wiki) or consequential ethics (wiki) is the proper framework with which to analyze the world.

Deontological libertarians argue that each and every individual has natural rights and that any sort of aggression upon these rights is inherently immoral. Consequentialist libertarians argue that the initiation of force is not as important as whether or not a policy makes everybody better off. In some ways, you can see these tensions being played out here on the blog.

Under these strict definitions I am a consequentialist, but I don’t think it’s quite right to label me as such. I think that the two ethical systems are complimentary more than they are antagonistic. For instance, I think the deontological framework is important because the urge of those in power to “do something”  for the greater good is often immense. Deontological ethics plays an important role in establishing boundaries that those in power have to respect. Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward provides a clear-cut example of what happens when power is unrestrained in the name of a greater good. Ethnic cleansing, famine, and poverty can all be attributed, in one form or another, to the lack of respect for deontological ethics.

On the other hand, deontological ethics is too dogmatic. It is impossible to have a society based completely upon the foundations of non-aggression. Free trade is a perfect example of this impossibility. Deontological libertarians support free trade because in the absence of coercion free trade would be the natural outcome. Yet this does not seem right to me. Free trade is good because it lifts up the overall standards of living for everybody in a society, but there are short-run losers when it comes to free trade. In fact, losers are a natural part of the marketplace as a whole. Without losers there could be no markets. We should all be thanking as many losers as we can, whenever we can (you can start with me; I recently set up a Tinder account).

Free trade, and the losers that it produces, has harmful short-run effects on some individuals and their property. Competition destroys fortunes and job skills alike. Free trade also creates verifiable prosperity for societies, and even the losers – eventually – become better off under free trade. Even the underlying structure of the capitalist order is based on aggressively protecting that “bundle” of individual rights that is so integral to freedom and prosperity (this does not mean that states are a necessity, but only that aggression is unavoidable in social relations).

I am off-base here? Am I knocking down a straw man? It seems to me that the consequentialist position – which is already very deontologically-friendly to begin with – is the better route to take, philosophically, politically, and rhetorically.

Another Liberty Canon: Kierkegaard

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is well known for his contributions to philosophical and religious thought, and for the literary qualities of his work in these areas. He has not been so well known as a contributor to political thought, though there is now a growing amount of scholarly commentary in this area.

Generally his politics has been seen as directed by an extreme kind of conservative reaction against changes, and particularity movements of  democratic and constitutional change in Denmark in his own time. The sense that he was conformable with the most absolute and conservative kind of monarchism possible has been accompanied by the sense that he was anti-political, that he just did not like politics, which connected with the supposed conservatism, because if there is no need for change in political structures, there is no need for political discussion and thought.

These positions might have some appeal to some libertarian-conservative fusionists, and do have some basis in some aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. However, his thought cannot be properly characterised overall in this way, which would connect Kierkegaard at a relatively popular level with the political thinking of J.R.R. Tolkein, or at the more historical scholarly level with Robert Filmer, the English ultra-monarchist criticised at length by John Locke, or the Savoyard (French-Italian) ultra-monarchist critic of the French Revolution, Joseph de Maistre.

More justified connections can be made with David Hume, for example. Hume was cautious about both political change and claims that the authority of existing political institutions rests on either reverence for the past, or very deliberate conscious popular consent. Hume thought that though societies with political and legal institutions probably did originate with a contract of sorts between government and governed, such contracts cannot bind future generations, and the ‘contract’, or set of relations, between individuals and the state, are open to reform and renegotiation.

Kierkegaard’s comments on the politic currents of his time, suggest that he had a strong understanding both of the belief in the absolute authority of existing institutions, and of the wish to create a new absolute, in a spirit of revolution. His own view is that negotiation and renewal are desirable, and are certainly inevitable, which he saw as the need to revise historical contractual agreements.

Kierkegaard certainly did not wish for individuals to make politics the highest aspect of their lives, as this would detract from the individual relation with God, which was the central interest of this passionately religious man. However, that is not to say that Kierkegaard thought Christianity gives the answer to everything in worldly life, or that Kierkegaard had nothing else driving him. A passion for writing, which has a strong element of self-exploration even if though the medium of fiction and the pseudonyms, which are used in his books, or as fictional authors for many of his widely read books.

The writing and self-exploration converge, for Kierkegaard, in the understanding and communication of the deepest relation of the self with itself as necessarily a relation with God. The recognition of something more than momentary about the existence of the self, leads to a recognition of an absolute aspect of the self, and a struggle with any dissolution of the self into a series of moments. This was Kierkegaard’s way of exploring the value of the individual, and the word ‘individual’ is frequently and frequently orientates his writing. In this, he provided a great way of thinking about the value of the individual for any political thought concerned about the liberty of the individual, and why that should be at the centre of politics.

Kierkegaard saw in the more absolute kinds of political thought a desire for a version of God, and in doing so provided the basis for distinguishing between a politics that recognises limits to what it hopes for from the state and collective action, and a politics that tries to impose itself on society by turning the state into a substitute for God.

Kierkegaard was very critical of the state church, even though his brother had made a career in it, and suggest that dependent on the state weakened religion, as other forms of dependence create other forms of weakness. He did not argue for a pure nightwatchman state, or individualist-anarchism, but he did argue for caution about how much the state does, and for taking individual responsibility for assisting those who have met with misfortune.

In his emphasis on the individual in his understanding of Christianity, Kierkegaard also understood that Christianity places an enormous burden on the individual compared with earlier forms of thinking, in which the individual is primarily thought of as part of a family or state. Kierkegaard was particularly concerned with the ancient Greek and Roman city states in this context, including the literature they produced. He placed value on his own small city of Copenhagen for preserving some of the value of ancient city-state, where the individual can draw strength from connection with others in a very concrete community, without wanting to see the individual subsumed into any kind of communal or collective identity.

For Kierkegaard, the more worldly part of our lives rests on more than living under a state defined  by law or a society defined  by universal rights, necessary though these are. We need engagement with our social world, including its political debates. Though Kierkegaard was a great loner in some respects, he did walk regularly though crowded parts of the city, live near the centre, accept that he would be recognised,  contributed to magazines, and existed as a public figure, which was sometimes uncomfortable for him, but was never a role he excluded.  He was attacked as an eccentric in the press and condemned as a diabolical figure by some of the church establishment, but like his hero Socrates reacted with humour, intelligence and the assumption that the independent, even self-contained, individual deals with difficult public controversies. In his ways of bringing together an antique commitment to public life and a more modern sense of strong individuality, Kierkegaard made a remarkable contribution to themes which preoccupied the major classical liberal thinkers, like David, Hume, Benjamin Constant, John Stuart Mill, and many others.

It is not possible to recommend specific political theory texts by Kierkegaard, and just about everything he wrote can be read with great reward in association with the issues discussed above. A good starting point for a focus on the more political Kierkegaard though is the literary reflections in Two Agesfollowed up by the three masterpieces of 1843 that established his importance. The most immediately readable is RepetitionFear and Trembling is also relatively short. Either/Or is long and complex, but very rewarding and can itself be followed up by reading its sequel Stages on Life’s Way.

Spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed


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