The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

Safe Places, Continued

This is in response to Will’s response to my initial post on safe places. I’d add it to the comments section, but that area has already been bloated.

If I understand Will correctly he is pointing out that in order to be harmed by words one must to an extent cooperate. If we were, for example, to mail the site’s founder with USC memorabilia the act in itself would be meaningless unless he decided to interpret the act to be an attack on his UCLA background. There are exceptions to this rule, such as those with certain mental conditions (e.g. PTSD).

If this is the point Will is making, I agree with him. I do however feel compelled to add that there is another group of individuals, besides those with mental disorders, who cannot willingly change how they react to certain words or cues – children. Why do I bring children into this discussion? Isn’t the safe place discussion mostly about their inclusion in universities? Let me make the case that a large portion of a university’s student body is composed of children; and to be clear I do not say this with malice towards said students.

The concept of childhood is relatively new in human society. It used to be that once a toddler was old enough to move around they were given work to do, be it helping around the farm or the factory. Delaying entrance into the job market required having parents able to ‘buy’ children’s time and so childhood was only possible following the industrial revolution. I’m sure everyone has heard of a version of this story before. If not I recommend the Cunningham book on the subject.

What if these calls for safe spaces are a response to the development of new period between childhood and adulthood? By all means the students on university campuses are physically adults, just look at their facial hair and sexual activity. They aren’t meeting the traditional landmarks of becoming adults mentally though. They are pushing back having children. Many of them are returning to live back home or never left to begin with. I know of several 20-30 somethings who are still trying to get on a career path.

Many, myself included, have seen safe places as infantilizing students. What if it’s the reverse though? It could be that students were already infantilized to begin with and that safe places are a symptom of universities having to respond to that.

If that is the case it is tempting to want to find out who is behind this. As with the development of childhood though the source of this post-childhood stage is our wealth. Our wealth has increased life expectancy. Our wealth has allowed parents to ‘buy’ more and more of their children’s time. Our wealth has allowed us to subsidize institutions (e.g. universities) that give these post-children a place to go and further delay their entrance into the labor force.

Should we really be angry then? We will have to adapt certainly. We will have to stop thinking of universities, most universities at least, as places populated by adults. We need to update our institutions. Should non-adults have the vote? Etc. Etc.

What is our alternative? Destroy our wealth so that this post-childhood pre-adulthood stage can’t exist?

Thoughts and comments are always appreciated.

From the Comments: Lenin knew what he was doing when he picked Stalin

Barry and William had an interesting discussion in the ‘comments’ threads of Dr Rosi‘s post about Lenin. At the heart of the dialogue is whether or not Lenin thought Stalin was an incompetent fool. Here is Dr Stocker’s final response:

This all depends on accepting that a text written by Krupskaya was Lenin’s own view. Leaving that aside, Kotkin is very against the idea that Stalin was stupid and I don’t think we should equate Stalin’s crassness with stupidity. Even leaving aside Kotkin, it is clear that Stalin did intellectually demanding things over many years, with regard to political organisation, political journalism and writing on Marxist doctrine (particularly the national question and this was before the Revolution long before issues of Stalin getting people to write things for him).

General Secretary of the Party was a very influential job, which meant selecting the people to run the party and therefore the country along with a complex range of other tasks which require some intellectual capacity. If Lenin appointed Stalin believing that Stalin was not very bright and could therefore be given an unimportant job, he was bizarrely mistaken about the demands and influence of the party secretary, the head of the Party in a party-state. Lenin did not need this title as he was the undoubted leader and instigator of the October Revolution. After he was off the scene, the party secretary would inevitably be the most powerful person in Russia. Stalin was at all times crude, brutal, cunning, calculating and dishonest in his behaviour, but this is not same as intellectual lack.

As Robert Service, amongst others, have pointed out Trotsky portrayed himself as the great intellectual with the right to inherit Lenin’s mantle and needed to portray Stalin as stupid and maybe needed to believe that someone lacking in his formal education, knowledge of foreign languages and manners associated with intelligentsia culture really was stupid. Well Stalin won the power struggle and I think it had something to do with intelligence behind the crassness.

Lenin and Trotsky themselves have been exaggerated as Great Thinkers by their followers. Clearly they had some scholarship and intellectual capacity, but what did they write which anyone would care about if they hadn’t come to power in 1917? Interest in Lenin’s writings has dropped off in a quite extreme way since Leninism stopped being the official ideology of what used to be the USSR, allied regimes and some large allied political parties outside the socialist bloc. Sort of equalises the intellectual legacy of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.

Read the whole thing.

Can money have a negative effect on happiness?

About a year ago I was part of a liberty fund colloquium at PERC. At one point the discussion turned to the issue of how important money was in achieving happiness. I don’t recall the exact context, but I believe we had been discussing limitations of using the market system to solve environmental problems. The concern was that the market system failed to capture the full value of certain goods.

The consensus among the discussants was that happiness was one such example of when the market failed.

I had to bite my tongue when this was said. Never mind the empirical research showing the relationship between income and happiness.  I was biting my tongue because most of the discussants were wealthy individuals. The marginal dollar might have mattered little to my fellow discussants, but that was because they had not lived through poverty. Getting ten dollars can change your mood immensely when it is the difference between paying the rent or having to sleep on skid row.

I had forgotten about the incident until I read Grigorev’s story and I started to ask myself if I was happy. On second thought, happy might not be the best term. Satisfied? Comfortable? Content? Safe?

It isn’t a question I’ve had the chance to ponder on much. As a rule of thumb I spend most of my day worrying about money. When I was young I worried about whether my parents had enough money to pay the bills till the next paycheck came in. I often damned myself for not being able to work – the United States’ child labor laws are plain stupid. Even when I grew up, and my family’s finances improved slightly, thinking about money became my obsession as I took more and more economics classes. In my mind money and happiness are so strongly linked that if asked how my day is going I think about how much money I’ve made (or lost) since waking up.

After thinking about it for a week I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong about money’s effect on happiness. My summer job pays well enough and my bank account has never been so full. I am not happier for it though. To the contrary, I have fallen into a bout of depression. It is hard to explain, but it is what it is. After paying for the essentials (rent and food), a few luxuries, and stashing away some rainy day savings I just don’t know what to do with extra money and it makes me uncomfortable. I think I could live a comfortable life on a budget of $12,000~15,000 annually, a bit above world average income.

I knew that the effect of money on happiness was diminishing, hence my fellow discussants waving away the importance of money on happiness. I however never thought that money might have a negative effect on happiness.

For the time being I have quit my summer job and given away my extra cash to family members whose returns are still positive. Hopefully once the school year starts, and I return to being near the poverty line, my depression will be replaced by happiness.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Or am I an outlier? Alternatively, what are you all spending your money on?

From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

From the Comments: Pushback in favor of Brexit

Dr Stocker‘s recent post arguing against Brexit elicited the following response from Chhay Lin in the ‘comments’ threads, and I think it’s worth highlighting in a post of its own:

Very well explained, Barry Stocker. Although it can be good for Britain to leave the EU, it entirely depends on how they go on from there. I am worried that Britain will move unto the path of less free trade which would be an erosion of the 4 freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. On the other hand, it seems to me that the EU was steadily moving toward greater centralization and harmonization of regulations that would decrease the competition between its member states and thereby becoming quite harmful. I think that the EU should have never had greater ambitions than the 4 freedoms with a European Court of Justice that would protect these freedoms. Now they can impose EU-wide tariffs and quotas against products from countries outside of the EU or they can impose EU-wide sanctions. Some harmful examples of the EU: the quotas on cheap Chinese solar panels and EU-wide sanctions against Russia. A wise independent Britain would have free trade agreements with countries within and outside the EU, but I’m afraid that too large a portion of the Leave supporters are hostile to immigration and open markets.

Chhay Lin has written more about Brexit, in Dutch, on his homepage and I do recommend you check it out.

From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

Dr Gibson notes:

I’d say the “big question” makes no sense. Surely some Syrians would be better off under ISIS and some under Assad.

And there’s a bigger question: who the hell cares? Few if any of us Americans have enough information to judge this issue nor should we. We have our own fish to fry. The Washington politicians have done incalculable damage with their ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the Middle East and elsewhere. Let the Syrians and their immediate neighbors sort this out.

I wanted to draw this excellent comment out for two reasons. Reason number one has to do with Dr Gibson’s first paragraph. Questions rarely make sense (which is why you ask people for help), but suppose you asked whether Syrians would be better off under capitalism or socialism. Some Syrians would be better off under socialism than capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as capitalism. Right? One of those systems is better for far more people than the other, and as an individual don’t you have a moral duty to support the more just system in some form or other? These are questions that libertarians, especially libertarians in the United States, should be asking themselves more often than not. There is a disturbing tendency among this faction of libertarians to lean in the direction of nationalist parochialism when it comes to matters outside of our borders. This brings me to reason number two for highlighting Dr Gibson’s (quite excellent) comment: Reminding libertarians and classical liberals that our creed is an international (and a humble) one.

War refugees represent the humblest of our species. The UN estimates that the war has affected nearly 12 million Syrians so far and, of course, that doesn’t include all of the people outside of Syria’s borders who have been affected. Russians, Europeans, North Americans, Syria’s immediate neighbors, and East Africans have all been affected by the ongoing war. How could you not be interested, especially from an individualist point of view?

I think the problem of the American libertarian’s parochialist nationalism stems from Murray Rothbard’s Cold War-era writings. Unlike F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were both big supporters of more international cooperation (but who both saw the glaring flaws in organizations like the UN and what is now the EU), Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs were heavily influenced by the fact that the world was dominated by two superpowers and that the government he lived under used lies and deceit to counter Moscow’s power plays. Rothbard’s world of bi-polar geopolitics is long gone. It doesn’t exist. It will not exist again in my lifetime. Ours is a world of multipolarity. Yet somehow Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs (which descended into outright incoherence near the end of his life) still have a profound impact on the American libertarian movement.

Much of my work here at NOL is dedicated to eviscerating this long-expired mindset from the American libertarian movement. Isolationism is nationalist, plain and simple (just pay attention to the rhetoric of libertarians like Justin Raimondo or Doug Bandow if you need more convincing), but Warren’s point about Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other states remains pertinent. So perhaps a different question to ask (even if it doesn’t make sense) is what a more internationalist-minded, in the vein of Hayek and Mises and Adam Smith, US foreign policy would look like. (I’ve been asking this question for a while now.)