Be Our Guest: "Suing Juul Won’t Solve Anything"

NOL‘s “Be Our Guest” feature is as popular as ever this year. Here’s John Lancaster with the latest:

Peer driven rumors, videos of experimentation, forums, news, and entertainment sources provide nigh infinite opportunities for young ones to pick up on vices. The appeal of vaping would’ve caused widespread exposure through said channels anyway. The most marketing does at that point is convince the willing participants to choose a particular brand rather than take on the act itself.

Juul is a company that sells vapes, which are those cigarette replacements that have been so popular lately. Please, read the rest, and shoot us an email if you want your voice heard!

Be Our Guest: "The U.S. Economy: A Fading Illusion?"

This essay, by longtime NOL reader and CPA Jack Curtis, is the first essay of 2020’s “Be Our Guest” feature. Here is a snippet:

This widespread financial vulnerability seems a natural result of government policies that minimize interest rates and support monetary inflation as the Federal Reserve and other central banks have continued to do in recent decades. There is little incentive to save money when it offers no significant return and its value is inflated away. Governments that cling to such policies are imposing dependence upon their citizens, forcing them in essence to live hand to mouth, deprived of the ability to provide for their own futures.

Jack paints a pretty gloom picture of the U.S. economy. Does this square with what economists have been telling us about the state of the world? Please, read the whole essay, and if you have been thinking about writing for the public in 2020, give us a holler. We’d be happy to put your thoughts up for the whole world to read.

Protecting your privacy: symmetric cryptography (part 1)

In my previous post, I discussed the decline of internet freedoms around the world. While writing the post, I realized that I should follow-up on the topic and discuss how we can use cryptography to protect our communication from surveillance by governments and corporations.

This is the first of four posts in which I discuss cryptography. If you read all four posts, you will understand the differences between symmetric and asymmetric cryptography, why the US government were against the spread of modern cryptography, how it has resulted in the first crypto war between code rebels (techno-libertarians) and the US government, and how you can easily protect your privacy using Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).

The topics of the four posts are:

  1. What is symmetric cryptography;
  2. What is asymmetric (public key) cryptography;
  3. The first crypto war between code rebels and the government;
  4. How to easily use PGP to protect your e-mail communication.

What is symmetric cryptography

The use of cryptography is more than 4,000 years old. A classic example of symmetric cryptography is the Caesar cipher. It was used by Julius Caesar for his private correspondence with his generals.

The principle of the Caesar cipher is simple. The receiver of the message has to replace each letter with another letter, some number of fixed positions down the alphabet. If a Caesar cipher, for example, makes use of a rotation of three to the left,

  • A in the encrypted text becomes X
  • C becomes Z
  • E becomes B
  • etc…

Caesar cipher
Caesar cipher: rotation of three to the left.

A Caesar cipher, compared to modern encryption methods, can be easily deciphered. You can for example make a frequency analysis of letters and see whether the letters in the encrypted text resemble typically Dutch or English writing. Also, each letter in the encrypted text only has 26 possibilities in the decrypted text, including itself. You can also make a table in which you write down the text and let a computer replace each letter with all 26 possibilities.

Up until the 1970s, cryptographers made use of this type of cryptography – also known as symmetric cryptography.

With symmetric cryptography, there is one key (the secret key) that is used for encrypting and decrypting the message. It’s therefore necessary for the sender of the message to share the secret key with the party he would like to correspond with.

The Caesar cipher is considered to be symmetric cryptography, because knowing the exact rotation (secret key) that is used to encrypt the message, you do also know how to decrypt the message.

Symmetric cryptography
Symmetric cryptography. One key (the secret key) is used for the encryption and decryption of messages.

Disadvantages of symmetric cryptography

There are several disadvantages to symmetric cryptography.

The first disadvantage is that the secret key has to be shared between the sender and receiver for messages to be exchanged privately. Sending the secret key over an unprotected communication channel is not recommended. In the next post, we will see how asymmetric (public key) cryptography allows us to send the encryption key safely over unprotected communication channels, while keeping the decryption key safely in our own possession.

The second disadvantage is that the secret key is now on two different locations. Thus, there are now two points of attack.

The third disadvantage is that the sender has to trust the receiver that he will not steal or copy the key or give it to someone else. It’s comparable to sharing the keys to your apartment: you also have to trust the other person not to steal your key, or copy your key, or give the key to another person.

The fourth disadvantage is limited scalability. Assuming that we’d like to communicate with a great number of parties, and that we’d like to provide each party with a different secret key for security reasons, we’d need to maintain a database of secret keys. For this setup to be user friendly in an environment like the internet, it would probably require an infrastructure of specialized distribution centers that generate secret keys each time two parties would like to initiate a private conversation. As these distribution centers would hold many secret keys, it would be a honey pot for hackers.

An example of symmetric cryptography is the Data Encryption Standard (DES), which was released on the market in 1975. It was developed by IBM, and was primarily meant to protect electronic communication between large financial organizations. Up until DES, cryptography was mainly a field for governments’ secret intelligence agencies to protect state communication. When the DES was released, it was received very well by cryptographers, until people found out that the National Security Agency (NSA) was involved with the development of the encryption key and purposefully influenced IBM to limit the key sizes from 64 bits to 56 bits. With 56 bits, there are 2^56 possible key combinations. This is considerably less than 64 bits keys. It is therefore much easier to break the encryption. Cryptographers believed that it would just be a matter of time before someone would find the right keys through a brute force search – meaning that you are trying all possible key combinations to find the right one.

Symmetric cryptography was the way cryptography was done until 1976 when two young researchers from Stanford University, Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, invented asymmetric or public key cryptography.

Both researchers were discontent with DES, and Hellman even addressed a letter to the Secretary of Commerce, Elliot Richardson, saying:

I am writing to you because I am very worried that the National Security Agency has surreptitiously influenced the National Bureau of Standards [NBS] in a way which seriously limit the value of a proposed standard, and which may pose a threat to individual privacy. I refer to the proposed Data Encryption Standard. … I am convinced that NSA in its role of helping NBS design and evaluate possible standards has ensured that the proposed standard is breakable by NSA.

In my next post, I will discuss how public key cryptography works. Eventually, at the end of the post series, you will be able to encrypt your e-mails using public key cryptography.

Small thought on calls for societal discussions on the ethics of cryptosystems

When people say that we should involve society in discussing the ethics of cryptosystems and blockchain, we should ask ourselves why society is suddenly paying attention to the strides we’re making in the cryptospace. Where does this attention come from?

Back in 2011, society was considering us weird and misinformed. Encryption, digital money, anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero knowledge, reputations, information markets, black markets, collapse of governments were spoken about openly in the cryptospace and no one paid much attention.

6-7 years later, after Bitcoin has shown it’s not just a fad, some groups within society have particularly paid close attention to cryptosystems and are now leading the discourse of what they call “discussions for society’s sake”. Who are they and what are their interests? Banks, central banks and national governments. They’re trying to shape the discourse around cryptosystems, because (a) banks are afraid of becoming obsolete by cryptosystems, (b) central banks are afraid of losing control over monetary policy, and (c) governments are afraid that their national currencies will be outcompeted by cryptocurrencies and their inability to tax and trace crypto payments. When they call for societal discussions about the ethics and consequences of cryptosystems, they thus enter the discussions from a position of fear. Can we then really have substantial discussions with them?

Or will they enter the discussions already motivated to overregulate cryptosystems – spoiling everything beautiful about cryptosystems so that their operations are not threatened?

My main point: be careful of those who say we need more public discussions on cryptosystems. Their calls sound noble, but they may have hidden agendas and don’t enter discussions with an open mind to learn about the beauty of cryptosystems.

Example case of this: Benjamin Lawsky and BitLicense.

2019: Year in Review

It’s been a heck of a year. Thanks for plugging along with Notes On Liberty. Like the world around me, NOL keeps getting better and better. Traffic in 2019 came from all over the place, but the usual suspects didn’t disappoint: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and Australia (in that order) supplied the most readers, again.

As far as most popular posts, I’ll list the top 10 below, but such a list doesn’t do justice to NOL and the Notewriters’ contribution to the Great Conversation, nor will the list reflect the fact that some of NOL‘s classic pieces from years ago were also popular again.

Nick’s “One weird old tax could slash wealth inequality (NIMBYs, don’t click!)” was in the top ten for most of this year, and his posts on John Rawls, The Joker film, Dominic Cummings, and the UK’s pornographer & puritan coalition are all worth reading again (and again). The Financial Times, RealClearPolicy, 3 Quarks Daily, and RealClearWorld all featured Nick’s stuff throughout 2019.

Joakim had a banner year at NOL, and four of his posts made the top 10. He got love from the left, right, and everything in between this year. “Elite Anxiety: Paul Collier’s ‘Future of Capitalism’” (#9), “In Defense of Not Having a Clue” (#8), and “You’re Not Worth My Time” (#7) all caused havoc on the internet and in coffee shops around the world. Joakim’s piece on Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (#2) broke – no shattered – NOL‘s records. Aside from shattering NOL‘s records, Joakim also had excellent stuff on financial history, Richard Davies, and Nassim Taleb. He is also beginning to bud as a cultural commentator, too, as you can probably tell from his sporadic notes on opinions. Joakim wants a more rational, more internationalist, and more skeptical world to live in. He’s doing everything he can to make that happen. And don’t forget this one: “Economists, Economic History, and Theory.”

Tridivesh had an excellent third year at NOL. His most popular piece was “Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative,” and most of his other notes have been featured on RealClearWorld‘s front page. Tridivesh has also been working with me behind the scenes to unveil a new feature at NOL in 2020, and I couldn’t be more humbled about working with him.

Bill had a slower year here at NOL, as he’s been working in the real world, but he still managed to put out some bangers. “Epistemological anarchism to anarchism” kicked off a Feyerabendian buzz at NOL, and he put together well-argued pieces on psychedelics, abortion, and the alt-right. His short 2017 note on left-libertarianism has quietly become a NOL classic.

Mary had a phenomenal year at NOL, which was capped off with some love from RealClearPolicy for her “Contempt for Capitalism” piece. She kicked off the year with a sharp piece on semiotics in national dialogue, before then producing a four-part essay on bourgeois culture. Mary also savaged privileged hypocrisy and took a cultural tour through the early 20th century. Oh, and she did all this while doing doctoral work at Oxford. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in 2020.

Aris’ debut year at NOL was phenomenal. Reread “Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms” and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I am looking forward to Dr Trantidis’ first full year at NOL in 2020.

Rick continues to be my favorite blogger. His pieces on pollution taxes (here and here) stirred up the libertarian faithful, and he is at his Niskanenian best on bullshit jobs and property rights. His notes on Paul Feyerabend, which I hope he’ll continue throughout 2020, were the centerpiece of NOL‘s spontaneity this year.

Vincent only had two posts at NOL in 2019, but boy were they good: “Interwar US inequality data are deeply flawed” and “Not all GDP measurement errors are greater than zero!” Dr Geloso focused most of his time on publishing academic work.

Alexander instituted the “Sunday Poetry” series at NOL this year and I couldn’t be happier about it. I look forward to reading NOL every day, but especially on Sundays now thanks to his new series. Alex also put out the popular essay “Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?” (#10), which I suspect will one day grow to be a classic. That wasn’t all. Alex was the author of a number of my personal faves at NOL this year, including pieces about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, constructivism in international relations (part 1 and part 2), and some of the more difficult challenges facing diplomacy today.

Edwin ground out a number of posts in 2019 and, true to character, they challenged orthodoxy and widely-held (by libertarians) opinions. He said “no” to military intervention in Venezuela, though not for the reasons you may think, and that free immigration cannot be classified as a right under classical liberalism. He also poured cold water on Hong Kong’s protests and recommended some good reads on various topics (namely, Robert Nozick and The Troubles). Edwin has several essays on liberalism at NOL that are now bona fide classics.

Federico produced a number of longform essays this year, including “Institutions, Machines, and Complex Orders” and “Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives” (the latter went on to be featured in the Financial Times and led to at least one formal talk on the subject in Buenos Aires). He also contributed to NOL‘s longstanding position as a bulwark against libertarian dogma with “There is no such thing as a sunk cost fallacy.”

Jacques had a number of hits this year, including “Poverty Under Democratic Socialism” and “Mass shootings in perspective.” His notes on the problems with higher education, aka the university system, also garnered plenty of eyeballs.

Michelangelo, Lode, Zak, and Shree were all working on their PhDs this year, so we didn’t hear from them much, if at all. Hopefully, 2020 will give them a bit more freedom to expand their thoughts. Lucas was not able to contribute anything this year either, but I am confident that 2020 will be the year he reenters the public fray.

Mark spent the year promoting his new book (co-authored by Noel Johnson) Persecution & Toleration. Out of this work arose one of the more popular posts at NOL earlier in the year: “The Institutional Foundations of Antisemitism.” Hopefully Mark will have a little less on his plate in 2020, so he can hang out at NOL more often.

Derrill’s “Romance Econometrics” generated buzz in the left-wing econ blogosphere, and his “Watson my mind today” series began to take flight in 2019. Dr Watson is a true teacher, and I am hoping 2020 is the year he can start dedicating more time to the NOL project, first with his “Watson my mind today” series and second with more insights into thinking like an economist.

Kevin’s “Hyperinflation and trust in ancient Rome” (#6) took the internet by storm, and his 2017 posts on paradoxical geniuses and the deleted slavery clause in the US constitution both received renewed and much deserved interest. But it was his “The Myth of the Nazi War Machine” (#1) that catapulted NOL into its best year yet. I have no idea what Kevin will write about in 2020, but I do know that it’ll be great stuff.

Bruno, one of NOL’s most consistent bloggers and one of its two representatives from Brazil, did not disappoint. His “Liberalism in International Relations” did exceptionally well, as did his post on the differences between conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Bruno also pitched in on Brazilian politics and Christianity as a global and political phenomenon. His postmodernism posts from years past continue to do well.

Andrei, after several years of gentle prodding, finally got on the board at NOL and his thoughts on Foucault and his libertarian temptation late in life (#5) did much better than predicted. I am hoping to get him more involved in 2020. You can do your part by engaging him in the ‘comments’ threads.

Chhay Lin kept us all abreast of the situation in Hong Kong this year. Ash honed in on housing economics, Barry chimed in on EU elections, and Adrián teased us all in January with his “Selective Moral Argumentation.” Hopefully these four can find a way to fire on all cylinders at NOL in 2020, because they have a lot of cool stuff on their minds (including, but not limited to, bitcoin, language, elections in dictatorships, literature, and YIMBYism).

Ethan crushed it this year, with most of his posts ending up on the front page of RealClearPolicy. More importantly, though, was his commitment to the Tocquevillian idea that lawyers are responsible for education in democratic societies. For that, I am grateful, and I hope he can continue the pace he set during the first half of the year. His most popular piece, by the way, was “Spaghetti Monsters and Free Exercise.” Read it again!

I had a good year here, too. My pieces on federation (#3) and American literature (#4) did waaaaaay better than expected, and my nightcaps continue to pick up readers and push the conversation. I launched the “Be Our Guest” feature here at NOL, too, and it has been a mild success.

Thank you, readers, for a great 2019 and I hope you stick around for what’s in store during 2020. It might be good, it might be bad, and it might be ugly, but isn’t that what spontaneous thoughts on a humble creed are all about? Keep leaving comments, too. The conversation can’t move (forward or backward) without your voice.

The Real Meaning of Christmas

…Jesus Christ matters a great deal for this atheist. For Christians, Easter, the Resurrection, is the big date. For us it’s Christmas. When someone wishes me “Good Holidays” in my simplistically minded libprog town, I respond with a cheery, “Merry Christmas.” I don’t do it just to be churlish (though I wouldn’t put this beyond me). No, I mean it.

What happened in Bethlehem is that God became a human, completely, with a conventional birth and all, and a regular upbringing.* This is not another small unimportant religious tale. In time, it’s a world-changing myth.

When God is man, we are only one step removed from Man becoming God. In the long run, it’s the beginning of the end of our collective submission to an often savage Bronze Age divinity. It took about 1500 years but it did happen and only in the parts of the world that had been Christian (plus, maybe, in Japan. Why in Japan? Beats me!).


* By the way, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not what many people think it is. I keep hearing the mistake on the radio. (It takes an atheist to help with Christian theology, N.S.!)

Entangling alliances, Donald Trump, and a new libertarian alternative

Some say that Donald Trump’s transactionalism in the realm of geopolitics has gotten out of hand. Tridivesh has actually been saying this for awhile now. Jacques is not pleased with the president’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Of the other Notewriters, only Andre has spoken up for Trump’s withdrawal from Syria.

There are libertarians and leftists who have applauded Trump’s move, but for the most part people are dissatisfied with the way the president of the United States conducts foreign policy. There’s no logic. There’s no strategy. And the incentives don’t quite line up, either: is Trump out for the republic or himself?

This is unfair. Trump’s transactionalism comes with more press, but Obama and the guy before him were transactionalist presidents, too. Just think about Syria to begin with. Getting involved in the butchery there had no logic to it and actually went against the strategy of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia.” Still, Obama mired the republic in another brutal regional scuffle. GWB did the same thing in Iraq, too. Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan, so Bush invaded Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Makes sense, right?

Maybe we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe we should be looking at the incentives and trade-offs available to the executive branch of the American government instead of single individuals.

My contribution to reassessing American foreign policy is to look at the role that formal alliances play in chaining down the executive branch in the American system. Libertarians loathe both alliances and the executive branch, but what if one is useful for off-setting the other? Which one would you rather have? (Trade-offs are more realistic than utopias, my fellow libertarians.)

There are two general types of alliances in the world: formal and informal. Alliances have been with us since the dawn of time, too. Think of the alliances our Stone Age ancestors made, one individual at a time. Elected politicians make alliances and call them political parties. Dictators make alliances and call them bargains. You get the picture. The United States has traditionally made use of informal alliances, so Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria is really a continuation of American foreign policy and not an aberration as some hawks claim.

In fact, prior to World War II, the United States had signed just one official alliance with another polity: the Treaty of Alliance with France that lasted from 1778-80. So from the start of the Revolutionary War (which was really a secession from the British Empire rather than an actual revolution) in 1776 to America’s entrance into World War II in late 1941, the United States had joined only one alliance, and it was a short-lived alliance that would make or break the existence of the republic. (During World War I, the United States was an “affiliated partner” rather than an official ally.)

This doesn’t mean that the United States was isolationist, or non-interventionist, during this time frame. In fact, it highlights well the fact that the United States has a long history of entering into alliances of convenience, and a short history of building and then leading stable coalitions of military partners around the world. Alliances have shaped the destiny of the republic since its founding. And, more importantly, these alliances of convenience have their intellectual roots in George Washington’s foreign policy. Washington’s foreign policy even has its own name: the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances. According to Washington and other elites of the founding era, the United States should freely enter into, and exit, alliances as necessary (Jefferson was a big fan of this Doctrine, too). This stands in stark contrast to the idea that the United States only soiled its virginal unilateralism once, when it was in dire peril and needed a helping hand from France to fend off an evil empire.

Washingtonian alliances throughout American history

Aside from fighting alongside the Oneida and Tuscarora during its secession from the British Empire, the United States forged alliances with Sweden, in 1801 to fight the Barbary states, and with the Choctaw, Cherokee, and some of the Creek during the ill-fated War of 1812. In fact, one of the reasons the United States got pummeled in the War of 1812 was the lack of Native allies relative to the British, who had secured alliances with at least 10 Native American polities.

The American push westward saw a plethora of shifting alliances with Native peoples, all of which tilted in eventual favor of the United States (and to the detriment of their allies).

The American foray into imperialism in the late 19th century saw alliances with several factions in Cuba and the Philippines that were more interested in extirpating Spain than thinking through an alliance with an expansion-minded United States.

In 1832 the United States entered into a Washingtonian alliance with the Dutch in order to crush some Barbary-esque states along the Sumatran coast. The alliance led to the eventual, brutal conquest of Aceh by the Dutch and a long-lasting mutual friendship between the Americans and the Dutch.

From 1886-94 the United States and its ally in the South Pacific, the Mata’afa clan of Samoa, fought Germany and its Samoan allies for control over the Samoan islands. The Boxer Rebellion in China saw the United States ally with six European states (including Austria-Hungary) and Japan, and affiliate with three more European states and several Qing dynasty governors who refused to follow their emperor’s orders.

NATO’s continued importance

Clearly, the United States has followed its first president’s foreign policy doctrine for centuries. Washington warned that his doctrine was not to be an eternal guideline, though. Indeed, the most-cited case study of the Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances is not the American experience in the 19th century, but the Nazi-Soviet one of the 20th, when the Germans turned on the Soviets as soon as it became expedient to do so.

The establishment of NATO has forced the United States to become reciprocal in its alliances with other countries. The republic can no longer take, take, and take some more without giving something in return. This situation of mutually beneficial exchange has tempered not only the United States but everybody else in the world, too (especially in the industrialized part of the world; the part with the deadliest weapons). Free riding will most likely continue to be a problem within NATO. The United States will continue to pay more than its share to keep the alliance afloat. And that’s perfectly okay considering most of the alternatives: imperialism (far more expensive than free riding allies), ethnic cleansing, or oscillating blocs of states looking out for their own interests in a power vacuum, like the situation Europe found itself in during the bloody 20th century.

The forgotten alternative

Unstable alliances lead to an unstable world. The rise of NATO has been a boon to the world, despite its costs. If libertarians want to be taken seriously in the realm of foreign affairs, they would do well to shake off the Rothbardian shackles of isolationism/non-interventionism and embrace Madisonian federalism with a Christensenian twist. The 13 North American colonies that broke away from the British Empire were sovereign states when they banded together. The 29 members of NATO are sovereign states, too, and there’s no reason to believe that Madison’s federal blueprint can’t band them together as well.

If libertarians are comfortable embracing non-interventionism as a foreign policy doctrine, even though it has never been tried and even though it’s based on a shoddy interpretation of history, there’s no reason why they can’t instead embrace federation as their go-to alternative. Federation at least has history on its side, and it’s also got the obscure appeal that libertarians so love to ooze at public gatherings. Will 2020 be the year that libertarians shift from non-interventionism to federation?