Hazony’s nation-state versus Christensen’s federation

Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book praising the nation-state has garnered so much attention that I thought it wasn’t worth reading. Arnold Kling changed my mind. I’ve been reading through it, and I don’t think there’s much in the book that I can originally criticize.

The one thing I’ll say that others have not is that Hazony’s book is not the best defense of the status quo and the Westphalian state system out there. It’s certainly the most popular, but definitely not the best. The best defense of the status quo still goes to fellow Notewriter Edwin’s 2011 article in the Independent Review: “Hayekian Spontaneous Order and the International Balance of Power.”

Hazony’s book is a defense of Israel more than it is a defense of the abstract nation-state. Hazony’s best argument (“Israel”) has already been identified numerous times elsewhere. It goes like this: the Holocaust happened because the Jews in mid-20th century Europe had nowhere to go in a world defined by nationalism. Two competing arguments arose from this realization. The Israelis took one route (“nation-state”), and the Europeans took another (“confederation”). Many Jews believe that the Israelis are correct and the Europeans are wrong.

My logic follows from this fact as thus: the EU has plenty of problems but nothing on the scale of the Gaza Strip or the constant threat of annihilation by hostile neighbors (and rival nation-states).

The European Union and Israel are thus case studies for two different arguments, much like North and South Korea or East and West Germany. The EU has been bad, so bad in fact that the British have voted to leave, but not so bad that there has been any genocide or mass violence or, indeed, interstate wars within its jurisdiction. Israel has been good, so good in fact that it now has one of the highest standards of living in the world, but not so good that it avoided creating something as awful as the Gaza Strip or making enemies out of every single one of its neighbors.

To me this is a no-brainer. The Europeans were correct and the Israelis are wrong. To me, Israelis (Jewish and Arab) would be much better off living under the jurisdiction of the United States or even the European Union rather than Israel’s. They’d all be safer, too.

How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

What I learned in the Master’s

In my master’s degree, I studied international relations. As far as I can judge, the program was very good. Excellent even. It was a very good two years, in which I was challenged like never before. The master’s degree was very difficult for me. I was very curious about international affairs, but I knew almost nothing about international relations theory. The professors assumed that students were at least familiar with the content. I was not. So, I went through the experience of learning to cook and learning to be a culinary critic at the same time. I had to chase a lot. But it was good. The master’s taught me like no previous experience to study on my own.

Looking back, I understand that the program was strongly influenced by a light form of postmodernism. That was very difficult for me. There was a strong rejection of more traditional theories of international relations, such as realism and liberalism. It was all very new to me, but I knew that being a classic realist was not an option well regarded by the professors. I ended up finding a kind of lifeboat in constructivism. I didn’t want to be ashamed of being a realist, but my intuition told me that there was something wrong with postmodernism. It was only after the master’s degree, teaching the theory of international relations and studying several other things, that I understood that postmodernism is really crazy, something deeply twisted.

Constructivism is largely weird also. The most sensible thing I read in international relations was John Mearsheimer’s offensive realism. Stephen Walt is an author who also made sense to me in my post-master’s life. In short, I admire my master’s program for its academic excellence, but I find the theories espoused by several of the professors completely flawed.

It was very difficult for me to write my dissertation. I did not have a clear theoretical basis, just the instinct that I did not want to follow a postmodern line and the certainty that a more traditional theory would not be well accepted. I wrote the dissertation without having a very solid theoretical basis. But my research, modesty aside, was still very well done. I researched the arrival of the first Protestant missionaries to Brazil in the 19th century.

It was a topic of personal interest. I was a recently converted Protestant, and I wanted to know more about my history. As they say in Brazil, I joined hunger with the desire to eat. My question, which I was not able to ask so clearly at the time, was whether the presence of missionaries in Brazil, the majority coming from the USA, had affected Brazil-United States relations in any way. Even today, I find it very difficult to analyze causality in such cases, as someone would do in the hard sciences, but I believe that with the information I gathered I can defend that yes, American Protestant missionaries affected Brazil-US relations in many ways. Brazil and the USA were predominantly disinterested in each other in the early 19th century.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this situation changed dramatically, especially on the part of Brazil. The USA started to play a central role in Brazilian foreign policy. It does not seem to me to be the case that the missionaries caused this change, but I believe that their presence in Brazil cooperated, along with other factors, to make this happen. Would Brazil change its foreign policy at the end of the 19th century in one way or another? This is a type of question that, honestly, I’m not interested in answering. But I believe it is clear that the missionaries helped the two countries to become a little more aware of each other.

I faced some opposition from colleagues for choosing this topic. One of the things I heard was that, being a Protestant, I would not have the necessary distance to do a good research. I also heard that missionaries would be little more than tourists, and that they would, therefore, have no chance of affecting relations between the two countries. These were harsh criticisms, which still make me sad when I remember them. I see in these criticisms a certain prejudice against evangelicals that is still present in Brazil, inside and outside academia. Ironically, I did not find the same thing on the part of the professors. On the contrary! Every one of them was always very supportive of my research, and in fact, they found the topic interesting and pertinent.

I would very much like to be able to return to the topic of my research with the head I have today, but I don’t have time for that. To some extent, I would also like to go back to those classes knowing the things I know today. But I also believe that I would not have that much patience. I have a better notion of what I consider epistemologically valid or not. I suppose the master’s degree would be more difficult to take today. Anyway, the master’s degree gave me my first job as a professor: I started teaching international relations when I hadn’t even defended the dissertation, and I did it for eight years. It was a very good eight years. Although I am away from this area, I still like what I learned, and I feel benefited by the time I studied and taught international relations.

What I learned at the doctorate

The 19th century Brazilian political system was dominated by two parties: Conservatives and Liberals. Although these parties were formally established only in the late 1830s or early 1840s, part of my thesis involves understanding that these parties existed, albeit in an embryonic form, since independence in 1822.

What I noticed is that since independence, conservatives have had a more realistic view of international relations. For them, securing the territory (and the government’s dominance over it) was crucial. Liberals had a more, well, liberal view of international relations. Although they did not deny the traditional formulation of the state (territory, population, government, recognition by other nations), they were more optimistic about the possibility of cooperation with other countries.

The view of conservatives and liberals about international relations matched their ideas about domestic politics very well: conservatives advocated a more centralized and stronger government, with greater control over the territory. One of their great fears was the possibility of Brazil’s fragmentation into several small countries, as happened with Spanish America. Their defense of the monarchy was linked to this: a monarch with greater powers would guarantee the maintenance of the territory. Liberals advocated a more decentralized government, with greater freedom for individuals, and also greater freedom for provinces, which would not be controlled so directly by the central government. The fear of fragmentation of the territory was lesser, and some liberals understood that if individual provinces decided to leave the union, well, that was their right.

These views on international and domestic politics also matched the way liberals and conservatives viewed the United States. Early in the country’s history, conservatives tended to see the United States as a young, unimportant republic. The proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine changed this attitude a little, but it remained a fact that conservatives preferred to direct Brazilian foreign policy towards Europe. Liberals, for their part, saw an example to be followed in the USA, with their conscious departure from the European way of doing politics, especially their federalism. Throughout the 19th century, as the United States grew in power, these attitudes changed, but not by betraying the basic understanding that the two parties had about international relations: conservatives feared possible US imperialism, especially in relation to the Amazon. Liberals were less jealous about the national territory, and in any case, they did not see the United States as a threat.

The great irony I found in my thesis is that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, liberal and conservative ideas about the United States converged. The monarchy was overthrown and the republic proclaimed in Brazil in 1889. The liberal and conservative parties were formally extinct. Part of my thesis involves saying, however, that despite this formal extinction, liberal and conservative attitudes continued to exist in both domestic and international politics. In domestic politics, Republicans represented, at least in part, a radicalization of liberal ideas. Foreign policy was initially marked by this radicalization, but that soon changed. After a very troubled 1890s, the Baron of Rio Branco took the reins of Brazilian foreign policy in 1902.
Rio Branco was a frankly conservative individual. Early in life he chose not to get involved in domestic politics, partly because he did not want to be in the shadow of his father, Viscount of Rio Branco. He followed the diplomatic career. However, as I have already explained, the views of conservatives in domestic politics found a clear counterpart in foreign policy, marked above all by the defense of the territory. And this was the foreign policy of the Baron of Rio Branco.

The thing is that Rio Branco chose a liberal, Joaquim Nabuco, to be Brazil’s ambassador to Washington. Both Rio Branco and Nabuco understood that Brazilian foreign policy should focus on the USA, but for different reasons. On the international stage of the 1900s, Rio Branco believed that an alliance with the USA, albeit informal, was the best way to guarantee Brazil’s security against European imperialism. Nabuco did not ignore this aspect of international relations, but he also believed in a higher ideal: that the approach to the USA could represent a counterpoint to the bellicose European international relations, leading to the progress of civilization. So the irony was this: both Rio Branco, the conservative, and Nabuco, the liberal, wanted to get closer to the USA, but for very different reasons.

Studying to write my thesis was a very pleasant process. I liked the characters I met, I liked the stories and I liked the theme I chose. During the doctorate I was intellectually more mature, and I managed to have a high degree of independence in the way I conducted my research. In other words, I did not allow myself to be led by theoretical perspectives with which I did not agree. And I also think that what I learned has real practical implications. I am glad that it was not my responsibility to decide on Brazilian foreign policy in the 19th century, but I understand that conservatives were often being fearful. I know that they were often being hypocrites. Of course, hindsight is always beneficial, but I believe that liberals were generally right.

There is a catch to this story: Brazil was the last country in the West to abolish slavery, in 1888. Until then, an unimaginable number of slaves crossed the Atlantic to work mainly on coffee and sugar cane fields. This is a dimension of the history of Brazil to which I regrettably gave little importance at the time I was writing. Today I see things differently: the country of slavery yesterday, not for nothing, is the country of socialism today. And I think it’s important to think about how such a strong dependence on slavery probably affected the way domestic and international politics were made.

 

Advice to Libertarian IR Theorists

LGF: This short article was published in the now extinct ThinkIR website on 11 October 2012. I decided not to make any corrections to the original text.

How can you be a Libertarian and theorise IR at the same time? We may tackle this question from a normative or descriptive point of view, but I don’t think you could separate one from another.

On the normative side, let’s face it: most political scientists believe in big government and some who claim that don’t, believe in it anyway. The Libertarian IR theorist will be less than sanguine about the status of normative assumptions in IR, to say the least.

On the descriptive side, IR was born statecentric and remains a statecentric discipline. Adding “new actors” will not do if we keep presupposing they don’t have their own character and are merely “parts” of a “whole” – Leviathan, of course. Starting from the descriptive side, therefore, is also a bit of a problem for the Libertarian IR theorist.

How to begin? I suggest an agenda that does a bit of both and, for the time being, doesn’t get “quite there” yet. There’s preliminary work to be done. More importantly, there’s a lot of “real world” nonsense to be stopped or prevented, and this is equally pressing.

On the one hand, the Libertarian IR theorist has to dispel the normative and descriptive Leviathanic myths bought and reinforced by the discipline of IR since its incipience. For all its attractiveness, though, myth-bursting doesn’t necessarily precede “real world” engagement. “All these theories yet the bodies keep piling up”. That kind of thing.

Back to the question: how to begin? Do a bit of normative, a bit of descriptive and a bit of engagement. One day, Libertarian IR theorists will get there. Meanwhile, merely shifting the conversation with this threefold strategy will open doors – even gates.

Fellow Libertarian IR theorist, there are essentially two ways of doing normative, descriptive and engaging thinking. The first is the way of dialogue. The second is the way of antithesis. Out of these two, a whole new school of thought may emerge. New to IR, that is.

When in dialogue, speak the language of the conversation. Understand it first. Master the key IR theories and arguments in every branch. Security studies, foreign policy analysis, world history, IR theory, IOs and, of course, international political economy.

A good starting point would be deconstructing this unhelpful term, “Liberalism”, which can mean “Wilsonian imperialism” as much as “Kantian federalism”. In the hands of current pundits, it often means “bomb anyone outside the West who refuses to bow to our big government institutions and policies”.

From clarification of the many uses of the term and how anti-liberal the most frequently employed meanings are, proceed to an analysis of possible dialogue with Classical Liberalism. The powerful tradition of Hume and Hayek, of Mises and the Manchester School.

Don’t stop at economics or political philosophy. Do the hard cases. What (if anything) would they say, for example, against realists? IR “liberals”? Constructivists? And, of course, Marxists.

Here the point is to “mine” for “international thought” (even in the Wightian fashion) bearing in mind the “family resemblance” between the rich tradition of Classical Liberalism and the Libertarian approach.

But go a bit further. Is there anything we can learn from realists or constructivists? Feminists, poststructuralists, postcolonialists and, why not, Marxists? If there is, please mine it as early as possible and preserve whatever spark of truth we may find in the established approaches in our discipline.

You may, of course, be even sneakier, wear the camouflage and employ the vocabulary of the mainstream. Why not talk “securitisation” but add to it a Libertarian twist? Why not, for example, challenge both “securitising moves” and “desecuritisation” on the same grounds that either way there’s a statist assumption that public policy is the “appropriate” sphere of security?

Wearing camouflage, depending on the situation, can be a good way of getting heard. If you manage to get attention and smuggle a bit of Libertarian principles behind the mask of the mainstream, well, congratulations: you’ve just shifted the conversation.

This is the way of dialogue. Let’s look now at the way of antithesis. It is a worthwhile endeavour, but we run the risk of sectarianism. Antithesis is important to draw the line, but potentially damaging if employed to police thought within the movement.

Care more about drawing the line between Libertarian and Liberal than Randian and Rothbardian. If you achieve considerable dialogue with realism, constructivism and liberalism – or with critical theory, feminism, whatever – antithesis will be important to teach us where to stop.

Is Libertarian IR critical? Yes, but for exactly the opposite reason that Marxists would consider themselves critical theorists. Is Libertarian IR liberal? In a sense, but this has to be defined by contrast.

Notice I haven’t shown anything of the substance of a potential Libertarian IR theory. I don’t mean to say little about such an important subject for mere “industrial secrecy”. The truth is that it’s hard to know the final result.

Don’t Libertarians often refer to “spontaneous order“? So, then: it’s hard to predict, let alone know what a Libertarian IR theory will look like in detail, before obtaining space for it in the discipline.

The ground-clearing exercise of dialogue and antithesis helps open up space for Libertarian IR, but it operates as a constraining and enabling mechanism. When we try to be understood by both statists and state-centrists, when we speak their language, we’ll see that we’re adding originality to the formulation.

It’s not a matter of transposing Hoppe or Spooner, Nozick or Murphy into IR. It’s not a matter of merely developing a “world politics” argument out of the initial approaches. It is, rather, a presentation to the IR audience.

After gaining space, Libertarianism will be speaking to IR, and not anymore to those who listened to it in a past age. Libertarian IR will be similar, but not quite the same.

In dialogue with the IR establishment, or even critical theories, it will be similar to them, but will also smuggle a bit more of liberty into the conversation. In antithesis, it will of course draw a line. In transposition from the initial context to our own discipline, it will be original.

Remember intellectual exercise isn’t enough. Even now, as you read, Leviathan plots against human life, liberty and property. We need scholars, entrepreneurs of theorising, as much as we need second-hand trade in ideas.

Be visible. Be active. Be in the conversation out there. The conversation goes beyond the microcosmos of the university campus. If asked about policy, talk policy. Go to the media. Blog. Talk to people. Influence by example.

Do normative argument, do descriptive theory and by all means make it engage with the general public. Do journalism, punditry, policy advice. Pursue the way of dialogue or the path of antithesis.

Shift the conversation. Give it a new direction.

On growing up in Brazil, political liberty, and religion

Steve Bishop recently interviewed me for his blog and we talked about my personal background, my Christian faith and my interest in Reformational philosophy, a tradition of thought of which Abraham Kuyper was an early proponent and Herman Dooyeweerd, the main exponent.

Here is a personal part of the interview that might be of interest to NOL readers. I answer a question about what influenced my intellectual development:

Another influence I should mention came from people and events that taught me to mistrust the hubris of political authoritarianism. My Italian granddad was a child during World War II and his family never joined the Fascist party. As a result, they had much less access to food and clothes and suffered a lot during the war. This is part of the reason why he later decided to try something new in Brazil. I grew up hearing his stories about the horrors of war. My other grandfather was older and he had been drafted by the Brazilian Army to join the allied forces and fight the axis powers in Italy. But, before shipping to Europe, in the Army base, he decided he shouldn’t go fight the war, so he had to hide for a few years before amnesty was granted for defectors. When I was born, Brazil was still under the rule of a military junta, but later transitioned to a convoluted period of democratic transition. High inflation was destroying people’s livelihoods. I remember running in front of the “price man” at the supermarket to get products for the previous day’s price before the new tags were placed in them. My father got his salary and would have to immediately spend most of it by stocking up groceries for the entire month. This was very early in my childhood, until age nine or so, but I still have vivid memories of the national currency changing name every six months or so. By college time, I was already immune to the idea that politicians are more enlightened than the rest of us.
Then, when I read books such as The Road to Serfdom or, say, Orwell’s 1984, they helped me conceptualize what I had already noticed intuitively. I had already grasped Lord Acton’s maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. If you have, let’s say, an Augustinian view of the potential damage we can cause to fellow human beings if unhampered by checks and balances, then you can easily identify some of the naivete about human nature both right and left on the political spectrum, and that can lead you to the normative point that civil government should be limited in scope.
Further on, I talk about current projects:
In 2018 I delivered the Calihan Lecture at the Acton Institute and applied the notion of sphere sovereignty to interpret the crisis we are facing in the public square. This lecture has recently been published in the Journal of Markets & Morality. Last year I finished a project on the classical liberal background of the anti-revolutionary movement. An article summarising the main findings will come out in the Journal of Church and State in 2021. I didn’t want it to be too controversial and deliberately toned down the argument after the first peer review, but the main point is that Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper fall under the category of “anti-rationalist liberals”, together, of course, with figures such as Lord Acton, Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and others who were, together with the anti-revolutionaries, very critical of the “rationalist liberalism” of, say J.S. Mill or the French liberals. As part of this project, I wrote an epilogue to the Portuguese translation of Kuyper’s speech on the social question, a book chapter for a South African publisher on Christian ethics and entrepreneurship in an interventionist economy.

This, of course, alludes to F.A. Hayek’s distinction between two kinds of liberal tradition, one of which he rejected (rationalist liberalism) in order to embrace the other (anti-rationalist liberalism).

On Abraham Kuyper’s Political Liberalism

My article “Abraham Kuyper and Guillaume Groen van Prinsterer as Anti-Rationalist Liberals” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Church & State and will hopefully be in print in 2021.

In this article, I explore F. A. Hayek’s division of pre-1848 liberalism into two contrasting worldviews — rationalist and anti-rationalist. I argue that both Groen van Prinsterer and Kuyper, two important Dutch Anti-Revolutionary writers, were anti-rationalist liberals.

Both of them are on the record denouncing “liberalism”, but both refer mostly to French liberalism of the rationalist kind. And both admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, cited by Hayek as great exponents of anti-rationalist liberalism.

I hope this article will lead to an interesting conversation as to why the contemporary Kuyperian movement seems to be much more left-wing than the original anti-revolutionaries.

A pre-print version of the article can be viewed on the Oxford Academic website.

 

A Rare Civilized Exchange with the Other Side

I had an unusual experience yesterday and today, a civilized exchange with a liberal. It was on Facebook. I think it’s worth sharing, maybe only as curiosity.


Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S.: I am reading you and your accomplices between the lines. Is it true that you have trouble imagining any Trump supporter as reasonably intelligent, reasonably well informed, and well aware of Mr Trump’s rather obvious shortfalls? Just asking.

S.R.S. to Jacques Delacroix: Speaking only for myself: I don’t have trouble imagining that at all. It helps that I have maintained FB friendships with a number of them, obviously including you, but also others, some of whom I know (or once knew) in real life and not just on FB. I certainly understand that there are those out there who like tax cuts for corporations and individuals (even when slanted toward the already wealthy), who generally want to repeal government regulations on business, and who want highly conservative judges and Justices–all standard Republican fare and key accomplishments of the Trump administration.

I assume many of these conservatives are well aware that Trump has a “room temperature IQ” (quoting you, I believe, but I’m not positive of that), that Trump talks before he thinks (let alone consults with actual experts), and that his rhetoric borders on xenophobic and authoritarian. The mantra is: “don’t worry; he’s not DOING those things, and his talk won’t hurt anything; or at least it will hurt less than if a Democrat were in the White House.”

I’m deeply opposed on the policy positions, and I’m sometimes baffled by some typical conservative positions (e.g., deficits are anathema except when it is a Republican President), but I know there are intelligent people on both sides.

As I said (earlier in this post or somewhere similar), I’m more concerned than those conservatives about the long-term damage being done by the authoritarian and arguably xenophobic rhetoric coming straight from the highest office in the land.

And in general, I’m very concerned about the demonization of political opponents (“Cheatin’ Obama” is one case in point, or calling his political opponents and the reporters in the press “evil” people). Trump didn’t invent it, and the Democrats do some of it too. But I believe the rhetoric has grown exponentially under Trump (after all, a constant refrain of his campaign was that he would imprison his opponent), and I think it is highly corrosive to the possibility of genuine democracy. I am saddened, and scared, by the fact that most conservatives in power and their supporters on the ground either don’t see this as a problem, or see it as less concerning than the possibility of a moderate Democrat in the White House.

Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S. Thanks for taking the trouble. I recognize most of what you are saying and I even agree with some. Certainly, this includes the deficit spending pre-dating the epidemic. Mr Trump is certainly not my idea of a good conservative. (More on this below.) I am baffled by your description of him as authoritarian. He has used executive orders much less than his predecessor. (“I have a pen and a phone.” Obama) He has not bragged about doing so. He has not tried to circumvent the constitutional order. (Whatever he has said, including recently, he has not tried.) I am open to instruction on authoritarianism. It really matters to me. There is nothing I detest more. But, please, limit yourself to deeds; I already know about the logorrhea. As for his being “xenophobic,” it’s one of those political correctness inspired statements I suspect is devoid of meaning. I am obviously a foreigner. “Yes but you are white.” My wife is a woman of color. She voted for him; she will again, without compunction. I feel (feel, don’t know to corroborate it) that your distaste and that of your tribe, and shared by some Republicans, is something else, something like caste rejection. I stated that Mr Trump is not my idea of a good conservative. In this connection, I, but also you, are faced with the following two quandaries about the functioning of our political institutions.

First, how could Mr Trump -with his obvious personal shortcomings – have so easily triumphed in a field of 18 other Rep. candidates, most of whom looked viable? In this connection, I think his ascendancy among blue-collar workers needs to be explained. The Dem Party should do the explaining.

Second, how could the Dem end up producing the enormously damaged good that is Mrs Clinton in 2016. (I know you don’t appreciate name calling, but she is obviously a major crook, in my book.) How could the higher ranks of the Dem Party openly scheme against Sen. Sander? (He is a man I know well because I used to be him, when we were both 25.) I think he is a little dumb but no doubt honest. Plus, his program was clear. He would have given Mr Trump a run for his money, including among people like me who are used to choosing between the lesser of two or more evils. Furthermore, how can the Dem Party, only three years later, come up for a candidate with the mental shipwreck that is Mr Biden? This is downright strange. Conventional explanations just won’t do. As I explained recently [hereBC] , I smell a rat, here again.

PS I don’t think I said that Mr Trump had a room temperature IQ because I don’t believe it for a second. Rather, I must have attributed this belief to liberals. PS2. There are different kinds of name calling. Mr Trump’s schoolyard variety is entertaining and rather innocent as compared to everything else. If it makes his adversaries lose their cool, that’s fine with me. In the 19th century, there was an inspired politician who claimed that his opponent’s sister was a “Thespian.” I like that. Thank for your attention.


S.R.S. declined to pursue this further. He mentioned two books.

All News is Biased

I generally avoid the news because those things are outside my control. But then the pandemic happened and I picked up this bad habit.

I generally get my news from NPR because I trust that they’ll observe the rules of good journalism and it’s easy to adjust for the inevitable leftward bias. Just to be safe, I’ll occasionally check Fox News to mix up the sorts of spin I’m seeing. (Aside: a recent Wisecrack video on biased news has me feeling more optimistic about the existence of a wide range of biased news, even if I’m still pessimistic about most people’s ability to take advantage.)

At first I didn’t see a huge difference. When something happened, both sources report what happens. Both sources do the same basic task of reporting the news. The editorials are certainly different, but I’m not that interested in most opinions. When they’re reporting, the spin is fairly subtle because it’s hard to spin a mostly raw fact.

But after a few weeks, I’ve been finding that the news worsens my mood and offers me little useful information. My time is scarce and my old methods (getting news indirectly from friends, family, and the local paper) worked better. I’m updating my information diet. Besides cutting back on Fox News and NPR, I’m taking a cue from Trump and shifting to a new, prior-confirming, and basically made up news source: OPR. Their stories aren’t literally true, but the act of interpreting them is similar to de-biasing actual news. And for all the effort, I feel as informed as I did last week.

Expect a new, decentralized narrative in the post-Coronavirus world

Introduction

Many analysts have argued that the US and China will continue to be the two most important global players in a post-corona world, but they will not be the sole drivers of the narrative with regard to economic and geopolitical issues. While the US has become insular under Trump and has failed to foster a spirit of international cooperation even during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s suppression of crucial information with regard to the coronavirus has been criticized by a number of countries – not just the US.

During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic itself, many countries have risen to the occasion not just in terms of dealing with the pandemic, but also providing assistance to other countries. This includes the Asian countries of South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, and Western countries like Germany and France, which have both risen to the occasion by speaking up for removal of sanctions against Iran, and also providing financial assistance.

Increasing importance of South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam

If one were to look at the instance of Asia, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and even Vietnam, which has been successful in controlling the virus, are likely to enhance their stature globally, and will become even more relevant in the economic and strategic sense not just in Asia, but on the global stage.

All three countries have provided medical assistance to a number of countries, including the US. Taiwan and Washington have also joined hands to carry out research and to develop a vaccine for finding a cure for the virus.

The success of South Korea and Taiwan blunts the narrative about authoritarian governments being in a position to control the epidemic better, an argument which Beijing has been trying to push. The success of Vietnam has shown that resources are helpful, but not necessary, for handling situations like pandemics. Even with meagre resources, the ASEAN nation has restricted the number of cases and not recorded a single death so far. This has been attributed to the timely response by the country’s leadership. Vietnam has also been able to relax the lockdown and open certain businesses.

India too has been able to contain the spread of the virus and has provided aid and assistance to a number of countries in spite of a paucity of responses.

In a post-corona world, China is not likely to drive the Asian narrative.

Western narrative: Not driven by the US

In the West, while Trump has been criticised for his handling of the coronavirus, Germany has been relatively successful in containing the outbreak of the virus compared to other EU member states. What is interesting is that while Germany has publicly criticised China it has not taken the US stand on a number of issues.

First, along with the UK and France, Germany provided medical assistance to Iran via the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), which had been set up to circumvent sanctions imposed against Iran (the medical assistance reached Iran on March 31, 2020).

Second, when Trump reduced US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Merkel spoke in favor of greater international cooperation, and support to WHO at this point of time, while also indirectly criticizing the step taken by Trump. Even in the past, Merkel has been at variance with Trump on numerous issues including the US approach to Iran and Trump’s approach towards globalization.

Emmanuel Macron too has been critical of China, but not necessarily echoing the US line. Both leaders have also been emphasizing the need for revival of the European Union (EU) and making it relevant.

Conclusion

In a post-corona world, a number of changes are likely to occur in the world order. First, if smaller countries have been successful in dealing with the pandemic their stature will rise, and they will benefit both in economic terms as well as geopolitical clout.

Second, the belief that a democratic system is incapable of dealing with a crisis like the coronavirus has also been challenged.

Third, the international world order will have numerous layers, and the influence of both Washington and Beijing on the narrative are likely to reduce with new players likely to speak up on crucial economic, environmental, and strategic issues. While trade and travel may be restricted, there is a possibility of greater ‘international cooperation’ and a new narrative which does not emanate merely from Washington or Beijing, but collectively from a number of countries.

Finally, cooperation will not be restricted merely to regional blocs or geography. In a number of instances, medical aid and assistance has been extended by one country to another far flung country. The new world order promises to be an interesting one, though it will be complex.

The Biden Rat

I don’t like the crucifixion of poor old Joe Biden (who denied everything today – finally). This, for two unrelated reasons.

First, during the Kavanaugh hearings, I answered firmly the question, “Do women lie?” Yes, some women lie some of the time (as absolutely anyone, male or female, over six well knows.) Do some women lie about sexual harassment? My answer, based on intuition but fed by some experience is also, “Yes.”

I am not changing my mind because it would be convenient to do so. Mr Biden’s accuser deserves to be heard; Mr Biden deserves the civilized presumption of innocence.

Second, and much more importantly, I smell a big rat. I doubt that Republicans would under their own power, resuscitate the charge against Mr Biden because those who live in glass houses…. Rather, I suspect (without proof so far) that there is a concerted effort from the higher ranks of the Dem party to disqualify Mr Biden.

I imagine they have finally understood what a miserable, pathetic candidate Mr Biden is. (For one thing, it’s unthinkable that he could debate Mr Trump on TV.) I think they are engineering a coup, a way to get rid of him, and to replace him at the last minute with someone nobody selected in a primary process. A few names come to mind beginning with Mrs Clinton who is still owed a presidency, somehow.

Or, it was the plan all along and the Dem elite never meant for Mr Biden to be President. Does this sound paranoid? For sure but, do you remember what happened to the Sander candidacy in 2016. Anyone who would have predicted this sort of machination in 2015 would have been called paranoid. I would have joined in.

I am disturbed both by the sheer evilness of what I think is going on, and by the likely noxious consequence for the election. I don’t especially wish for Mr Trump, preoccupied by persecutions with an illegal and an immoral basis (we now know) throughout his administration to be forced to pivot at the last minute and have to face a more vigorous opponent for whom he is not prepared.

Those Republicans who gleefully join in the prosecution/persecution of Mr Biden are not thinking clearly.

Brazil will not become Venezuela

Judge Sérgio Moro has left the Bolsonaro government. Chosen to be Minister of Justice, Moro achieved prominence for leading the Carwash operation that took several corrupt politicians to jail, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Moro’s departure exposes a very serious weakness within the Bolsonaro government, and in the medium term, it will lead to the weakening of the government and the country. According to Moro, his departure is due to attempts by President Bolsonaro to unduly interfere with the Federal Police. Bolsonaro countered the accusations, but the scenario remains shaky for the president. If Moro is speaking the truth, and if he can substantiate what he said with material evidence, this can lead to impeachment and even arrest of the president.

It is important to remember how Bolsonaro came to power. Going back a few decades in the past, Brazil emerged from a military dictatorship in 1985. The years since then have been called the New Republic by Brazilian analysts. One of the most relevant leaders of this period was Fernando Henrique Cardoso. As finance minister (1993-1994) of the Itamar Franco government (1992-1994) and later as president (1995-2002), FHC led a series of reforms that made the country’s economy, previously marked by developmentalism, freer. FHC was succeeded by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010). Historically a radical socialist affiliated with the Workers’ Party, Lula came to power in 2003 promising a moderate government. To a large extent, this promise was kept, but the Lula government was soon hit by serious allegations of corruption. These complaints continued under the government of his successor, Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), who ended up being impeached in 2016. Because of his corrupt actions as president, Lula ended up arrested by Sérgio Moro in 2018. Despite the moderate tone of Lula and Dilma as presidents, throughout their time in power, both signaled measures that resembled their party’s most radical years. This nod often sounded like a threat that both could trigger the bases of their party to take radical measures as was seen in other South American countries that had elected left-wing governments, especially Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. Lula went so far as to declare that in Venezuela under Chavez there was an “excess of democracy”.

It was in the face of multiple corruption scandals and the threat of a radical turn to the left that Jair Bolsonaro gained prominence. For many years an inconsequential politician from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro gained fame with his stripped-down and even pimp language. As early as 2014, he began to be welcomed throughout Brazil under the shouts of “myth” for the open way in which it criticized the “left”. He soon became a popular phenomenon. Although many analysts doubted his viability as a candidate, he ended up winning the presidency.

Unfortunately, Bolsonaro is far from a classic liberal or a Burkean conservative. A retired army captain, he entered politics to defend the interests of his fellow soldiers. In addition, he has always defended Rio de Janeiro’s military police officers, who are constantly accused of human rights abuses. Finally, Bolsonaro has always declared himself an uncompromising admirer of the Military Dictatorship (1964-1985). Although he showed no signs that he would like to extinguish democracy in Brazil (as many analysts on the left feared), he was also unable to see the many damages that the military did to the country during their years in power.

In his practice as president, Bolsonaro shows himself to be an impatient man, unable to respect the bureaucratic procedures of a liberal democracy. Worse than that, if Sérgio Moro’s allegations are true (and there is good reason to believe that Moro is not a frivolous man), Bolsonaro is trying to control the Federal Police to avoid investigations against his eldest son, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, accused of corruption and involvement with militias. There are good reasons to believe that, with the departure of Sérgio Moro, the Bolsonaro government has come to an end.

Fortunately, as Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment demonstrates, Brazil is not Venezuela. Despite its many setbacks and weak record as a liberal democracy, the country still stands out in South America for its record of solid institutions that survived even during anti-liberal governments. Although imperfectly, Brazil has the institutions expected from a classic liberal democracy: division of powers, a bicameral legislature, a supreme federal court, and (at least formal) independence between the powers. Unfortunately, there are high levels of corruption in all of these spheres, largely due to the great attributions of the state provided for in the 1988 Constitution. Much is expected of the state, and the state controls an immense amount of resources. It is said that a thief was once asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is,” was his reply. Likewise, there is a good reason why many people enter politics in Brazil.

There are crucial reforms that need to be made in Brazil if the country is to become a viable democracy. Fortunately, many of these reforms have been made in the past. Since its independence from Portugal in 1822, the country has, at least superficially, classic liberal institutions. Never has a head of government in Brazil dared to govern without a constitution, as was the case in other South American countries. Bolsonaro’s impeachment, if confirmed, will be a major blow, but it will not destroy Brazil. But it also shows that, more than populist politicians, Brazil needs leaders who will lead it to a deeper liberalism. Popular support for this type of reform exists, but it is contrasted by the desire for a “myth”.

A very short note on despotism

Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.

However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).

Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)

Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.

Ron Paul’s Revolution: Looking back

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States. It was a historic moment. The United States of America had elected its first black President. I remember listening to the president’s inaugural speech on the radio. (I was driving from the Lake Tahoe area to Santa Cruz, officially moving to the Monterey Bay along with my girlfriend at the time, who had been accepted into UC Santa Cruz while we were in Ghana.) I got chills that ran down my spine. My nipples got hard. The hair on my arm stood up, revealing goosebumps.

I had enough respect for the republic’s history to know that I was listening to one of its greatest triumphs. A member of an ethnic minority, and a group that had been viciously oppressed at that, had been elected to the republic’s highest-ranking democratic office. American society was evolving in a way that made me proud. It was cool, but my elation was tampered due to a different evolution that was going on in my own way of thinking. My thoughts about how societies worked had been radically altered thanks to the presidential candidacy of a little-known Republican Congressman from Texas: Ron Paul.

I came across Ron Paul via YouTube videos that had been shared on MySpace. I was a product of the California public school system. The public school system has two tiers: a good one for rich people and an awful one for the rest of us. I came from a single parent household. My mother had a college degree and was part of the California public school system, but we were still in the “poor” category. In California’s public schools, a binary way of thinking about civics is introduced and hammered home from the age of 5 to the age of 18. Democrats are liberals who prefer higher taxes, listen to scientists, and believe in change, while Republicans are conservatives who prefer lower taxes, listen to Protestant ministers, and believe in maintaining the status quo. This is not a caricature. I believe this is how most Americans viewed civics up until the moment Ron Paul arrived on the national scene via his back-and-forth with Rudy Guilliani.

In short, I was uneducated but enthusiastic about reading and especially history. I had no career at that point in time (I was an informal carpenter’s apprentice from March through November, and a sandwich maker during the rainy holiday season). I became obsessed with Ron Paul videos online. I watched them over and over. I had never heard arguments like his before. I had no idea that you could be a Republican and be against wars on terrorism and drugs. I had no idea Democrats could be so “pragmatic” when it came to these wars. I watched Ron Paul over and over again. Instead of trying to soundbyte his message, he spoke of responsibility and hard money and corporations taking advantage of regulations to enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else. Never had I heard such ideas before!

I was slow to follow up on his reading suggestions, though. I went almost immediately to the websites of Lew Rockwell and the Mises Institute but what I found there was too radical for me. It was too straightforward. They were speaking of things that I considered, due to my public schooling and religious background, to be taboo. There was a hint of racism in some of the articles I saw at these sights. Perhaps because of the cruddy schooling I got in California, I was at the time of Ron Paul’s revolution a left-wing conspiracist of sorts. I marched against the invasion of Iraq in San Francisco. I marched in 2003 and 2004, when opposition was its zenith. I shared Immortal Technique’s music videos on MySpace (you know the ones). I proudly spouted socialist views online and at parties. Republicans were conservatives, and therefore racists and religious bigots. The whole of the American Right was thus unfit for my company.

Yet, slowly and surely, I kept visiting these two sites. The site I visited most often, though, was Campaign for Liberty, run by Anthony Gregory. It served as Ron Paul’s official campaign website and continued to drum up support and solidarity months after Obama had already been sworn into office. The authors on this site kept imploring me to check out this ‘n’ that from the Mises Institute or lewrockwell.com or Jacob Hornberger’s Future of Freedom Foundation. It was a long, slow process. Some of the things said on these sites never sat well with me. Yet, there were also articles on Native American reservations, anti-war movements in the American past, how property rights could save the environment, and how to bring down big corporations.

I gave in. Once the intellectual floodgates were opened, I found FEE, the Independent Institute, Cato, Reason, Cafe Hayek, EconLog, and Liberty. I read libertarian thought every day. I checked Campaign for Liberty when I woke up. During this time I decided to enroll in college. I enrolled at Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz. Cabrillo is located on the beach. It attracts PhDs. My professors there had doctorates from schools like Columbia, Cal and UCLA, UC San Diego, Washington University in Saint Louis, and a plethora of other good second-tier public universities. Ron Paul inspired me to learn, to think for myself.

Next: A libertarian’s education

Be Our Guest: “Those Astonishing Reversals on the Political Left”

Jack Curtis is back:

The Democrats stood firm for Catholics and Jews while the Protestants who ran things tended to minimize or exclude them; today their Obamacare forces the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor to fund abortions while Barack Obama was called the most anti–Israel president in America’s history. Regardless, a substantial majority of Catholics and Jews reliably continue to vote for Democratic candidates. Perhaps that’s a clue to the historically temporary nature of democracy?

Read the rest of his “Be Our Guest” article. I’ll be waiting patiently for someone (including Jack, if he;s up for it), to give the same treatment to Republicans. By all means, Be Our Guest.