The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

I have appointed myself an old sage to the world. When your knees are creaky and every snotty eighteen-year-old treats you patronizingly, the least you can do to compensate is award yourself wisdom. Anyway, long story short, it’s a good excuse to spend much time on Facebook. I feel I am rendering a public service. I am continuing my teaching career there. It’s unpaid but the conditions are much better and all the students actually want to be in class.

Of course, it’s also true that Facebook is addictive. It’s not a bad addiction. For this old guy, it’s almost incredible to have frequent conversations with an MD in Pakistan, my niece in India, an old girlfriend in Panama, a young friend’s wife in Japan, and of course, many different kinds of French people. I even have a Facebook friend who lives in the mountains of Algeria; we have lively talks in French. Recently, a young woman who described herself as a Myanmar village girl reached out. (I know what you are thinking but if she is really one of those internet sex trolls, I salute the originality of her marketing strategy.) At all times a day and night, I have at least one Facebook friend who is not asleep. It’s pleasant in these days of confinement.

The same confinement, perhaps, slows me down and makes me more likely to tally up everything. As a result, a new impression has pierced my consciousness. Expressing contempt for democracy seems to be in vogue among people who identify as libertarians (with a small “l,” big “L” Libertarians have nearly vanished from my world. It could just be me.) This contempt reminds me that I have been asking the same question of libertarianism for now about fifty years, all with not much success.

I refer to the question of transition. I mean, what is it supposed to look like moving from wherever we are, in terms of governance, to a society with a drastically diminished government interference in individual lives? I have been receiving evasive answers, answers that don’t make even superficial sense, and swift escapes effected by changing the subject.

Let me say right away that I am not looking for a crushing reading assignment (a common punitive, passive-aggressive maneuver among intellectuals). Mine is a simple question. One should be able to sketch a rudimentary answer to it. Then, it would be up to me to follow through. Then, no excuse!

To my mind, there are only two extreme transition scenarios. One is the Somali scenario. The state falls apart under its own incapacity to limit internal aggression. It disappears or nearly so. When the point is reached where government authority extends only three blocks from the presidential palace to the north and east, and one block from the south and east, you pretty much have a stateless society. Goal reached!

The second scenario is a gradual change from the current “democratic” arrangements. I mean by this fair and reasonably honest elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power. I mean freedom of expression. And, disturbingly, this also includes courts of law. This is disturbing because courts without enforcement of their decisions are not really courts. This fact implies the threat of coercion, of course.

Now, I can imagine a situation like right now with the Corona Virus epidemic when governments (plural) demonstrate on a large scale their inability to do the obvious. The citizens often react to this sort of demonstration by asking for better and more government. However, it does not have to be that way. The combination of wide communication through the internet and – like now – of enforced leisure – may switch the dial. It’s conceivable that large numbers will get the idea that government that is at once heavy-handed, expensive, and incapable is not a good answer to much of anything. With that scenario one can imagine a collective demand for less government.

Strangely, this sort of scenario may be on display in France now, as I write. Well, this is not so strange after all. A deeply statist society where govt absorbs 55% of GDP and up may be exactly the best place to figure out that more government is not the answer. From this thought to the idea that less government may be the answer there is but one step. My intuition though is that it’s a big step. That’s because few people understand markets. No one but a handful of college professors seems to have read the moral philosopher Adam Smith. (Tell me that I am wrong.)

So, I would like for those who are more advanced than I am on this issue of transition (a low bar) to engage me. I am not interested in the same old ethical demonstrations though. Yes, the state is an instrument of coercion and therefore, evil. I already know this. In the meantime, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does a fair job of protecting my freedom of speech, my freedom, of thought, my freedom of religion. I am not eager to leave this behind for the complete unknown. Are you? Why? How?

Be Our Guest: “Government: The Great Post-Christian Swindle”

Jack Curtis is back as our guest, and with a thoughtful vengeance:

It is no coincidence that Reformed Judeo-Christian culture has led the explosion of human progress in recent centuries; it both set up the church as society’s and government’s visible conscience, and by reversing sovereignty from king to people, freed incalculable individual effort into the more productive directions celebrated by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. The first provided a foundation for the reduced corruption and enhanced public trust that advance economic progress; the second accelerated human achievement. Tales of extraordinary human accomplishment have always centered upon motivated individuals, ordered serfdom has never been considered very productive and slavery, least of all. This is a reality typically brushed off by those selling the idea that alterations of government structure can be used to alter innate human behavior. The idea however, remains an enduring political swindle enshrined among public educators naturally interested in producing complaisant citizens for their employer.

Read the rest, and don’t forget to add your own thoughts. As always, feel free to Be Our Guest

Nightcap

  1. Adam Smith and international relations Edwin van de Haar, AdamSmithWorks
  2. Adam Smith: a historical historical detective Nick Cowen, NOL
  3. Adam Smith: why I turned right Bruno Gonçalves Rosi, NOL
  4. Adam Smith: taxes, free riding, and federation Notes On Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Keeping the cow and brahmin apart TM Krishna, the Hindu
  2. A leftist view of Peru’s recent elections Dan Collyns, Guardian
  3. Adam Smith and a science of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Socialism via futarchy Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

Nightcap

  1. The divine right of the majority Pierre Lemieux, EconLog
  2. Overcoming the Mormon legacy on race Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  3. A sympathetic liberty Brent Orrell, Law & Liberty
  4. Free speech on the shoals of ideology Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Nightcap

  1. The greatness of Milton Friedman Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Adam Smith vs Friedrich Nietzsche Graham McAleer, Law & Liberty
  3. Canada between a Xi and a hard place Bruno Maçães, Twitter
  4. Justin Raimondo, RIP Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review

Federation, not unilateralism, ought to be the American Libertarian’s foreign policy

This is an expanded post that stems from a conversation I have been having with Bruno and Jacques in the ‘comments’ threads. The conversation is more about the nation-state than the unilateralism/federation non-debate, but I thought that’s why it’d make a good post.

The Nation-State

Nation-states are often considered to be sacred territory to conservative libertarians (see Jacques or Edwin, for example), even if they don’t use the word “sacred.” A nation-state is a geographic territory that is supposed to be made up of a single nation. Thus the French live in France, the Germans in Germany, the Greeks in Greece, etc. You can see the problem with this logic right away: what about the people who don’t fit into the idea of what a nation should be? How do religious minorities, for example, or your neighbor who speaks only Romanian, fit in? How are they a part of the nation? (Ludwig von Mises wrote one of the better critiques of the nation-state way back in 1919, using the Austro-Hungarian Empire as an example.)

Nation-states arose in Europe after centuries of horrific warfare and genocidal campaigns, such as the Holocaust, and only came into being elsewhere in the world with the fall of the European empires after World War II. These empires, which never had a good grasp on the territories they claimed as their own to begin with, rebuilt the international order around the ideas of state sovereignty and the nation-state. Part of this had to do with the fact that their own empires had reverted to a form of nation-state (the UK, France, etc., instead of the British, or French, Empire), and part of it had to do with the idea that Asians and Africans deserved a stage on the international scene. (This latter idea was pushed by left-wing Europeans and Asians and Africans who believed their colonies could easily make the transition from colony to nation-state.) The colonies of the European empires, which had been patched together slowly over hundreds of years, did not take nationality into consideration in matters of governance, unless it was to explicitly crush any notions of nationhood among the colonized.

So, the nation-states of Europe and, to a much lesser extent, North and Latin America, have a long history of violence, politics, law, and trade (among other factors) that bolster their legitimacy as organizational entities and their place in the world. The states that formed in the ashes of the European empires had no nations to speak of and entered a world order that wanted to treat these new states as if they did have such a nation.

Nation-building

Since there were suddenly a bunch of new states in the world without nations in them, elites in these new, post-imperial states had to begin nation-building. Barry has a great series, soon to be enshrined as a Longform essay, on Turkish nationalism here at NOL. James Gelvin, a historian at UCLA, has done some good work on nationalism in the Middle East (here is a review of one such work). Eugen Weber (UCLA) and David Bell (Princeton), both historians, have written excellent examples of how Paris went about molding people within France’s territory into French citizens.

In most of the post-imperial cases, elites were proponents of secularism and inclusivity. Elites in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, for example, made a concerted effort to protect the rights of minorities and women, even going so far as to include them in key aspects of governing these new states. Indeed, when the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was chased from power by the Americans in 2003, Iraq’s Christians, women, and other minorities suffered most because the Hussein regime protected them from the (conservative and religious) majority. The same thing happened when the American-backed Shah of Iran was overthrown by Islamists in 1979. Elites in the post-imperial world wanted their societies to be nation-states (in fact, they needed them to be, so that they could get the attention of Western allies), but they thought they could get there through the prism of nationalism.

Minorities, rights, and nations

Nation-building in the post-imperial world has gone about as smoothly as it went in Europe. War has been an ongoing problem (most of it has been intrastate instead of interstate), and genocides have occurred. The intrastate wars are easiest to understand. Elites are trying to build a nation to populate a state (which is just a former colony of a European empire). Those that don’t fit in to the idea of what it means to be a part of X nation, perish, or are harshly oppressed (such as the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, or the Balochs in Iran and Pakistan).

Religion has also been a problem. Most leaders in these new nation-states tried to establish secular regimes, but were also believers in democracy. Unfortunately, secularism and democracy are incompatible without liberty. If Saddam Hussein or Shah Pahlavi had tried to hold elections, Islamists would have been voted into office, just as they routinely are in Egypt and Palestine. India, a former British colony that was perhaps the most intimately connected to its imperial overlord, is sliding back into Hindu theocracy as well. Without robust protections for property rights (or “bundles of rights“), elections will continue to be oppressive for minorities thanks to religious conservatives.

This does not mean that Muslims are incapable of secular self-governance, either, as some libertarians are wont to argue. In fact, the first nation-states of Europe were governed by religious conservatives. The struggle between religious conservatives and liberals was a slow, violent evolution that eventually turned in favor of the liberals, especially after they began to secure their property rights more effectively.

Federation, status quo, imperialism

My argument is that it would better – i.e. more libertarian – to make citizens out of these post-imperial states, rather than members of a nation, by incorporating them into federal or confederal systems that have experience with large, disparate, democratically-governed populations. The United States should just start inviting people from all over the world to petition for statehood within its federation. The elites trying to govern the failed nation-states of the post-imperial world would not appreciate this, of course, but who cares? They would be better off as citizens, too.

Imperialism is still a bad idea. It was bad when Adam Smith railed against it in 1776. It was bad when F.A. Hayek pointed out its moral failings in 1960. It is still bad today, in 2019.

The status quo is somewhere in between imperialism and federation. In my view, the status quo leans toward the latter, at least when it comes to the United States (the polity where I am a citizen). The invasion and occupation of Iraq wasn’t quite old-style imperialism, but neither was it an attempt at federation between at least two separate polities. One good thing that I thought was a lesson learned from the Iraqi disaster is that invading and occupying a foreign country is a bad idea. It’s an even worse idea when you declare that your enemy is the regime of a failed nation-state rather than the people living in it. That’s no way to fight a war. (This is a brutal notion, but a realistic one. If you’re going to invade and occupy a foreign country, and impose your will upon its inhabitants, and consider yourself a free and open society, you’re going to need a population that hates everything about that foreign country. If your population does not hate everything, or even just a few things, about said foreign country, why on earth would you invade and occupy it?)

Post script

I got my copy of Paul Feyerabend‘s Against Method in the mail last week. I’ll be blogging my thoughts as I read through it. Rick has already started in. Federico has some excellent stuff on the philosophy of science coming up, too. And, of course, Bill has already been blogging about Feyerabend. You’ll be hearing more from him, too. Andrei also has some thoughts on Feyerabend. Hopefully, some of the other Notewriters will chime in as well!