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 west, 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?)
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!
There aren’t many signs that the French will soon free themselves from the trap they have sprung on themselves. The Macron administration had been elected to do something precisely about the strangling effect of taxation on French economic life and, on individual freedom. (The latter message may have been garbled during his campaign.) Are there any solutions in sight for the French crisis of psychic poverty, framed by both good social services and high taxes?
I see two kinds of obstacles to reform. The first is comprised of collective cognitive and of attitudinal deficiencies. The second, paradoxically, is a feature of French society that American progressives would envy if they knew about it.
Cognition and attitudes
After four months of weekly demonstrations, the gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) protesters had not found the language to articulate clearly their frustration. I mean, at least those who were left protesting. They seem to be falling back increasingly on crude views of “social justice” (“les inégalités”) as if, again, the issue was never to produce more, or to retain more of what they produce, but only to confiscate even more from the (fleeing) rich. Over the many years of democratic socialism, French culture has lost the conceptual vocabulary that would be necessary to plan an exit out of the impasse. Here is an example of this loss: In the past twenty years of reading and watching television in French almost every day, I have almost never come across the single word “libéral.” (That would be in the old English meaning of “market oriented.”) The common, nearly universal term is “ultra-libéral.” It’s as if favoring an analysis inclined toward market forces could not possibly exist without being “ultra,” which denotes extremism.
What started as a fairly subtle insult against those who discreetly appreciate capitalism has become fixed usage: You want more free market? You are a sort of fanatic. This usage was started by professional intellectuals, of course (of which France has not shortage). Then, it became a tool tacitly to shut off certain ideas from the masses, all the while retaining the words derogatory muscle. So, in France today, one can easily think of oneself as a moderate socialist – on the center left – but there is no balancing position on the center right. (3) It makes it difficult to think clearly, and especially to begin to think clearly about politics. After all, what young person wants to be an extremist, except those who are really extremists?
I saw recently online a French petition asking that French economist Frédéric Bastiat’s work be studied in French schools. Bastiat is one of the clearest exponents of fundamental economics. His contribution is not as large or as broad as Adam Smith’s but it’s more insightful, in my judgment. (He is the inventor of the “broken window” metaphor, for instance.) He also wrote unusually limpid French. Bastiat has not been part of secondary studies in France in my lifetime. His name is barely known at the university level. Marx and second, and third-rate Marxists, on the other hand, are omnipresent. (Some cynics would claim that whatever their conversation, the educated French do not read Bastiat, or A. Smith, but neither do they really read Marx!)
Few, in France, are able to diagnose the malaise that grips the country because it has ceased to have a name. The handful who understand capitalism are usually allergic to it because it does not guarantee equal outcomes. A minority, mostly business people, grasp well enough how it works and how it has pulled most of humanity out of poverty but they are socially shamed from expressing this perception. There is little curiosity among the French about such questions as why the American GDP/capita is 35% higher than the French. They treat this information as a sort of deed of Nature. Or, for the more ideological, among them, it’s the sad result of America’s unfairness to itself. A debate that ought to take place is born dead. How did this happen? Socialists of my generation, most good democrats, born during and right after WWII largely, early on took over the media and the universities. They have shaped and constrained public opinion since at least the sixties. They have managed to stop discussions of alternative economic paths without really conspiring to do so, possibly without even meaning to.
A really deep state
In 1945, after the long night of the 1940 defeat and of the Nazi occupation, many French people where in a mood to engender a new society. They created a number of novel government organizations designed to implement their vision of clean government but also, of justice. (They took prosperity for granted, it seems.) One of the new organizations was a post-graduate school especially designed to ensure that access to the highest levels of the government bureaucracy would be democratic and meritocratic. It’s called, “École Nationale d’Administration” (ENA). It accepts only graduates of prestigious schools. The ENA students’ per capita training costs are about seven times the average cost for all other higher education students. ENA students are considered public servants and they receive a salary. France thus possesses a predictably renewed cadre of trained administrators to run its government. And, repeating myself here, its members are chosen according to a strictly meritocratic process (unlike the most prestigious American universities, for example), a process that is also extremely selective.
In 2019, ENA is flourishing. The school has contributed four presidents and eight Prime Ministers to-date. Its graduates are numerous among professional politicians, as you might expect. In addition, they are teeming in the highest ranks of the civil service, and also of business. That’s because they go back and forth between the two worlds, with some benefit to their careers and to their wallets. This iteration does not imply corruption. Mostly, ENA graduates do not have a reputation for dishonesty at all. They help one another but it’s mostly above board. (4) This being said, it’s difficult to become really poor if you are an ENA graduate.
Graduates of ENA are often disparagingly described as a “caste,” which is sociologically inaccurate because caste is inherited. The word is meant to render a certain collective attitude of being smugly sealed from others. The intended meaning is really that of “upper caste,” of Brahman caste, to signify: those who think they possess all the wisdom.
All ENA graduates have made it to the top by taking the same sort of exam. The style of exams and the way they are corrected become known over time. Naturally, ENA candidates study to the exam. The ENA formula for success is not a mystery although it’s not just a formula; ENA also requires a sharp intelligence and character. ENA graduates have important traits in common, including a willingness to spend their adolescence cramming for increasingly difficult competitive exams. There are few charming dilettantes in their ranks. They all emerge from a process that does not reward imagination.
ENA graduates – dubbed “énarques” – seem overwhelmingly to share a certain view of the desirable interface between government and the economy. It’s not hard to guess at, based on thousands of their speeches reproduced in the media, and with the help of a little familiarity with French classical education. Its origin is neither in capitalism nor in socialism. (Sorry for the only slightly misleading title of this essay.) It predates both by 100-150 years. It’s rooted in the well known story of the Minister Colbert’s 17th century economic reforms. (It’s well known in the sense that every French school kid knows his name and a thing or two about the reforms themselves.) Colbert (1619-1683) raised tariffs, regulated production in minute detail and, above all, he created with public funds whole industries where none existed, in glass, in porcelain, but also in textiles, and others. I believe his main aim was only to increase government (royal) revenue but others think differently. At any rate, there is a widespread belief that general French prosperity rose under his administration.
To make matters worse, Colbert is a historical figure easy to like: hard working, honest, an effective patron of the arts. With such a luminary to look up to, it’s fairly effortless to ignore both the actual disorderly origins of capitalism, and also the initially compassionate roots of its socialist counter-reaction. (On capitalism’s origins, and originality, you might consult my entry: “Capitalism.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell Publishing. Vol. 2, Malden, Mass. 2006. Make sure of that particular edition – 2006 – my predecessors and successors were mostly opaque Marxist academic lowlifes.)
For seventy years, French economic policy has thus been made largely by deeply persuaded statists, people who think rule from above natural (especially as it takes place within a broadly democratic framework), who judge government intervention in economic matters to be necessary, fruitful, and virtuous, people who believe that government investment is investment, people who have given little thought to private enterprise, (although they occasionally pay lip service to it, largely as if it were a kind of charity). Almost none of them, these de facto rulers, is a bad person. Their pure hearts make them all the more dangerous, I believe. The result is there in France for all to see: a sclerotic economy that has failed to provide enough jobs for fifty years, a modest standard of living by the criteria of societies that industrialized in the nineteenth century, a worsening unease about the future, a shortage of the freedom of small pleasures for the many.
I do not use the conventional words of “tyranny” or “despotism” here because both are normally more less deliberately imposed on the populace. Nothing of the sort happened in France. On the contrary, lack of individual freedom in France is the accumulated consequence of measures and programs democratically adopted within the framework described above. Together, these well-meaning social programs are squeezing the liveliness out of all but the upper layers of French society.
There exists in the country a growing resentment of the énarques’ basically anti-capitalist rule. One recent president, Sarkozy, even declared he partly owed his election to bragging about not being a graduate from ENA. Yet, the thousands of énarques permanently at the levers of command for seventy years are not about to relinquish them, irrespective of the political party or parties in power. Few groups controlling as much as they ever does so voluntarily. The deep sentiment of their collective virtuousness will make them even more intransigent. Most French critics believe that the énarquesare incapable of changing as a cadre, precisely because they are really an intellectual elite of sorts, precisely because they are not corrupt. And, as I remarked above, ENA’s statist (“socialist”) reign has lasted so long that the French people in general have lost track of the very conceptual vocabulary an anti-bureaucrat rebellion would require. (We know what we don’t want, but what do we want?)
(3) It’s true also that historical accidents have deprived France of a normal Tory party. Its place is currently occupied by reactionary nationalists (currently the “Rassemblement national,” direct descendant of the “Front National,” of Marine Le Pen) who don’t favor market forces much more than does the left.
(4) I take the ENA graduates’ reputation for probity seriously because, right now, as I write, there are clamors for abolishing the school but its generating corruption in any way is not one of the reasons advanced.
I understand things are not the same everywhere in the World, but until just a few years ago, to call yourself “right-wing” in Brazil was virtually unthinkable. The reasons for that are not totally clear, but the fact is that “right-wing” was a name with a very bad connotation. Brazil went through a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. This dictatorship was set in place to prevent a perceived communist threat in the country, especially after the Cuba Revolution of 1959. Therefore, it was an anticommunist dictatorship.
My understanding is that, because of that, to be “right-wing” in Brazil was understood as “being in favor of dictatorship”, and left-wing to be “for democracy”. Of course, examining things with just a little more care, nothing could be further from the truth. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were no democrats. Actually, the military dictatorship in Cuba lives on. Mao Zedong was a horrendous dictator. So were Stalin and Lenin. There is no reason to believe that Trotsky would have been any less authoritarian.
There is no reason to believe that the socialists/communists in Brazil would have been democratic once in power. But they didn’t come to power, and because of that people could fuel the romantic image of revolutionaries unjustly persecuted by the military. Although I disagree with Brazilian philosopher Olavo de Carvalho in many points, I believe he is totally right on this: the military in Brazil was great in fighting the communist guerrilla. Thanks to them, we don’t have something similar to FARC in Brazil today. But when it came to propaganda and cultural war they were just awful. Communists in Brazil (and in other places) were great in selling the image of Che Guevara as a romantic hero fighting against the evil North-American Imperialism.
And this is the paradigm I grew up with. Either you are a freedom fighter, opposing evil capitalists and imperialism, or you are subservient to foreign powers and injustice. Considering this background, of course, nobody would like to be called right-wing. However, things changed.
One of the things that made me turn right was studying the right-wing political ideologies. I discovered that classical liberals and conservatives were not against the poor, just the opposite. The best example I can think of is Adam Smith: his Wealth of Nations is actually a love letter for those who are oppressed by unjust economic exploitation. What Adam Smith was trying to find out is what makes the lives of the simple people better. His answer, in a nutshell, was the free market. Similarly, the Founding Fathers were trying to give the common folk a better living without oppression. And they did. Very different from all the leftist revolutions. In short, free markets and liberal democracy work.
The second thing that made me turn right was the hypocrisy of some leftists. I realized that they want you to have freedom of choice, but only if you choose what they want. If you feel you have homosexual inclinations, they want you to have the freedom to embrace homosexuality. And so do I! But God forbid (or Marx forbid) you decide (for whatever reason) to fight homosexuality and become (or remain) straight. They want women to have the freedom to get jobs. But they don’t want them to have the freedom to stay home to raise the kids. The examples are many, but the summary is this: I realized that many leftists are not ready to defend your right to be different.
I’m really sorry that things come down to what two consenting adults do in a closed room. I really am. But it seems to me that much of the leftist agenda is to have the freedom to choose only if you choose what they want. And this is what made me turn right: to accept other peoples choices as much as I want them to accept mine. Liking it or not.
- Why the left needs “bottom” Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- How Adam Smith proposed to have his cake and eat it too Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Can relationship anarchy create a world without heartbreak? Sophie Hemery, Aeon
- The Lies We Were Told Simon Wren-Lewis, Mainly Macro