Nightcap

  1. Trotsky and the wild orchids Richard Rorty, P&SH
  2. Radicalising Hayekian constitutionalism Jonathan Crowe, UQLJ
  3. De facto states in the international system Scott Pegg, WP #21
  4. The WEIRDest people in the world? Nicholas Guyatt, Guardian

Nightcap

  1. The American Founders’ priceless legacy Myron Magnet, New Criterion
  2. The gonzo constitutionalism of the American Right Corey Robin, NYRB
  3. Britain at the end of history Robert Saunders, New Statesman
  4. Law’s disorder in Nigeria Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, LMD

The Westphalian myth

Was the Peace of Westphalia and its implications for state sovereignty one big myth?

The apparently ineradicable notion (repeated even by many recent historians of the war) that the Peace of Westphalia sanctioned the “sovereignty” of Switzerland and the Netherlands and their independence from the empire demonstrates this. In the case of the Swiss it is based on a willful (and sometimes uninformed) interpretation of the relevant clause in the treaties, giving it a meaning that its drafters did not intend. And as to the Dutch the treaties do not even deal with them.

The complete autonomy of Switzerland vis-a-vis the empire was uncontroversial in practice, and the Swiss were reluctant to have anything to do with the peace congress. If they eventually allowed themselves to be represented there by the burgomaster of Basel, it was because this city had only joined the Swiss confederation after the other cantons had had their autonomy recognized in a treaty of 1499. The supreme courts of the empire (more particularly, the Imperial Cameral Tribunal) did not consider Basel to be exempt from their jurisdiction and allowed lawsuits against Basel and its citizens, a situation that had caused continual irritation. For this reason Basel insisted on having the immunity of the entire confederation reconfirmed in such a way that it would cover Basel, too. The request was granted, and a clause to that effect included in the treaties. This clause, which explicitly names Basel as its initiator and beneficiary, restates the immunity (exemptio) of the Swiss cantons from the jurisdiction of the empire and their complete autonomy (plena libertas).

Read the rest (pdf). All you Holy Roman Empire fans will enjoy it, too.

Nightcap

  1. Hayek (Streeck, Hazony) and world federation and colonialism Eric Schliesser, Digressions & Impressions
  2. The new secessionism Jason Sorens, Modern Age
  3. Winning the court, losing the constitution John Grove, Law & Liberty
  4. The quest for German national identity Anna Corsten, JHIBlog

Nightcap

  1. The meaning of Amy Coney Barrett Ross Douthat, NY Times
  2. What does Ruth Bader Ginsburg mean for women? Amy Wax, CRB
  3. Talking about a constitutional restoration Titus Techera, L&L
  4. Give it away (Marcel Mauss) David Graeber, Free Words

Nightcap

  1. The high stakes of quantum computing Edward Luttwak, American Affairs
  2. A metaphor for the socialist calculation debate Rick Weber, NOL
  3. The American constitution and its consequences (pdf) Mittal, et al, NBER
  4. NATO’s strategic malaise Sara Bjerg Moller, War on the Rocks

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 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?

Nightcap

  1. Four types of labor and the epidemic Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  2. Republicans, Democrats, and coronavirus Ronald Brownstein, Atlantic
  3. War with Iran: Regrets only Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. Taiwan’s robust constitutionalism and coronavirus Wen-Chen Chang, Verfassungsblog

Nightcap

  1. Three strands of anti-federalist thought Nathan Coleman, Law & Liberty
  2. Globalization and postcolonial states Gupta & Sharma, Current Anthropology
  3. On the question of urban utopianism Philip Ball, homunculus
  4. Auschwitz and the new anti-Semitism Simon Schama, Financial Times

Nightcap

  1. Magna Carta for the world? Daniel Hulsebosch, NC Law Review
  2. Restoring the global judiciary Jeremy Rabkin, Law & Liberty
  3. The costs of Poland’s resistance Richard Overy, History Today
  4. Towards indigenous-settler federalism Dylan Lino, Public Law Review

Nightcap

  1. Outlaw universities (affirmative action) Michael Huemer, Fake Nous
  2. The case against judicial supremacy Marc DeGirolami, Law & Liberty
  3. Another case against executive supremacy David Cohen, Politico
  4. From outer space, the Earth is mostly blue Margarette Lincoln, Literary Review

Nightcap

  1. In praise of the “People’s Decade” Brendan O’Neill, spiked!
  2. Townes Van Zandt and Econ 101 Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. Modi’s populism is the result of too much democracy Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
  4. Towards a more Faulknerian US foreign policy Bruce Jentleson, War on the Rocks

Nightcap

  1. American war crimes and collective guilt Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. The fringe and the moderates on the left and the right Arnold Kling, askblog
  3. Some thoughts on the Best of Enemies series (1968) Rick Weber, NOL
  4. Impeachment, the constitution, and civil literacy Adrian Ang U-Jin, American Interest

Entangling alliances, Donald Trump, and a new libertarian alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washingtonian alliances throughout American history

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

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

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

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

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

NATO’s continued importance

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

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

The forgotten alternative

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

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

Nightcap

  1. Can we still learn from Lincoln? Forrest Nabors, Law & Liberty
  2. On Brexit and beyond Lionel Barber, Financial Times
  3. On Morocco’s most revered leftist Khalid Lyamlahy, Los Angeles Review of Books
  4. 2015: France’s bad year Andrew Hussey, Literary Review