Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.


What’s the difference between open borders and Open Borders?

There are two meanings here. I’ll define them below:

  • There are open borders, where borders are open and anyone can move between them
  • There are Open Borders, where borders to rich states are open to people from poor states, but the borders to poor states are closed to immigration

Open borders are fairer than closed borders. If people can move from poor states to rich ones, that’s good. But what about people who want to move from rich states to poor ones? Open Borders addresses the first issue but not the second one. Libertarians are enamored with the second type of open borders these days, for a couple of reasons. The main reason, and the only one I’m going to name here, is that most of us are pragmatic and therefore support any kind of liberalization in labor markets we can get. If we can get our respective polities to open up their borders to poor migrants, so be it. Let’s do this in any way we can.

But what we are advocating for is not open borders. It’s labor market liberalization. I understand the need for sloganeering these days. I get it. Y’all are thinking on the margin. I’m all for Open Borders.

How, though, do we get actual open borders?

How can senior citizens from the US have the freedom to choose retirement in not only Florida or Oregon, but Tamaulipas or Veracruz, too?

How can middle class Californians have the freedom to choose between not only Texas or Colorado for relocation, but Chihuahua or Neuvo Leon?

My answer is, of course, federation, but I also realize my argument is politically unfeasible for the time being (even though it’s an old argument). Any other ideas, or is Open Borders the best we can do for now?

Taxes, Free-riding, and Federation

Check out Adam Smith complaining about the rent-seeking that the UK’s North American colonies were practicing back in 1776:

The expence of the ordinary peace establishment of the colonies amounted, before the commencement of the present disturbances, to the pay of twenty regiments of foot; to the expence of the artillery, stores, and extraordinary provisions with which it was necessary to supply them; and to the expence of a very considerable naval force which was constantly kept up, in order to guard, from the smuggling vessels of other nations, the immense coast of North America, and that of our West Indian islands. The whole expence of this peace establishment was a charge upon the revenue of Great Britain, and was, at the same time, the smallest part of what the dominion of the colonies has cost the mother country. If we would know the amount of the whole, we must add to the annual expence of this peace establishment the interest of the sums which, in consequence of her considering her colonies as provinces subject to her dominion, Great Britain has upon different occasions laid out upon their defence. We must add to it, in particular, the whole expence of the late war, and a great part of that of the war which preceded it. The late war was altogether a colony quarrel, and the whole expence of it, in whatever part of the world it may have been laid out, whether in Germany or the East Indies, ought justly to be stated to the account of the colonies. It amounted to more than ninety millions sterling, including not only the new debt which was contracted, but the two shillings in the pound additional land tax, and the sums which were every year borrowed from the sinking fund.

This comes from Book 4, the third (and last) part (“Part Third”) of Chapter 7 in Smith’s famous book The Wealth of Nations (TWON). (Here is a great link to the whole chapter, courtesy of the Library of Economics and Liberty. I read the Bantam Classics version for my Honors seminar on Liberty in Western Political Thought, led by Andrew Sabl, who is currently a Visiting Professor at Yale, though I don’t have it with me so I can’t cite, let alone remember, the page numbers.)

Let me throw a little bit of historical context for this excerpt at you. Smith wrote TWON before the onset of the first Anglo-American war (TWON was published in 1776, which means it did not influence the American colonists in any way, shape, or form; think about the way information spread back in those days), and the war was largely the result of a quarrel between the UK and its North American colonies over taxation. The taxation, though, was needed in order to pay for a war (the Seven Years’ War) that the colonies had initially lobbied the British government to fight for them. The British colonies in North America had much more leeway than their French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch counterparts, and a number of these colonies wanted to expand westward, into the Ohio Valley, where the French state had made claims that were recognized under international treaties.

To make a long story short: Several colonial factions picked a fight with the French and their Native American allies, and this little schoolyard brawl turned into a global war (with fighting in North America, India, Africa, South America, and East Asia) that saw the United Kingdom become the world’s preeminent imperial power and France lose almost all of its North American colonial possessions.* When the war was over, the British parliament wanted to tax the colonies to pay for their fair share of the war, and the colonists said “No taxation without representation!” Smith summed up the situation as thus:

In order to put Great Britain upon a footing of equality with her own colonies […] it seems necessary, upon the scheme of taxing them by parliamentary requisition, that parliament should have some means of rendering its requisitions immediately effectual, in case the colony assemblies should attempt to evade or reject them […] The parliament of Great Britain insists upon taxing the colonies; and they refuse to be taxed by a Parliament in which they are not represented.

This is quite the conundrum, and Smith put forth a proposal that I found quite novel when I first read it as an undergraduate. But before I get to his proposal, I want to make sure that everyone understands the situation here. The UK fought an expensive war at the behest of its colonies, and the colonies, once the war was over, refused to pay for it. Sound familiar? It should. Today the United States finds itself in this situation often (just replace the word “colonies” with “allies”).

Smith proposed the following deal instead of war or civil oppression (such as economic sanctions):

If to each colony […] Great Britain should allow such a number of representatives as suited the proportion of what is contributed to the public revenue of the empire, in consequence of its being subjected to the same taxes, and in compensation admitted to the same freedom of trade with its fellow-subjects at home. [Were British America] to send fifty or sixty new representatives to parliament, […] there is not the least probability that the British constitution would be hurt by the union of Great Britain with her colonies. That constitution, on the contrary, would be completed by it, and seems to be imperfect without it. The assembly which deliberates and decides concerning the affairs of every part of the empire, in order to be properly informed, ought certainly to have representatives from every part of it. That this union, however, could be easily effectuated, or that difficulties and great difficulties might not occur in the execution, I do not pretend. I have yet heard of none, however, which appear insurmountable. The principal perhaps arise, not from the nature of things, but from the prejudices and opinions of the people both on this and on the other side of the Atlantic. […]

Why didn’t the UK just federate with its North American colonies? Smith cited British fears of an unbalanced political constitution that the North American colonies might bring to such a union, and North American fears of being completely dominated by a faraway parliament were they to join such a federation. He countered both fears well, but check out what he predicted would happen if such a federation were to actually take place:

The distance of America from the seat of government […] would not be of very long continuance. Such has hitherto been the rapid progress of that country in wealth, population, and improvement, that in the course of little more than a century, perhaps, the produce of American [taxation] might exceed that of British taxation. The seat of the empire would then naturally remove itself to that part of the empire which contributed most to the general defence and support of the whole.

Interesting, right? Smith argued that the American colonies would become so rich and so populous that the capital of his proposed British federation would “naturally” move from London to somewhere in North America.

Smith was wrong in a general way, but correct in an even more general way. Let me explain.

Smith was wrong because the United States – once separated from the United Kingdom – evolved into the wealthiest, most innovative society the world has ever known. The reason for this is the aristocratic upper house of a legislative institution (“Senate”) that the 13 states had to create in order for all of them to join a federation. If Smith had had his way, the world would have never known the American Senate, and I doubt very much that the 13 colonies would have grown to become as innovative and wealthy as they are today without this vital institution of governance.

Smith was also wrong to make his argument for such a federation to be based on tax revenue rather than principled representation (though see Warren’s infamous post arguing for just such a proposal). The tax revenue argument might be more economically efficient, but it would not give polities seeking federal bonds the guarantee of some sort of equality (two representatives in the aristocratic chamber of the legislative assembly) that they would need to join such a federation. On these two points Smith’s argument was wrong, but what did he and other republicans and federalists get right?

To answer that I think it’s best to ask another question: What would happen if the UK and the US were to federate today?

The UK would be the poorest state in the union (as measured by GDP PPP per capita), if it were admitted as one state.

The stark difference in living standards doesn’t stop there, though. Suppose the SNP finally gets its way and Scotland leaves the UK. Even if England (intl$ 32,669), Wales (intl$ 25,947), and Northern Ireland (intl$ 27,573) were admitted into the US as three separate states, they would all be at the bottom of the living standards barrel. Were Scotland to go along with the other polities in the UK and federate with the US as a separate state, she would rank second-to-last (intl$ 33,791), just in front of Mississippi but behind Idaho. The rankings would look like this:

49. Idaho

50. Scotland

51. Mississippi

52. England

53. Northern Ireland

54. Wales

Smith’s argument suddenly looks a whole lot better, right? At least if you think living standards as they are measured by economists are a good way to gauge the overall health and wealth of a given society.

A federation is basically a huge, actual free trade zone (both capital and labor can move freely) coupled with a binding military pact and some institutions that allow factions to openly argue and contest for spoils that end up in a state’s treasury, but that’s not what the US has with any of its military allies or trading partners. What I find interesting is that the objections to federation between the UK and its North American colonies that Smith listed are essentially the same ones that crop up when such a federation is proposed between the US and its various allies and partners. The difference between now and then, though, is the Senate. Sending representatives based purely on population or tax revenue would most likely contribute to an unbalanced political constitution, but having two guaranteed representatives in a political body that’s heavily aristocratic and lightly democratic would surely guarantee an equality that all sides could eventually agree upon.

There is also an interesting cultural development to think about as well. The states in Western Europe and East Asia sans China have helped to develop a political culture that is more closely aligned with the one found in the US, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand, one where citizenship trumps ethnic identity. Identity based on citizenship is not as strong as the one found in the Anglo-Saxon world, and ethnic differences do pop up from time to time (largely due to linguistic differences), but the states of Western Europe and East Asia have taken many steps in the right direction to help eradicate the parochial tribalism that has long plagued European and Asian societies and replace it with citizenship. Take a look at the political constituencies of the following three countries:

Germany’s 2013 federal elections (source)
South Korea’s 2016 legislative election (source)
Italy’s 2013 legislative election (source)

They are largely based on a Left-Right divide rather than the ethnic ones we find in less economically-developed, less politically-integrated, post-colonial states. This Left-Right divide would fit in perfectly with the Madisonian constitution, as administrative units (i.e. Northern Ireland, Gangwon, Bavaria, or Trentino instead of the UK, South Korea, Germany, or Italy) could be added in a manner so as not to upset the balance between Left and Right currently found in the US. Political coalitions would wax and wane with time, of course, but if we want a world where the East Asians and Western Europeans pay their fair share, and where they are protected from Moscow and Beijing, then federation is as moderately radical as you can get.

Just ask Adam Smith.

A quick note on the Brexit debacle

I think Barry (here and here) and Edwin (here and here) have made the best contributions to the debate on the EU and sovereignty here at NOL to date, so I’m just going to add a couple of open-ended thoughts to the recent vote (which I think was a huge mistake).

One of the big theoretical debates over the years concerning the EU is the concept of European-ness and how it can never replace the nationalisms that already exist in each state across the pond. This makes no sense to me, though, especially if you buy the argument (as I do) that nations come and go largely in reaction to current events. German-ness or French-ness or British-ness could easily be subsumed by a European-ness.

I don’t want to be one of those doomsayers who claims that, because things did not go my way, all will be lost. The UK is going to be in for a little bit of hurt, financially, as is the European Union; losing the UK is a big deal, and so is leaving the EU. However, the UK is not exactly Sweden or Germany. The United Kingdom is poorer than Mississippi, the poorest administrative unit in the United States. It’s possible, if a bit unlikely, that the UK will be better placed to negotiate itself back to economic prominence if it doesn’t have to work through the EU to attain some of its goals. The UK has deep connections with a number of states and regions around the world thanks to its now-dead worldwide empire, and I don’t why a more Euroskeptic UK would decide to shun the rest of the world too, especially if the “rest of the world” was once a part of the UK’s empire (the glorious past of the UK seems to be an important talking point for Euroskeptics).

Immigration may not cease either. An irony here is that the Euroskeptics who won rode hard a wave of anti-immigration sentiment sweeping across the UK (and the rest of Europe, too). But it seems to me that, because of the UK’s deep connections to its former imperial provinces, most of the immigrants in the UK are going to be South Asian or Gulf Arab rather than Polish or Greek. Given that much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Europe stems from a deep distrust of Islam, I find it odd that British voters could be so gullible on this matter.

Does anybody know if this vote is the final say on whether or not the UK will leave the EU? [UPDATE: see Dr van de Haar’s comment for an answer to my question] It seems to me that there has got to be some legal mechanisms, via courts, that have been put into place in order to slow down things like mob rule mass voting.

The Case for the UK staying in the EU

Leaving the European Union would not be a gain for liberty in the United Kingdom. This is true as a matter of general principles and is reinforced by the nature of the Leave campaign which has targeted sections of the population hostile to immigration, open markets, and free trade. Much of the Leave campaigning which has not appealed to such base arguments has at the very least appealed to a version of populist democratic sovereignty at odds with the restraints on government and the state at the heart of classical liberal and libertarian thought.

Even if we try to separate some pure classical liberal version of the Leave campaign from the crudity of the campaign, as some natural supporters of leave wish had happened to the extent they ate voting for Remain rather than go along with such an obnoxious campaign, we are still left with the question of why it liberty advocates should support Leave.

I have sometimes seen references to national sovereignty as a classical liberal doctrine. If this means never sharing sovereignty at a transnational level, then it is simply a false claim. Immanuel Kant advocated a world federation to prevent war. Kant is not often put at the centre of the history of classical liberal thought. His ideas about political institutions, individual rights, and the limits of government certainly belong in the classical liberal sphere. We should distinguish between what Kant said and what later German Idealists said, a rather big issue, and appreciate how close he is to the way of thinking of Montesquieu and Smith and even advances upon them in showing a clearer understanding of the role of representative assemblies in modern politics.

More recently F.A. Hayek advocated federation between liberal democracies. The creation and evolution of the European Union has been and continues to be supported by European political parties of a classical liberal persuasion, those liberal parties which remained most true to the principles of their nineteenth century founders and precursors. Thinkers on the left, like Albert Camus and George Orwell, known for their particular commitment to liberty and their opposition to an authoritarian state were enthusiasts for European integration. Many conservatives of the more free market and limited government sort like Ludwig Erhard (founder of Germany’s post-war, post-Nazi market economy) and John Major (UK Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, who went further than Margaret Thatcher in privatisation and deregulation) have been and are advocates of the European Union.

The unrestrained sovereignty of the nation-state is not only not an inherently liberal idea, it is dangerous to liberalism. There is nothing illiberal in transnational rules and institutions that restrain states from violence against their own citizens, attacks on individual rights, economic protectionism, and market rigging. The European Union is particularly successful with regard to the economic and market issues at the national level.  It adds huge institutional weight to the work of the Council of Europe which promotes human rights through its court in Strasbourg. The existence of the European Court of Justice is of profound importance in ensuring that national governments and peoples are accustomed to regarding the decisions of nation states as subordinate to and accountable to a judicial process enforcing transnational laws.

The EU is open to a great deal of criticism with regard to its tendencies towards over-regulation, but this represents the median attitude of the member governments, not an imposition on the nation-states of Europe. Since the UK economy is at the more free market deregulated end of the European Union, there is some plausibility in saying the UK might go further down that road if it left the EU. However, before it joined the EU it was looking less market oriented than the EU states of the time. The period during which the UK has moved from the more statist to the more limited state end of the European nations has been during the period of EU membership. The precedents do not favour the UK becoming more classically liberal because it leaves the EU and the Leave campaign has appealed to the most insular, nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and anti-free trade sections of the UK population.

It is possible to imagine the UK as a more libertarian kind of place in the EU, but a much more plausible use of the liberal imagination is to think of ways in which the UK can work with allies in the EU for a a less regulatory and centralised EU. This has already worked as in the adoption of the European Single Market and the diminishing role of the European Commission, the ‘bureaucratic’ part of the EU. The Commission employs as many bureaucrats as the larger local government units in the UK and is tiny compared with any national bureaucracy. Its members are nominated by national governments subject to confirmation of the European Parliament. Power has shifted from the Commission to the bodies in which national government representatives meet, the European Council and the Council of the European Union.

The Leave campaign in the UK, including self-styled free marketers in the Conservative Party, is committed to leave the Single Market as well as the European Union itself, in large part to terminate free movement of EU citizens across its borders. The reasoning offered to prevent this movement of human capital is in terms of anti-foreigner sentiment. This is not something than can be recognised as a pro-liberty program. The pro-liberty choice is to keep free movement of goods, investment, and labour within the EU while working to reform the more interventionist tendencies of the European Union, to stymie the regulatory drift which started hitting industrial market economies decades before the EU was created and which cannot be solved by smashing up the EU.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Anthropology as critique of reality: A Japanese turn (pdf)
  2. Flat-footed Giants: Zaibatsu and Industrialization in Meiji Japan, 1868-1912 (pdf)
  3. A hypothetical federation between Japan and the United States

A short note on two types of political structures

I just came across an excellent review by Herman Belz of a book on American history recently published by Nicolas Barreyre, a French history professor. The main thrust of the book Belz is reviewing has to do with American Reconstruction, but the theoretical thrust of the book is all about state-building and political economy. The whole article is worth your time, but I wanted to hone in on a particular paragraph that caught my attention:

In the 20th century, Progressive “living-Constitutionalism” dedicated to constructing a centralized administrative state […] undermined the Founders’ establishment of a territorial federal republic as the constitutional ground of American liberty. Americans were the territorial people of the United States. Sovereignty resided in the people of the state in which they lived as well as in the states united as a national whole. In the 21st century, the aspirations of Progressive statism reach beyond national borders to the conceit of transnational global authority.

In this paragraph Dr Belz draws a distinction between two political structures:

  1. a centralized administrative state
  2. and a territorial federal republic

The centralized administrative state is a much worse option than a territorial federal republic in Belz’ view (and my own), mostly because in the federal republic sovereignty resides in both “the people” and in the various “states” that have federated to form a republic (Belz suggests this made the United states “a national whole,” but I don’t think that’s true, largely because of Belz’ own description of what Barreyre calls “sectional” politics at the time, but I digress; see Michelangelo for conceptions about “the nation”).

The territorial federal republic is thus a bottom-up approach to a more inclusive, more open society, whereas the centralized administrative state relies on experts, many of whom are unelected and unknown, to govern public affairs.

Belz is largely correct in his summaries of these two political structures, but I think his conclusion (“the aspirations of Progressive statism reach beyond national borders to the conceit of transnational global authority”) misses the mark. This is not because he is right to suspect the Left of wanting to create and sustain a centralized administrative state with a global reach (i.e. the UN), but because he leaves out the possibility that a territorial federal republic can also have a global reach while still avoiding the pitfalls of morphing into a centralized administrative state. Belz is probably more conservative than I am, and hence more pessimistic about the chances of a “transnational global authority” being republican in nature rather than administrative, but I still think my argument is better…