Mid-Week Reader: The Justice of US Intervention in Syria

I’d like to announce a new weekly series of posts that I will be making: the Mid-Week Reader. Every Wednesday (hopefully), I will post a series of articles that I find interesting. Unlike most ventures in micro-blogging, though,  I will try to make all the articles focus on a specific topic rather than leave you with a random assortment of good articles (which Branden already does so well most weekends). This week’s topic: with Trump bombing Syria last week despite ostensibly being a dove (hate to say I told you so), I give you a series of articles on the justice, historical background, and press reaction to the bombing.

  • Fernando Terson and Bas van der Vossen, who are co-authoring on the topic of humanitarian intervention, each have interesting pieces at Bleeding Heart Libertarians debating the bombing of Syria from the perspective of Just War Theory. Terson argues that it was just, Vossen disagrees.
  • Over at The American Conservative, John Glasser of the Cato Institute has an article arguing that Trump’s invasion is neither legally authorized nor humanitarian.
  • Any discussion of foreign policy is incomplete without Chris Coyne’s classic paper “The Fatal Conceit of Foreign Intervention,” a political-economic analysis of foreign policy which concludes all sorts of foreign intervention are likely to fail for similar reasons that socialist economic intervention fails.
  • As perhaps a case study of Coyne’s analysis, Kelly Vee of the Center for a Stateless Society has an article summarizing the history of United States’ actions in Syria going back to World War II and how it’s gotten us into the current situation.
  • At Vox, Sean Illing interviews CUNY professor of journalism Eric Alterman on how the press fails to critically assess military intervention.

On immigration, trade, and inequality: why nobody should care (that much)

Recently, I read snippets from George Borjas’s book, We Wanted Workers (I got distracted and reverted to reading Leah Platt Boustan’s Competition in the Promised Land).On its heels came this article by Dani Rodrik in Foreign Policy. Both work make the same case, that free movement of goods and people may imply some negative effects on inequality. Borjas argues that immigration increases inequality while Rodrik argues that low-skilled workers are displaced.

Both arguments are not convincing.

First of all, immigration will always increase inequality in one area. This is by definition. Unless the migrants follow the same distributional pattern as the host population, inequality will increase. If somebody from Cuba enters the United States at the tenth percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of low earners. If somebody from China enters the United States at the 90th percentile, he increases inequality by swelling the ranks of the high earners. However, from a global perspective (world population), inequality has actually dropped since the migrant has a greater income than in the past. After all, bringing a Haitian to the US may increase US inequality measures but the ten-fold increase in his income (this number comes from my colleague Ben Powell) means that worldwide inequality drops.

To be honest, I know that Borjas is probably aware of this point, but many of those who spin his work don’t get it. Borjas’s argument is little more sophisticated. His claim is that low-skilled workers (high school dropouts) see their wages go down while everybody else (high school graduates and university graduates) gains from immigration. This increases inequality because they are left behind economically. But this is where his argument is alike that of Rodrik and where it misses the target dramatically.

While I could be lazy and simply say that many other scholars place Borjas at the extreme of the spectrum of academics with regards to the effects of immigration on labor markets. Indeed, there are more scholars who find that low-skilled workers also gain from immigration all things being equal. But, I won’t be lazy. Let me assume, for the sake of argument, that the empirical result is valid. If unskilled workers are displaced, why can’t they find new employment elsewhere. If the effects of immigration are so positive for everybody else, it means that everybody else is substantially richer and they can demand more goods. Are there barriers preventing the unskilled from acquiring jobs? The answer is emphatically yes.

The ability to find a new form of employment following changes in the labor market depends on the frictions that exist on the labor market. Some of them are natural. We have to assume search costs (time, energy, some money) to look for a job and get the training for that job. But there are also barriers that create unnecessary frictions. The rise of occupational licencing is one of those (growing) frictions (see here, here and here). We could also point out that product regulations tend to affect the prices of goods that weigh more heavily in the consumption baskets of lower-income workers (here and here) thus pulling the poorest down. We could also point to the fact that states with right to work laws seem to have enjoyed more limited increases in inequality than the states without such laws (here). We could also underline the fact that housing regulations are making it harder for unskilled workers to move to dynamic areas, thus locking them in low-productivity areas (here). And the list could go on for a few more pages, but I think the point is made: there are tons of factors that make displacement a problem. However, those who worry about it when it comes from changes resulting from trade or immigration are concerned with a minor (and positive in the long-run) variable. In a way, Borjas and Rodrik are (rightfully) concerned about the poorest but they fail to identify the problem like if a doctor was concerned with his patient’s loss of sight rather than concentrating on the brain tumor that caused the loss.

Free trade and open borders generate massive benefits. But there are short-term costs as production methods and resources are being reallocated. Many government policies amplify exponentially these costs and delay reallocation. This creates the inequality they bemoan.

Libertarians on Climate Change

This post is part of the preliminary results of the NoL Foreign Policy Survey 2017 Pilot. I will be posting results throughout the week as I play around with the data. As always, I strongly emphasize that this is a pilot survey and these are just preliminary results

Are libertarians climate change deniers? No. The majority agree that it is occurring, caused by human activity, and that it is harmful. They do not however support unilateral action by the United States government. At least not the average libertarian respondent.


Note that the last question, asking about supporting unilateral action, is on a different scale from the other three.


When you drill down by type of libertarian though you start to see stark differences. Left-libertarians agree much more strongly that climate change is occurring, caused by human activity, and harmful. They are also much more in support of unilateral action to prevent climate change.



What is driving the differences between type of libertarian? Part of the story seems to be that those who think climate change is harmful are more willing to act to address it, but I suspect a large part of the story is also that some libertarians, particularly market anarchists, simply do not trust the government. Market anarchists are less likely to believe climate change is harmful or caused by humans compared to libertarians at large, but the big difference in opinion is whether the government should act on it.

Thoughts? Tomorrow I will be posting the demographics of those who took the survey.


Update: Updated graphs; minor coding error.

NoL Foreign Policy Results: Preliminary

tldr version; Libertarians are not isolationists in their foreign policy. Left-libertarians in particular are more supportive of things like NATO. Left-libertarians are also more supportive of acting on migration and climate change issues.

These are the preliminary results of the NoL Foreign Policy Survey 2017 Pilot. I will release the raw data and more results in the coming days. I am still in the process of cleaning things up.

The survey targeted self-identified libertarians through online libertarians communities (e.g. the Ron Paul Forums, reddit subreddits, facebook groups, etc.). The survey aimed to better understand the foreign policy views of self-identified libertarians based in the United States. The survey was conducted between December 23rd 2016 and January 1st 2017 and received over 600 replies.

Warning: This survey was a pilot and I discourage trying to generalize its results to the wider libertarian movement with any high degree of certainty.


The survey uses a survey experiment where respondents were placed into one of four alternative scenarios. Each scenario received similar questions, but had slight wording differences in two questions:

(1) whether the respondent supported providing military aid to a US ally and
(2) whether the respondent supported allowing in refugees from that country

The four scenarios were:

(1) A US ally being attacked by a neighbor – the base scenario
(2) The Baltic republics being attacked by Russia
(3) Afghanistan being attacked by Russia
(4) Taiwan ROC being attacked by China PRC

The survey can divided roughly into four parts:

(1) Military policy
(2) Migration policy
(3) Climate change policy and
(4) Trade policy


In the base scenario libertarians we find that the majority of libertarians favor providing military aid to a generic US ally. However that support goes down substantially when details are provided. If Afghanistan, a non-NATO major ally, were attacked it would receive support from less than 10 percent of respondents.


Likewise support for allowing refugees in from the attacked country is high in the base scenario, but drops for Afghanistan. Support for allowing refugees from Taiwan or the Baltic republics is not statistically different from the base scenario.


In the above graphs we see respondents’ support for unilateral action in free trade (“remove all trade barriers”), open borders, and addressing climate change. Support for unilateral action is almost twice as high for free trade than either support for open borders or climate change.


When I dig further into type of libertarian we see that left-libertarians are more willing to act on open borders and climate change than their counterparts. Almost 100 percent of market anarchists are in favor of abolishing all trade barriers.


Respondents are split on support for international groups like NAFTA or NATO. If we look at sub-groups within the libertarian movement (i.e. libertarians, left-libertarians, and market anarchists) we see that left-libertarians are more supportive and market anarchists are less supportive of international action.


Foreign Policy Survey

A project I’ve been playing around with for a while has been better understanding the policy views of libertarians. In a few policy areas one should expect near-unanimous agreement on what constitutes the libertarian position. I would, for example, find it hard to believe someone was a libertarian if they supported minimum wage laws. In other areas though it isn’t clear what the libertarian position is.

Foreign policy is one such area. As has been discussed on NoL, it isn’t clear that a singular libertarian foreign policy can exist. Contemporary libertarianism is heavily tied to the US, which further complicates matters. A US based libertarian might oppose NATO on grounds that it over extends the power of the government. A libertarian based in Poland on the other hand might support NATO as a necessary countermeasure to the threat of attack from Russia.

To answer these questions I’m playing around with a pilot study.  The survey can be accessed here. It should take 10-15 minutes and I would appreciate if you could all take it. The survey is aimed for US libertarians, but feel free to take if you’re elsewhere.

Emphasis on the ‘pilot’. I am still playing around with wording and such. I am debating which demographic questions can be removed to reduce possibility of identification – I know many libertarians are skeptical about taking these surveys out of privacy concerns. If you have any comments/suggestions feel free to do so in the comments.

The ugliness of international politics

What has been widely feared is about the happen, it seems. President Assad’s troops, supported by the Russians, are winning the battle over Aleppo. That is not great from a lot of perspectives. To name just a few: first of all for the civilians, who are killed and bombed continuously. Secondly, the crushing of the rebel forces there means the further weakening of what are ‘natural’ allies of the West, as they are against Assad and against ISIS. Thirdly, this victory (if it all continues this way, of course) strengthens Assad’s position, making it even more unlikely that he will disappear from the scene anytime soon. The only good thing seems to be the further weakening of ISIS.

Like many others, I do not like this development at all. I think Assad is a ruthless murderer of his own people and should therefore be taken to justice, preferably in its most definitive form. I wish the Syrian people all the best and would like them to decide over their own fate in liberty. I also deeply hate ISIS and all that it stands for. And the interference of foreign powers (either Russian, Turkish, Iranian, Western) certainly does not do much good either, although I also think it has been inevitable. Public opinion, perceived and real interests, and the defence of allies all foster these kind of interventions. These are of course just a few of the important variables in an enormously complex war.

So what to do, or aim for, as Western countries? Obviously, most Syrians are better off in a stable situation without war, than with any currently viable alternative. This means that negotiations about cease fires should commence, or at least be fostered, which will then hopefully lead to a permanent settlement. I do not dare to predict how long it will take for this approach to be successful. Yet any alternative is worse. These negotiations, whenever feasible, should have all parties at the table, Assad included. No vetoes against him being part of future talks, as has previously been the case. The man will stay around for a while, and we better get used to the idea. This is surely deplorable, yet inevitable. The situation in Syria shows once again the ugliness of international politics, with very limited roles for international law and justice.

Let it be a lesson for those within the liberal tradition who still think differently.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Doug Bandow on Australia’s geopolitical options
  2. The moral perils of Being Polish
  3. The moral perils of sect-coding (Shi’a forces, Iraqi armed forces)
  4. Can the militarization of the police in the US be a good thing?
  5. Warfare and economic growth in the preindustrial world