A short note from the editor

I don’t even know what to write about anymore.

The Kavanaugh-SCOTUS debacle was so bad, and so predictable, that I thought it was worth avoiding altogether, even though it’s important. I thought about writing on why it’s important to understand “the other side” of a debate. In the US, as in democracies everywhere right now, political polarization has occurred. Nobody is listening, but nobody is paying attention to the important stuff, either. There’s no mention of checks and balances or rule of law, but plenty of ink has been spilled on “legitimacy,” as if the beliefs of the mob are somehow superior to minority rights and due process in a free and open society.

Don’t people realize that the Supreme Court, in fact the whole judicial branch of government, is supposed to be somewhat anti-democratic? Wasn’t that high school civics?

The election of Donald Trump has overwhelmed libertarians, I think. He’s too vulgar for us to properly counter. He’s a demagogue and he’s immoral. NOL‘s traffic has gone up over the past two years since Trump’s election victory, but the number of posts has gone down. Even I have switched from writing about political issues to simply sharing stuff that’s mostly non-political. Again, how do you counter something so vulgar and crass using the written word and your own humble logic? I understand why Leftists have taken to the streets. I understand why they use violence and intimidation to get their points across.

The root cause of the populist surge across the democratic world is hard to pinpoint. Perhaps it never will be properly pinpointed. Yet, I see two causes: the first is a simple lack of knowledge about what liberty means. Just mention the word “liberty” in your next conversation and you’ll see what I mean. It has become archaic or even eccentric. “Liberty.” Its meaning has become lost. And in the meantime, populist demagogues throughout the West have taken a dump all over the meaning of freedom. Demagogues now assault the liberties of minorities, of refugees, and of foreigners in the name of freedom.

How did we let this happen? How did libertarians let this come to pass? Complacency is the wrong answer here. Libertarians fell under the spell of economizing. Libertarians and libertarian organizations sought to become more rational, more efficient, and more eye-catching as the medium of mass communication has moved from television and print to digital and print. Something called “data” or “metrics” convinced libertarians worldwide to bend the knee. But the hallmark of liberty has always been informality and spontaneity. Institutional and professional organizations are a great complement to libertarian activism (whatever that might be), but once rationalization overpowered the informal nature of libertarian networks, populism prospered as libertarians, too worried about their careers in Washington, took the cowardly route. I am part of the cowardly crowd. I should have spoken up more often. I should have been more a fighter.

The second cause of the populist surge is globalization and the lack of formal institutions to accompany its spread across the globe. The spread of formal markets has decreased income inequality worldwide, but has increased that same inequality within countries that have been economically developed for centuries. If a poor country is trading with a rich country, and the poor country is obviously cheating, there is nothing citizens in the rich country can do to stop the cheating other than stop trading with the poor country. If the world had better formal institutions to confront stuff like this, the populists would have remained forever on the margins of their respective societies. The World Trade Organization was seen as “good enough” by those inside Washington and by those who should have known better.

A fuller, more robust vision of the free and open society has not yet been produced. There are those in libertarian circles who argue that charter cities or “seasteading” ventures are the proper future of humankind, the proper future of liberty. Yet running away from the world does not seem like a smart thing to do. It’s certainly cowardly, and we’ve had enough of that over the past three or four decades to last us a lifetime. A better, more up-to-date, argument for the free and open society needs to be built off of the works of liberty’s past defenders. Globalization has been good for the world’s poor, but it has sidelined the voices of the world’s middle classes (who work in the world’s rich countries). To fight populism, I am going to continue to figure out how to make globalization a little bit better for everybody, instead of just ignoring the complaints of the middle classes. I think expanding the Madisonian republic territorially is the best way to go about this. I may be wrong, but I’ll never know if I don’t at least take a crack at it.

RCH: 10 corporations that gave capitalism a bad name

That’s the subject of my weekend column over at RealClearHistory. An excerpt:

5. Dutch East India (1602-1799). The VOC, as the Dutch East India Company was known, exemplified corporate plunder and colonial oppression in the 17th and 18th centuries. Its demise was only met after Napoleon’s revolutionary armies conquered the Netherlands, and for nearly 200 years the VOC brutally oppressed and exploited Asian lands in the name of monopoly and Dutch interests of state. The VOC was created to give the Netherlands a presence in the burgeoning world of global trade that had been started by Spain and Portugal after the former’s colonization efforts in the New World. The VOC wanted to cut off Spain and Portugal (and, later, the U.K., France, and U.S.) from world trade, and monopolize industries in order to benefit Dutch society. This logic led directly to not only the horrible things that happened in VOC-governed territory, but also to the corruption and unnecessary wars that happened in the Netherlands.

Please, read the rest.

Feyerabend: Westernization and culture

There is a short thought, quoted by Paul K. Feyerabend in “Notes on Relativism”, that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Paul, ever critical of Western rationalism, is commenting at length on the expansion of (Western, capitalist) industrial scientific society to the margins of the developing world and minority cultures. He quotes François Jacob from The Possible and the Actual:

In humans … natural diversity is … strengthened by cultural diversity, which allows mankind to better adapt to a variety of life conditions and to better use the resources of the world. In this area, however, we are now threatened with monotony and dullness. The extraordinary variety which humans have put into their beliefs, their customs and their institutions is dwindling every day. Whether people die out out physically or become transformed under the influence of the model provided by industrial civilization, many cultures are disappearing. If we do not want to live in a world covered with a single technological, pidgin-speaking, uniform way of life — that is, in a very boring world — we have to be careful. We have to use our imagination better.

Prima facie, I want to say, the general message is correct: the world is slowly homogenizing, and homogeneity is boring. People no longer just consult their local markets and preserve culture organically; we buy and sell all over. Although Dallas and San Francisco have very different cultures, to some extent Los Angeles looks like Seattle looks like St. Louis looks like New York City… looks like Athens looks like downtown Rome, etc. This doesn’t explain what we should do — neither Jacob as quoted, nor Feyerabend in his entire book explain how we should “use our imagination better” (which is what makes this paragraph so unsettling). Feyerabend offers some views in other writings, e.g., using the state to intervene with the success of the sciences.

Feyerabend can be interpreted in a plethora of contradictory ways. Though co-opted by the political left (perhaps to their own detriment), far-right nationalists, primitivists and humanists can all find theoretical support in his ideas. He seems to have written surprisingly little specifically about capitalism, although there are plenty of implications in his anthropology; maybe understanding his views on political economy could provide the path to extracting a substantive political philosophy. In any case, the concern of Jacob and Feyerabend is a consequence of, to a large extent, the West’s powerful free markets, globalizing trade, science and universalistic liberalism. And, I want to say, their concern is not only prima facie correct but a growing left/right critique of Western capitalism/liberalism, and therefore one worth addressing.

There may not be a market approach to preserving cultural diversity; maybe all we can say is that so long as homogeneity is a result of the free interactions of individuals it is not undesirable. Here are a few responses anyway, which may or may not be satisfying.

  1. The process of homogenization predates capitalism, and is really just a function of multicultural nations living side by side and competing and trading. Cultures grow, die and are subsumed ad nauseam, some survive well past the initial spawning phase and become hegemonic but eventually these too face extinction or subsumption.
  2. Homogenization in a free world means that the “best of the best” is accessible for societies which, though previously they may have maintained unique non-Western cultures, were far worse-off before the commercial tsunami. Firstly, the people in these societies didn’t consider the expatriate cultural elements “boring” when they arrived, and secondly, they would prefer “boring” Western/industrial culture than their previous dilapidated state. (We may want interesting tourism destinations, but does that take precedent over human well-being and free choice?)
  3. With the success of industrial, liberal society, science has grown and actually developed better preservation technology (and projection tech, like 3D modeling underground structures). Ancient artifacts from long dead cultures are able to survive longer to be appreciated, and living cultures are better able to create and preserve in the present.
  4. Globalization/Westernization means that we discover living cultures we would never have known otherwise. Under the eye of Western society they are opened up to the melting pot process, but discovery is mutual. We take and they take, and therefore,
  5. Another response could be to actually reject Jacob’s story. We are not trending toward a single McWorld, because although Starbucks can be found nearly globally, it functions alongside original cultural products and cuisine, and at the same time foreign cuisine thrives in the West and impacts our identity.

Evaluating the consolidation of cultural diversity sits at an uneasy crossroads between rights concerns, utilitarianism and aesthetics. I’m not sure these responses would be satisfying to those that buy Jacob’s argument, but it’s likely I’ll be returning to this subject at length in the future.

Nightcap

  1. Abu Raihan al-Biruni, an Islamic scholar from Central Asia, may have discovered the New World centuries before Columbus S. Frederick Starr, History Today
  2. Gendun Chopel: Tibet’s Modern Buddhist Visionary John Butler, Asian Review of Books
  3. Toru Dutt’s strangeness from India and the French Revolution Blake Smith, Coldnoon
  4. Singapore in translation Theophilus Kwek, Times Literary Supplement