Dear Muslim Fellow Citizens:

President Trump’s executive order temporarily barring entry into the US to those coming from seven countries was a rude act.* To make things worse, it was badly implemented, causing inconvenience and even distress to a number of innocent travelers. What’s more, it’s unlikely to be very effective in its stated goal of keeping Americans safe. The reason the administration gave for the order was to give the appropriate agencies some time to improve their techniques for vetting ordinary travelers from those countries.

As I write, the bar is in circuit court where it will be decided whether a previous federal judge’s order suspending application of the bar holds or not. There is a mano-a-mano between a largely liberal circuit court and a fairly conservative and decisive new executive. Whether the executive prevails or not, the order was given and it will be remembered as one of the first acts of the Trump administration. It’s worth discussing.

Much of what has been said about the order is false, ridiculous, or dishonest. I urge you to preserve your collective credibility by not falling for the falsehoods, and worse, for partially true but misleading statements you have heard. Some, you have heard repeatedly.

Beyond this, I suspect you have not done enough collective self-examination. I suspect this because no one reasonable talks to you frankly about matters concerning you. There are plenty of ill-informed hysterical, obscene anti-Muslim shouts which you probably (rightly) shut out. The rest of America is too paralyzed by political correctness to say anything to you that may seem critical. I am reasonable and I am not paralyzed by political correctness. In addition, there is a good chance I am pretty well informed. (Go ahead, Google me.) Where I am not, I listen to advice and corrections with an open mind. I wish to talk to you about mistrust of Muslims and about what you may not have done to represent yourselves in a light inducing others to be fair. Lastly, I wish to address you about what you have done that has not been helpful.

The persecution of Muslims

Fact: The seven countries the executive temporary banning order targeted are all predominantly Muslim countries.

That does not make the order an anti-Muslim measure. If President Trump had wanted to persecute Muslims, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and even India (yes, India) would be heading the list. There are something like forty predominantly Muslim countries in the world. How do you think the seven were chosen?

The seven were originally selected by the Obama administration as dangerous countries from which it was difficult to obtain enough information to vet travelers. This explains why most Muslim countries – by a long shot – did not make the list. In the case of five Arab Muslim countries on the list, they are there because they are failed states unable to provide credible information if they want to. Iran is a special case. President Trump, and some of us, think that the information should not be trusted that comes from a country where the political class has been smiling benevolently for the past thirty years on demonstrators whose main demand is “Death to America!” Taking people at their word is not a dirty trick, right? The sixth country on the list, Sudan, is there for both reasons. It’s an ineffective state and its leadership is openly hostile to America. It’s unable to cooperate in vetting and it will not.

Why should President Trump want to go to extraordinary lengths to vet travelers from those particular countries, you wonder suspiciously? It’s because – you are right – the Muslim world is widely thought to be a privileged source of terrorism. That’s in the 21st century. In the 20th century, it would have been (largely Catholic) Ireland, the (Catholic) Basque area of Spain and, especially, the (Hindu) Tamil area of Sri Lanka. The fact that no IRA terrorist, no ETA terrorist and no Tamil Tiger terrorist ever claimed to be acting in the name of God or of his religion may make a difference though. What do you think?

Personally I don’t see how anyone can disagree with the proposition that Muslim countries (not all, some, of course) generate large numbers of terrorists when those same terrorists massacre many more Muslims than they do anyone else? I can’t believe you are not aware of the many car bombs detonated near mosques during prayer from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iraq. And have you ever thought of what the proportion of Muslims must have been at the massacres in the French night club or during the Bastille Day festivities, in Nice, France? Let me tell you: Many French Muslims are immigrants from rural areas in Africa. It’s been true for a long time. They have more children than people born in France. Whenever you find children and young people, in France, you are looking at many young Muslims. And, go back to the “Underwear Bomber” trying to blow up a plane over largely Muslim Detroit, during Christmas Eve, of all times. Who do you think would have died, primarily? How many Christians are on a plane on that night? (Reminder: He is a young man from a good Nigerian family. He is having a bad time in federal prison, right now.) It’s your duty to be informed about the people who are massacring both your people and your neighbors, I think.

Incidentally, the fact that Muslims die much more than other people under the knife of neo-jihadists does not give your passivity a pass.

This all is sufficient to explain well why there are only Muslim countries on the ban list. It would have been more polite of the Trump administration to add, say Iceland, Paraguay, and Laos, or Timor. Perhaps, they did not think of it. No one is perfect. Perhaps they did think of this trick and decided to not implement it to signal that political correctness has to go, at last.

Before I move on, note what the paragraphs above do not (NOT) say, lest your memory tricks you later: They do not say that “most Muslims are terrorists,” as stupid liberals allege such statements mean. I don’t think most Muslims are terrorists. I do not think that many Muslims are terrorists. I am not even sure the terrorists who claim to be Muslims are Muslims, or good Muslims. I don’t really know. However much I regret it, I can see how it is easy to find justification for religious acts of violence in the Islamic sacred Scriptures. (Ask me or tell me plainly that I am wrong, that there are no such justifications in the Scriptures.)

Trump’s order was intended to keep terrorists where they are for the time being, until we learn better to spot them. It was intended to protect me and my children, and you and your children. I have my doubts about its efficacy, as I have said elsewhere. You should feel free to criticize it on that ground without going to motives you have little way of knowing. “Stupid” is not the same as “prejudiced.”

The Muslim contribution to the mistrust of Muslims: Inaction

Next, I need to ask you if Muslims collectively have done anything to contribute to widespread mistrust of Muslims in America. First I need to ask what American Muslims did not do that they should have done – and can still do. This can be brief.

Large American Muslim organizations have put themselves repeatedly on the public record denouncing terrorism perpetrated by those who claim to be inspired by Islam. They are quick to assert that religious violence is incompatible with Islam, that the neo-jihadists are simply bad Muslims, or even, not Muslims at all. This is all for the good although – I am sorry – most of the protestations sound hollow. One of the things missing, incidentally – is condemnations by obvious religious authorities.

What bothers me personally, and probably others who don’t have the time to think about it, is the lack of individual faces to accompany condemnations of neo-jihadist barbarism. There are two exceptions I know of, two Arab-American men who sometimes come on TV to reject barbarism or any links to American Muslims vigorously. I don’t have either name in mind right now and I would not name them anyway because I don’t have a clear idea of the risks they are taking.

What I am missing is reactions from individual, private persons of Muslim faith, people with a face. I ask how many of you said anything – outside the family – when ISIS was beheading an American journalist and then, an American social worker, all on video. I wonder if you said anything, at work, even if only at the water fountain, when ISIS was burning people alive in cages. How many of you expressed horror aloud or when it was turning thousands of young women and girls into sex slaves. How many dismiss Boko Haram which is burning its way through North Western Nigeria as a (black) African monstrosity?

Some of you, most of you, or all of you, think these questions are superfluous and even, that my expectations are outrageous. I have a friend, a young Muslim woman who tells me straight up that terrorism is no more her problem than mine. It’s unrealistic and it’s false. The abstract category “American Muslims” (I am not using “community” deliberately) turns out enough terrorists and would-be terrorists to destroy this presumption of distance between you and the prevalent kind of barbarism. Note also that, irrespective of provocations, since the masterful, well-planned, very successful aggression of 9/11, there has not been a single act of private terrorism against Muslims or Muslim institutions in America. (Hectoring of women wearing the hijab in public places does not quite count as terrorism.) Mind what I am really saying: It’s not your job to stop terrorism committed in your names but you would be wise to reject it forcefully and loudly, and also in person when you have a chance.

The Muslim contribution to mistrust of Muslims: Actions

There are also the things American Muslims did that contributed to the process leading to the Trump administration temporary ban on travel from seven Muslim countries.

Let me help you remember. In 2008, you voted for Barack Obama in large numbers although he was a leftist of zero demonstrable achievement but one. (He did pass the bar exam.) I don’t know if you did it because the father he never knew was a Muslim (a drunken Muslim), or because his middle name is “Hussein,” or because you were caught up in the great Democratic emotional sweep. Later, in 2016, you largely supported the candidacy of an obvious liar and cheat who had already sold some of the country to foreign powers before even being elected. What’s more, she presented herself squarely as President Obama’s successor. Many of you just bet on the wrong horse without much of an excuse for doing so. (I think I have read somewhere that American Muslims are better educated than the average American. Correct me if I am wrong.)

Had more of you voted Republican, they just might have influenced the result of the primary, perhaps, Marco Rubio (my candidate) would have won it, or the honorable Mayor Giuliani. The presidential election could have played out differently. If it hadn’t, there is a chance you would have still earned a voice within Republican politics. You chose instead to trust in liberal cliches to go with the easy flow of falsely generous liberalism.

Even with Donald Trump as president, you would have avoided getting trapped in the Democratic identity mishmash. You would have saved yourselves the embarrassment of ending up squeezed in their book between illegal aliens from China and transgender activists. At this point, your main public, visible representation in American politics – by default, I realize – is the pathetic, corrupt loser’s personal assistant. She is very elegant but she is married to a gross pervert. The fact that her parents are members of the Muslim Brotherhood does not help. It’s not a terrorist organization exactly but it’s very unfriendly to America and to its main values. By the way, you appear to still not be paying enough attention. The fact is that, right now, thousands of Americans are talking (and screaming) in the streets in defense of, and often in the names of, Muslims in general. Yet, the voices of American Muslims themselves are hard to perceive in the din. It makes no difference; when the fog clears up, some Americans are going to blame you for the riots. You are innocent, of course but, to a large extent, you put yourselves there.

There is danger in letting others speak in your place on the public square. It’s the same others who recently used the armed power of government to force others to violate their conscience. (By forcing a Catholic nuns’ order, for example, to provide contraceptive services to their employees.) How is this going to play out tomorrow when your own religious practice needs protection, I wonder.

The executive order and our constitutional order

There is much misunderstanding everywhere about the legal nature of the order. It’s all over the media and elsewhere. One Iranian woman, a distinguished MD, I am told, is suing the federal government because she suffered some travel inconvenience as a result of the executive order. (I don’t know if she is a Muslim; it does not matter.) I hope the suit only shows confusion about the American Constitution rather than some sinister plot. Whatever some little liberal judge in the boondocks may say, the Constitution does not apply to those who are not under the power of the US government. This includes citizens, legal permanent residents, illegal permanent residents, prisoners of war, to some extent, and those who are already on US soil by whatever means, or otherwise under exclusive US control. It does not apply to Mr Yokama in Osaka, to Mrs Dupont in Marseille, or to Ms Reza in Iran, or on a layover in Dubai.

The media have also shown growing confusion about the nature of a visa. It’s not a contract between a government and a private foreign party. It’s not enforceable in any court. It’s a promise to admit and evidence that someone is considered acceptable at a particular time. Either of these assessments can change in minutes. Incidentally, American immigration officers at all levels have always had discretion to do what they think is best: You can arrive at LA International from Finland, with a perfect visa, and have a fat federal employee in short sleeves get suspicious of you and deny you admission on the spot. There is no legal recourse, never has been.

Nation-states avoid canceling visas in ways that would look arbitrary, for two reasons. First it makes the relevant government lose international credibility. That’s a subtle phenomenon. No one knows how much denials and cancellation push the relevant country over the brink. Thus, any government, including, the Trump administration assumes it has a good deal of discretion in this matter. The second possible consequence of many negative visa events is that other governments may take retaliatory measures: You do it to us, we do it to you or even, we deny your citizens any visa. It’s not surprising that some governments of small, poor countries just don’t care much about serving up reciprocation to a large, desirable country such as the US. If you are an alien and you have a visa for the US, it means that you have a good chance to get in. It’s not a guarantee.

The president and his conservative supporters are not responsible for the confusion about the Constitution whipped up and smartly supported by liberal opinion.


By now, I suspect, you are thinking “Islamophobia.” I don’t quite know how to defend myself against accusations sitting in your mind about what’s going on in my own mind. It’s like suspecting me of watching porn inside my head. How can it convince you that I don’t? Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, nothing predisposes me to a blind, irrational hatred of Islam or of Muslims. I have known Muslims all my life. I have had nothing but harmonious personal relationships with them. I think there is much to love in Islamic culture. For example I am fond of calligraphy in Arabic, the language of the Koran, so fond that the Profession of Faith (the Sha’hada) hangs over my bed. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this usage by a non-believer is considered blasphemy, somewhere or other.) The few times I have lived among Muslims, I have liked it. There is even a Muslim country where I would like to live permanently now that I am old. (My wife won’t hear of it; what do you know!)

“Islamophobia” is not a real concept anyway. It was invented by liberal intellectuals to shut up debate up. If it were not so, there would be other similarly formed words such as “Protestanphobia” and “Bhuddistphobia.” The impression that Muslims in America take refuge behind that rotten old hyena hide is deplorable. It feeds many unfair stereotypes.

And, by the way, what would be wrong with being an Islamophobe? I mean in the American tradition of freedom of conscience and freedom of speech? Being a Muslim is not a race, an unalterable fact about a person. It’s a choice. If I understand a little about Islam, it’s even the supreme choice. There is widespread confusion there also.

Why should anyone not be morally, intellectually allowed to detest a choice you can reverse any time you wish? Take me, for example. I used to be a Catholic. I am not anymore. I am an ex-Catholic. Anyone could have blamed me for being a Catholic, a believer in fairy tales and a supporter of an organization massively complicit with child rape. “Catholicophobe” would not become an insult; it did not. Why would you deserve special treatment, in this regard?

No one at all blames me either for being an ex-Catholic, by the way. There is (well-founded) Catholicophobia in this country. There is no such thing as “ex-Catholicophobia.” I am also aware as I write that changing religion is called “apostasy.” I am further aware that apostasy is punishable by death in a number of countries. They are all Muslim countries, as far as I know. (Please, correct me if I am wrong on this.) One of the advantages of living in the US, as you and I do, is that there is no penalty here for transgressions of conscience. There is no punishment for walking away from a set of beliefs. This is never discussed in narratives that use the word “Islamophobia.” We don’t speak enough about such matters. Muslims, in particular, don’t speak enough. (And, I don’t believe the media suppress such conversations. The liberal media will print anything said by anyone identified as “Muslim,” especially if the speaker wears a hijab.) I realize that one can find many statements by American Muslims on the Internet. That’s not good enough; I shouldn’t have to do research.

There is also much confusion – often spread by the liberal media – about the First Amendment to the US Constitution. That main amendment to the Constitution is widely misunderstood, by native-born citizens and by many others as well. It states categorically that government cannot have a favorite religion; it says that government cannot interfere with religious practice or belief. Moreover, the Constitution forbids government to administer religious tests as a precondition to holding any government office. That’s it!

There is no part of the US Constitution that protects anyone from criticism by private parties. There are countries where such criticism is illegal; the US is not one of them. Personally, I hate Communism and Devil worship, and I also detest obsessive talk about baseball statistics, for example. Do I have a right to my dislikes? May I express them openly? Should I count on the protection of my government – whose first assignment is to protect me – when I express these dislikes? May I say safely, “Devil worship is an abomination”? How about, “Christianity is a false religion”? Should you, personally, have to forbid yourselves from detesting Devil worship aloud? How does the Constitution answer these questions?

Since I began talking calmly about things some Muslims don’t enjoy hearing, let me continue a little way. Let me affirm as a preamble that you have as much right to be here as anyone. If you are an immigrant like me, you might have even a little bit more right than most. (Immigrants contribute somewhat more than the native-born.) Irrespective of your rights, if you are a person who dislikes the separation of Church and State, if the gap between religion and government is anathema to you, I hope you will leave. I won’t do anything about you but you must know that I don’t want you as a fellow-citizen. And, if you take my suggestion, please, take with you as many Baptists, Lutherans and Catholics of the same belief you can find. I hope our government will do its best to limit or prevent the entry of people who hold such beliefs.

To end: It’s likely that most of you are people with whom I would like to have a cup of coffee or a meal. I suspect that we have more in common than not. You would yourselves be astonished at what a pleasant person of culture I am in real life. (Go ahead, Google me.) We would talk about our children and our grandchildren. We would share our experiences in the country I chose. This probable commonality creates no obligation for me to tolerate nonsense. The Trump temporary executive order of mention may well be regrettable. If it’s unlawful – I don’t see how – it will not be implemented. Our institutions are working. In the meantime, it’s not the end of the world. We, Americans, you and I, have bigger fish to fry.

About Syria: There are tens of thousands of Syrian refugees we could take in without endangering ourselves. We should do it, for two reasons. First, it the right thing to do and it’s good for our souls. Second, we are partly responsible for the unending disaster in Syria. I have not forgotten the red line in the sand the dictator Assad was not supposed to cross or else…. That was before the Russians were heavily involved. At the time, the US Air Force and the US Navy could have destroyed 95% of Assad’s planes and helicopters in one morning if there had been political will. It would have made it extremely more difficult for him to continue fighting and to massacre civilians. We did not intervene. Now, we have to give a hand, a big hand. I don’t see why this help should include a path to citizenship.

*The executive order has been suspended by a judge (a single judge) as I write. The Administration fast track appeal has been rejected. Afterwards, the administration appealed to the 9th Circuit Court. Our institutions are doing their work even if it’s at the cost of some judges believing it’s their job to make laws. To my mind, the fact that the order was issued at all is important whether it’s ultimately put to work or not.

A non-argument against immigration

I often encounter the argument that immigrants, especially Muslims, are so different from the populations of their host countries that they threaten the institutional foundations of these societies. As a result, the logic goes, we must restrict immigration.

I do not accept that argument as valid nor do I accept it as sufficient (in the case I am wrong) to make the case in favor of further restrictions on immigration.

First of all, the “social distance” between immigrants and the hosts society is very subjective. The caricature below offers a glimpse into how “unsuited” were Catholic immigrants to the US in the eyes of 19th century American natives. Back then, Catholics were the papist hordes invading America and threatening the very foundations of US civilization. Somehow, that threat did not materialize (if it ever existed).  This means that many misconceptions will tend to circulate which are very far from the truth. One good example of these misconceptions is illustrated by William Easterly and Sanford Ikeda on the odds of a terrorist being a muslim and the odds of a muslim being a terrorist. Similar tales (especially given the propensity of Italian immigrants to be radical anarchists) were told about Catholics back then. So let’s just minimize the value of this argument regarding going to hell in a hand basket.


But let us ignore the point made above – just for the sake of argument. Is this a sufficient argument against more immigration? Not really. If the claim is that they hinder “our” institutions, then let them come but don’t let them participate in our institutions. For example, the right to vote could be restricted to individuals who are born in the host country or who have been in the country for more than X-number of years. In fact, restrictions on citizenship are frequent. In Switzerland, there are such restrictions related to “blood” or “length of stay”. I am not a fan of this compromise measure (elsewhere I have advocated the Gary Becker self-selection mechanism through pricing immigration as a compromise position).*

The point is that if you make the argument that immigrants are different than their host societies, you have not made the case against immigration, you have made the case for restrictions against civic participation.

* Another “solution” on this front is to impose user fees on the use of public services. For example, in my native country of Canada, provincial governments could modify the public healthcare insurance card to indicate that the person is an immigrant and must pay a X $ user fee for visiting the hospital. Same thing would apply for vehicle licencing or other policies. Now, I am not a fan of such measures as I believe that restrictions on citizenship (but offering legal status as residents) and curtailements of the welfare state are sufficient to deal with 99% of the “problem”. 

Trump Is Right!

It is easy to emphasize all that is bad about the new American President. For sure, I think he is a clown who will do a few bad things to the US and the world at large. His protectionist agenda is of course a libertarian nightmare, which will also make the people who elected him worse off. Still, the US President is not a dictator, so some trust in the institutions and the actors that fill them still seems appropriate.

Trump is also plainly right on a number of issues. Foremost, his plea (also in yesterday’s inaugural address) for the partners of the USA, especially in NATO, to contribute in equal measure. This is not new, all recent American Presidents have pointed this out to their European allies. It is simply outrageous to let Mrs Jones from North Dakota pay for the defense of other rich countries, such as my home country of The Netherlands. The Europeans got away with major free riding. Only recently did they start to get their act a little bit together, as the Russian threat is looming again. The defense budgets in almost all European NATO members have decreased drastically since the early nineties, which is plainly immoral if you are in the world’s most important security organization together. So hopefully Trump will pressure them to the max.

He is also right in pointing out that many US foreign interventions have been a disaster. And it is good that he wants some closer scrutiny from now onwards. I am not a great fan of military intervention, although I also do not want to rule them out them perennially (as opposed to many others in the liberal tradition). Many of the interventions over the past few decades have lead to nothing though, and created their own follow-up problems. So it’s pretty good if that same Mrs Jones is not likely to lose her son or daughter at the battlefield in some faraway country.

And of course Trump is right in asserting that the government is not ruling the citizens, but is just a service provider on behalf of the people, and fully accountable to them. Sure this is bit more complicated in practise, but it is the only proper principle.

So in these three respects: hail to the new chief! Hopefully he sticks to them and does not screw up too dramatically at all other policy fields.

From the Comments: New Republics, Westphalia, and Russian Strategy

Thomas L. Knapp (check out his two contributions to the most recent Cato Unbound symposium on voting) has a great comment about Ukraine (Russia) that deserves further scrutiny:

In order for Putin to “pull out of” Ukraine, he’d first need to be in Ukraine.

The new republics which seceded from Ukraine are not in Ukraine.

Knapp brings up an interesting point that most geopolitical outlets and experts rarely consider (the Washington Post‘s Worldviews is a notable exception, as is Ilya Somin over at Volokh Conspiracy), and because of that these outlets fail to provide any depth or light to the world around us. There are three aspects of Knapp’s excellent comment that I’d like to hone in on.

The new republics

First, what are these “new republics” Knapp mentions? If you don’t count Crimea (wiki), which Moscow formally recognized in 2014, then the new republics that declared their independence from Ukraine are Luhansk (wiki) and Donetsk (wiki). Both polities are roughly 3300 square miles in area and house roughly 1.5 million people (you can get the exact numbers from the wiki links I provided above). Here is a map:


Alarmingly, both republics style themselves “people’s republics” and (less alarmingly) have aligned publicly with Moscow. Russia, by the way, has not recognized these “new republics,” for geopolitical reasons I hope to make clear below.

Westphalian sovereignty

Russia does not like to recognize new polities (“republics”) because of its adherence to the ideal of Westphalia, which is state sovereignty (elsewhere at NOL Barry Stocker argues that the Westphalian ideal can be better understood as an early modern cosmopolitanism rather than state sovereignty). All throughout the Cold War Russia and China were staunch supporters of the Westphalian ideal (as were states in Africa and Asia that broke away from colonial empires), and they became even more so after the collapse of socialism in 1993. State sovereignty is the idea that states (“countries”) have sole control over what goes on in their own borders, and that any interventions of any kind, by any type of organization, needs to be approved by the state. It is called “Westphalian” because of the Treaty of Westphalia that was signed by a number of major and minor European states in the 17th century. The major states were able to maintain a balance of power and the minor states were able to assert more sovereignty over their territories than ever before because they were signatories of an international treaty. (Edwin van de Haar’s article in the Independent Review [pdf] on the balance of power as the most libertarian option available is worth reading, and is made stronger, I believe, by Giovanni Arrighi’s argument [pdf] that the balance of power led directly to the “capitalist oligarchies” that eventually pushed feudalistic institutions out of Europe beginning in the late 15th century.)

Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes prefer an international system that is respectful of state sovereignty because of the fact that this idea helps their governments to administer an amount of coercion on populaces that Western states consider immoral or rights-violating.

Russian strategy

Why did Russia hint at recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, but ultimately decide not to recognize them? Because the West has been recognizing separatist republics since the USSR fell apart, and it has done so in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence (noticeably carving up Yugoslavia at Serbia’s geographic expense). The West has not carved up post-Soviet space by simply recognizing the sovereignty of self-proclaimed republics, but also by incorporating these polities into the international system that it dominates. Russia wants to show elites (but not necessarily the public) that it is tired of policymakers ignoring Westphalian notions of sovereignty (which are enshrined in the UN charter that almost all recognized states have signed; when they sign it they get rent-seeking privileges, but that’s a story for another day…).

This is fairly straightforward logic on Moscow’s part. When the West supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia before annexing them. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. When the West supported Montenegro’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting Donetsk, Crimea, and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine before annexing Crimea. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. Both Russia and the West used minimal military resources to achieve their objectives, and both played the sovereignty card to back up their actions.


Western policymakers will never be able to bring liberty to Russia, and liberty will never be known by Russians if the rule of law is trumped by geopolitics. The West dominates the world’s international governing organizations. It has made the rules. It has drawn up the contracts. It has invited the non-West to participate. It has given concessions in order to gain the non-West’s support. So when the West breaks the rules it first outlined and drew up, the non-Western polities it convinced to join IGOs in the first place cannot be expected to take such rules seriously. The fact that Russia does play by the West’s rules, by taking seriously the claims of breakaway regions, suggests that the West has been in the wrong post-1993.

American media pundits and critical thinking

All of this leads me back to sensationalist headlines about nefarious Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Don’t believe any of that garbage. Firstly, look at how often American foreign policy pundits have been wrong. Just look! Amid the cries of Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump contest you can surely hear the faint echoes about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, all good analyses of geopolitical affairs provide at least some bit of historical context to them. Does your foreign policy pundit use history as a guide? Thirdly (and lastly), when thinking about a country remember that most accounts will have a point of view that shadows the consensus found in the world’s political and financial centers, which are useful but will sacrifice important details in the name of efficiency (and efficacy).

American libertarians, of all the factions out there, realize this best. Unfortunately, until they can shake the isolationist dogma that has paralyzed the movement since the Rothbard era of the 70s and 80s, they will continue to be marginalized in contemporary discussions about foreign policy, either as token libertarians in a Republican administration or as token libertarians in the “anti-war” movement (I put “anti-war” in scare quotes because by now it should be obvious that this movement represents the Democratic Party [pdf], not an ideal; see, though, Michael Kazin’s excellent, if ultimately unconvincing, argument for a different take on the disappearance of the anti-war movement once Obama and the Democrats came to power). New republics, secessionist movements, and other endeavors of exit are often embraced by American libertarians because of their autonomist appeal, but if they don’t pay attention to how state actors view such movements, especially regional and global hegemons, they may end supporting some very nasty regimes in the name of liberty.

A libertarian case for Hillary Clinton

I have abstained from commenting on the American presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (sorry Rick) for so long because I just wasn’t very interested in it. I’m still not that interested in it, but the topic has come up quite a bit lately here at NOL so I thought I’d throw in my two cents.

First, though, I thought I’d use up a couple of paragraphs to explain why I don’t really follow American presidential elections, even though most intelligent people, in most parts of the world, do. American presidents simply don’t have a lot of power in domestic American politics. Congress controls the purse strings, makes the laws, and, in the case of the House of Representatives at least, is closer to the People than is the President. The Supreme Court is in charge of deciding which laws are good and which are not, and in some cases even has the power to create laws where Congress or the People simply aren’t getting the job done (Proposition 8 in California comes to mind). To me, that makes the executive branch the most boring branch of government.

The one area in American politics where the head of the executive branch does have a lot of leeway, foreign policy, is one area where I’m not particularly worried about either candidate. I’m not worried because both, despite holding views of the world I strongly disagree with, are not advocating anything radical or unpredictable. I’d rather have a presidential candidate advocate the same old garbage of getting in Russia’s face and keeping troops in South Korea because that way I know they’re ignorant and, more importantly, I know they know they’re ignorant on such matters because they defer to the Washington Consensus.

Libertarians don’t like statists and we don’t like statist policies. Some of us don’t even think voting is worth the effort (or even a good idea). I think there is a case to be made, though, for Libertarians and libertarians to get out and vote this fall for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. My case rests on 3 hugely important facts (at least to libertarians and Libertarians).

Fact #1: Thanks to the recent wikileaks revelations, we know for sure that Hillary Clinton is in favor of free trade. This is THE most important reason to vote for Hillary Clinton in the fall. Imagine if the United States, led by Trump’s isolationism, were to begin breaking its trade agreements with the rest of the world. Yikes. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty over the last 30 years, but because the majority of beneficiaries to trade liberalization have happened to not be American citizens, demagoguery ensues. I understand that Clinton has expressed skepticism in US free trade agreements on the campaign trail, but when you’re in a party that is vying for potential voters who feel they have been hurt by free trade, you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

Regardless of what Clinton says to the masses, her record on free trade while holding political offices is impressive (a ‘No’ vote on CAFTA notwithstanding). Free trade, or trade liberalization, is one of the fundamental tenets of libertarianism. Individual liberty cannot be realized or even partly realized without markets that are free from the constraints of governments and the factions that manipulate them. Donald Trump, like Bernie Sanders, wants to reverse decades of trade liberalization and the benefits that such a policy has bestowed upon humanity.

(Digression: Libertarians and libertarians are so adamant about free trade not only because it loosens the grip of the state over peoples’ lives, but also because it makes everybody – not just fellow countrymen – better off. When libertarians and Libertarians hear protectionist sentiments from the political class, you will often see or hear us point out that the Great Depression of the 1930s was hastened not only because of central banking policies but also because of the isolationist tariffs that Congress threw up as a response to the economic downturn caused by the new central bank’s policies. Free trade is a BFD.)

Fact #2: Hillary Clinton is much more individualist than Donald Trump. Women’s rights is an individualist issue, and always has been, even though Clinton has made a mockery of the historical movement by playing the “gender card” and defending (and pledging to expand) subsidies in the name of women’s rights. Trump wants to “make America great again,” but Hillary just wants your vote, any way she can get it. If that ain’t individualist, I don’t know what is.

Hillary Clinton is not a racist, either. She marched against The State’s oppression of black Americans in the South and against The State’s discrimination against black Americans in the rest of the country throughout the 1960s. (For what it’s worth, I don’t think The Donald is a racist. Businessmen rarely are, for reasons that should be obvious to any fair-minded person, but his rhetoric on race is absolutely toxic, and he knows it. His deplorable actions bring to mind a certain F-word I won’t mention here.)

Trump may or not be a racist – I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – but I don’t know for sure. Clinton is definitely not a racist.

Fact #3: Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and she knows how our government is supposed to work (even if she doesn’t like it). One could make the case that Trump knows how our federal system of government works, too, given his braggadocio about buying off politicians, but his is a vulgar understanding of what is, after all, a magnificent example of compromise and diplomacy over our more primal urges. Lawyers make better politicians than businessmen. As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked way back in his 1831 ethnography of the United States:

“the authority [Americans] have entrusted to members of the legal profession, and the influence which these individuals exercise in the Government, is the most powerful existing security against the excesses of democracy […] When the American people is intoxicated by passion, or carried away by the impetuosity of its ideas, it is checked and stopped by the almost invisible influence of its legal counsellors, who secretly oppose their aristocratic propensities to its democratic instincts, their superstitious attachment to what is antique to its love of novelty, their narrow views to its immense designs, and their habitual procrastination to its ardent impatience.”

Lawyers, Tocqueville observed, make up a sort of informal aristocracy in America because their training in the field of law requires them to have a deep respect for precedent and “a taste and a reverence for what is old.” Businessmen are not used to the clumsy, inefficient coalition-building necessary for good governance. That’s why businessman George W Bush was such a failure and attorney Bill Clinton was such a success. Any good libertarian needs to acknowledge the benefits that come from specialization and the division of labor. Any really good libertarian, the kind that has actually read a little bit of FA Hayek’s work, knows that change in the political and institutional arena needs to be done slowly, and preferably through the legal system (no matter how imperfect it may be).

I know all about the bad stuff that Hillary has supported and voted for in the past (especially on foreign policy, and even more especially on foreign policy in Africa). I get it. I really do. But Donald Trump represents a very nasty strain of thought that has swept into power of the country’s Right-leaning political party. His nationalism is antithetical to libertarianism in a way that Clinton’s typical corruption and condescension is not: libertarianism has a long history in this country of dealing with Clinton-esque figures. The American polity was forged by consensus and thus has recourse, perhaps more so than any other presidential system, to constrain exactly this type of persona. This persona is egotistical and out for personal glory and prestige, but libertarians, progressives, conservatives, and others here in the United States have institutions and networks that were created specifically for presidencies run by people like Clinton.

We’re small in number, too small to have a significant impact if we all voted for Clinton, but we have an outsized impact in the realm of ideas and policy. Get behind Clinton in any way that you can, because more of the same ain’t all that bad.

The trade offs of Hillary vs Donald

An interesting thing to talk about is whether one ought to support the Donald or the Hillary. And it’s my impression that those who are marginally in favor of Donald and vice versa do that with a completely different view on the risks associated with either of them.

People who favor Hillary have something like this in mind:

Hillary will continue with the status quo that started with George W. Bush (especially foreign policy) and continued under Obama (who added domestic trends such as Obamacare). Trump, on the other hand, is a complete wild card who will transform the (fragile) political institutions we have into something of an even more authoritarian system. And having an authoritarian figure with his fingers on the red button just seems like a very bad idea.

People who favor the Donald are seemingly thinking something like this:

Hillary will continue with the status quo that started with George W. Bush (especially foreign policy) and continued under Obama (who added domestic trends such as Obamacare). Trump, on the other hand, will be such a weak politician that he will get almost nothing done. Even in his own party, he is so unpopular that he won’t get executive discretion even if he asked for it. He won’t be able to achieve anything and he might even get impeached. But regardless, he will be an overall failure of a politician, and that’s a good thing relative to the trend that Hillary started.

I could be wrong, of course, but this seems like the trade off that people are making. We know, with a reasonably high certainty margin, what kind of policies Hillary will favor. Trump, however, is a complete wild card. Some people think the wild card will accomplish very little (and thereby show a high confidence in the current workings of the American governmental system), so therefore he is preferable to Hillary. Other people think he will accomplish a lot (and thereby showing very little confidence in the current workings of the American governmental system.)

I think this trade off is basically right: where you stand on Hillary versus Trump depends on your view in the likelihood they’ll achieve what you think their plans are. Which of these have the correct view, I do not know. But it’s an interesting question nonetheless.

Minorities and Economic Growth: Evidence from Jewish Communities in Premodern Europe

Urban theorist Richard Florida is celebrated for arguing that cities today succeed by attracting members of the “creative class.”  In a similar spirit I have a recent paper with Noel D. Johnson where we investigated whether or not cities in medieval and early modern Europe grew faster if they possessed a Jewish community.

Scholars have long noted the role of minority groups in economic development. This is particularly true for the the premodern period. The great scholar of long-run historical development in Europe, Fernand Braudel, observed that “successful merchants who controlled trade circuits and networks often belonged to foreign minorities.” These minorities could be other nationalities or religious minorities, for example, “the Jews, the Armenians, the Banyans, the Parsees, the Raskolniki (Old Believers) in Russia or the Christian Copts in Muslim Egypt” (Braudel, 1979, 1982, 165).

Hornung (2014) studies the impact of the Huguenot migration to Prussia. Since the nineteenth century, scholars like Friedrich List linked the presence of Huguenots with the transmission of human capital, skills, and innovation. Hornung (2014) is able to test this hypothesis using Prussian immigration lists from 1700 that document the location of Huguenot settlements and firm-level data on input and output for all 750 textile manufactories in Prussia in the year 1802. Approximately 16,000 to 20,000 Huguenots fled France to Prussia at the end of the seventeenth century.  Hornung finds that the presence of Huguenots significantly increased firm productivity. Specifically, a 1 percentage point increase in the share of Huguenots was associated with 1.5 percentage points higher productivity in 1802.

Jewish Communities and City Growth

In our paper we take a broad sweep of European history from 1400 to 1850.  We have a total of 1,792 cities in our panel data from the Bairoch (1988) dataset and 1,069 Jewish communities that appear in the Encyclopedia Judaica. The figure below shows both the cities in the Bairoch dataset and the Jewish communities mentioned in the Encyclopedia Judaica.



To understand the relationship between the presence of a Jewish community and subsequent city growth we conduct a difference-in-differences style regression analysis.

The fact that we have data on city populations every century means we can hold constant the identity of a city using city fixed effects and see whether or not it grew faster in the centuries when it had a Jewish community in comparison to those centuries when it did not. We can also control for the possibility that overall city growth was faster in some centuries in comparison to others using century fixed effects.

We are also able to hold constant other factors that could plausibly have affected city growth. We control for local geography including cereal suitability, proximity to rivers, and proximity to coast, as these factors likely affected city growth in different ways over time. We also control for local infrastructure including presence of university and distance to a medieval trade route.

Our  analysis suggests that, indeed, cities with Jewish communities grew faster on average between 1400 and 1850. The effect we find suggests that cities with Jewish communities grew about one third faster than those that did not have Jewish communities. This analysis remains a correlation, however. We do not know if the presence of a Jewish community brought with it economic benefits or if Jews merely choose to settle in faster growing cities.

Instrumenting the Presence of a Jewish Community

We model the network of Jewish communities as one way to see whether the effect of Jews on city growth was indeed casual. By examining how Jewish communities expanded we hope to isolate a source of exogenous variation in the presence of a Jewish community.

We assume that a Jewish community is more likely to be established close to another Jewish community because of trade networks, financial relationships, or cultural linkages. We then calculate the closest travel path between Jewish communities using our information about the location of roads and river networks and estimates of premodern transport costs. The important assumption we make is that if cities with Jewish communities share certain “unobservable” characteristics that might make them more likely to grow rapidly, these characteristics become less correlated with distance.

We then divide Europe into 5km x 5km grids and assign the lowest travel cost to each grid. We apply Djikstra’s algorithm to determine the lowest cost of travel between all 3,211,264 city pairs (van Etten, 2012). This allows us to create a measure of ‘Jewish network access’ for each city.

Jewish network access itself is, of course, correlated with the unobservable characteristics of the city for which it is calculated. To overcome this we adopt two strategies to create valid instruments out of the network access measures. First, we calculate Jewish network access for cities that are only more than a certain distance away from each other. Second, we use information on expulsions to weight our measure of Jewish network access. The intuition behind this is that Jewish expulsions consist of an exogenous “push” factor leading to Jews settling in new cities close to the existing network of Jewish communities. Using these two strategies we obtain similar (though larger in magnitude) effects from the presence of a Jewish community on city growth. This provides further suggestive evidence that the correlation we found in our baseline analysis was indeed causal.

The Relationship Between Urban Growth and the Presence of a Jewish Community Over time

Across specifications, we find that cities with Jewish communities experienced no growth advantage in the 15th and 16th centuries. After 1600, however, they began to grow significantly faster.


The relationship we observe in the Figure does not appear to be inline with a pure human capital story. Jews had higher human capital than Christians throughout the medieval and early modern period. But the growth advantage of cities that had Jewish communities only became evident after 1600. This raises the possibility that something else changed around  17th century that made the human capital and skills of Jews more complementary to economic growth.

Two Mechanisms: Jewish Emancipation and Market Access

The two factors that stand out in explaining the emergence of a growth advantage for cities with Jewish communities after 1600 but not before are: (1) Jewish Emancipation after 1750; and (2) a complementarity between the presence of a Jewish community and market access.

The process of Jewish emancipation began in continental Europe after 1780. It was a major institutional break that signified a major change in the economic, social, and political status of the Jews in Europe. In work with Jean-Paul Carvalho, I’ve shown that Jewish emancipation lead to a religious schism and the emergence of both Reform and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.

In the period before Jewish emancipation, legal barriers limited the ability of Jews to put their labor to its highest value use. Jewish businesses were prevented from hiring non-Jewish workers. Jews could not attend universities. Moreover, Jews and Christians were culturally isolated. This changed with emancipation, and we expect to see it reflected in the contribution of Jewish communities to city growth in the post-1750 period.

The second factor we study is the complementarity between the presence of a Jewish community and the development of markets. The historical literature points to the importance of Jewish trading and financial networks. But, while economic historians have conducted numerous studies of market integration during the early modern period, with a few exceptions these have focused on the grain trade with little systematic study of other markets due to data limitations. Jewish merchants in medieval and early modern Europe, however, did not play a prominent role in the grain trade but, rather, were involved in the transport of diamonds, sugar, silks, tobacco, and other luxury products in addition to playing a large role in banking and finance. Therefore, rather than looking at grain markets, we explore a more general measure of market integration based on market access.

Market access depends on the population size of nearby cities weighted by the cost associated with the least cost travel path. We show that market access was increasing for all cities after 1700. We find evidence that cities with Jewish communities were better able to take advantage of this increase in market access. As we detail in the paper, our findings are consistent with the argument made by numerous historians that Jewish trading and finance networks help to knit together the European economy, particularly in the period 1650 to 1800 (Israel, 1985).


Our analysis provides support for the accounts of historians who have emphasized the important role played by Jewish traders in 17th and 18th century Europe (such as Fortune, 1984; Israel, 1985; Trivellato, 2009). Furthermore, our story is in line with institutional arguments such as those developed by Douglass North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast, and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.  In the Middle Ages, the presence of Jewish communities was part of an institutional arrangement that extracted rents from society and distributed them among members of the ruling elite. The eradication of these rent-seeking arrangements and the liberalization of Jewish economic activity, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the rest of Europe following Jewish Emancipation, was of critical importance as it is in those cities that possessed emancipated Jewish communities that we observe the strongest relationship between the presence of Jews and economic growth.