Nightcap

  1. How David Graeber changed the way we see money Matthew Zeitlin, New Republic
  2. What’s wrong with “cancel culture,” again? Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  3. Why socialists should care about about American federalism Chris Maisano, Jacobin
  4. In loving memory of David Graeber Andrej Grubačić, PM Press

“Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations”

It is widely accepted that good institutions caused the massive increase in living standards enjoyed by ordinary people over the past two hundred years. But what caused good institutions? Scholars once pointed to the polycentric governance structures of medieval Europe, but this explanation has been replaced by arguments favoring state capacity. Here we revitalize the ‘polycentric Europe’ hypothesis and argue it is a complement to state capacity explanations. We develop a new institutional theory, based on political property rights and what we call polycentric sovereignty, which explains how the medieval patrimony resulted in the requisite background conditions for good governance, and hence widespread social wealth creation.

By Alexander Salter & Andrew Young. Read the whole excellent thing here. I wonder how much the author’s conception of “polycentric sovereignty” has in common with Madison’s compound republic?

Salter & Young do a great job bringing decentralization back into the overall “economic growth and political freedom” picture. Over the past two decades, political centralization as a good thing has been making a comeback under the guise of “state capacity.” This isn’t a bad trend, but it has left several large gaps in understanding how economic development and political freedom works. (For example, how to prevent centralized states from pursuing illiberal ends, or using illiberal means to pursue supposedly liberal ends.)

This article brings decentralization back into the picture, using Elinor and Vincent Ostrom’s conception of polycentricity as a model. However, I don’t think they spend enough time on Vincent Ostrom’s understanding of the American compound republic. The American federalists were concerned with exactly the same thing that we are concerned about now: how to maintain a proper balance of centralized power and decentralized power so that liberty may flourish. I’ve emphasized the important part with italics. The liberty aspect gets de-emphasized to make room for the sexier “economic growth” aspect, but political freedom is still paramount when it comes to thinking through matters of politics.

The American federalists, and especially Madison, came up with the compound republic to address the centralized/decentralized debate. Scholars continue to underrate its genius and usefulness for capturing humans as they are. Ostrom’s book on the Madisonian compound republic is worth your time and money. Read it in tandem with this book on the Federalist Papers and this book on the formation of the American republic and this short paper on the continued viability of the compound republic to today’s world. Once you’ve done the readings, start writing (or better yet: blogging!).

Nightcap

  1. Comparing economics and epidemiology? Tyler Cowen, MR
  2. Um, we still need a back-to-work plan John Cochrane, Grumpy Economist
  3. Israel, Arab citizens, and coronavirus Afif Abu Much, Al-Monitor
  4. How about just 10% less democracy? Adam Wakeling, Quillette

Entangling alliances, Donald Trump, and a new libertarian alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washingtonian alliances throughout American history

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

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

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

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

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

NATO’s continued importance

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

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

The forgotten alternative

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

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

Some lessons from Brazil

Jair Bolsonaro has been in government for almost six months now. I believe I can proudly say that I saw this coming before many people: Bolsonaro would be the next president in Brazil. However, he might not be the best person for the job.

In my assessment, Bolsonaro is not the usual politician. As John Mearsheimer brilliantly observed, politicians lie. A lot. It should be a given: dogs bark, cats climb on trees, and politicians lie. Bolsonaro, as far as I can tell, doesn’t. And that might be part of the problem: he always speaks his mind. Nothing is concealed, even when strategy might call for that.

In the past week, Bolsonaro sent an open letter to some of his followers (not written by him) manifesting how hard it is to govern Brazil. The letter sounds like a vent for the president’s frustration: “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain”. But what Bolsonaro means by all that is not clear. For all sorts of reasons, corruption is a living part of Brazilian politics. Actually, of politics in general, just a little more down there. So why the president sounds surprised by that?

Some people in the press speculated that Bolsonaro plans a coup. Call that it is impossible to govern with the current congress and just close it. To be sure, that is not unthinkable, and Brazil has historical precedents for that. But that doesn’t sound like something that Bolsonaro would do. Sounds more like that he is trying to bypass Congress and govern with direct popular support.

Brazilian congress is fabulously corrupt, and Bolsonaro still enjoys great popularity. Maybe he wants to use that to press Congress for the changes Brazil needs. In any case, it is a good opportunity to remember some lessons: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Or, in other words, if men were angels, we wouldn’t need government. And if we were governed by angels, we wouldn’t need checks and balances. But we are not governed by angels. Therefore, checks and balances are necessary. The downside is that this makes the government slow when important changes are necessary. The temptation is to close democratic institutions and just do things the old fashion way: through a dictatorship. I don’t think that is where Brazil is going right now. But it’s important to remember that we need way more than a president. We need people who really understand and appreciate freedom. An uneducated people on these matters will always grow impatient and vote for an easy solution.

Old Property

Property is the basis for every right and ounce of autonomy we have. James Madison called property “that dominion which one claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” Madison went on to argue that basically every right we enjoy is reducible to a property right. We have property in our opinions, in the free use of our faculties, in the safety and liberty of our body, and so on. He believed that “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort” and a government can only be just if it “impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”

But government has not remained impartial in this endeavor. It has become a massive property owner in its own right.  It has also become a gatekeeper, setting the terms for individuals’ uses of their own property. It has also become a broker and redistributor of property. And finally, it has =become a creator of property in the form of entitlements–what Charles Reich famously called “new property.” It’s this last role that I’d like to discuss here.

Government’s role as a creator of property has muddled and watered down the strength of property rights. The problem began when U.S. courts started grappling with claims that individuals had been deprived of a constitutional right when government stripped them of a government-created entitlement, such as social security.

Courts confronted with this problem basically held that while constitutional rights do attach to entitlements, the government has an increased authority to limit the rights to those entitlements. Essentially, since the government created the entitlement, the government can define the scope and terms of that entitlement.

This “new property” doctrine then became entangled with a different idea altogether. The United States Constitution protects against deprivations of life, liberty, and property without due process of law. The Constitution, however, does not define property. Courts have held instead that state law defines property , and the Constitution then protects rights to that property.

That does not mean, however, that all property can be whisked away at a whim as if it is all “new property.” Rather, even though state law may establish what property is, states do not have the power to mutate and redefine all property rights on a whim. In essence, there is “new property” and then there is “old property.”

“Old property” is a bundle of long-recognized property rights rooted in common law. But just because those rights have arisen from common law courts over the centuries does not mean that these are property rights created by government in the same sense as less-protected “new property.” There is a fundamental difference, for constitutional purposes, between government recognizing a boundary line and creating a food stamp program. In some sense, this difference strikes a deeper philosophical chord, one that distinguishes between positive law and natural law–or fundamental rights that are acknowledged and respected by government, and entitlements that are created and controlled by government.

What are these fundamental property rights? Most are intuitive and understood by babies as soon as their hands are capable of grasping. They include the right to exclude others (the first property right understood by all children everywhere), the right to quiet enjoyment, the right dispose of the property by sale or lease, the right to develop and improve the property, etc. That right extends to chattel and land–things the government does not create but simply exist and are brought under human ownership through a first-in-time rule or a transfer.

The idea that “new property” deserves lesser protection because government dictates its bounds has bled over into the “old property” rights. This stems from confusion between government recognizing the existence of a fundamental right and government creating an entitlement. Extensive permitting regimes have only exacerbated this confusion. When local governments demand a permit before a property owner can do something with their land, the government looks upon that permit as an entitlement–a privilege and not a right. Thus, “new property” ideas come to overlay and suffocate “old property.” As permitting regimes expand, the world of “old property” retracts. But that permit is not a “new property” entitlement–it’s a condition placed upon a fundamental background right–an intruder upon natural law. When a permitting authority tries to strip away or deny a permit, that denial should be subjected to the full rigor of constitutional scrutiny offered to “old property,” not the weak sauce protections for entitlements.

If a government is only just if it limits itself to protecting what is ours, as Madison believed, then we don’t have many just governments left to us. Courts could help by establishing a clearer distinction between the old and the new forms of property so that governments can’t get away with redefining or stripping away fundamental property rights.

Nightcap

  1. James Madison won the shutdown Greg Weiner, Law & Liberty
  2. A Marxist defense of Venezuela Louis Proyect, Unrepentant Marxist
  3. Emergent complexity in a multi-planetary ecology Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  4. Christian martyrs, marriage, and the Middle East Christian Sahner, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. On “Madison’s nightmare” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. Good parenting versus good citizenship Gina Schouten, Crooked Timber
  3. The birth of the British East India Company Francis Sempa, Asian Review of Books
  4. The bitterness of Adam Smith Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

Why the left loves democracy

The left loves to talk about democracy. Brazil’s former president Lula da Silva is in jail. Finally. Leftists inside and outside Brazil call this a crime against democracy because the polls were showing that in the upcoming October elections Lula would be elected president. The people wanted Lula president, and a judge, Sergio Moro, against the will of the majority, jailed Lula.

I will consent to this argument. Maybe Lula was going to be elected in October (although I have serious doubts about it). Would this be democratic? Maybe. In its most pure form, democracy is the rule of the majority. A good picture of this is three wolves and a sheep voting on what they are going to have for dinner. Leftists in power (or hoping to be in power) love this.

A pure Democracy, by which I mean a Society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the Government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of Government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party, or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security, or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives, as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of Government, have erroneously supposed, that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions. — James Madison, Federalist No. 10

Brazil top court delays decision on blocking prison for ex-president Lula

Brazil’s Supreme Court decided that leftist former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva cannot be sent to prison for a corruption conviction until he exhausts all possible appeals. About that:

“It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood: if they be repealed or revised before they are promulg[at]ed, or undergo such incessant changes, that no man who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be tomorrow.” – James Madison (16 March 1751 – 28 June 1836), fourth President of the United States (1809–1817), co-author, with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, of the Federalist Papers, and traditionally regarded as the Father of the United States Constitution.

“Brazil is not for beginners.” – Antônio Carlos Jobim (January 25, 1927 – December 8, 1994), also known as Tom Jobim, Brazilian composer, pianist, songwriter, arranger, and singer. Widely considered as one of the great exponents of Brazilian music.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. NATO sends a message to Russia
  2. Iraq doesn’t need to break up to be successful (so says a scholar at Brookings)
  3. Benedict Anderson (political science) reviews Clifford Geertz (anthropology)
  4. The Muddled Mystique of Karl Polanyi
  5. The prison house of gender
  6. Investigating Madison’s Political Religion (central planning is hard to do)

“The Economic Origins of Territorial States”

That’s the title for a paper by Scott Abramson in the Department of Politics at Princeton. Among the gems in this excellent paper:

[…[ before the French Revolution, before the era of the mass conscript army, wealth could not only purchase the technologies of violence, but also the manpower required to prosecute major wars. That is, rather than being an age when large states dominated militarily, this was a period where the population and natural resource advantages of territorial states provided little benefit in the production of violence. Leaders of states could, for a negotiated price, hire a Hessian colonel or an Italian condotierro and retain their men for a campaign season just as they could use these resources to purchase the most advanced technologies of coercion like siege artillery or rearms. It was by virtue of their economic capacity city-states like Genoa and Florence or groups of independent towns like the Swabian league could raise armies that matched or even exceeded those of territorial states like France or England

and

[…] the relationship between geographic scale and survival probability is the opposite of what war-making theories predict. Over this span small states were more likely to survive than their larger counterparts. In other words, rather than being an age of the territorial state” the period between 1500 and 1800 was one in which small political communities not only persisted but remained the typical form of political organization.

Read the rest of the paper here. So small territorial units dominated much of Europe during the initial phase of modernity and industrialization. What I’m trying to piece together is a way to incorporate the ability of small states to provide for themselves while at the same time maintaining ties with multiple neighbors in a way that binds them economically and politically, but without the coercive apparatus of a central government.

I think Madison was thinking about the same thing when he drafted the federal republic of the US, but it seems to me there is a right way to do federal republics (US) and a wrong way (Latin America). Does this make sense?

Has Nobel Laureate Gary Becker been reading NOL?

I would think so, especially after reading this:

The movement toward free trade agreements and globalization during the past 60 years has enormously reduced the economic advantages of having a larger domestic market to sell goods ands services. Small countries can sell their goods to other countries, both large and small, almost as easily as large countries can sell in their own domestic markets. For example, during the past 30 years the small country of Chile has had the fastest growing economy of Latin America, larger than Brazil and Mexico, the two largest nations of this region. This would not have been possible without the access of Chilean companies to markets in other countries, both in South America and elsewhere. As a result, Chile now exports around 40% of its GDP, compared to a ratio of exports to GDP in the United States of about 13%.

[…]

Small countries can do well with small domestic markets by taking advantage of a globalized economy by selling large fractions of its production to consumers and companies in other countries. That is why smaller countries usually export a considerably larger fraction of its production, and import a much bigger share of its consumption, than do larger countries. Size of country was much more important in the past when many countries had high tariffs, and transportation costs were much more important.

Political interest groups tend to be less able in smaller countries in distorting political decision in their favor. This is partly because smaller countries are more homogeneous, so it is harder for one group to exploit another group since the groups are similar. In addition, since smaller nations have less monopoly power in world markets, it is less efficent for them to subsidize domestic companies in order to give these companies an advantage over imports. The greater profits to domestic companies from these subsidies come at the expense of much larger declines in consumer well being.

The growth in the competitiveness of small countries on the global market is in good part responsible at a deeper level for the remarkable growth in the number of countries since 1950 from a little over 100 to almost 200 countries now. And the number of independent countries is still growing.

OMG! He has been reading us! How could he not be? Check out our thoughts on secession, decentralization, and devolution and tell me I’m wrong. Do it!

Heck, if we’re writing about the same stuff as a Nobel Laureate, and you’re reading us, what does that tell you about you? About us?

I’m curious. I also know Dr Becker doesn’t really read us. However, does the fact that we write about the same concepts and events as a Nobel Laureate have more to do with intelligence or ideological bias? Do prominent Left-wing scholars write about secession and globalization in the same way that we do?

From what I can tell, the answer to my second question is ‘no’ (the answer to my first is further below). Generally speaking, libertarians view more countries, more decentralization and more economic integration as a great thing, and we’ve got the data (increases in income, and longevity of life, and literacy rates, and…) to back it up. We’re the optimists.

Leftists and conservatives argue that all the good libertarian things happening in the world are bad, and they have some data to back it up (like Gross National Happiness). Leftists and conservatives are the pessimists.

Is this disagreement over globalization really a matter of intelligence? Of ideology? I think it’s probably a mixture of both, and also that intelligence levels affect ideological bias. You don’t hear many stupid people advocating for a more globalized world, much less for decentralized power structures and economic integration. It’s also hard to find smart people that will shun internationalism at the cultural or political level. The fact that many smart people, especially on the Left, shun economic internationalism is not so much troubling as it is amusing.

Watching intelligent people attempt to squirm out of answering questions about economic internationalism (“globalization”) can be quite the treat.

I think facts are squarely on the libertarian’s side, and that the main obstacle to attaining a more globalized, a more economically integrated, and a more politically decentralized world is rhetoric (and sheer numbers, of course). The benefits of globalization are usually seen by intelligent people very quickly (though not always thanks to clever rhetoric), but there are simply not that many intelligent people in the world (if there were, wouldn’t intelligence be rendered useless or morph into something else?).

I guess what I’m trying to say is that working towards a more libertarian world (thousands of political units with one world market) should be easy, so why isn’t it? I think the answer is ‘factions’. Farm subsidies in the West, for example, are unnecessary and can actually lead to hunger in poorer parts of the world. Getting rid of such subsidies would be a great benefit to mankind, but these subsidies persist. Why? Because of the political power of farm lobbies. If a politician representing a farm district in the West votes to eliminate subsidies, he’s gone in the next election. So unless the representatives of Western farmers somehow band together in defiance of their own interests and vote to eliminate farm subsidies, poor people will go hungry and Western citizens will pay too much for food.

Here is the real conundrum, though. If some factions gain political leverage over other factions, it does not necessarily follow that arbitrarily ending the hard-won privileges of the rent-capturing factions is the best option to take. In fact, it is often the worst option to take because of the dangers associated with arbitrary rule.

Think about it this way: Suppose a bunch of farmers in a democratic state band together and form a lobby for the purpose of protecting their interests. They gain influence (“capturing the rent”) and eventually become a nuisance to their countrymen but not a problem. Unfortunately, they are more than a nuisance to people in poor countries, but these poor people are unable to form a lobby that counters the lobbying efforts of the farmers.

The farm lobby in the rich country has followed all the rules. It has achieved its status as rent-capturer fairly, democratically and legally. What gives the government the right to suddenly change the rules on the farm lobby? Absolutely nothing. Furthermore, if the democratic government starts to ban lobbies it deems to be nuisances, it relinquishes its democratic moniker (and, more importantly, introduces arbitrary rule). Do you see the problem of ‘factions’?

Unfortunately, factions are built in to the policy-making process itself. One of the strengths of democracies is that they tend to give factions more of a voice than autocracies. In the United States, for example, Madison sought to combat the problem of factions by restricting the scope of the state to certain duties, and his system has done an excellent job (all things considered).

So I’ve got two questions I hope to be able to think about in the near term: 1) how can we make the Madisonian system better here in the United States, and 2) how can we “export” (for lack of a better term) Madisonian democracy abroad in a non-coercive manner?

The Meaning of Social Science: Ideology, Private Life, and the Internet

[Note: This is a guest essay by Dr Peter Miller, who is a sociologist (PhD, Berkeley), a longtime resident of Japan, a non-participant observer of the American scene, and (since 1991) one of the world’s few practitioners of original photogravure etching, whose semi-abstract Japan-influenced prints are in private and museum collections in Japan, Europe, Russia, and the United States. His websites can be found here & here]

Social-science expertise has been missing from current discussions of government-led spying on private citizens and the proper role of government in general. Ideologies, which is to say gut reactions, have corrupted the public debate; but there is nevertheless a role for sociological analysis of these phenomena.

Social science in its modern form started as a mostly European effort to explain the origins of the horrible totalitarianism that engulfed Europe, and to deduce the structure of institutions that would prevent it from arising again. The Nazi, Soviet, and Fascist systems were all characterized by total State-control of all aspects of life, including the most private aspects of life. Whether the ostensible purpose was re-casting human nature into the ‘new Soviet man’ or an embodiment of the German ‘volk’, they quickly evolved into an apparatus for murdering large numbers of their citizenry. Of course the prospective victims had to be identified before they could be murdered. For this purpose a State apparatus of domestic spying and information-gathering was devised. Primitive by today’s standards, the forced wearing of Jewish stars and the forced confessions by purported enemies of the State were crudely effective in generating large numbers of victims. Social scientists asked ‘How did this happen? What can be done to prevent its recurrence?’

The essential answer to the first question, distilled from reams of scholarship, is: De-legitimization of private life. All the social space traditionally separating individuals from the State was systematically removed. Private enterprise was abolished. All universities and schools in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were taken over by government, run by political appointees, and staffed exclusively by those who would do their bidding. The same for the media, the churches (co-opted in Germany, eliminated in the Soviet Union), youth groups (Hitler Youth, Young Pioneers), and welfare organizations. All intermediary organizations that had previously functioned autonomously were either taken over by government, co-opted, intimidated into conformity, or forced out of existence. The sequence from privacy-deflation to total State control to mass murder progressed in roughly 15 years in the Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany, with more intensive propaganda and ‘education’, this sequence took only five years.

From this historical record, social scientists deduced that properly functioning democracies require lively intermediary organizations — churches, labor unions, 4-H clubs, PTAs, bowling clubs, whatever. Re-reading Tocqueville and Madison, social scientists re-discovered with these sages a high regard for such humble institutions (not that there were bowling clubs in Madison’s day, but you get the idea). The Austrian School (Hayek et al) added private enterprise to this list of freedom-enhancing entities. And from Vienna also came Lazarsfeld who posited ‘cross-pressures’ — conflicting loyalties — as the essential building-blocks of democracy. His big idea was that a healthy democracy needed unpredictability, where a person’s ethnicity, race, religion, education, or social class did not necessarily determine his voting preferences or consumer choices.

Since the 1970s, American and Western European societies have tolerated and even encouraged a progressive tribalization of their societies. Race, ethnicity, and sexual-identity have become increasingly salient in the distribution of government largesse, and consequently in the determination of political and consumer choices. Both public and private universities rely increasingly on government funding, and thus take their orders from the State, in research priorities, curricula, staffing, and extra-curricular activities. With some exceptions and counter-trends, the period since the 1970s has witnessed a progressive weakening of the autonomous mediating organizations that sociologists identified as essential to the working of democracy.

Separately, the growth of the Internet has deflated the private sphere, at first due in large part to the apparently voluntary choices of Internet users themselves. Only a few years ago the fad of the moment was 24/7 live webcams turned on oneself for the world to see. Now security cameras that do the same thing outdoors are all-pervasive. The collective mantra, highly promoted by the giant Internet companies, is ‘If you have nothing to hide, why be concerned?’ This is the tradeoff for ‘serving you better’. Mobile phones with geo-tracking are surely a great improvement in the quality of life, as is the proliferation of answers to life’s unanswered questions, and the blessings of instant communication. In return for all that, what does the loss of privacy matter?

I always doubted the business model of Internet-tracking. It never seemed plausible to me that a teen-ager with zits who happens to be in a drugstore is any more likely to buy zit-off after getting zapped with an ad on his geo-tracked mobile at that moment than if he weren’t zapped. The whole business of click-tracking, Web-tracking, and the like never made commercial sense to me. It was always hype — good for securing VC funding and not much else. But investors in these large-scale personal-data-gathering companies were not stupid. Behind our backs, these companies were getting paid by governments to sell users’ data. Their business model was not based on the supposed commercial utility of precise ad-targeting, but on secret NSA demands for indiscriminate personal data. Governments, under the banner of fighting terror, and shielded from Congressional or public scrutiny, have unlimited taxpayer funds to finance these transactions.

With the Snowden revelations, we now have a better understanding of the extent of Internet and telecom surveillance. Of course, this cannot have been a complete surprise. Nevertheless the near-universal scale of the surveillance, plus the technological capacity to sort and search the data, make for a real game-changer. As one security expert said in a recent interview:

The most shocking aspects of Edward Snowden’s courageous revelations is the scale of surveillance. Every one of us involved in this field, I think it’s fair to say, has not been surprised by what is possible but had assumed perhaps out of hope or fear that they were limited in what they did and were proportionate, and that although we didn’t believe they would just stick to terrorism they would not try to reach for everything.

But every single document, speech and slideshow shows that a bunch of juvenile lunatics have taken over the asylum and are drunk and exuberant on their capabilities to spy on everything all the time and that is what they want to do. They have lost every sort of moral compass and respect for civic values.

The problem is that many European countries, notably Britain but not exclusively Britain, have been complicit in these activities as a result of favours, trade or encouragement. Basically the NSA has, over years with Britain’s assistance, essentially tried to subvert companies and governments into a surveillance empire which is almost a supranational enterprise of their own.

The question is, to what end? As we know in sociology, not everything is what it seems. Just as the indiscriminate sweeping-up of personal data lacked a plausible commercial basis, though it still made business sense if the data were sold to government spy agencies, it is likewise implausible that all that data has much utility in fighting terror. What then is it good for?

I think that question has yet to be answered; that the answer will depend on what use the new owners of that data make of it. The meaning of the massive loss of privacy that has occurred is immanent, it will emerge as further events unfold. As far as I am aware, the central-conspiracy model does not fit the case. What we have is a set of disparate elements that as yet have not coalesced into any coherent order. Among these elements are the increasing tribalization of society, de-legitimizing of autonomous intermediary organizations, and deflation of the private sphere. These are exactly the conditions that gave rise to the totalitarian horrors of the mid-20th century. It does not appear that any current Western leader has it in him to become another Hitler or Stalin. But the elements are there, awaiting a moment — perhaps another terrorist attack or financial crisis — that will call forth a charismatic savior.

Yet one must be especially careful with historical analogies to avoid the ‘generals-fighting-the-last-war’ syndrome. Things are very different now, compared with analogous conditions 80 years ago. The greatly expanded human freedom, communication, and educational prospects empowered by the Internet may overwhelm the efforts of governments to use it as an instrument of State control. This will be a titanic struggle, with the outcome still unclear. And that’s where I’ll leave it for now, pending further sociological inquiry into what-all this may portend.

A Conservative

Why I Am One

The bizarre bohemian bilge that plagues conventionally left-wing schools of thought, whether from Marx or Rawls or Chomsky, is just not for me. For the most part anyways. Since I’ve become more (this is an understatement; I have gone much farther than, say, Glenn Beck) of a libertarian (a classical liberal while socialists are usually just reverse reactionaries), I’ve learned to make some exceptions. This has tended to be more on the level of semi-reluctant tolerance than on that of open-armed embrace.

As you can see, therefore, I am a conservative because my cultural values and my outlook on life are certainly not (socially) liberal. I find that the libertinism and relativism of most left-wing ideologies, to say nothing of the economic ignorance and denial that accompanies them, were they commonplace, are incompatible with the maintenance of a free society. Generally, the only commendable quality I find in left-wing ideologies is compassion. And then only where it is sincere and/or reasonable, the latter being far more rare than the former. A moral people, as per conservatism, and yet a compassionate people, as per liberalism, is what is needed in order to establish and then preserve a free society. That is not to say that immoral or indifferent people should be given less rights or that they should be driven forth into the wastelands (although, and I think Hans-Hermann Hoppe is absolutely correct on this, they could be excluded from covenant communities without violating anyone’s rights).

Why I Am Not One

Conservatism is about conserving things. But what if the thing being conserved is a tradition of liberalism? Can not then a conservative also be a liberal? Liberalism is about freedom of thought and action. But what if the thoughts or actions are conservative? Can not then a liberal also be a conservative? The dichotomy and at times mutual exclusivity between the two is merely the result of certain factions that were never interested in (or at least not consistent in their solutions towards) conserving freedom or the freedom to conserve in the first place, but because they had one or two important (and perhaps only at the specific point in history that certain factions coalesced) things in common, the labels were adopted. This was then compounded by certain pseudo-liberals falsely characterizing all conservatives as illiberal or intolerant, and certain pseudo-conservatives falsely characterizing all liberals as intemperate or nihilistic. In the United States this was made even worse, at least for the realm of national politics, by the electoral college, which mathematically favors a two-party system because having three or more major parties would necessarily prevent presidential nominees from garnering the 271 electors necessary to win. Continue reading