North Korea at the North Sea?

Yesterday, both Houses of Dutch Parliament jointly opened the parliamentary year, which is always held on the third Tuesday in September, and is known as “Budget Day.” Normally, there is not much pomp and glory in the Low Lands, but on “Little Princes Day” (as the day is literally called), we go all-out: the King and Queen are driven in a horse-pulled carriage to the Hall of Knights, the oldest part of the parliamentary buildings (built around 1250), surrounded by military troops in full ceremonial dress. The King reads his speech (actually written by and under full political responsibility of the Prime Minister and cabinet) from a huge throne, announcing the government’s plans for the next year. Male ministers in morning coats, ladies in dresses and hats, with the powerful elites also assembled.

king and queen
King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima entering the Hall of Knights (source)

After the reading, the Royal couple make their way back to one of their palaces in the centre of The Hague, returning once to greet the masses from the balcony.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Finance officially presents the 2018 budget to the Lower House. The separate budgets of all departments are laws, which will have to pass both Houses before 31 December. This process is normally preceded by a two day debate on “the general state of the country,” but this year it is skipped because there is only a caretaker government in office. It awaits the finalization of negotiations for a new government, which started right after the elections on 15 March. Still no government is formed, although it is widely expected that a four-party coalition will be presented within a few weeks, consisting of small Christian left wingers, centre Christian Democrats, and two social liberal parties, D66, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD.

Although much improved since the low point of the Great Recession, around 2011-2012, the public finances are still shocking from a classical liberal perspective. The income of the national government is 285 billion Euro (around 338.5 billion USD), which is 43% of GDP.

It consists mainly of several mandatory insurance premiums for collective arrangements (112.2 billion Euro), income tax (55.4 billion; the highest bracket of 51.5% tax applies to all personal income over 68.507 Euro), and VAT (52.8 billion). The rest are mainly specific taxes, related to companies, the environment, excises, dividends, et cetera. In 2011, the public share of GDP was still 47%, while in the 1980s it reached peaks of around 60%. Not exactly anywhere near an ideal liberal situation, no matter what liberal persuasion you are. Personally, I would argue that 25% should be the max for a decent set of state tasks, but I am sure that makes me some weird Northern European commie in some American libertarian eyes!

The situation is even more dire if we see where that money is spent. Health care (80.4 billion euro) and social security (79 billion) are always in competition as the largest spending departments. So that is 56% of the budget already and both increase annually, no matter the economic circumstances. The third post is public education (35.4 billion), followed by funds for provinces and municipalities (24.4 billion), foreign affairs and foreign aid (12), police and judiciary (10.3), defense (8.4), and infrastructure and environment (also 8.4), with the other departments taking parts of the rest. Despite a very rare expected budgetary surplus of 7.8 billion in 2018, the national debt is still 53.7% of GDP. Perhaps not bad in international comparison, still not good for any liberal.

These numbers are only part of the story, because there are also numerous local taxes, and the number of liberty-inhibiting regulations, from European, national, provincial and local origin are staggering. There is not one really free market, and there are hardly parts of individual life not regulated or influenced by the state. A comparison with North Korea is of course still far-fetched, yet socialism is alive and kicking on the North Sea shores.

In my view it is evidence of the remarkable power of capitalism that The Netherlands is still one of the richest countries on earth, a global top 15 economy (GDP per capita), with only 17 million inhabitants. No matter how hard you curb it, the capitalist system still delivers amazing results. Of course, the opportunity costs of the Dutch regulatory state are very high. In terms of personal liberty there are not many better places on the planet. Yet in other fields it is a different story. Economic freedom is a mess, which means that the material aspects of personal freedom are seriously restricted. Yet the worst is the mentality. Sadly, most Dutch have traveled the whole Hayekian Road to Serfdom, making a shift to classical liberalism highly unlikely.

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A short note on ideological neutrality

William‘s excellent post on dishonesty reminded me of an equally excellent post by John McGinnis over at Liberty Law Blog on the ACLU and free speech. The post ended, though, with the following sentence:

It would be a tragedy for our nation if the ACLU’s decision begins to dissolve the strong social fabric supporting the ideologically neutral First Amendment.

Ach. There is nothing neutral about the First Amendment. It’s a law based on liberal ideology. The idea of free speech is based on liberal ideology. The other ideologies out there pay great lip service to free speech, but there’s no First Amendment in the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia. Free speech is trumped by an ambiguous form of censorship called “hate speech” in other OECD countries (Western Europe, Australia-New Zealand, Japan). There is no First Amendment in Russia or China or Venezuela.

Liberalism is the only ideology out there that actually encourages rival ideologies to attack it, not with provocative laws but with one specific law that allows all factions the same space for their platform. The First Amendment is not neutral at all; it is instead an aggressive flaunting of liberalism’s staying power and ability to deliver freedom.

When libertarians start thinking of their preferred values as “neutral” or “centrist” they begin to echo the Left, which has been dishonest with itself for the past 45-50 years. That’s a road I’d hate to the movement plod through.

Is Socialism Really Revolutionary?

A central feature of Karl Marx’s thought is its teleological character: the world walks inexorably towards communism. It is not a question of choices. It is not a question of individual decisions. Communism is simply the direction in which the world walks. Capitalism will collapse not because of some external force, but because of its own internal contradictions (centrally the exploitation of the workers).

I don’t know exactly what History classes are like in other countries, but in basically all my academic trajectory I was bombarded with some version of Marxism. Particularly as far as my country was concerned, the question was not whether a socialist revolution would happen, but why it was taking so long! Looking at events in the past, the reading was as follows: the bourgeoisie overthrew the Old Regime in the French Revolution. At that time the bourgeoisie were revolutionaries (and therefore left-wing). However, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a constitutional government, the bourgeois became advocates of the new order (and therefore, reactionary, or right-wing). Socialists have become the new revolutionaries, the new left, the new radicals.

This way of seeing history has a Hegelian background: there are no absolutes. History moves through a process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. History’s god is learning to be a god. I’ve written earlier here about how this kind of relativistic view does not stand on its own terms. Now I would like to say that this way of looking at history can be intellectually dishonest.

According to the historical view I have learned, there is no absolute of what is left or right. One political group is always to the left or to the right of another, depending on how much this group is revolutionary or reactionary. Thus, the bourgeois were revolutionaries at one time, but today they are no longer. But what happens when the Socialists come to power? Do not they themselves become reactionary, defenders of the status quo? According to everything they taught me, no. The revolution is permanent. My assessment is that at this point they are partly right: the revolution must be permanent.

Socialists can not take the risk of becoming exactly what they fought at the first place. In practice, however, this is not the case: the Socialists occupy the posts of the state and begin to defend their position and these positions more than anything else. That’s what I see in my country today. In practice, it is impossible to be revolutionary all the time, just as it is impossible to be relativistic in a consistent way. I have not yet met a person who, looking at the red light, said “but to me it’s green and all these other cars are just a narrative of patriarchal society.”

Politics is unfortunately, for the most part, simply a search for power. Even the most idealistic groups need the power to put their agendas into practice. And experience shows that once installed in power, many idealistic groups become pragmatic.

Socialism is not revolutionary. It is only a reaction against the real revolution that is capitalism defended by classical liberalism. Classical liberalism says: men are all equal, private property is inviolable, exchanges can only occur voluntarily and no one can be forced to work against their will. Marxism responds: men are not all the same (they are divided into classes), private property is relative (if it is in the interest of the collective I can take what was once yours) and you will work for our cause, whether or not you want to. In short, Marxism is a return to the Old Regime.

On Liberalism & Race

Race has occupied my thoughts for the past few months. I have traditionally been against giving too much thought to race. Progressives, I think, abuse claims of racism to shut down discussions and pass questionable public policies; e.g. “We need state provided health care because the current system is racist against people of color.”. Conservatives likewise use racism (nativism really) to justify restrictive migration policies. My default position has been that liberals should seek to reduce the role of race of society. I am no longer convinced that this is a viable goal.

My earlier position was based on my childhood experience growing up in 1990s Los Angeles. I grew up in the city’s Koreatown district. The corner grocery store was owned by an Indian. We had a mosque in the block that catered to the neighborhood’s Bengali population. This being Los Angeles there was of course a mixture of Hispanics from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and other nations. With so many groups clustered together in a small place you would expect frequent violence – but there wasn’t. Property crimes (petty theft mostly) were common given the general poverty in the area, but inter-group violence wasn’t common. The reason for peace was because the United States’ market oriented institutions discouraged such violence. All the groups were too busy trying to make money to have time to escalate inter-group conflict beyond making fun of one another in private. I grew up hearing plenty of jokes at the expense of Salvadoreans and Asians, but I never saw any actual violence against them. I figured that this was evidence that a liberal society would in the long run be able to make race irrelevant by making it too costly to be racist.

The events of the past few months have made me skeptical of this. Liberal society certainly makes racism costly and reduces inter-group conflict. However liberal society does not eliminate all inter-group conflict or remove the underlying differences across races.

Given that liberalism cannot eliminate racism, what should the liberal position on race be? I have no solid answer. Thoughts?

A very short response to Bruno Gonçalves Rosi’s reflection on Latin American Conservatism

With his “The Problem with Conservatism in Latin America, Bruno Gonçalves Rosi brings to NOL a very interesting debate on politics and history. In the case of Hispanic America the controversy is quite severe: during the 17th-century Spain and its colonies were undergoing an incremental process of liberalization and modernization known as “Bourbon Reforms.” These reforms implied a language unification (adopting Castilian – later named “Spanish” – as the national language), an increasing centralization of political administration, and free trade between Spain and its colonies, among other aspects.

In the case of the Spanish colonies in America, the Bourbon Reforms implied that Spanish-born subjects were preferred over American-born ones to take up public duties, and also that American products could not compete with Spanish ones. Up until then, commerce among Spain and its American colonies was restrained to gold and a narrow scope of goods. Free commerce had been allowed only in cases of extreme scarcity (for example, between Buenos Aires and South Africa) and for a very short lapse of time. The Bourbon Reforms put a severe strain on the incipient local production of the Hispanic American colonies that had flourished as consequence of closed markets. Sometimes inefficient local processes of production were outperformed by more competitive Spanish goods. But in other cases, efficient local industries were banned because they were regarded as a menace to Spanish ones.

Thus, the reactions to the Bourbon Reforms were of two opposite kinds: the Liberals rejected them because they limited the free trade only to Spain and its colonies and the modernization process was too slow. Liberals demanded free trade with all countries. On the other side, the Conservatives sought to go back to the Habsburg era: they rejected Modernity and free trade and demanded protectionism. The Emancipatory process of Spanish America was carried out by the conjunction of the Liberal and the Conservative reaction against the Bourbon Reforms. Once independence was fulfilled, the two parties became acutely antagonist to each other…perhaps up until today.

The history of Latin American Conservatism and Liberalism is worth our attention not only because of political history itself, but because it gives us a model to ponder the processes of departure from political and economic commonwealths that have been seen in the recent years -and perhaps are not closed yet.

What the Bible really says about how to treat refugees

Recently a text written by Jesse Carey, in Relevant Magazine, supposedly about what the Bible says about immigrants, refugees and displaced people, has come to me. The text is a bit old (from November 17, 2015), but is being reheated because of President Trump’s recent decisions in this area. Given these things, here are some comments on “What the Bible Says About How to Treat Refugees.”

Carey presents what he calls “12 verses about loving immigrants, refugees and displaced people”. The first thing to note is that none of the texts presented by Carey mentions the word refugees. The texts speak about foreigners, the poor and needy, travelers, strangers, and neighbors, but never about refugees. A refugee is a foreigner, but not every foreigner is a refugee. The same goes for stranger. Amazingly, refugee is also not synonymous with traveler. Every refugee is traveling (against his will, it is assumed), but not everyone who is traveling is a refugee. Finally, a refugee can be poor and needy, but poor and needy and refugee are also not synonymous. It seems that Carey has difficulty reading: when he sees words like foreigner or traveler or poor and needy or stranger his brain reads refugee. Either that or he’s being flagrantly dishonest.

The second observation is that, in the language used by Jesus, for the Christian every refugee is a neighbor. Not every refugee is poor and needy, not every foreigner is a refugee, nor does every stranger is a refugee and not every traveler is a refugee. But for the Christian, every human being is a neighbor, and so deserves his mercy. The problem is that Carey wants to apply this to immigration policies, and immigration policies are not made by Christian individuals, but by governments.

The history of the relationship between churches and governments is long, complex and tumultuous. To make a quick summary, suffice it to say that during the Middle Ages church leaders and political leaders fought and argued among themselves about who would dominate the people of Europe. The Bishop of Rome wanted to be above the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the local level, bishops and priests fought with nobles of all kinds. The result was a general confusion. One of the great victories of the Modern Era, beginning with the Protestant Reformation (which celebrates 500 years this year) was the separation of churches and state. Especially since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the tendency has been for states not to use their arms to impose a religion on the population. Carey wants to go the other way. He even cites 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 as if it applied to every human being, and not only to Christians.

The Bible teaches that individual Christians must care for needy people, and certainly refugees fall into this category. But the Bible does not teach that the state should do this. The role of the state, according to the Bible, is to carry the sword to punish wrongdoers and to benefit those who follow the law (the classic text regarding this is Romans 13). In other words, biblically the function of the state is restricted to security. Receiving immigrants is certainly a policy with which Christians can agree, but fully open borders, without any vigilance, are a delusion and nothing more. Wrongdoers can disguise themselves as immigrants to enter a country, and it is up to the state to do some kind of security check.

I am not discussing here the details of Trump’s current policy for immigrants and refugees. It is quite possible that there are aspects within it that Christians can or should disagree with. But by wanting to impose Christian behavior on the state, Carey goes against one of the greatest victories of the Modern Age, the separation of churches and state, something amazing for a liberal and progressive author. Does he approve of compulsory prayer in schools, the end of teaching Darwinism and punishment for those who do not attend Sunday worship? Hope not.

Roger Williams has already presented this discussion very clearly more than 300 years ago: Christians cannot impose their religion using the state for this. What can be expected Biblically from the state is in the second table of the law: you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony … Basically, do not hurt others, do not lie to them and do not take their stuff without permission, things that any kindergarten child knows are wrong. I do not think we need the Bible to teach us that.

I hope that the state is open to immigration as much as possible, being restricted only by security concerns. I hope Christians will welcome the refugees. I hope the wall of separation between church and state is never overthrown. And I hope that the rulers of the United States will leave the Islamic world for the Islamists to take care of. They already have enough work taking care of the safety of Americans in North America.

Foreign Policy in the Liberal Tradition: The Real Story

Over at the Niskanen Center, Matthew Fay wrote a blog entitled “Thinking about Libertarian Foreign Policy.” Brandon was so nice to point this out to me.

Fay’s main point is that, apparently contrary to what some libertarians think (Fay leaves them unnamed, no references either), there is big divide between the foreign policy pronouncements of Donald Trump and libertarian views on foreign policy. So far, so good. I have no dispute with that.

Yet Fay’s blog post is seriously lacking at other points. The main one, and the focus of this post, is that he mixes up different views on international relations within the liberal tradition at large, which is in some way not so surprising because he appears to be ignorant of those differences to begin with (at least in this piece). That is not very comforting for those concerned with this issue, as the Niskanen Center is about to start a larger project on foreign policy. Should it indeed be born in neglect and oversight, it won’t add much to our knowledge, I am afraid.

Conceptual mess

Fay’s essay gets off to a false start as he fails to properly introduce “libertarian.” He then continues to use this label for all kinds of theoretical ideas, originating from both liberal political thought, and international relations theory. To make things worse, Fay routinely claims that there is one unified libertarian position on foreign policy.

This is erroneous, as classical liberalism, libertarianism, and social liberalism all have partly different views on the matter. The various thinkers associated with those different liberalisms have different views on domestic and international politics. Any meaningful analysis on foreign policy from a libertarian or other liberal position should acknowledge that, and use it to the reader’s advantage. It is impossible and perhaps even deceiving to enter into a topical debate when your own position is a conceptual mess. This applies to all debates, academic and otherwise.

Proper conceptual approach

So what should Fay have done instead? Simply acknowledge there is more to liberal thought on international relations, and work from there.

To keep this blog to a readable length, I will just present these differences very briefly. My presentation is based on the writings of the British political theorist Michael Freeden. He argues that every political ideology (and liberalism is one of them) should be seen as a framework (which he calls morphology) composed of a number of political concepts. These concepts vary in importance while their meaning is contested within the ideology. It is possible to distinguish core, adjacent, and peripheral concepts, which together make a unique set of political ideas. While some of the individual concepts overlap, there is significant variation between the frameworks. This enables the distinction between different liberal variants, which are still part of the larger liberal family.

For example, the concept of liberty is key to all liberal variants, but liberty has different meanings. Isaiah Berlin’s famous divide between positive and negative liberty is relevant here. The latter can be defined as ‘the freedom from interference by others’, the first ‘the freedom to fully enjoy one’s rights and liberties’, which often demands some support of the state. Classical liberalism is associated with the negative conception and social liberalism with the positive meaning. Yet the meaning of negative liberty may be further contested. The protection from interference by others may be taken as absolute, which is far more stringent than the classical liberal interpretation, which does allow for compulsory taxation of individuals to pay for public services. Now we are entering the libertarian domain, which is in itself divided into those who hold an absolute idea of negative liberty (the anarcho-capitalists), and those who permit a minimal infringement of property rights to pay for police, external defense, and the judiciary (the minarchists). This is also why conservatism is not as closely related to the liberal family as is sometimes thought. For conservatives, individual liberty is not a core concept at all.

Applied to liberalism and conservatism is comes to this:

Table 1: The Morphology of Liberalism and Conservatism

Classical Liberalism Social Liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Core concepts Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, limited state Positive freedom, positive view of human nature, social justice as self-development, extended state Negative freedom, realistic view of human nature, spontaneous order, natural law including strict defense of property rights Realistic view of human nature, organic change, human order with ‘extra-human’ origins, counter movement
Adjacent concepts Natural law, rule of law/constitutionalism Modern human rights, rule of law and neutral state, social contract (Mill: utilitarianism) Minarchism: minimal state, rule of law Groups/family, hierarchy, active state, sometimes: spontaneous order
Peripheral concepts Social justice, strict defense of property rights, democracy, utilitarianism Property rights, spontaneous order Social justice Individual (property) rights, freedom

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

Liberalism and international relations

Interestingly, yet of course completely logical, these differences also translate to views on foreign policy and international relations:

Table 2: Liberalism, Conservatism, and International Relations

Classical liberalism Social liberalism Libertarianism Conservatism
Nation as limit of individual sympathy Yes No No Yes
State as prime actor in world politics Yes No No Yes
International governmental

institutions/regimes

No Yes No No
Can war be eliminated No Yes Yes No
Does trade foster peace? No Yes Yes No

Source: Edwin van de Haar, Degrees of Freedom. Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology (Transaction Publishers, 2015).

So, in contrast to Fay’s approach, it is not so simple to claim all kinds of concepts and ideas for just one liberal label. There is far more to it. I shall leave it at this for the moment, but for those wanting to read more about this, see my longer essay at libertarianism.org, or my books Degrees of Freedom and Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory.