Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

Ghaddafi is dead. Hooray.

Now on to the part where we actually have to think about the consequences of our actions. Why don’t we take a look at the region of the Middle East that has actually held elections without being occupied by a foreign power: the Palestinian territories.

Would you like to Google ‘Fatah’ and ‘Hamas’, or shall I?

It’s great that Ghaddafi is dead, and it would be nice if our actions in helping to bring him down were celebrated throughout the Muslim world. I won’t hold my breath though. After bombing the Serbians to help out Muslim Bosniaks the U.S. was thanked with a couple of airplanes being flown into our commercial buildings (it also refroze relations with Russia that still haven’t thawed).

The point I make here is not that all Muslims should be lumped together, but rather than our foreign policy establishment DOES lump all Muslims together. They never take into account all of the intricacies involving the political processes taking place in this part of the world. The effort in Serbia was a calculated response by the Clinton administration to win over the hearts and minds of the whole Muslim world, but what we got instead was soured relations with Russia and a nod of approval from the monarchies of the Gulf states, Turkey, and the autocratic regimes of Jordan and Egypt. One enemy (though certainly not the only one) of the Gulf state monarchies – al-Qaeda – had a different opinion on the matter.

Al-Qaeda looked the other way and saw military troops protecting the monarchies of the Gulf states.

Does anybody here seriously think that helping to dislodge a brutal dictator from power in the Muslim world is going to earn us the approval of the same Muslim world? In fact, what happens if – miraculously – a liberal, secular regime is voted into office in Libya? What do think will be the claims of the rival parties (especially the Islamist ones): that the elections were held fair and square, or that the new liberal regime is a mere puppet of the West?

Bottom line: unless there is a direct threat to the U.S. republic, we shouldn’t be playing that Old World game of Realpolitik. All that leads to is intrigue, speculation, and entangling alliances. Sure, some dictators have died because of our efforts. Then again, some have also benefited. Everybody is a hypocrite of course, but the more we can avoid being so, the better. The idea – nay wish! – that the newly liberated people of the Arab world will somehow elect secular, Western-friendly governments after 50 years of oppression by regimes that were perceived by the Muslim public to be secular and Western-friendly belongs to be filed under the category of ‘fantasy,’ not foreign policy.

The Ghaddafi regime undertook policies that were hostile to the West. His regime sponsored terrorism against innocent people in the West. I am glad he is dead. I am glad that his own people shot him in the streets. But I think one of the major complaints that Libyan elites had for his policies was not that he sponsored these acts, but rather that he sponsored them under the guise of anti-colonialism rather than for Islam.

A couple of thought exercises: what happens if the Libyan electorate chooses to entrust an Islamist political party hostile to the West with running the state? Does the United States accept the outcome, or do we take the same route we did when Hamas was elected in the Gaza Strip?

How would the U.S. be perceived by the Muslim world if our role there was limited to one of trading, and not one of policing?

Has anybody here thought about the possibility of a prolonged civil war in Libya due to regional rivalries that have been suppressed by a strong-arm dictatorship for the last 40 years? After all, the main reasons given for NATO’s operation in Libya was twofold: 1) to keep Libya from disintegrating into a civil war that would send thousands of refugees to Europe’s decadent shores and 2) to win over the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.

Can we be confident that these goals have been accomplished, or are we merely stabbing at shadows in the dark in the name of democracy?

Libertarian Foreign Policy: A Dialogue on Imperialism

[Editor’s Note: I had an extremely enlightening dialogue with Dr Delacroix in October of 2011 over the various merits and pitfalls of American imperialism. The dialogue was so interesting that I thought I’d break it up into installments – but still keep it in the exact order that it appeared – over the next little while. I hope you find it as informative as I have, and don’t hesitate to throw your own two cents into the ring, either]

Well Done Mr Obama!

I don’t argue with success. President Obama initiated and led a successful operation to get rid of another tyrant who also had American blood on his hands. He did it without losing a single American life. Whatever the cost in treasury was small in the broader scheme of things. It was a good investment. I think it’s fine to borrow a little money to deal with a rabid dog, however small the dog. Incidentally, my guess would be that the cost was less than 1/1000 of 1% of GDP. Want to bet?

I wonder what Libertarian pacifists have to say about the whole thing. I am going to ask them. One of the things they will probably argue (just guessing) is that there are many rabid dogs in the world, too many for us to deal with. Yes, I don’t mind borrowing money to deter all of them if need be. Tranquility is priceless.

There are several benefits to the Libyan/NATO victory for this country. (That’s Libyan blood and courage and NATO arms, including our own.)

First, rogues and political murderers everywhere are given a chance to suppose that if you kill Americans, we will get you afterwards, even if it takes twenty years.

Two, Arabs and oppressed people everywhere are figuring that we mean it when we say we like democracy for everyone. We did not always mean it. We do now that communism look like an antique instead of a superpower with the largest army and the most tanks in the world.

Three, this Obama international victory will cost him dearly in the next election. A fraction – I don’t know how large – of the people who voted for him the first time around oppose all American military interventions. For years, they have explicitly preferred a native butcher to an American liberator. Given how tight the election is likely to be, his victory in Libya might be the cause of President Obama’s fall.

If I were he, I would consider resigning this morning, like leaving the ocean after a really good wave.

From the Comments: Foreign Policy and the Rule of Law

This excerpt comes from a debate I had with Dr. Delacroix on his main blog awhile back. It pretty much made me a star within Santa Cruz libertarian circles (i.e. four people now know my name). Behold:

The idea – nay wish! – that the newly liberated people of the Arab world will somehow elect secular, Western-friendly governments after 50 years of oppression by regimes that were perceived by the Muslim public to be secular and Western-friendly belongs to be filed under the category of ‘fantasy’, not foreign policy.

and this:

I think Egypt and Libya are going to be just as bad as they have been, if not worse. Only Tunisia, which did not rely on foreign support AND recently elected Islamist parties to their new government, will come out of this for the better. I hope I’m wrong, of course, but libertarians rarely are!

and finally this:

The idea that Paul knows everything about anything is one that sure does look a lot like dogmatism at first glance. But Ron Paul will be the first to claim that he does not know everything. That’s why he insists that everything go through the Constitutional process – including overseas activities. That is to say, Ron Paul’s idea of dogmatism is to adhere to The Rule of Law. Imagine that!

I highly, highly recommend reading through the whole exchange (it starts after a few other comments in the thread; just scroll down, you won’t regret it, and don’t forget the popcorn!).

How I Know What I Know. How Do You Know What You Know?

Everyday life requires me to make decisions about many topics. In most cases, I have either a superficial understanding of the issue or no understanding at all. Yet, I manage and I have always managed, somehow.

The problem of my ignorance becomes even more acute when it comes to making the simplest of political decisions such as choosing to support a candidate against all other choices. To decide who I want to be President of the United States, I would have to know a great deal about arcane details of the political process, macro-economics, foreign policy, and the conditions in a dozen countries, at least.

Even today, when the Internet has made much knowledge enormously more accessible than it was only a few short years ago, those tasks are daunting. For one thing, there is the issue of specialized language, jargon one must tackle in every field of knowledge. Why, I don’t even know the language of the insurance companies on which my safety and my health rely! Continue reading

Around the Web

Co-editor Fred Foldvary on the Buffet Misrule.

Mona Eltahaway, an Egyptian-American columnist who was detained and sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces during the uprisings, writes about Why They Hate Us.

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf explains how student debt forgiveness is just another subsidy to the rich.

Will Wilkinson, writing in the Economist, on how Fair is Fair.

Guess who else got their hands on Libyan weapons?

National Economic Systems: an Introduction for Intelligent Beginners

Part One: Stimulation.

This essay does not require any specialized or advanced knowledge of economics. It does require an open mind and moderate alertness.

It’s must be difficult for the average working stiff with a job or school attendance, or both, a mortgage, and a family, to make sense of the daily economic news. It’s not because you are ill-informed, it’s because the media gives economic news in bits and pieces without tying them together, and usually without context. I suspect few of the big media commentators understand the context or try to link the fragments, anyway. Those who do understand tend to assume that everyone is aboard the same train they are riding. They don’t have much to say to those who are still at the station.

Major exceptions are the Financial Times, which has a strong pro-Obama bias, and the Wall Street Journal, which does not. Even with those, you have to read them every other day to get the big picture. So here, is the straight dope. (If you are concerned about my qualifications, a valid point, you will find a link to a fairly up-to-date version of my vita on the front of this blog.)

We are not facing one economic crisis but two. One is more or less routine, the other is almost unprecedented. The mildly re-assuring noises the media are currently making are about the first crisis, the almost-routine crisis only.

The first crisis is a conventional recession. Recessions are historically a normal part of capitalism. Healthy capitalist economies are on a growth path most of the time. There are several measures of economic growth and contraction. The easiest to understand is Gross Domestic Product, “GDP.” There are criticisms of this measure but we don’t care right now, for our narrow purpose.

GDPs grow at varying rate at different times and in different countries. A US GDP growth of 3.5 % per year makes nearly everyone happy. Countries that are at an early stage of development, such as India, and have a long way to go, often experience annual growth of 6% or 7%. China’s GDP growth has often topped 10% .Western European countries have been pleased with annual rates of growth of 2% for many years. There is a lesson here; don’t lose track of it.

National economies don’t always expand, sometimes, they contract. That’s a lot like the income of someone on an hourly wage instead of a straight salary. The prodigious economic growth of western countries under capitalism in the past 150 years is made up of series of expansions followed by contractions. We had overall growth because the contractions were both less in magnitude and shorter in duration than the periods of expansion.

The word “recession” means either two consecutive quarters of contraction of the national economy or it means any damn thing you want. Serious people only use the term in connection with the definition above. That’s what I do because I try to be a serious person.

Recessions are tricky because you only know about them after the fact, when the national statistics come out. Anyone who says, “We are in a recession” is either speculating or making propaganda. Economic commentators try to read the existence of a recession, and the waning of a recession, by studying other economic events. Those are events believed to be associated with recessions and to which numbers are attached that are collected frequently.

Here are two main ones: Unemployment figures and stock market indexes. There are others you can learn about if you become interested. When national unemployment goes down and the main stock market indexes go up for a while, commentators tend to announce the end of a recession. I think that liberal commentators give those a lot of weight under Democrat administrations, and conservative commentators under Republican administrations.

The reading of these signals is not an exact science, by a long shot. I just believe those readings are better than nothing if you take care to follow several. That’s a big “if,” of course.

Incidentally, there are very good scholarly, academic studies regarding the connections between various indicators and economic growth/contraction. I suspect few commentators keep abreast of those. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were none. I would be pleasantly surprised if some did.

Now, on to the current situation. When President Obama took office, it’s pretty clear the US was in a recession, or entering one. The President had nothing to do with it. There was much discussion everywhere about whether his buddies in Congress caused it. Fact is that there have been recessions with Republican as well as with Democratic administrations, and with Congressional domination of one or of the other major party.

The political elites of most countries, including many American Republicans believe in something called “Keynesian economics.” You don’t need to read Keynes to know as much as they do. Here is the gist: In modern developed societies, the government is such a large economic actor that it can influence decisively the path of the national economy. Thus, Keynesians believe that government has the power to stop or to improve on recessions. Governments may do this by engaging in spending, public spending, spending tax money, or borrowed money. (Keep I mind that, with the interesting exception of a few oil rich countries, governments have no money except what they can take in taxes and what they can borrow.)

Real conservatives, and libertarians who are not especially conservative, think that Keynesian economics is a dangerous hoax. They argue that government spending aggravated and deepened past recessions including the one associated with the Great Depression of the nineteen thirties. Fortunately, we don’t have to consider here who is right. (Full disclosure: I am one of them.)

A point that’s not in dispute is that government spending usually entails bigger government debt. More on this later.

Keynesian public spending is forthrightly intended to stem the spread of unemployment. The reasoning is simple: When people lose their job, or fear losing their job, they, and often, their neighbors, spend less. This lowered spending in turn slows down the national economy. This induces more unemployment: If I stop buying my daily latte because I am unemployed, or I fear I might soon be, and if others do the same, the barrista at my local coffee shop will lose her job. And so forth.

The fewer people earn a living, the smaller the national economy. If I merely forgo buying a car for the time being, the indirect effects on the national economy are even worse.

Hence, good Keynesian government spending should have very quick effects. It should stem the spread of unemployment rapidly and durably. It used to be the case that government had the ability to spend money quickly through public works. Hitler, for example, reduced quickly very high German unemployment by hiring the unemployed, and many underemployed, essentially to dig holes: Go to work in the morning; get a government check in the evening; spend the next day.

This approach has become difficult to employ for a variety of reasons, including permitting processes related to safety and to environmentalist zeal. Thus, if my city of Santa Cruz decides to build another breakwater for its harbor today, it’s unlikely anyone will get a paycheck for handling a tool for eighteen months, or more. Most past recessions lasted less than eighteen months.

As I write, only 10% or 15 % of the stimulus package money decreed by the President has been spent. Either, that’s not enough to stem the spread of unemployment, or, it’s not really a spending spree intended to stimulate. If the latter, what’s the purpose?

There is a beginning of an answer if you look at parts of the package that have a well-known name attached. One such is financing for a train from Disneyland to Las Vegas. It was put in by Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader. There is no way the bulk of the corresponding money will be spent until five or even six years from now, except for studies employing a handful of specialists. Those specialists are not suffering from high unemployment, by the way. This part of the package does nothing to put to work Tom, Dick and Harry. The money won’t be spent for a long time because such a project needs a lot of planning, including for permitting to satisfy environmentalists.

What is the real purpose of this part of the stimulus package, then? At least, it makes Harry Reid look good with his voters. At worst, Harry Reed is using his muscle in Congress to satisfy special interests. I don’t know if the latter is true. I have not researched it. It’s plausible.

My conclusion: Even if you subscribe to Keynesian views on how to jump-start a national economy in recession, the measures taken by the administration six months ago do not work and cannot work.

Those who say, “Give it time” don’t know what they are talking about. The essence of government spending for stimulus purposes is speed. If you don’t stop and reverse unemployment quickly, the recessionary spiral worsens. If you did nothing at all, it would stop on its own, in good time, anyway.

Why do I care about the stimulus package’s lack of effectiveness?

Two reasons. First its part of a mass of unprecedented government spending. I mean unprecedented in the absence of a major war, like WWII. It increases public, government indebtedness to a worrying extent. Public debt has consequences, in the long run and in the not- so-long-run. More on this in the next episode of this posting.

The second reason, I care is that I detect a social and political project markedly different from the one announced by the administration in the current oversize government spending. I have not become a conspiracy theorist. I am relying on public information, including the President’s own past statements, those of his close advisers and, above all, my knowledge of what went on in Western Europe between about 1980 and 2000. I will address this alternative project in a subsequent posting also.

You have been good but there will be a quiz!

Current events update:

The Wall Street Journal has a good discussion of the Maine public health plan in today’s issue. It’s on p. A12, in the editorial section. It’s a fiasco. We care because it has important features in common with what we know of Obamacare.

Cool people tend to dismiss Rush Limbaugh, even conservatives. Limbaugh is bombastic and he exaggerates. That’s vulgar. However, he must have an army of good researchers because he comes up within a short time with hard evidence of allegations against his political adversaries. One of the wildest allegations from the right is that Obamacare entails “death boards.” Well, what do you know: Today, on-air, he reads excerpts from a Veterans Administration practitioner guidebook that sounds for all the world to me like a “death book.”

The convicted mass murderer of 270 people  in the air over Lockerbie, Scotland receives a hero’s welcome in his home-country of Libya. He had been freed on compassionate grounds by the gutless Scottish Minister of Justice. (Yes, there is such a thing.) I saw it on television. This is not hearsay.

I think the enthusiasm greeting him in Libya should be written in the accounts book. It should enter into any calculus, side-by-side with collateral damage, next time this country has reason to consider bombing anything in Libya. It should not be long.

It’s unreasonable to treat in exactly the same way those who hate us and those who harbor sheer evil in their hearts, and our old friends. The stupid  Scots should get a pass. The evil  Libyans shouldn’t. There is no ethical system in the world that requires that this country do otherwise, not even Christianity. You are supposed to forgive your enemies after they have stopped harming you, not while they are cutting your throat, not even when they are impotently clamoring  their wish to do it.

By the way, I am told by those who should know that Arabs respect this kind of thinking.

Some Great Links From Around the Web

A fascinating blog post on Indian domestic politics and foreign policy by a Ph.D. student living in New Delhi and studying at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Alex Warren, a journalist with extensive experience in the Middle East, writes about Libya’s decentralization.

“The Current Models Have Nothing to Say.” That is economist Robert Higgs’s analysis of modern, orthodox economics.

Might regionalism help solve Central America’s woes?  Be sure to check out the rest of the blog, by Seth Kaplan, too.

Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic has a penetrating look at the logic of a drug warrior (h/t Brian Aitken)

Co-editor Fred Foldvary, writing in the Progress Report, explains that value is subjective.  This is an important concept when it comes to understanding economics.