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?

Financial History to the Rescue: On Bitcoiners’ Many Troubles

This article is part of a series on bitcoin (and bitcoiners’) arguments about money and particularly financial history. See also:

(2): ‘Rothbard’s First Impressions on Free Banking in Scotland Were Correct’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-18)
(3): ‘The Harder Money Wins Out’, Joakim Book, NotesOnLiberty (2019-08-19)
(4): ‘Bitcoin’s Fixed Money Supply Is a Weakness’, Joakim Book, AIER (2019-08-28)

It is unfair to expect technologically savvy bitcoiners to also be apt and well-read monetary economists. By no means do the skills and experiences of either have to overlap. Through the rise of Bitcoin with its explicit central banking challenge and attempt to become a worldwide currency, the subject matter of the two groups has unexpectedly clashed. All arguments that support or attack bitcoin is a head-first dive into monetary economics – sometimes exhuming centuries-long disputes among monetary economists and often blatantly distorts and overlooks money and banking arrangements of the past.

We can’t have that, can we.

One of the most delightful events in the libertarian world is the monthly Soho Forum debate run by Gene Epstein. Yesterday’s splendid showdown between Profs. George Selgin and Saifedean Ammous on the suitability of Bitcoin as a Medium of Exchange is bound to get some serious traction once the recording is on available only – look out for that!

A great debate for anyone interesting in monetary system and monetary economics more generally, this was probably the best and most entertaining of many Soho Forum debates I’ve watched. It’s a good format that forces speakers to engage and respond to one another’s arguments, which makes a two-hour conversation on something as technical and intricate as Bitcoin’s monetary role an absolute delight; even those of us deep into this nerdy rabbit hole can learn a lot and walk away with a trove of inspiration.

Channeling that inspiration into long-form, multi-part reviews of the relevant financial and monetary history is exactly what I’m going to do!

One question I often get regarding my research interests (banks, money and financial markets in the past) is the mildly offensive but absolutely correct question to ask: who the f— cares?! Bitcoin and the question of monetary regimes are perfect examples that make financial history relevant: the rise of crypto questions the fundamentals of monetary systems, systems that very rarely change. Naturally, the financial historian has an edge here, having a lot more nuanced knowledge about past monetary and financial arrangements and their operations. History becomes our (only) laboratory, to which the financial historian typically has a lot to contribute.

Moreso than other topics, fundamental questions of monetary regimes are explicitly pitted against other possible regimes – by their nature comparative and always informed by historical experience. It takes about two-and-a-half sentences before debates over money invoke some reference to financial and monetary history – as they should, since they illustrate how some (aspect of) a different monetary regime worked. Frustratingly enough, there’s a good chance that the speaker has mindboggingly little idea of what s/he’s talking about!

That’s where I like to come in. To a roomful of aspiring monetary economists at Cato’s Alternative Money University in July this year, Randall Wright‘s response to why he does monetary economics at all (“to debunk all this B-S!”) generalizes pretty well.

I’m gonna use this post to review some of the mistakes Saifedean made yesterday – and use it going forward as an updated collection of future posts on the topic, especially as I go through Saif’s promising book, The Bitcoin Standard: The Decentralized Alternative to Central Banking. The aim here is to respectfully clarify the parts of the Bitcoin arguments where I’d like to think that I have a comparative advantage – financial and monetary history – and to better develop my understanding of the monetary theory involved.

Here are some points that came up yesterday:

  • The Monetary Progression of ‘Harder Money’: the brilliance of the past is that almost any account, no matter how persuasive and compelling, is bound to run into inconvenient historical facts. The world is more nuanced than can be reasonably captured by pithy generalization (yes, I realize the irony here). In a piece attacking this bitcoiner’s creation myth earlier this year, I wrote:

This progressively upward story is pretty compelling: better money overtake worse money until one major player unfairly took over gold – the then-best money – replacing it with something inferior that the Davids of the crypto world now intents to reverse. […] Too bad that it’s not true. Virtually every step of this monetary account is mistaken.

  • The Lender-of-Last-Resort role privately provided: Many Austrians and opponents to fractional reserve banking routinely believe that banks holding less-than-100% reserve against their deposits must have a government backing them, providing emergency liquidity when such banks are inevitably run upon. This is completely false. I can point to many different historical instances that privately accounted for such risks, from private clearinghouses to insurance, to the option-clause debate in Scottish Free Banking and contingent/unlimited liability institutions.
  • …which leads us to Scottish Free Banking. There’s a famous quip by Rothbard (“Rothbard’s Law“) that describes the tendency for economists to specialize in the fields they’re worst at: Henry George specialized in land, where his writing is appalling; Milton Friedman on Money, where he’s awful etc. I usually say that the same thing applies for Rothbard whenever he writes on Financial History. Very bad. And yes, I will go through his article ‘Myth of Free Banking in Scotland’
  • Saif made a distinction yesterday between the “Medium of Exchange” and the “Payment Mechanism” involved that struck me as misleading, and I didn’t get a chance to finish my reasoning with him in person – so I’ll flush it out in a piece later on. Happily for all you Free Banking fans, it involves note-issuing Scottish banks and the bigger questions of redeemability and outside/inside money.

Some additional housekeeping from yesterday:

  • Saif: “There was no real estate bubble on the Gold Standard”.
    • Yes, Selgin said, the Florida 1920s housing bubble leading up to the Great Depression. No, Saif correctly objected, that wasn’t a real gold standard, but a central bank-planned Gold Exchange Standard.
      Ok, fine – I’d agree with Saif here. How about the 1893 Australian banking crisis? Classical Gold Standard, no central bank, but a property boom and bubble-like collapse nonetheless.
    • A response might be “but fractional reserve banking!” but a) that’s a topic I’ll delve into much more, and b) this is started to sound like a No True Scotsman fallacy…
  • Saif: “Central banks hold gold – they don’t trust each other enough to hold currency”
    • Saif probably misspoke here, since he couldn’t possibly believe this; looking at any central bank’s balance sheet would instantly dispell such beliefs. Central banks generally hold no more than 5-8% of their assets in gold, and often a lot more than that in foreign currency-denominated asset. The ECB holds about equal parts (7-8% of assets) in gold and foreign currency. I routinely follow the weekly changes in the Riksbank’s balance sheet and even after a more extreme QE programe than the Fed’s (as % of GDP), it holds more FX than it does SEK-denominated assets (and no more than 5% in gold). The Bank of England technically doesn’t actually have any gold at all on its balance sheet, but holds gold in storage at its vaults (on behalf of other countries and the UK Treasury).

Bear with me over the next few months, as I make my way through Saif’s book and engage with these thrilling debates. Feel free to interrupt/comment on Twitter at any point if you think I’ve made a factual/empirical error, error in reasoning or in relevance to Bitcoin.

And yes, keep in mind that this is a respectful inquiry into fascinating topics with people who agree on like 92% of everything. Feel free to call me out for unnecessarily snarky and offensive thing as we go along – and welcome to the party!

Nightcap

  1. Murray Rothbard on reparations for slavery Jeff Deist, Power & Market
  2. Outstanding analysis of Israeli politics Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
  3. My book was arrested but I am free” Victor Sebestyen, New Statesman
  4. Breakfast has resisted globalization, until now Josie Delap, 1843

From the Comments: who is the conservative or libertarian equivalent of Nancy MacLean?

Rick posed a great question about Nancy MacLean awhile back. I haven’t been neglecting it. I’ve been thinking about it. Here it is:

Question for those more abreast than me: do conservatives or libertarians have an equivalent of Nancy MacLean? All sides have irresponsible pseudo-scholars, but how often do the various camps launch one of them to undue prominence instead of just ignoring them?

Michelangelo suggests Murray Rothbard as one example, and I had that thought as well, but that’s almost too obvious, and he’s been dead for a long time now.

Libertarians today are pretty firmly divided by the cosmos and paleos, so undue prominence is hard to get. When was the last time you saw Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan praising the work of Justin Raimondo or Lew Rockwell?

With that being said, I think libertarians nowadays tend to launch intellectual fads into undue prominence, rather than scholars. Stuff like Open Borders or signaling or my personal favorite, non-intervention in foreign policy, tend to hold a prominence in libertarian circles that I find ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, find your nearest Cato Institute scholar on Twitter and ask him (yes, him) if his pet policy project has any potential flaws in it…

Nightcap

  1. South America’s other ‘Easter Island’ Christopher Baker, BBC
  2. The narrative of homophobia in Africa Nsubuga Ssemugooma, Africa is a Country
  3. Young Murray Rothbard: an autobiography Murray Rothbard, Mises Institute
  4. Rebuilding a fragile political order Nathaniel Peters, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Fear for the future of classical liberalism John McGinnis, Law & Liberty
  2. Dying, Death, and Wisdom in an Age of Denial Mary McDonough, Commonweal
  3. Troll epistemology Jonathan Rauch, National Affairs
  4. Murray Rothbard was right Justin Raimondo, Antiwar.com

A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.