Nightcap

  1. A certain idea of France Peter Hitchens, First Things
  2. Political tribalism is overstated Matt Grossman, Defending the Open Society
  3. Do books make us more cosmopolitan? Tim Parks, New York Review of Books
  4. Culture matters Virginia Postrel, Econlib

Italy and the Belt and Road Initiative

There has been a growing scepticism with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project in many quarters, due to the lack of transparency with regards to terms and conditions as well as the economic implications for countries which are part of the project. A report published in April 2018 by the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington flagged 8 countries (including Pakistan, Maldives, Laos, and Djibouti) where the level of debts are unsustainable.

Apart from the red flag raised by a number of researchers, the removal of Pro-China leadership in countries like Malaysia, Maldives, and Sri Lanka has also resulted in problems with the BRI project, and China’s economic dealings (which are clearly skewed in favour of Beijing) with other countries is drawing more attention.

The most vocal critic of China’s economic links has been Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. During a visit to China in August 2018, Mahathir, alluded to China’s trade relations with poorer countries as ‘a new version of colonialism’. Mahathir later on denied that his statement was targeted at China or the BRI. The fact is that the Malaysian Prime Minister did scrap projects estimated at well over $20 billion (which includes a rail project, East Coast Link, as well as two gas pipelines).

Top officials in the Trump Administration, including US Vice President Mike Pence, have also been critical of the BRI project for a variety of reasons. The major criticism from US policy makers has been the economic ‘unsustainability’ of the project as well as the point that the project is skewed in favour of China.

Italy to join BRI Continue reading

Bolsonaro, Carnaval, Golden Shower, Reason

Sao Paulo. Carnival. Two men climb on a newsstand, bus stop, or truck. The video is not so clear. What is clear is that they are half-naked. What they do next is pretty graphic, and I don’t feel comfortable describing it here. Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, makes a tweet about what happened. Several websites, including Reason, criticize Bolsonaro.

The fact that several sites on the left criticize Bolsonaro does not surprise me, but I am disappointed with Reason. But let’s get some facts. Carnival is indeed a traditional party in Brazil, at least in some cities like Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. But for many people, Carnival is just a cultural imposition. Maybe the editors of Reason do not even know it, but Carnival is an official holiday. That is: even if you want to work, you are duly prohibited from doing so. Another thing that the editors of Reason forgot to report is that Carnival is largely sustained with public money. That is: like you or not, the party is partially sustained with your money raised through taxes. Another part of the money comes from organized crime. Yes. Carnival is partially supported by the state and partly by organized crime. Only a minimal part of the money is voluntarily given away by people interested in attending the party. That is: for a good anarcho-capitalist, Carnival is almost completely sustained by organized crime.

I grew up in a neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where the carnival blocks start early and end late. Several streets are closed. My right to come and go is severely impaired. Even if I close all the windows (while it is 100º F outside), the noise of the music still prevents me from even thinking. I always think about people who are sick and need to rest. Or that they are elderly. Or families with small children. Carnival is the least libertarian party I can imagine: your participation is not voluntary. In fact, one of the most famous Carnival songs has very telling lyrics: “who does not like samba, good people are not. It’s bad in the head or sick on the foot.” To be clear: if you do not like samba you have a taste different from mine and we will respect ourselves? Not! You’re a bad person!

So, it is against this party that Jair Bolsonaro manifested himself. I’m proud of my president. One thing that Bolsonaro certainly did not do was try to be populist. If he wanted to be a populist, he would have done what all the presidents before him did: sponsor the bread and circus. By stating as he did, Bolsonaro proved that it is anything but populist. Reason has no idea what is going on in Brazil.

As a good libertarian I will say: if you like samba, you have a bad musical taste. Anyway, it’s your taste, not mine. But if you support Carnaval, you are attending a party that harms millions of people. You are not really thinking about your neighbor. And if you call yourself a libertarian and oppose Bolsonaro on this, something is very wrong. Maybe you just have no idea what is going on in Brazil.

Maybe you’re not that libertarian.

An optimist turns pessimistic

I won an essay contest back in my undergraduate days for an essay on optimism. I understand that poverty worldwide is on the run. I understand that none of us have suffered through a devastating worldwide war like most of our ancestors did. In many ways, we have it good.

But Donald Trump is still President of the United States of America. I still remember waking up to the news that he had beat Hillary Clinton. It was surreal (it didn’t help that I was living Austin, where everything is a bit foggier, brain-wise).

Unlike Jacques, who seems to be so in love with Trump that he would get down on his knees and do whatever Trump wanted him to do, I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t think he’s done a good job. I don’t even care that the left-leaning press is dishonest when it comes to reporting on his administration. I think this is the difference between libertarians like me, who lean more to the left, and libertarians like Jacques and Bruno, who lean more to the right.

Jacques and Bruno are not really defending the Trump and Bolsonaro administrations. And they’re not really speaking up for these two administrations because they hate leftists more than they like liberty. Guys like Jacques and Bruno care more about Truth than anything else, and the global mainstream media’s narrative skews left and is often dishonest.

Me? I’ve grown accustomed to dishonesty in media. I’ve also grown accustomed to ignorance. I pick and choose which dishonest or ignorant bits I want to challenge. When journalists write or say something about guys like Trump or Bolsonaro that are blatantly wrong, I make a mental note of the dishonest nature of the reporting, but that’s about it. Guys like Trump and Bolsonaro are bad for liberty, after all. I’d rather focus on the mainstream press’ dishonesty when it comes to people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The fawning over her is at least as concerning as the dishonest portrayals of Trump or Bolsonaro.

Left-wing populism is just as bad as right-wing populism, and everybody in the democratic world is going to be stuck with populism for quite awhile. Truth is on its way out the door, and I don’t know if it’ll be back in my lifetime.

Nightcap

  1. In defence of prejudice Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Escaping our Ship of Fools Mark Pulliam, Law & Liberty
  3. Against libertarian populism Zak Woodman, NOL
  4. How the Left continues to destroy itself Conor Friedersdorf, the Atlantic

How the populists came to power

Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in Brazil. Donald Trump in the US. In other countries, similar politicians are gaining popular support. Some are calling these politicians “populists”. I don’t really know what they mean by this term. The populists that I know better are Getúlio Vargas, Brazil’s president for almost 20 years in the mid-20th century and Juan Peron, a leading political figure in Argentina in the same time period. What they had in common? Both fought the communist influence in Latin America, favored the labor movement and were anti-liberal. They were also extremely personalist, leading to something that could be understood as a cult of personality. I completely fail to see important similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro on the one hand and Vargas and Peron on the other. But I can see some similarities between Trump and Bolsonaro. The latter two both came to power against what the left became in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, there was a young German philosopher called Karl Marx. He was very well read but wasn’t very bright on economics. Anyway, he decided that he would correct the classical liberal economic theory of Adam Smith. The result was that Marx concluded that in the center of the economy, and actually in the center of history itself, was the class struggle between the workforce and the bourgeoisie. Of course, although appealing on the surface, Marx’s economic theory is pure nonsense. Maybe Marx himself knew it, for at the end of his life he was more interested in living a peaceful life in London than in leading a revolution. But this didn’t stop Marxists from starting Revolutions throughout the world, beginning in Russia.

Ludwig Von Mises brilliant pointed out that Marxism would never work as the economic foundation of a country, for it ignored private property. Without private property, there is no price formation and without prices economic calculation is impossible. In doing so, Mises founded the Austrian School of Economics. The economic debate between Austrians and Marxists ensued, but arguing with a Marxist is like playing chess with a pigeon. He will climb on the board, knock down the pieces and believe that he won. Regardless, facts don’t care about your feelings, and reality proved again and again that Mises was right.

However, at the same time, something else was happening. In Italy, a Marxist named Antonio Gramsci concluded that armed revolution was not the best way to power. He believed that a cultural approach would be better. Some German scholars in Frankfurt concluded pretty much the same. Their question was “why the proletariat will not follow us?”. The answer was that they were too alienated by capitalist culture.

Following Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, Marxists all over the world gave up studying economics and decided to study culture. They concluded that everyone can feel oppressed. The class struggle seized to be between factory workers and factory owners and turned into a fight between man and woman, black and white, gay and straight. Identity politics was born.

And that’s how the “populists” came to power. It is not so much that the common people (and especially conservatives and libertarians) are crazily in love with Bolsonaro or Trump. It is just that people eventually get tired of being called oppressors. The left, once legitimately concerned with the conditions of the poor, ignored that the best solution for poverty is the free market. Instead, they decided they would crush the common people they swore to protect, calling them homophobic, misogynists and so on. Common people answered by voting for whoever was on the other side of the political spectrum.

Eroding norms and political transformation: A new chance for liberty?

The Hammelsprung

Usually, the debates in Germany’s highest political body – The Bundestag – right before Christmas are not that exciting for the public. Parliamentarians are exhausted from long nights and intense discussions from the past weeks. But on Friday the 14th December, the last scheduled plenary session this year, something remarkable happened in the Bundestag, symbolically standing for the erosion of political norms, which democracies experience for a few years. The topics this day were not too fascinating – they discussed how to make the country more appealing to top-level researchers and if fixed book prices should be abolished. Not trifling, but nothing too crucial either.

But around noon the right-wing party AfD decided to initiate a Hammelsprung. The Hammelsprung is a control mechanism to ensure two crucial things.

First, it can be used to achieve absolute clearness of a voting result. Since the counting of votes mostly takes place via counting hands, a Hammelsprung can help to bring about a final decision in close polls. The process is relatively old-fashioned and quite funny in my opinion: The parliamentarians have to get out of the plenary hall first and then reenter through doors labeled “Yes,” “No,” and “Abstention” while an official counts these votes loudly.

Second, it is a tool to assure that crucial decisions of the parliament are made by a majority of the parliamentarians. If a parliamentary group has doubts that more than half of the parliament’s members are present to an assembly, it can propose a Hammelsprung to determine the exact amount of parliamentarians present. If there are less than half of the parliamentarians present, the parliament does not have a quorum and thus the parliamentary session gets canceled.

How the parliament works

At this point, it is important to mention that the German parliament is a working parliament rather than a debating one (such as the British house of commons). Hence, most of the parliamentary work takes place in exclusive committees. These committees consist of members from each party and are all dedicated to certain political topics such as defense policy, health policy and so on and so forth. Parties look for alliances to back up their policy proposals within these committees. Thus, the majority ratios regarding political proposals are played out not in the big parliamentary debates, but in rather small expert working groups. So one can expect that what gets resolved within a committee, gets resolved in the parliament as well.

These committees meet simultaneously to the parliamentary debates. On top, a parliamentarian has to inform himself, manage his team, be present in his election district and many more things. So it is impossible for him to be present in every parliamentary session. So over the years the norm established, that not every member of parliament need to be physically present during the parliamentary session, but only the experts in the certain relevant subject. During their election campaign, the AfD aggressively attacked this particular norm by labeling parliamentarians of established parties as “lazy” and “self-indulgent”, referring to the many empty seats during parliamentary debates.

A battle against norms and the establishment

The AfD used the Hammelsprung on Friday the 14th December in the second meaning mentioned above: To enforce a cancellation of the parliamentary session regarding the acquisition of top-level researchers. This was not a topic related move to ensure the necessary quota, it was rather yet another milestone in the ongoing battle against existing norms. We can say this for certain because AfD didn’t even re-enter the hall: they purposely stayed outside in order to enforce a cancellation of the session. Alexander Gauland, the party whip of the AfD, explained that they wanted to show that the AfD wants to give the government a “hard time” and added: “He that will not hear must feel.” This can be seen as an act of revenge against the parliament because the AfD’s candidate for the vice presidency of the Bundestag failed to get elected a second time in a row. Contrary to their expectations, enough parliamentarians somehow made their way quickly enough into the parliament to reach the quota necessary to proceed with the debate.

How norms foster social cohesion

But the danger remains: There are several tools populist parties (right or left wing) can use to impede effective governing within a perfectly legal framework. This development is not at all a specifically German one. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt provide an in-depth description of the erosion of norms in the American political system in their book How Democracies Die. According to their theory, functioning democracies do not only rely on a thought-out constitution and functioning political organs but also on shared norms. The most important norms for Ziblatt & Levitsky are mutual tolerance and forbearance.

Mutual tolerance describes the recognition of the political enemy as an opposed actor instead as an existential threat to the country. Contrary, forbearance means to restrain the urge of using every legal means to achieve a political end.

It is certainly not too difficult to quantify the erosion of these two norms in America, specifically when one pays closer attention to the skyrocketing amount of “filibustering” in the Congress or, as seen recently, to the increasing times of governmental shutdowns caused by a lack of agreement between Republicans and Democrats over the federal budget. We can see the effects of this abandonment of norms on a daily basis: The more hostile political environment, the lack of respect for other political opinions, the increasing difficulties for finding a compromise between parties. The political opposition is on the verge of drifting away from constructive criticism towards impeding the government in every possible way.

A liberal response?

In my opinion, there are two ways to react to this threat.

First, we could change the rules of the game and narrow the legal framework for processes which can be used to impede effective governing such as filibustering and the Hammelsprung. I do not think that this is the right way to counteract populist parties (or tendencies more generally). These processes exist for a good reason. But they hinge on the observance of forbearance. There was no extensive problem of filibustering in the Roosevelt, Truman, or Wilson administrations, although their policies were also quite controversial. The problem is not the rules themselves, but the lack of shared norms for a solid foundation to put them to good use. Furthermore, changing the rules would only foster the thought that a perfect constitution is somehow reachable. And here I see the danger, that we might jeopardize the status of the law as a neutral guardrail for society and it instead becomes an arbitrary mean to achieve political ends, as Frederic Bastiat describes in his work The Law.

The second option is to adjust our own behavior to the changing circumstances brought by the new populist players one the pitch. Therefore the established political actors need to carefully reevaluate the importance of certain norms and if necessary transform them. Of course, this is not as easy as said: It presupposes a willingness to cooperate among established actors (which is nothing to take for granted in today’s times) as well as a vigilant public, which backs up those norms. Additionally, norms do not emerge from scratch. They are rather the result of a slow change in the mutual understanding of social human interaction.

What the future will bring

The AfD already has announced that they want to continue to use every legal (and in some cases illegal) way to make it harder to govern the country, which is their way to battle the establishment. Whereas the established parties tried various strategies to cope with this right-wing populist party ranging from ignoring to direct confrontation. Still, nobody knows exactly how to deal with these new political circumstances. But what is for certain is the political landscape is further going to change; and thus also politicians and parties will need new strategies, structures, and norms.

Although this development is mostly seen as the road to a gloomy and authoritarian future, I believe (or at least I hope) that democratic parties will find new ways to counter right and left wing populist proposals. Instead of trying to engineer our legal framework to preclude populist from polls, politicians should focus on giving scope for spontaneous order and new alliances. This process is incredibly exciting to me. As Steve Davies describes it, we are currently witnessing a “great realignment” of party structures in Europe. And where old structures break up, there is room for new ones. European liberal party leaders (carried by the Axis of Linder – Rutte – Macron) are still looking for their place in this new power vacuum. Nobody can predict where this development will lead us. That is why we must proceed to fight for our liberty: inside and outside of political party structures.