Ron Paul’s Revolution: A libertarian education

The Mises Institute, lewrockwell.com, and FFF all had cool articles mixed in with some not so cool stuff, and I stuck with these sites for a while after opening the floodgates. The fact that these sites are more combative, more dogmatic than other libertarian organizations probably played a role in my reluctance to branch out too far into other spheres of influence. I was a product of the public school system and a relatively strict religious upbringing and, as a result, my mind was mush. The combativeness spoke to me. It seized me in its grasp and led me forcefully down a path I knew I needed to take. This personal intellectual journey was complemented by my foray into formal education. My professors, too, were combative but not in the same way as the paleo-libertarian websites I would frequent. They pushed me, hard. The cool thing about Cabrillo College was a combination of the weather, the girls (me and the Banana Slug broke up shortly after our arrival in Santa Cruz), the PhDs teaching there, and the fact that most of the classes shrunk in size to about 12 people (more or less) in a matter of weeks. I was getting a first-rate education from great teachers who happened to be married to the California Teachers’ Union. After one semester at Cabrillo College, I was reluctantly ushered into its fairly challenging Honors program, where a transfer to Cal or maybe even Stanford was all but guaranteed.

My go-to websites began to change. The Independent Institute, where Anthony Gregory was officially employed, and Liberty, which published occasional essays by a French-American scholar who happened to live in Santa Cruz, became more influential. FEE’s smorgasbord of scholars overwhelmed me with libertarianism. Cato’s devout, firebrand non-interventionism emboldened my heart. EconLog and Cafe Hayek were too wishy-washy for me at the time. They had no oopmf. Reason was cool but it was too bubbly, too pop-culture for me. Tyler Cowen’s name began to pop up in places. I also came across Peter Boettke and Steve Horwitz via a brutal intralibertarian squabble at the Mises Institute’s website. These were scholars I earmarked as possible sources of knowledge, but their blogs were too informal for me. They reminded me of my college classes, and I already had enough of those on my plate as it was. I wanted – needed – my libertarianism to be sure of itself, formal, and able to reinforce my thoughts about the world at large. Just like Ron Paul.

I decided to spend the summer of 2009 traveling not around Europe or Ghana, but around the United States in order to attend seminars that various libertarian foundations put on for undergraduate students.

I attended four seminars that summer. The first one was up the road from Santa Cruz in Oakland at the Independent Institute. It was a strange way to be introduced into the world of formal libertarianism. First, they had no idea I was coming. I had signed up for the seminar, and I remember paying for it because I had found out that the Independent Institute offered seminars during the summer long after I had already bought my plane tickets for the other three, so I bummed the money from my dad in order to squeeze in a week at my favorite libertarian think tank. Mary and David Theroux were nonetheless ecstatic to have me there and offered to waive the fee. I politely declined their offer and paid up on the spot. (I was a libertarian now and not some freeloading socialist.) My situation was probably helped by the fact that there were only 4 or 5 other students attending the seminar, and most of them were high school students forced to attend for an assortment of reasons.

I was especially excited about the lineup of scholars the institute had cobbled together. Robert Higgs could not be there (I would see him later, at different seminar), but Anthony Gregory and Fred Foldvary would both be there, as would three guys I had never heard of before: Brian Gothberg, James Ahiakpor, and José Maria J. Yulo.

The two things that brought me into libertarianism was its non-interventionist foreign policy and its internationalist worldview. I have always been attracted to other ways of life, and Ron Paul’s 2008-2009 campaign perfectly encapsulated these two attractive -isms. That James Ahiakpor, an economist from Ghana, and José Maria J. Yulo, a philosopher from the Philippines, were to be teaching me about libertarianism, in person, was perfect. Ahiakpor lectured on Adam Smith, and Yulo on Plato, two dead white guys whose thoughts I had never been introduced to before (though I knew both of their names). Ahiakpor’s lectures were actually a bit of a dud. He was not able to fathom, or entertain, the notion of an economy without a central bank. He appealed to Adam Smith on the matter, and that was that. Dr Yulo’s lectures were quite different. They were rich and socratic. They were peppered with personal anecdotes, both funny and serious. They were conservative, too. Dr. Yulo’s lectures eviscerated my aversion to conservatism. He made conservatives human and worthy of my time and attention. Anthony was Anthony and Fred was Fred. The star of the seminar was undoubtedly Brian Gothberg.

Gothberg’s passion for liberty oozed out into the makeshift classroom (this makeshift classroom was one of the many charms connected with attending the institute’s seminar). Gothberg had been a California liberal, a technocrat rather than a socialist like me, and his intellectual journey sounded, to me at the time, a lot like my own. He used basic economic reasoning to show how prices could help save the environment, and how the Robber Barons captured their rents. Most of all Gothberg used every opportunity he could to engage me personally. I am an introvert and I just showed up on the institute’s doorstep with apparently no heads up. Brian went out of his way to make me feel welcome, to help me voice my thoughts aloud, and to get to know me.

I spent my nights in San Francisco that week, sleeping on my best friend’s couch. I brought him all of the books I would receive from the seminar. My friend and I marched together in San Francisco. He was attending San Francisco State at the time. We had heated but mostly civil discussions about liberty and American politics. He and I went to the same schools in the same town. We both had the same worldview of civics up until Ron Paul crashed the party. Looking back, those discussions represented the flowering of our intellectual capacity to think for ourselves. We were teasing out ideas and confronting stark intellectual challenges to our conceptions of the world. The books I gave him ended up in his garbage can. When I was again sleeping on his couch, in Austin, in 2016, he had voted for Gary Johnson. (During those hot summer nights in Austin, we both revealed what turned out to be a shared disgust in our fellow anti-war protestors. Those people were not marching in San Francisco to protest the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; they were marching against the Republican Party and, by extension, democratic politics.)

Next up were two of FEE’s venerated seminars, one in Midland, Michigan and the other in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The Midland seminar, located at Northwood University, was a breath of fresh air. The topic of the seminar was “History & Liberty,” and lecturers included Lawrence Reed, Robert Higgs, Brad Birzer, Burton Folsom Jr., and Stephen Davies. Unlike the seminar in Oakland, this one was well-organized and well-funded. I was put up in a dorm and all of my meals were comped. These were also well-attended seminars. I met people from all over the world, though Midwestern Americans formed a slight majority. My roommate was none other than Vincent Geloso, 2017’s hottest libertarian blogger. In 2009, though, Vincent was already something of a star. A Quebecer, Geloso spent his free time either trying to get into the pants of an outgoing Guatemalan student whose name escapes me or watching Star Trek reruns on his laptop. He organized a boycott of Robert Higgs’ remaining lectures for the week after Dr. Higgs haughtily suggested that World War II was not worth the effort. Vincent also praised Paul Krugman’s academic work while bemoaning his blog at the New York Times, something I was not yet accustomed to libertarians doing. At Mises and FFF (and at the lectures of these summer seminars), Krugman was nothing more than a punching bag, not somebody you could learn from.

Burton Folsom made everybody laugh, and Larry Reed made everybody feel good. Stephen Davies lectured on Paraguay, and its lessons have stuck with me over the years, but Brad Birzer’s intelligence and loquaciousness impressed me the most. Brad Birzer loves history. There are two events I remember most clearly about that first FEE seminar in humid Midland, Michigan. First: I remember seeing Sheldon Richman at a table by himself eating breakfast and reading at the same time. The man lived and breathed liberty. I remember thinking to myself (I dared not interrupt his breakfast) that he was probably reading some obscure work of Böhm-Bawerk or something. Second, I was dropped off at the airport a full day before my flight was scheduled. I tried to find a field to sleep in, but was instead picked up on the side of some god forsaken road by an airport employee on her way home, and she let me meet her family, dine with them, and crash on her couch for the night.

The Irvington-on-Hudson seminar was an introductory course on “Austrian economics.” I don’t remember much about the lectures. Lawrence Reed was there again. He told different stories than the ones he told in Midland, and they were equally good. Sheldon Richman lectured, too. An economist named Paul Cwik lectured. He was funny, but unremarkable. I don’t think I learned anything new at this seminar.

There was an Asian girl from Stanford, an economics major, who attended the seminar. She stood out because she was a she, she was Asian, and she attended an elite school. I remember her asking Sheldon Richman, after one of his forgettable lectures, a question about economics and him becoming flustered by the questions. The Asian girl actually put up her hands at one point and said “woah.” She backed away slowly and I never heard from her again. This seminar had less Midwestern Americans in it. There were more Europeans. I don’t remember who my roommate was at Irvington-on-Hudson but I do remember going to the city not once but twice. The first time I went with a Dane and a Swede, both of whom were business students. The Empire State Building blew them away. I went a second time to the city with two Italians, brothers Claudio and Adriano Gulisano. The brothers stayed out late and pretended to enjoy the nightlife. I could see in their eyes, though, that NY’s nightlife was a perfunctory for them; a duty to be performed as a European in the United States. The Brothers Gulisano were, and are, brooding individualists concerned only with the next move of their enemy (the state), and NY’s shallow nightlife rudely illuminated the chains of their social obligations.

The highlight of the Austrian Economics seminar was not the old FEE building or New York, but Lode Cossaer, a Belgian libertarian whose passion for liberty was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He freely gave the Americans history lessons about their own country. He told the Eastern Europeans to beware of clever authoritarian traps nestled in their Hoppeanism. He explained to the Guatemalans why their university, Francisco Marroquin, was such an important institution for global liberty. Cossaer did all of these things with the worst haircut in the world, too. (He had one of those little boy bowlcuts that just makes you want to puke when you see a grown man sporting it.)

The final seminar of that eventful summer brought me, full circle, back to northern California. The Institute for Humane Studies was an institute I hadn’t heard much about. There wasn’t a lot of writing on its website, but it was obviously libertarian and the seminar had some great topics (I think it was “liberty & economic development” or something along those lines). I had to write an essay and wait around to be rejected or accepted. The seminar was at Cal, a school I still didn’t think I could ever get in to. IHS set itself apart from FEE and the Independent Institute before the summer even started.

The students were different, too. Elite research universities and expensive liberal arts colleges adorned most of the nametags. The majority of the students were from the eastern seaboard or the upper South. There were more Californians; two attended Cal, one attended UCSD (and whose boyfriend was from my hometown), and Rick Weber, my favorite economist-blogger. The lecturers had no public presence that I was aware of, except for one of them, who was officially was part of the Coordination Problem group blog but hardly ever wrote anything there. The IHS seminar had more of a university feel to it, overall, while the other three had more of a Fellowship of the Rings vibe to them. There were more leftists and fewer foreigners. My roommate was an older undergraduate who was attending Georgetown. He had just gotten out of the Navy. The lecturers included an anthropologist, two economists – one from France and one from the United States – and a philosopher.

The economists were forgettable, except for the French one’s contempt for his home country, but the anthropologist and the philosopher were excellent. Susan Love Brown lectured on planned societies and their many failures, and Andrew I. Cohen actually brought leftists to tears with his rigorous logic. So defeated were these leftists that they had no recourse other than to do what their mommies and daddies had taught them to do: cry about it. This was a phenomenon that I had never witnessed before.

The lecturers and the students would party together after dinner. At one point the organizers, the 24 year-olds responsible for overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the seminar, asked us as a group to be aware of the fact that a big-time donor would be at one of the lectures for half of the day. Many of the non-Californian students, as well as the lecturing American economist, ignored me once they learned that Cabrillo College was a community college rather than an obscure liberal arts college in the redwoods. Dr. Cohen reached out to me, as did Dr. Brown, but the overall atmosphere kept the vibe bittersweet. IHS at Cal was nothing like FEE or the Independent Institute in Oakland.

Altogether, the IHS experience was more rewarding precisely because it was more alarming. Berkeley taught me that libertarian people as well as libertarian organizations are fallible, something that I think FEE and the Independent Institute tried to ignore or gloss over. There are careerists in the libertarian movement. There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to professionalizing libertarian thought, strategy, and outreach. I tried to hitch a ride with one of the Cal students up to Sacramento, where I could take a bus to Placerville, but he didn’t have any room in his car. I took a train instead, from Berkeley to Sacramento, and a bus from Sacramento to Placerville. I spent the next two weeks on my mom’s couch, and then it was back to Santa Cruz for the fall.

Next: from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles

Economists, Economic History, and Theory

We can all come up with cringeworthy clichés for why history matters to society at large – as well as policy-makers and perhaps more infuriatingly, to hubris-prone economists:

And we could add the opposite position, where historical analysis is altogether irrelevant for our current ills, where This Time Is completely Different and where we naively disregard all that came before us.

My pushback to these positions is taken right out of Cameron & Neal’s A Concise Economic History of The World and is one of my most cherished intellectual guidelines. The warning appears early (p. 4) and mercilessly:

those who are ignorant of the past are not qualified to generalize about it.

We can also point to some more substantive reasons for why history matters to the present:

  • Discontinuities: by studying longer time period, in many different settings, we get more used to – and more comfortable with – the fact that institutions, routines, traditions and technologies that we take for granted may change. And do change. Sometimes slowly, sometimes frequently.
  • Selection: in combination with emphasizing history to understand the path dependence of development, delving down into economic history ought to strengthen our appreciation for chance and randomness. The history we observed was but one outcome of many that could have happened. The point is neatly captured in an obscure article of one of last year’s Nobel Prize laureates, Paul Romer: “the world as we know it is the result of a long string of chance outcomes.” Appropriately limiting this appreciation for randomness is Matt Ridley’s rejection of the Great Man Theory: a lot of historical innovations seems to have been inevitable (When Edison invented light bulbs, he had some two dozen rivals doing so independently).
  • Check On Hubris: history gives us ample examples of similar events to what we’re experiencing or contemplating in the present. As my Glasgow and Oxford professor Catherine Schenk once remarked in a conference I organized: “if this policy didn’t work in the past, what makes you think it’ll work this time?”

History isn’t only a check on policy-makers, but on ivory-tower economists as well. Browsing through Mattias Blum & Chris Colvin’s An Economist’s Guide to Economic Historypublished last year and has been making some waves since – I’m starting to see why this book is quickly becoming compulsory reading for economists. Describing the book, Colvin writes:

Economics is only as good as its ability to explain the economy. And the economy can only be understood by using economic theory to think about causal connections and underlying social processes. But theory that is untested is bunk. Economic history provides one way to test theory; it forms essential material to making good economic theory.

Fellow Notewriter Vincent Geloso, who has contributed a chapter to the book, described the task of the economic historian in similar terms:

Once the question is asked, the economic historian tries to answer which theory is relevant to the question asked; essentially, the economic historian is secular with respect to theory. The purpose of economic history is thus to find which theories matter the most to a question.

[and which theory] square[s] better with the observed facts.

Using history to debunk commonly held beliefs is a wonderful check on all kinds of hubris and one of my favorite pastimes. Its purpose is not merely to treat history as a laboratory for hypothesis testing, but to illustrate that multitudes of institutional settings may render moot certain relationships that we otherwise take for granted.

Delving down into the world of money and central banks, let me add two more observations supporting my Econ History case.

One chapter in Blum & Colvin’s book, ‘Money And Central Banking’ is written by Prof. John Turner at Queen’s in Belfast (whose writings – full disclosure – has had great influence on my own thinking). Focusing on past monetary disasters and the relationship between the sovereign and the banking system is crucial for economists, Turner writes:

We therefore have a responsibility to ensure that the next generation of economists has a “lest we forget” mentality towards the carnage that can be afflicted upon an economy as a result of monetary disorder.” (p. 69)

This squares off nicely with another brief article that I stumbled across today, by banking historian and LSE Emeritus Professor Charles Goodhart. Lamentably – or perhaps it ought to have been celebratory – Goodhart notes that no monetary regime lasts forever as central banks have for centuries, almost haphazardly, developed their various functions. The history of central banking, Goodhart notes,

can be divided into periods of consensus about the roles and functions of Central Banks, interspersed with periods of uncertainty, often following a crisis, during which Central Banks (CBs) are searching for a new consensus.”

He sketches the pendulum between consensus and uncertainty…goodhart monetary regime changes

…and suddenly the Great Monetary Experiment of today’s central banks seem much less novel!

Whatever happens to follow our current monetary regimes (and Inflation Targeting is due for an update), the student of economic history is superbly situated to make sense of it.

Eye Candy: France’s 50 largest islands

NOL French islands worldwide
Click here to zoom

This is pretty cool. France still has an overseas presence in the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Indian and Antarctic oceans, and the Atlantic (including St. Pierre and Miquelon, an archipelago just off the coast of Newfoundland, a province of Canada). Here’s a good Wikipedia list of France’s islands. It’s in French. Translate it to English, if you must. Browse and soak it all in. Here is Jacques at NOL on all things French. And here is Vincent at NOL on all things Quebec, which is a French-speaking province in Canada.

2017: Year in Review

Well folks, another year has come and gone. 2017 was Notes On Liberty‘s busiest year yet. Traffic came from all over the place, with the most visits coming from the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and India. (In the past, India and Germany have vied for that coveted 5th place spot, but this year India blew Germany out of the water.)

NOL is a voluntary cooperative, and as such this year saw the introduction of 6 new Notewriters: Kevin Kallmes, Nicolás Cachanosky, Ash Navabi, Tridivesh Maini, Matthew Bonick and Trent MacDonald.

Michelangelo invited Kevin to join, Nicolás is an old grad school buddy of Rick‘s, I reached out to Tridivesh, and Ash and Matthew were invited on Vincent‘s initiative.

Speaking of Vincent, 2017 was his year. He had Tyler Cowen (MarginalRevolution), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy), Barry Ritholtz (Bloomberg), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), John Tamny (RealClearMarkets) and Pseudoerasmus (a well-regarded economic historian) all link to his thoughts multiple times over the course of the year. His Top 10 list for best papers/books in recent economic history (Part 1 and Part 2) were legitimate viral sensations, dominating the top 2 spots on NOL‘s most-read list. Other huge posts included “Did the 30 Glorious Years Actually Exist? (#5),” “The Pox of Liberty – dixit the Political Economy of Public Health (#9),” “James Buchanan on racism,” “The GDP, real wages and working hours of France since the 13th century,” “Did 89% of American Millionaires Disappear During the Great Depression?,” and “A hidden cost of the war on drugs.” My personal favorite was his “Star Trek Did More For the Cultural Advancement of Women Than Government Policies.” Dr Geloso’s thoughts made up 40% of NOL‘s 10 most-read 2017 posts.

My favorite posts from Edwin this year were his analyses of Dutch politics – “Dutch politics, after the elections” and “North Korea at the North Sea?” – but the reading public seemed to enjoy his posts on Ayn Rand, especially her thought on international relations, and his summary of Mont Pelerin Europe more than anything else. Van de Haar’s day job is in the private sector, so his blogging is understandably light (especially given his incredible publishing output in academic journals). I look forward to what looms ahead in 2018.

Federico’s most recent post on artificial intelligence and the law got love from some major outlets, including FT‘s Alphaville blog and 3 Quarks Daily. His question “Does business success make a good statesmen?” and his report on a Latin American Liberty summit are worth reading again, but my personal favorites were his comments on other Notewriters’ thoughts: first jumping in to add some historical clarity to Bruno’s post on Latin American conservatism and then to add layers onto the debate between Mark and Bruno on the Protestant Reformation. Federico has been invaluable to NOL‘s welcoming, skeptical culture and I cannot wait to see what he comes up with in 2018.

Barry was generous enough recount the situation in Turkey after the coup earlier in the year, and fruits of this endeavor – Coup and Counter Coup in Turkey – can be found in six parts:

  1. First of a series of posts on Turkey since 15th July 2016 and background topics
  2. Immediately after the coup and party politics
  3. Gülenists and Kemalists
  4. The Kurdish issue in Turkey
  5. Jacobins and Grey Wolves in Turkey
  6. Presidential Authoritarianism in Turkey

Dr Stocker also began writing an appendix to his six-part series, which resulted in a first post on authoritarianism and electoral fixes. Barry is hard at work on a new book, and of course the situation in Turkey is less than ideal, so I can only hope he has a bit more time in 2018 for NOL.

Michelangelo had a banner year at NOL. His #microblogging has been fun, as were his post analyzing relevant data from his surveys: What libertarians think of climate change, for example, or urban planning in Oregon. Michelangelo also utilized NOL to play around with concepts like race, marriage markets, data, Spanish language services, affirmative action, and freeware, to name a few. My absolute favorite Michelangelo post this year was his excellent “Should we tax churches? A Georgist proposal.” Michelangelo is a PhD candidate right now, too, so if he ever gets some time to himself, watch out world!

Rick also had a banner year at NOL. His post arguing against Net Neutrality was one of the most-read articles of the year here (#4), and many of his wonkier thoughts have been picked up by the sharp eye of Anthony Mills (RealClearPolicy) and the excellent Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling). Rick is my favorite blogger. Posts on cycling in Amsterdam, subsidies, management and measurement, linguisticsmore subsidies, and my personal favorite of his for the year, “Why do we teach girls that it’s cute to be scared,” always make me think and, more importantly, smile.

Bruno’s blogging was also amply rewarded this year. His thoughts on some of the problems with postmodernism brought in the most eyeballs, but thankfully he didn’t stop there: Articles introducing postmodernism and highlighting the origins of postmodernism also generated much interest. RealClearWorld picked up his post analyzing Brazil post-Rousseff (he had more analysis of Brazilian politics here and here), and his post delving into whether Nazism is of the left or the right provoked quite the dialogue. Dr Rosi was at his best, though, when prompted by Mark to further advance his argument that the Protestant Revolution played an integral role in the rise of the freedom of conscience. Times are tough in Brazil right now, so I can only hope that Bruno continues to play a vital role as a Notewriter in 2018.

Chhay Lin, now in the private sector, had his post about Bruce Lee’s application of Taoist philosophy head to the top of reddit’s philosophy sub, and his post on Catalonia and secession got love from RealClearWorld and Lew Rockwell (Political Theater). I hate to be *that* guy distracting a man from making his money, but I hope to see Chhay Lin pop in at NOL much more often in 2018!

Zak has been busy with a number of different projects, as well as attending Michigan-Ann Arbor full-time. He still managed to have one of his posts, on “libertarian” activist hypocrisy (#10), highlighted in the Guardian, the UK’s premier left-wing mouthpiece. His post on The Nancy MacLean Disgrace earned him plaudits from the online libertarian community and Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), and his posts on open borders and income inequality show just how much of a bad ass he has become. I had a tough time trying to pick out my favorite Zak article of 2017, so I’m just gonna highlight all three of them:

  1. Immigration, Cultural Change, and Diversity as a Cultural Discovery Process
  2. Why I’m No Longer A Christian…
  3. Against Libertarian Populism

They’ve all got great self-explanatory titles, so do yourself a favor and read ’em again! Hopefully Zak can continue to work NOL in to his many successful ventures in 2018.

Jacques continues to amaze me. He’s been retired from academia for – as far as I can tell – at least a decade and he’s still producing great material that’s able to reach all sorts of people and places. His post on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism (#6), which was featured at RealClearWorld and much-shared in Ottomanist corners of Twitter – took aim at popular American libertarian understandings of decentralization and seems to have landed pretty squarely on target. My favorite post of Dr Delacroix’ this year was about French Africa (also featured at RealClearWorld), but his late-year book review on Christopher De Bellaigue’s 2017 book about Islam might end up being a classic.

Bill’s 2017 here at NOL was productive and he continues to impress. His “Speech in academic philosophy: Rebecca Tuvel on Rachel Dolezal” brought in thousands of readers, but it was not his ability to draw crowds that I found impressive. His ability to tackle tough concepts and tough issues came to the forefront this year: drug use, “vulvæ,” more drug use, party culture (my personal fave), schooling (another personal fave), more schooling, and music (personal fave). Bill’s ability to weave these trends together through the lens of individual freedom is so much fun to read and important for fostering a culture of tolerance and respect in today’s world. I can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store for him!

Nicolás came out firing on all cylinders this year. With excellent dialogues between himself and Vincent, as well as between himself and guest blogger Derrill Watson (who I hope will be back for more in 2018), Dr Cachanosky’s passion for teaching has shown through clearly and brightly. I hope 2018 – his first full year with NOL – is filled with much more hard-hitting but insightful blogging from Nicolás.

Ash brought the heat, too. Check out the subject matter of his first few posts here at NOL: “A Right is Not an Obligation,” “Physical Goods, Immaterial Goods, and Public Goods,” “The Economics of Hard Choices,” “Markets for Secrets?,” “A Tax is Not a Price,” and “A Radical Take on Science and Religion.” Like Nicolás, Ash’s first full year at NOL is coming up, and if 2017 is any indication, readers can look forward to an interesting and engaging 2018.

Mark’s first full year here at NOL was a definite barnburner. His debate with Bruno on the Protestant Reformation (#8) brought in a bunch of eyeballs, including from RealClearHistory, while his “The Return of Cyclical Theories of History” also brought in thousands of readers, thanks in large part to Robert Cottrell’s excellent website, the Browser. Dr Koyama’s review of Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past also caught Mr Cottrell’s eye and the attention of his readers. Mark’s post on geopolitics and Asia’s “little divergence” is well worth reading again, too. Like Zak and Bill’s posts, I couldn’t choose just one favorite, so I give you two:

  1. Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe
  2. Some Thoughts on State Capacity” (an especially good criticism of American libertarian understandings of the “state capacity” literature)

We’re lucky to have Mark here at NOL.

Kevin, like Ash and Nicolás, brought the ruckus for his first few posts here at NOL. Kevin’s very first post at Notes On Liberty – “Rules of Warfare in Pre-Modern Societies” (#3) – ended up on the front page of RealClearHistory while his “Paradoxical geniuses…” earned a spot on the Browser‘s prestigious reading list. Not a bad start. Kevin will be finishing up the second half of his first year of law school (at Duke), so I doubt we’ll see much of him until June or July of 2018. My personal favorite, by the way, was Kevin’s “Auftragstaktik: Decentralization in military command.” His posts on taking over Syria – Roman style, the median voter theorem, and inventions that didn’t change the world also got lots of love from around the web.

Nick’s post on public choice and Nancy MacLean (#7) earned a nod from Arnold Kling (askblog), Don Boudreaux (Cafe Hayek), Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling), Mark Thoma (Economist’s View), and pretty much the entire online libertarian community, while his post analyzing the UK’s snap election earned a spot at RealClearWorld. Dr Cowen’s thoughts on school choice and robust political economy, as well as a sociological analysis of Trump/Brexit prompted by Vincent, all garnered love from libertarians and scholars around the world. My favorite Cowen post was his question “Is persecution the purpose?

Overall, it was a hell of a year here at Notes On Liberty. I’m really looking forward to 2018. Here’s to a happy, healthy you. Oh, and my proudest piece this year was “North Korea, the status quo, and a more liberal world.” HAPPY NEW YEAR!

BC’s weekend reads

  1. I thought the Nancy MacLean’s book attacking James Buchanan was great for present-day libertarianism, in that it only weakens the already weak Left. Henry Farrell and Steven Teles share my sensibilities.
  2. What is public choice, anyway? And what is it good for?
  3. One of the Notewriters reviews James C Scott’s Seeing Like A State
  4. Aztec Political Thought
  5. Turkey dismisses 7,000 in fresh purge
  6. 10 Chinese Megacities to See Before You Die

Minimum Wages: Short rejoinder to Geloso

A few days ago I posted here at NOL a short comment on some reaction I’ve seen with regards to Seattle’s minimum wage study. Vincent Geloso offers an insightful criticism of my argument. Even if his point is quite specific (or so it seems to me), it offers an opportunity for some clarification.

But first, what was my argument? My comment was aimed at a specific point raised by advocates of increasing minimum wages. Namely, that even if Seattle’s study shows an increase in unemployment, a study with a larger sample may say otherwise. My point is that the way I’ve seen this criticism raised is missing the economic insight of minimum wage analysis, namely that jobs will be lost in less efficient employers and employees first. So far so good. The problem Geloso points out is with my example. I refer to McDonald’s as the efficient employers fast food chain (think of economics of scale) and as less efficient employers the neighborhood family-run little food place (neighborhood’s diner).

Geloso correctly argues that different employers react in different ways. It is expected, for instance, that a larger employer such as a fast-food chain would have more options to make a marginal adjustment when there is an increase in minimum wages. Of course, I agree, but the point I’m rising is about where jobs will be lost first (not the specific mechanism in each employer). Geloso flips my example and argues that a small diner has more (in relative terms) to lose by letting go one out of two employees than a fast food joint that has to let one employee go among maybe ten thousand. By letting one employee go, the small employer loses a larger share of its output. Therefore a small employer would be more inclined to keep all of his labor force and cut costs on another front (less hours work in average doesn’t cut it, that’s like a shared unemployment that would also cut output down).

A large employer like a fast food chain, however, can let one out of ten thousand employees go because the loss in output is not that significant. I have two issues with this example. The first one is that a fast food chain is facing the increase in minimum wage ten thousand times, not two. To cut even the rise in cost, the firm fast food chain has to cut down its labor force 15% (1,500 employees.) But I think the problem with this example does not end here. If it were the case that small diners don’t cut employment but fast food chains do, then we should see more unemployment in larger employers than in small neighborhood diners.

A second point I want to make is with Geloso’s argument that the study is about focusing “like a laser” on one out of multiple channels in the group most likely to respond in that manner (unemployment?). That the study, as long as the focus is on unemployment, should focus on the less efficient employers (and employees) first, and not just look at the unaffected employers because that’s where we just happen to have better statistics for is my point. There are two options. The first option is that what matters is focusing on the channel the increase in cost will be managed by employers. But this is neither a focus on unemployment nor on the criticism I’m replying to. Option number two, that the study should focus on the employers “most likely” to reduce unemployment, which is actually my point regardless of how many “channels” are included in the sample.

Against Guilt by Historical Association: A Note on MacLean’s “Democracy in Chains”

It’s this summer’s hottest pastime for libertarian-leaning academics: finding examples of bad scholarship in Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains. For those out of the loop, MacLean, a history professor at Duke University, argues in her book that Nobel-prize winning public choice economist James Buchanan is part of some Koch-funded vast right-libertarian conspiracy to destroy democracy as inspired by southern racist agrarians and confederates like John Calhoun. This glowing review from NPR should give you a taste of her argument, which often has the air of a bizarre conspiracy theory. Unfortunately, to make these arguments she’s had to cut some huge corners in her federally-funded research. Here’s a round-up of her dishonesty:

  • David Bernstein points out how MacLean’s own sources contradict her claims that libertarian Frank Chodorov disagreed with the ruling in Brown v. Board.
  • Russ Roberts reveals how out-of-context Tyler Cowen was taken by MacLean, misquoting him to attribute to Cowen a view which he was arguing against.
  • David Henderson finds that she did the same thing to Buchanan.
  • Steve Horwitz points out how wildly out-of-context MacLean took a quote from Buchanan on public education.
  • Phil Magness reveals how much MacLean needed to wildly reach to tie Buchanan to southern agrarians with his use of the word “Leviathan.”
  • Phil Magness, again, reveals MacLean needed to do the same thing to tie Buchanan to Calhoun.
  • David Bernstein finds several factual errors about MacLean’s telling of the history of George Mason’s University.

I’m sure there is more to come. But, poor scholarship and complete dishonesty in source citation aside, an important question needs to be asked about all this: even if MacLean didn’t need to reach so far to paint Buchanan in such a negative light, why should we care?

I admittedly haven’t read her book yet (so could be wrong), but from the way even positive reviewers paint it and the way she talks about it herself in interviews (see around 15:30 of that episode), one can infer that she is in no way interested in a nuanced analytical critique of Buchanan’s public choice models or his arguments in favor of constitutional restrictions on democratic majorities. Her argument, if you can call it that, seems to be something like this:

  1. Democracy and majority rule are inherently good.
  2. James Buchanan wants stricter restrictions on democratic majority rule, and so did some Southern racists.
  3. Therefore, James Buchanan is a racist, evil corporate shill.

Even if she didn’t need to establish premise 2, why should we care? Every ideology has elements of it that can be tied to some seedy elements of the past, it doesn’t make the arguments that justify those ideologies wrong. For example, the pro-choice and women’s health movement has its roots in attempts to market birth control to race-based eugenicists (though these links, like MacLean’s attempts, aren’t as insidious as some on the modern right make them out to be), that does not mean modern women’s health advocates are racial eugenicists. Early advocates of the minimum wage argued for wage floors for racist and sexist reasons, yet nobody really thinks (or, at least, should think) modern progressives have dubious racist motives for wanting to raise the minimum wage. The American Economic Association was founded by racist eugenicists in the American Institutionalist school, yet nobody thinks modern economists are racist or that anyone influenced by the institutionalists today is a eugenicist. The Democratic Party used to be the party of the KKK, yet nobody (except the most obnoxious of Republican partisans) thinks that’s at all relevant to the DNC’s modern platform. Heidegger was heavily linked to Nazism and anti-Semitism, but it’s impossible to write off and ignore his philosophical contributions and remain intellectually honest.

Similarly, even if Buchanan did read Calhoun and it got him thinking about constitutional reform, that does not at all mean he agreed with Calhoun on slavery or that modern libertarian-leaning public choice theorists are neo-confederates, and it has even less to do with the merits of Buchanan’s analytical critiques of how real-world democracies function. In fact, as Vincent Geloso has pointed out here at NOL, Buchanan has given modern scholars the analytical tools to critique racism.

Intellectual history is messy and complicated, and can often lead to links we might—with the benefit of historical hindsight—view as situated in an unsavory context. However, as long as those historical lineages have little to no bearing on people’s motivations for making similar arguments or being intellectual inheritors of similar ideological traditions today (which isn’t always the case), there is no relevance to modern discourse other than perhaps idle historical curiosity. These types of attempts to cast guilt upon one’s intellectual opponents through historical association are, at best, another intellectually lazy version of the genetic fallacy (which MacLean also loves to commit when she starts conspiratorially complaining about Koch Brothers funding).

Just tell me if this sounds like a good argument to you:

  1. Historical figure X makes a similar argument Y to what you’re making.
  2. X was a racist and was influenced by some racists.
  3. Therefore, Y is wrong.

If it doesn’t, you’re right, 3 doesn’t follow from 2 (and in MacLean’s case 1 is a stretch).

Please, if you want to criticize someone’s arguments, actually criticize their arguments; don’t rely on a tabloid version of intellectual history to dismiss them, especially when that intellectual history is a bunch of dishonest misquotations and hand-waving associations.