Donald Trump, Socialist

“Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,” US president Donald Trump announced in his State of the Union address in February.  His base, as he had hoped, cheered him on in setting himself up as foil to Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In the three months since, though, Trump has doubled down on his own socialist policy proposals. On trade and immigration, he’s 21st-century America’s most strident — or most empowered, anyway — advocate of an indispensable tenet of state socialism: Central planning of the economy by the government.

Trump wants the government to control what you buy and who you buy it from. Thus, his “trade wars” with Canada, Mexico, the European Union, and China, powered by tariffs intended to advantage “Made in America” goods (and their politically connected makers) over others.

Now he’s announced a plan for “merit-based” government control of immigration under which bureaucrats in Washington decide how many, and which, immigrants the American economy “needs,” instead of leaving such decisions to markets and individuals.

In the past I’ve bemoaned the fact that “socialism” has come to mean such different things to so many different people. From its 19th century definition of  “worker ownership of the means of production,” it’s been continually re-defined to characterize everything from Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism to a more all-embracing “democratic socialist” welfare state powered by heavy taxation on “the rich.”

That’s a pretty broad net. But except among anarchist socialists, state control of the economy is the axis on which all versions of socialism turn, and Trump is clearly all-in on the idea.

He even lends a socialist cast to the  excuses he makes for his economic policies. He continually positions himself as protecting workers from the “dog-eat-dog” competition of capitalism (while avoiding using that word negatively). By adding an emphasis on political borders to those excuses, he changes the discussion from “labor versus capital” to “American labor versus foreign capital.”

That approach is nothing new. See Stalin’s “socialism in one country,” for example, or the marriage between central economic planning and nationalism characterizing the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler.

America’s Republican president campaigns against socialism while attempting to implement it. Meanwhile, America’s progressives  campaign for socialism while attempting to thwart actual worker ownership of the means of production (e.g. the “gig economy”). Talk about cognitive dissonance!

Notice what’s missing from the discussion on both major “sides”: Freedom.

Freedom to move within and across political borders.

Freedom to trade within and across political borders.

Freedom to plan our own lives and live them instead of turning that power, and that responsibility, over to the state.

Neither major political party even convincingly pretends to care about those fundamental human rights anymore.

The entire public discussion revolves around what the politicians should “allow” or “forbid” the rest of us to do next, based on an unquestioning assumption of their moral authority to make such decisions for us.

Unless we break that cycle, we’re on our way into the next Dark Age.

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Facebook Isn’t a “Monopoly” — Let’s Not Make it Into One

Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, adding his voice to calls to “break up” the social media giant,  calls it a “powerful monopoly, eclipsing all of its rivals and erasing competition.” In recent years, we’ve seen similar claims, and heard demands for similar remedies, aimed at Google, Amazon, and other large companies.

Are these claims true? Are the large “dot-coms” monopolies in any real sense? The short answer is no. Using the “m-word” is a way of avoiding the necessity of making a sound argument for a desired policy outcome.

Whether that avoidance strategy is due to laziness, or to not having a sound argument to make, or some other reason, falls outside the scope of a short op-ed column. But the first step in forcing better arguments is quashing bad ones, so let’s look at what “monopoly” actually means.

According to Oxford Living Dictionaries “monopoly,” as the term is used by the Facebook-breaker-uppers, is “[a] company or group having exclusive control over a commodity or service.”

What commodity or service is Facebook a “monopoly” in?

Certainly not social media. You’ve probably heard of Twitter. You may have also heard of Diaspora, Minds, MeWe, Mastodon, Gab, and a number of other companies, sites, and apps offering the ability to post updates to friends and followers and discuss those updates.

Advertising? Not even close. Does the name Google ring any bells? How about Microsoft? There are plenty of smaller web advertising networks you probably haven’t heard of as well.

Then there’s messaging and chat. Yes, Facebook owns Messenger and WhatsApp. But it doesn’t own Discord or Slack or Signal or Skype or Telegram or any of hundreds of other messaging/chat apps.

Facebook has lots of users. Facebook makes lots of money. But Facebook isn’t a “monopoly” in any of the services it offers. It has loads of competitors, many of them doing quite well, and its users and customers have the option of using those competitors instead of, or in addition to, Facebook any time they like.

More importantly, Facebook has no ability to prevent new competitors from entering the markets it serves. And therein lies a political paradox.

While so far resisting the “breakup” talk, Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, have recently become increasingly receptive to government regulation.

Why? Because Facebook is big enough and rich enough to cheerfully comply with whatever regulations its detractors can come up with, and to hire armies of lobbyists to “capture” and shape that regulation. It can probably even survive and profit from a supposed “breaking up.”

Your brother-in-law’s basement social media or advertising or messaging start-up, on the other hand, probably isn’t well-financed enough to navigate a substantial federal regulatory regime or to successfully fight for its life if the regulators come down on its head even once.

Facebook isn’t a monopoly.

Facebook isn’t close to becoming a monopoly.

But if the people incorrectly calling it a monopoly get their way, they’ll have taken the first giant step toward making it into one.

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Trump’s “Trade War” is a War on You

“It’s not China that pays tariffs,” Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace pointed out on May 12. “It’s the American importers, the American companies that pay what, in effect, is a tax increase and oftentimes passes it on to U.S. consumers.”

“Fair enough,” answered Larry Kudlow, head of US president Donald Trump’s National Economic Council, before trying to explain that indisputable fact away.

As Trump continues his “trade war” with the rest of the world (but China more so than other countries), more and more Americans are beginning to understand what’s happening here:

Punitive tariffs on Chinese and other foreign goods are simply corporate welfare. They are a mechanism for redistribution of wealth from American consumers and workers to the most politically connected American business owners. Those businesses can charge more for their product and still remain “competitive” because their product doesn’t have that extra tax levied on it.

In theory, some of that corporate welfare “trickles down” in the form of new jobs for Americans in those particular businesses. That effect seems to be more hype than reality, but even to the extent that it exists, it doesn’t create greater general prosperity. The “new jobs” are an artificial sugar high. Everyone else gets just a little bit poorer for each “new job” thus created.

As the late, great Henry Hazlitt pointed out in his classic Economics in One Lesson, it’s important not to ignore the unseen in favor of the seen.

When we are forced to pay more for one thing (steel, for example), we have less money left to spend on other things (shoes or groceries, for example). Protectionist politicians vigorously direct our attention to every “new job” their policies artificially create at our expense, while hoping we won’t notice the “old jobs” our decreased wealth eliminates (or makes less lucrative) in other industries.

That’s not the only way protectionism makes us poorer. Those artificially created “new jobs” also distort the labor market. They shoo workers away from enterprises in which their efforts are most naturally profitable to them, to their employers, and to the consumers of their product, into enterprises where the profitability is an expensive illusion created at their own expense and yours.

Trump’s “trade war” is indeed a war of sorts, powered by economic sanctions like those levied on Iran and North Korea. But the economic bombs he’s dropping are landing on American, not Chinese, heads.

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Two Cheers for Denver: Let’s End the War on Unapproved States of Consciousness

On May 7, voters in Denver, Colorado narrowly approved a measure de-criminalizing “magic mushrooms” — mushrooms containing the consciousness-altering compound psilocybin. The measure, National Public Radio reports, “effectively bars the city from prosecuting or arresting adults 21 or older who possess them. In the ballot language, adults can even grow the fungus for personal use and be considered a low priority for Denver police.”

Those are both great things. A third great thing would have been an order to Denver’s police to simply ignore “magic mushrooms” altogether, effectively legalizing sale of the fungi as well (assuming there would be much of a market for something that’s easily found “in the wild,” growing on everything from rotting wood to cow patties) . But hey, two out of three ain’t bad. Yay, Denver.

The political justification for this measure (and others like it pending in other polities) is the growing evidence that psilocybin can be useful in treating depression, anxiety, and migraines. How many have needlessly suffered due to the research delays caused by its illegalization?

The practical justification for complete legalization of psilocybin (and all other drugs) is that humans have sought altered states of consciousness for as long as we’ve been humans and are always going to, no matter how many are imprisoned or killed for it. Psilocybin use goes back at least 6,000 years (per prehistoric cave art depictions of its use) and some even plausibly theorize that it was the biblical “manna” consumed by the Hebrews as they wandered the desert for 40 years.

The moral justification for complete legalization (and all other drugs) is that what you put in your body, and for what purpose, is your business and no one else’s.

Alcohol prohibition and the century-long “war on drugs” are proof that it’s impossible to imprison enough people to change that fact of human nature. In fact, the world’s drug warriors haven’t even been able to keep drugs out of prison itself! How, then, do they hope to eliminate drugs from society at large? And why should we allow them to continue trying? The “war on drugs” is completely immoral, not to mention insanely expensive both financially and in terms of the effects it has on our communities.

This is not a complicated issue:

Don’t want to eat magic mushrooms? Don’t eat magic mushrooms then.

Don’t want to smoke cannabis? Politely decline the joint when it’s offered.

Don’t want to drink a beer? Order a nice frosty mug of root beer instead.

Don’t want OTHER people to eat magic mushrooms, smoke cannabis, or drink beer? Learn to mind your own business instead of asking politicians to bust heads because you won’t. Problem solved.

Yes, it really is that simple. Thanks again, Denver.

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Don’t Let Measles Hysteria Defeat Freedom

As of May 3, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Health reported 1,510 cases of Ebola and 1,008 deaths to date in the country’s current outbreak. Partial blame for the government’s inability to contain the outbreak goes to armed attackers who believe that international health workers are there to intentionally spread the disease, not treat it.

As of April 26, The US Centers for Disease Control reported 704 cases of measles and no known deaths in the country so far in 2019. Partial blame for the outbreak goes to Americans who decline (or simply overlook) vaccination for themselves or their children.

You may have noticed both facts. They’ve both been reported in the US media — the latter far more than the former, the former perhaps evoking a feeling of sadness or helplessness, the latter whipping up large-scale outrage, up to and including calls for every man, woman, and child in the US to be dragged to the nearest vaccination clinic whether they want to go or not.

Disclaimer: I am not an “anti-vaxxer.” I don’t un-skeptically accept every claim made by those who refuse or oppose vaccinations. My limited reading says that many of those claims are not supported by science.

In fact, I’ve probably had more vaccines than you. I got the usual vaccinations as a child. Then more when I joined the Marine Corps, and more after that when I deployed overseas (twice — my shot record got lost). The only time I complained was when I was ordered (under threat of court-martial for refusal) to accept an experimental anthrax vaccine from a tube marked DO NOT USE ON HUMANS in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of Desert Storm.

Vaccines as such don’t bother me a bit. But I believe that you own your body, and that you are therefore entitled to decide what may or may not be put into that body. If you choose to forgo any or all vaccinations, that’s your choice to make for yourself and for your children or wards.

It is an undisputed fact of that there ARE risks associated with vaccination. They are rare and usually minor, along the lines of allergic reactions, but they exist and they are occasionally fatal.

Who should get to decide whether or not those risks are acceptable? The person into whose arm the needle is to be injected, or that person’s guardian, and no one else.

Yes, it is an initiation of force, and should therefore be treated as a crime, to knowingly or negligently transmit an infectious disease to unwilling others. If you’ve got the measles or some other infection, and know it, you should avoid contact with the public, and I have no real problem with quarantine laws enforcing that.

But the current hysteria over a tiny number of cases of a usually non-fatal disease is bringing out the worst in Americans. By “the worst,” I mean calls for government to force vaccinations on the unwilling.

We mustn’t let measles hysteria defeat freedom. Measles is bad. Tyranny is worse.

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Julian Assange: An Opportunity for the US and the UK to Change Direction on Press Freedom

May 3 was World Press Freedom Day. The annual observance usually focuses on the World Press Freedom Index published each year by Reporters without Borders. Break out the champagne! The United States ranked 48th of 179 countries this year, falling three places from 2018.

A day earlier, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange appeared in court in London (the United Kingdom ranked 33rd on the Index this year) to contest his proposed extradition to the United States. He faces spurious US “hacking” charges framed to avoid taking official notice of the indisputable fact that his actual “crimes” consist entirely of engaging in journalism.

Not a good World Press Freedom Day look for the UK or the US. But the plodding pace of the UK’s judicial system — his next hearing comes at the end of May, a second one is scheduled for mid-June, and the matter may drag on for months — offers an opportunity to turn things around and get them moving in the right direction.

Reporters Without Borders postures as politically neutral, but their current ranking of the US is largely based not on a deterioration in actual press freedom, but rather on US president Donald Trump’s big mouth. He says mean things — some true, some false, some downright stupid — about the media.

Trump could redeem himself on the press freedom front, essentially wiping the slate clean, by pardoning Assange for all alleged “crimes” committed prior to May 1st, 2019.

Even better, he could publicly justify the pardon, pointing out that this is solely and entirely a political prosecution premised in the notion that it’s a “crime” to embarrass politicians by revealing verifiably true information about their actions.

Alternatively, US Justice Department prosecutors could save him the trouble by just dropping the charges and withdrawing the extradition request.

A pardon and public statement from Trump would be better, though, both for press freedom and as red meat for his own political base. After all, the American politician most frequently and badly embarrassed by Assange’s work is Trump’s own bete noire, Hillary Clinton. The WikiLeaks “Cablegate” dump exposed her plan to have US diplomats bug the offices of their UN counterparts. Then WikiLeaks doubled down and outed her for the DNC’s rigging of the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

Failing both of those perfectly reasonable courses of action on the US government’s part, the UK courts could find a reason to free Assange (currently serving 50 weeks for jumping bail on charges that were non-existent rather than merely spurious) instead of handing him over.

Whatever — just pick one and make it happen, guys. The most important outcome here is a free Julian Assange. The bonus material would be explaining why: He’s a political prisoner and journalism is not a crime.

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