Are We Sure It Can’t It Happen Here?

One runs a risk whenever one cites the 20th century’s great terror states while discussing current ominous developments in the western democracies. Apparent comparisons of the United States or western and central European countries to Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia will inevitably be hooted down with accusations of alarmist conspiracy-mongering and worse, shameful ahistoricity. Nevertheless, that must not keep us from noticing and pointing to contemporary events that bear an eerie resemblance, however slight, to things that went on in those totalitarian terror states. Such regimes don’t spring up overnight. They emerge, and looking at history, we can see that their more or less gradual emergence have telltale signs that we would do well to keep an eye out for. We can’t rest comfortably with the cliche that “it can’t happen here.” Yes, we run the risk of overinterpreting events, but perhaps that is better than underinterpreting them.

America today (though this is not new) is a place where the embers of fear of the outsider are being vigorously fanned from the very top of the political system. This is too clear to need substantiation. Just reread Donald Trump’s announcement of his candidacy for president three years ago, then observe his subsequent speeches, tweets, and actions. How revealing is his opportunism in seizing on any act of violence by an immigrant — “legal” or “illegal” — as though it were the rule rather than an anomaly! His not-so-subtle message is that all outsiders, and not just actual proven perpetrators, are by nature capable of atrocities against Americans and that those who have abstained until now can’t be trusted to continue their nonviolent ways. It’s not that they have the burden of proving their peaceful intentions; rather, it’s that they can never prove themselves trustworthy and thus eligible to live among us.

To what purpose does Trump communicate this message? It would be a mistake to to reply that it is only to advance his agenda of cutting — for cultural as well as economic reasons — even “legal” immigration and the admittance of refugees. It goes deeper than that. It is plainly to reinforce his “America First” nationalist religion with which he seeks permanently to transform — Trumpize, we may say — America. (His economic nationalist drive against global trade, the wealth-enhancing division of labor, is part of this program. In his eyes, it is ipso facto patriotic to “hire American and buy American” and therefore disloyal to think or do otherwise.) For Trump, the purity of America has been compromised long enough by the venal leaders of the past. Time to undo the damage. Step one: reduce, on the way the eliminating, the inflow of even more outsiders. And we can see the signs of step two: ridding America of “outsiders” who are already here, indeed, who have been living here peacefully for decades, including adults who were brought here “illegally” as children (so-called Dreamers) and who know no other society, and adults who are suspected, without hard evidence or due process, of having been granted U.S. citizenship only because of allegedly fraudulent documents.

Such measures, supported by ranting tweets and ominously familiar rally harangues, communicate one thing: the targeted groups consist of lesser persons if they are persons at all. Thus their children may be seized and held in camps, and parents deported without knowing the fate of their children. Unaccompanied children seeking refuge from violence are shut away in overstretched detention facilities and “tent cities,” left in the charge of quintessential bureaucrats. (See “Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever.”) Trump partisans, who scream whenever local Child Protective Services takes Americans’ children away, are unmoved when the parents Trump targets are outsiders, or “aliens.” “It’s the law” is an entirely satisfactory explanation for those partisans in the latter case, but not in the former. Victimless technical violations committed by an American parent are rejected as grounds for such a drastic measure as family separation, but an equally victimless technical violation (“illegal entry,” failure to have government papers) is regarded as something approaching a capital offense. What does that tell us?

It tells us that outsiders are not only unwanted; they are intrinsically unworthy of being wanted because, as outsiders, they are less than human. So why care that many of the “illegals” seek asylum from inhuman conditions in their home countries? Send them back where they belong! They don’t belong here! So they are stateless, countryless, superfluous, rightless, which how Hannah Arendt described refugees, having been one herself.

It would be terrifying enough if what we are seeing in the Trump administration were novel. But it is not. We see it in other places, and we’ve seen it before in the not-too-distant past. In America, the novelty is that Trump’s recent predecessors, however ruthless their deportation programs, did not engage in Trump-style dehumanizing rhetoric. But, then, Trump wants to do more than just enforce bad “law”: through actions and words, he aims to brand the outsider as threatening to national security. (A similar tone can be heard in defenses of earlier American anti-immigrant statutes.)

Stripping human beings of their personhood as well as their natural rights should make us all recoil. It is not only immoral in its own right; it is corrosive to our society because it encourages people to emote (I hesitate to say think) and act in immoral and self-destructive ways. Consider the fact that the Trump administration has no trouble finding men and women who are willing to seize children from their mothers and fathers and place them in strange facilities; to capture people who are trying only to escape violence and tyranny; and cage people who are simply looking for work and a better life in a freer land. Those government agents are not conscripts. They can quit their jobs. Why don’t they? Is this Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”: unexceptional people just “doing their jobs” in order feed their own children, advance in their careers, and someday retire in modest comfort? (See her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) Do they sleep well at night? Can they look at themselves in the mirror? Why wouldn’t they be able to do those things? They are being good citizens, serving their country, following lawful orders. Indeed, they are involved in something greater than themselves, which happens also to relieve them of personal responsibility, or at least they might think so. (In this connection, I recommend Leonard E. Read’s important essays “On That Day Began Lies” and “Conscience on the Battlefield.”)

Are there parallels in the past? We need only consult Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Note carefully the full title. Horrors can begin small, putting good people off-guard perhaps until it’s too late.

Discussing the prelude to the horror that was Nazi Germany, Arendt wrote:

In comparison with the insane end-result — concentration-camp society — the process by which men are prepared for this end, and the methods by which individuals are adapted to these conditions, are transparent and logical. The insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses. The impetus and what is more important, the silent consent to such unprecedented conditions are the products of those events which in a period of political disintegration suddenly and unexpectedly made hundreds of thousands of human beings homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, while millions of human beings were made economically superfluous and socially burdensome by unemployment. This in turn could only happen because the Rights of Man, which had never been philosophically established but merely formulated, which had never been politically secured but merely proclaimed, have, in their traditional form, lost all validity.

The first essential step on the road to total domination is to kill the juridical person in man. This was done … by putting certain categories of people outside the protection of the law….

The road to domination requires the extinguishing of individuality, Arendt wrote, which represents “spontaneity,” subversive thought, and perhaps resistance. In Trump’s rants do we find any clue that the people he targets are individuals, each with his or her own story and aspirations? If we were to think about the victims that way, we — I include in the “we the border agents and detention officers — would be less likely to acquiesce, much less participate, in their mistreatment.

If “illegals” can be dehumanized, can we be so sure that groups of “legals” and even certain citizens won’t be subjected to the same sort of process?  Arendt warned that “the politically most important yardstick for judging events in our time [is] whether they serve totalitarian domination or not.”

I am not saying that immigrant-detention facilities resemble the concentration camps that Arendt spent so much time examining. We are fortunate that traditional hard-fought minimum legal protections and the constellation of civil-liberties organizations that stand ready to pounce on as-yet illegal mistreatment certainly pose obstacles to any significant advance toward the terror state. But who can rest comfortably with just that?

We need something more. We need a broad-based and vigorous moral campaign to trumpet the humanity of detainees and those seeking entry, whether as immigrants or refugees. The public must be reminded that these are persons with names and loved one, and not merely numbers in a cold bureaucracy’s database.

Further, those who know better must work overtime to cultivate not only a love of the “Rights of Man” but a love of individuality, that is, diversity and pluralism. Ultimately, as Arendt suggested, it’s the only insurance policy against dehumanization, oppression, and its ultimate consequence: genocide.

This humanitarian campaign ought to include lessons in basic economics. Recession, depression, and unemployment breed superfluousness, despair, intolerance, bigotry, resentment — and, finally, the scapegoating of the outsider. We’ve seen this happen when the “outsiders” were Americans with darker skin. In contrast, people who have a sense of economic security and optimism have one less pretext for eying the outsider with suspicion. So we must preach that widespread and chronic economic distress has only one source: the state, with its manipulation, monetary and otherwise, of our economic relations. A freed economy — freed of trade and other restrictions — is thus another insurance policy against dehumanization and genocide. (For this reason, Albert Jay Nock, for example, worried in 1941 that economic upheaval spawned by the U.S. government’s profligacy endangered Jewish Americans. Similarly, in 1922 H. L. Mencken expressed this fear regarding the Jews of Germany.)

Waging this campaign would not be mere altruism. It would also be self-regarding in the noble sense of the Socrates, Aristotle, Benedict Spinoza, Frédéric Bastiat, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, etc. By being good to others we are also being good to ourselves. Pluralism enables us to extend ourselves by giving us access to more knowledge, goods, and experiences than we as limited beings could ever acquire alone. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle said that a “friend is another self.” Thus a freed and open society is like a super-self. Spencer and Menger analogized society to an organism, not to diminish the individual but to emphasize how a pluralist society augments each individual. Indeed, it maximizes each person’s power in Spinoza’s sense of the capacity to move toward excellence as rational social beings in the vast and infinite world.

To repeat, I am not saying Trump’s rants and policies constitute an inevitable prelude to a totalitarian nightmare. I am saying the nightmare could not befall us if dehumanization never took place.

“Totalitarian solutions,” Arendt wrote, “may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.” Decency, then, depends on widespread understanding that a worthy remedy is indeed available: freedom, pluralism, and social cooperation.

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Voluntary or Barbaric?

There are some terribly confused people out there. I’ve been hearing some ideas expressed lately that show just how bad this confusion is.

Here are some hints that could clear it up, if they’d listen:

If it’s voluntary, it’s not taxation. It’s giving.

If it’s voluntary, it’s not socialism. It’s sharing.

If it’s voluntary, it’s not political government (the State). It’s cooperation.

Taxation, socialism, and political government are not voluntary but are barbaric offenses against humanity. You can’t hide this truth by calling the coercive act by the voluntary act’s name.

Why does this seem so hard for government supremacists to understand?

Because understanding these simple truths doesn’t advance their agenda. It’s so much easier for them to have their way with you if you don’t understand, either. That allows them to pretend they have the high ground. It allows them to pretend to be the “adult” in the room, scolding you for being hysterical and unreasonable.

Yet, the reality is simply this: Being against the coerced version of something doesn’t mean you are against the superior voluntary version. And that’s the reality which will be ignored, minimized, and poo-poo’ed if you allow it. They’ll demand you allow it in the name of being reasonable and civil. How do you like that? Barbaric behavior as “reason” and “civility”. No thanks. I won’t cooperate with that nonsense.

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Prosecutors: Flipping Off the Law with Impunity

“It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal,” US president Donald Trump said in a recent Fox News interview. “I know all about flipping …. Everything is wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go.”

Self-serving? Sure. The president’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, recently struck a deal with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to several crimes — and testified that then-candidate Trump had directed him to make an illegal campaign contribution. In return for his cooperation, he expects a lighter sentencing recommendation from those prosecutors.

Self-serving, yes, but also true. The American criminal justice system is shot through with the behavior in question. The “flipping” President Trump describes isn’t something that “almost ought to be illegal.”  It’s something that IS illegal.

Title 18, Section 201 of the United States Code provides that “Whoever … corruptly gives, offers, or promises anything of value to any person … with intent to influence the testimony under oath or affirmation of such first-mentioned person as a witness upon a trial, hearing, or other proceeding, before any court … shall be fined under this title … or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years, or both, and may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.”

The same section similarly forbids seeking or accepting such inducements. And it includes no exceptions for prosecutors hunting bigger game than they’ve already cornered, or for defendants expecting lighter sentences — certainly things “of value” — if they agree to serve as those prosecutors’ hunting dogs.

If the goal of the American “justice” system is indeed to seek justice, prosecutors should charge defendants with the actual crimes they can prove those defendants committed and judges should levy the penalties prescribed for those crimes, assuming the laws and penalties are indeed just (that’s a different question).

But that’s not the goal, as many prosecutors see it. The goal is to horse-trade toward more and bigger convictions by simultaneously bribing and extorting defendants, offering reduced charges and sentences in return for guilty pleas and “cooperation,” often initially “over-charging” those defendants so there’s more on the auction block.

If, as rumored, every prosecutor sees a future attorney general, governor, or even president in the morning mirror, then above and beyond the aforementioned crimes,  “flipping” becomes a matter of soliciting and receiving illegal campaign contributions, doesn’t it?

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Cheap Tricks and Parenting Hacks

I’m not a fan of most parenting hacks or special ways to phrase stuff. Your kids can tolerate no. Your kids don’t need to be coddled or manipulated into cooperation. You shouldn’t practice slight of hand and try to distract them or focus on positivity or something. Your kids need to adapt to the world how it is. Be genuinely who you are with them as you are with others.

I don’t view respectful parenting as following tips and tricks. I view it as a set of values, and internalized beliefs. Cheap tips and parenting hacks kind of miss the point and merely teach you to think manipulatively as a parent. Sure, sometimes someone can give you an idea to phrase something in a certain way to improve your communication, but most of the time I see this in regards to kids, it is people advocating creative means of manipulating children to do something the parent desires.

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Individualism, Liberalism, and Verbal Accuracy

If you value liberty and morality, please do not misuse the word “individualism” by suggesting that it has anything to do with anti-social behavior, and do not misuse the word “liberalism” by suggesting that it has anything to do with libertinism or welfare statism. Individualism – that is, the primacy of the individual over any collective – is a necessary precondition of social cooperation, and (classical) liberalism – that is, unconditional respect for individual liberty and private property – is a necessary precondition of a dignified and virtuous life.

The destruction of civilization starts with the destruction of meaning, so if you value civilization, do not play into the hands of its enemies by adopting their language. Individualism and liberalism are good – to realize this, it suffices to notice that their opposites are not community and self-discipline (those are their extensions), but conformism and enslavement. Know your friends, so that you do not unwittingly join your enemies.

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A Public Choice Perspective on Trade

Let’s say you could make a strictly economic case for government interference with people’s trading activities, that is, with their ability to cooperate freely with others across the world. (I have no idea what “strictly economic case” even means, but stay with me.) Would we free traders have to give up? No way.

Why not? Because we could deploy solid persuasive public choice arguments against such interference. I like to think of the Public Choice school of political economy (Buchanan, Tullock, et al.) as emphasizing the incentive problem inherent in government policymaking. Where the Austrians emphasize varieties of the knowledge problem — policymakers cannot know what they must know to plan our economic activities intelligently — the Public Choice school focuses on, among other things, the perverse incentives that policymakers, bureaucrats, and citizens face.

Before public choice came along, people tended to operate on a public-interest model of policymaking. They simply assumed that when a man or woman moved from the profit-seeking private sector to the (misnamed) public, or political, sector, he or she suddenly became single-mindedly devoted to the public interest. Egoism gave way to altruism. (Note the additional assumptions that there is such a thing as the public interest and that “public servants” know what it is.) This devotion need not be examined or even questioned; it was axiomatic. If a politician was exposed as corrupt, he was merely an outlier, like the supposed lone “bad apple” who slaughtered noncombatants at My Lai during the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam.

The Public Choice school questioned the hitherto unquestionable. Perhaps, its proponents said, if we assume that people acting politically are similar to people acting privately, we could make better predictions about outcomes. This simple move exposed the conventional perspective as naive. Of course, people are people, whether acting privately or politically. All are interested in looking after themselves — in raising their incomes, influence, and prestige. Political actors are not issued halos and wings when they enter government jobs. But the resistance to the public choice orientation has persisted, and you can detect the opposing model every day — most especially from newscasters and pundits.

I should add that Robert Higgs makes an important point on this matter. Yes, people are indeed people, but people who are attracted to power are not exactly like the rest of us. Lord Acton famously said that “power tends to corrupt,” but Higgs adds, in effect, that power also lures the already corrupted. This makes the public choice case even stronger.

Thus the public choice and Austrian critiques together deliver a one-two knockout punch to government interference with social cooperation. Contrary to the civics textbooks and pundits, politicians and bureaucrats lack 1) insight into what’s really good for us who constitute the public and 2) the incentive to pursue it even if they knew what it was. Even if voters sincerely intend to benefit all of society and not just their own personal interests (as Bryan Caplan suggests), that doesn’t mean those good intentions will be carried into policy. Human beings enact and execute policies.

Now let’s talk about trade. Gather round, folks, and I’ll tell you the story of the great Chicken War of the 1960s. In response to lobbying by special interests, France and Germany raised tariffs on cheap American chicken imports. To “retaliate,” the U.S. government put a 25 percent tariff on (all countries’) light trucks, potato starch, dextrin, and brandy. The truck tariff, which was known as the “chicken tax,” was specifically targeted at Germany. The chicken war lasted from 1961 to 1964, and then it ended — except for one aspect. The tariff on light trucks stayed in place and exists to this day. (For an accounting of the significant unintended consequences of this tariff, see Bryce Hoffman’s “If You Aren’t Worried about a Trade War, You Don’t Know about the Chicken Tax.”)

If the truck tax was retaliation for the European chicken tariff, and the chicken tariff disappeared, why does the truck tax still exist?

It’s not hard to answer that question. Behind the truck tax was a powerful lobby that didn’t give a hoot about America’s chicken farmers. That lobby enjoyed its protection against foreign pickup trucks, not only German but also Japanese. So why would the automakers want to let go of their shelter from competition merely because the chicken farmers were freed from their foreign tax? They wouldn’t, and they didn’t. As a result, Americans pay more for pickups than should have to. (Bryce Hoffman notes that the tariff would have disappeared with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.)

Note the public choice lesson. Bad unintended consequences will likely flow from government policy, regardless of intentions, because it will be driven by concentrated and well-organized special interests and politicians who usually will be more sensitive to those interests, which can deploy money and votes, than to consumers, who are diffuse and unorganized. (We might say that the consumers’ interest is the best approximation of the public interest.)

That’s only part of the picture. Whenever the government has the power to interfere with our trade, it also has the power to exert leverage on others, including other governments, that may have nothing to do with trade. Thomas Jefferson loved to impose trade embargoes, which he called “peaceful coercion.” This week Donald Trump delayed for 30 days the imposition of new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum from the European Union, Canada, and Mexico. He also moved toward canceling those tariffs for Australia, Brazil, Argentina. Is he seeking something in return for scrapping the tariffs? Is he telling the Europeans that if they do not support his hawkish position on Iran, he will go ahead with the trade restrictions? What did he get in return from the other countries?

We don’t know. But if Trump has the power to restrict trade, he has the power to forgo restrictions in return for other things he wants — and those other things are unlikely to be good for most Americans, not to mention the rest of the world.

David Hume said that in proposing government policy, we should assume that the people who will carry them out are “knaves.” That of course means trade policy too.

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