Pandemics Are the Health of the State

Local, state, and federal governments are using the COVID-2019 coronavirus crisis to assert more and more direct control over the lives of individuals.

The president has “banned” travel to Europe and travel from China, though control over individuals’ movements has never been within the scope of the president’s constitutional power.*

Governments have “declared lockdowns,” effectively forcing people to stay inside their homes (in some cases with criminal penalties), discussions of “shelter-in-place” and other domestic travel restrictions. These in turn will weaken and (given enough time) destroy large parts of the private sector, creating a void into which government programs and government-run industries

The government is planning to send $1000 to every American, in one swoop making all 330 million US citizens recipients of government welfare for the first time in history.

A quasi-private governmental banker council has arbitrarily set the cost of borrowing money (at the bank level) at near zero, creating hundreds of billions of new dollars out of thin air.

After all the lessons and corruption of 2008, the federal government is again pursuing bailouts for companies that are failing.

States are mobilizing their national guards. The federal government is preparing quarantine centers.

Hardly anyone is batting an eye. Some people are begging for more “strong action” from their governments.

There’s no doubt that COVID-2019 is a serious risk. But it’s kind of hard not to notice that the response in terms of vastly ramped-up government control of society (with more to come) has well outpaced even a moderate Democrat’s idea of the proper role of a state vis-a-vis civil society. And if history shows one thing, governments that gain power for an “emergency” hardly ever give it up when the emergency is over (if, indeed, they ever admit that the emergency over).

We now face an even dangerous risk than this pandemic: that the state grows in this crisis to replace large parts of civil society that will never be allowed to grow back.

Yes, the virus grows exponentially. Yes, social distancing is one of the ways we know to flatten the curve. But the development of the virus is still quite early, not all of the data is in, and yet still many people seem to be willing to surrender liberties which took centuries to gain and centuries to preserve.

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*Even if the constitution granted this power, it would still be unethical for anyone to try to enforce it.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Reflections on Guatemala

I first journeyed to Guatemala 20 years ago, hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín.  Two weeks ago, I returned for a delightful extended visit, accompanied by my Spanish-speaking elder sons and former EconLog blogger Jim Schneider.  I spent over a week doing guest lectures at UFM, then gave Friday’s keynote talk for the Reason Foundation’s “Reason in Guatemala” conference.  During our trip, we were also able to visit the awesome Mayan ruins of Tikal and Yaxha.  Here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Guatemala has dramatically improved over the last two decades.  Multinational businesses are now all over Guatemala City.  Restaurants and luxury products are all over, but so are businesses that cater to average Guatemalans.  Local grocery stores are packed with familiar international brands and products.  There are multiple Walmarts.  Even Costco is there, doing business as Pricesmart.  We argued about whether the Oakland Mall was more impressive than Tyson’s I, but it was definitely a tough call.  Smartphones are naturally ubiquitous.  Whenever we strayed from the tourist areas, we saw ordinary citizens enjoying simple material pleasures like Pollo Campero.

2. When I last visited Guatemala, the high-end businesses seemed grossly overbuilt; the shiny malls were almost empty.  Now, however, Guatemalans actually seem to be consuming the fruits of progress.  The cavernous Oakland Mall was packed at lunchtime on a weekday – and the pedestrianized streets near the National Palace were full of locals.  La Aurora Zoo was world-class, but we saw no other foreign tourists.

3. Our sponsors at UFM strove to keep us perfectly safe.  For the first few days, they drove us everywhere.  Yet almost every local assured us that four guys walking around Zone 10 in broad daylight were extremely safe.  By the end, we were walking comfortably through a wide range of neighborhoods, though only by day.  Crime is clearly down, thanks in no small part to massive private security.  Even small stores often have heavily-armed guards, and razor wire is almost always in your field of vision.

5. The greatest danger to pedestrians is probably the poor sidewalks; there are many dangerous pits even in elite neighborhoods.  The problem is so dire and the cost of fixing it is so small that I’m surprised that local businesses haven’t raised money to solve it.  I know Latin America’s philanthropic tradition is weak.  Yet good publicity aside, wouldn’t the Oakland Mall soon recoup a $50-100k investment in the surrounding sidewalks?  Would local government really block this public-spirited initiative?

6. We didn’t have to walk far to see absolute poverty.  No one looked malnourished, and even kids living in shacks and huts usually wore new, store-bought clothes.  Still, we saw families living in shacks (in Guatemala City, especially near the airport) and huts (especially on the drive to Yaxha).  During one severe traffic jam, we saw kids under ten washing car windows.  We also witnessed several families of clowns busking in the streets.

7. By official measures, Guatemala is dramatically poorer than any of the Caribbean islands we recently toured, with per capita GDP of $3200 nominal and $7600 PPP.  Yet this is mightily difficult to reconcile with what we saw with our own eyes.  Overall, the Caribbean islands looked a lot like the road from Flores to Yaxha – a mixture of modest modern houses and primitive shacks and huts.  Everything else in Guatemala looked vastly better than St. Maarten or St. Kitts.  While this partly reflects higher population, the biggest contrast is that almost every Guatemalan looks like he has useful work to do.  The Caribbean islanders, in contrast, have high levels of desperate peddling and outright idleness.

8. Guatemalan prices confused not only us, but local economists as well.  Grocery prices are very high.  Guatemala’s Pricesmart and my local Costco sell many identical goods, so I can confidently say that the former’s prices were roughly twice as high as I normally pay.  Local chains were even pricier.  One prominent local businessman blamed Guatemala’s low port capacity – and impishly shared his thrilling plans to build a big new port in the near future.  Restaurant meals aren’t cheap either; everything from fast food to premium steaks costs about the same as it would in Virginia.  The only product that was blatantly cheaper than usual was Uber – about one-third of the U.S. rate.  (Since gas prices were a bit higher than in Virginia, drivers’ take-home pay must be low indeed).  Other services, such as tour guides, were also big bargains.

9. As I toured Guatemala, I couldn’t help but notice how happy the people looked, especially the women.  I wondered if my impression could just be confirmation bias, but now that I’m back home I’m confident that the contrast is stark.  Guatemalan men look at least marginally happier than American men.  Guatemalan women look much happier than American women.  You could say that this merely reflects cultural differences in expressiveness, but that strikes me as sheer stubborn denial.

10. UFM was the jewel of our visit.  UFM could well be the most beautiful of the hundred-odd universities I’ve toured in my life.   Built in a ravine, it elegantly blends distinctive architecture with gorgeous tropical flora.  UFM also hosts two stunning museums – Popol Vuh (archaeology) and Ixchel (textiles).  Best of all, UFM is an academic libertarian paradise.  The ideas and imagery of my intellectual heroes adorn the whole campus – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises are only the beginning.  Yet there is no sign of dogmatic orthodoxy.  Good manners prevail; faculty and students are eager to hear new ideas and debate old ones.   Unlike most other institutions, UFM administrators are especially intellectually engaged.  UFM President Gabriel Calzada Alvarez was overjoyed to talk ideas with my sons for hours.

11.  The students of UFM look even happier than the rest of their countrymen.  You could say this is because they’re drawn from Guatemala’s richest families, but so are Americans in the Ivy League – and those kids are hardly pictures of good cheer.  The gender gap was so big that I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own ideas; female UFM students appear extraordinarily happy.  UFM econ’s male/female ratio is also strangely low; several of the classes I taught were virtually all-female.

12. My Guatemalan audiences took to Open Borders like fish to water.  The cultural and political threat of Muslim immigration was the sole recurring objection.  In Guatemalan eyes, Latin America and the U.S. share a common Judeo-Christian culture, so many were surprised to hear how many U.S. citizens view Latin Americans as culturally alien or even unassimilable.

13. On the latter issue, the Guatemalans are plainly correct.  Pre-assimilation to the North American way of life is prevalent and intense.  Virtually everyone at UFM speaks and understands English well.  About a fifth of the public signs in Guatemala City are entirely in English, and an additional third are in Spanglish.  The Guatemalan elite already lives the American dream, más o menos.  The average Guatemalan struggles to do the same.  A dozen different people emphatically described Guatemalans as “deeply conservative,” but Tarantino was on t.v. every time I flipped the channels.

14. Even Guatemalan libertarians rarely complained about specific domestic government policies, but if you look at their Economic Freedom of the World ranking, there is plenty to decry.  Guatemala gets great scores on Size on Government and Sound Money, and a good score on Freedom to Trade Internationally.  Yet it gets an awful score for Legal System & Property Rights, and an even worse score for Regulation.  New construction projects are all over Guatemala City, but one of the locals told me it takes 2-3 years to obtain permission to build.  Imagine how much construction there’d be if you cut the delay down to 2-3 months or 2-3 weeks!

15. So what do Guatemalans complain about?  I asked one of my classes to tell me what most bothered the average Guatemalan; then I proposed workable policy responses for each problem.  Their first answer was “corruption.”  I suggested hiring a team of Swiss or Singaporeans to take over Guatemala’s internal affairs department.  They saw the logic of importing trustworthiness, but told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it.  Their next answer was “traffic.”  I proposed electronic road pricing.  They again saw the logic, and again told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it – even if the gas tax were abolished at the same time.  My students also saw crime – especially kidnapping – as a grave problem.  They were almost dumbstruck when I suggested a big switch from incarceration to flogging, even though Guatemala’s indigenous peoples already heavily rely on corporal punishment.  In a poor country with heavy corruption and high crime, the case for flogging is mighty indeed.  Just ask criminal-justice reformer Jason Brennan!

16. If I had to move to another country, Guatemala would be high on my list.  First and foremost, I love the UFM community.  American liberalism and conservatism are intellectual dead-ends, and I would enjoy forever escaping from both.  I also prefer to be around very happy people, and on that score Guatemala handily beats the U.S.A.  Guatemala does have some scary features, but the longer I stayed, the more I relaxed.  Yet for now, I continue to prefer the U.S.  Wages are obviously much higher here, and PPP measures notwithstanding, a dollar goes further in the U.S. than in Guatemala.

17. The Mayan archaeological sites we visited deserve all the hyperbolic adjectives people apply to them.  The contrast between the pyramids and the palaces, however, is vast.  The pyramids you leave thinking, “Human beings made these?!  Without wheels?!”  (As well as, “They performed human sacrifices here?!  What the hell was wrong with these Mayans?!”)  The “palaces” of the Mayan leaders, in contrast, look smaller than many apartments in Fairfax.  To reverse Galbraith, the Mayan elite lived lives of public affluence and private squalor.

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Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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The Speech of Heroes

Almost everyone loves the idea of “speaking truth to power.”  Standing tall, talking boldly, consequences be damned – how heroic!

Yet on reflection, this Speech of Heroes takes two radically different forms.

The most common Speech of Heroes, by far, upholds Social Desirability Bias.  Example: “Everyone should be completely equal” sounds wonderful, but no actual society follows through.  Many self-styled heroic orators respond along these lines:

Equality!  We all say we believe in it.  We know it’s the right path.  Yet we are a den of hypocrites!  We pay lip service to the ideal of equality, but when inequality glares at us from every corner, we avert out eyes.  Shame on us!  Shame!  I say unto you, we must practice what we preach.  Let us live the equality we love.  Put apathy aside, my brothers and sisters.  Let us tear down all the inequalities we see.  Then let us ferret out every lingering pocket of inequality.  We must tear power from the grasp of all the corrupt leaders who casually say they oppose inequality but never do anything about it.  Together we can, should, will, and must build a totally equal society!

This kind of heroic rhetoric is standard in religious societies.  The sacred texts provide a strict blueprint for life, yet the government makes only a token effort to strictly implement the blueprint.  In response, the heroic orator sticks out his neck, decries the hypocrisy of the Powers That Be, and demands strict adherence to the holy book.  Which is music to the ears of every pious members of this society.  See the Protestant Reformation or radical Islamism for nice examples.

Notice, however, that this heroic rhetoric also dominates socialist and nationalist oratory.  Step 1: Loudly and clearly affirm a crowd-pleasing ideal.  Step 2: Decry the obvious hypocrisy of the status quo.  Step 3: Promise to strictly implement the crowd-pleasing ideal.  You’ve got socialist slogans like, “Social ownership of the means of production,” “Complete equality,” or “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”  You’ve got nationalist slogans like, “Death before dishonor,” “Germany for the Germans,” or “The safety and prosperity of all our people.”  In each case, the speaker presents himself as a hero by puritanically appealing to popular sentiment.

Once in a long while, however, we encounter a radically different form of heroic oratory.  Instead of upholding Social Desirability Bias, the hero frontally attacks it.  As in:

Equality!  You all pay lip service to it, but who really believes it?  Why should people who produce and contribute the most receive the same treatment as people who do little or nothing?  You love to denounce the hypocrites who say they believe in equality but fail to deliver it.  But I say to you: Those hypocrites keep you alive!  In a totally equal society, there’s no incentive to do anything but kvetch.  If you’re tired of hypocrisy, remember that there are two ways to end it.  You could strictly implement this monstrous ideal of equality.  Or you could proclaim the truth: Equality is a monstrous ideal!  Let’s raise the banner of meritocracy, and thank our greatest producers instead of scapegoating them.

In a religious society, the analogue would naturally be rationalistic atheism: “Forget these pathetic ‘holy’ books, fantasies written long ago by ignorant fanatics.”  In a nationalist society, the analogue would be along the lines of, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” or even, “Our country is not the best in the world.  It’s not even average.  It’s below average – and things won’t improve until we admit our failures and humbly emulate the winners.”

Which form of oratory is more heroic?  Once you take Social Desirability Bias seriously, the answer is clear.  You can’t “speak truth to power” unless you speak the truth.  Implausible scenarios where Social Desirability Bias and the truth coincidentally converge, appealing to Social Desirability Bias is deeply unheroic.  Even villainous.

And truth aside, challenging your society’s fundamental values takes a lot more courage than merely decrying the violation of those values.

Yes, when you damn ruling elites for hypocrisy, those elites often retaliate.  Rhetorically, however, you’re still taking the path of low resistance.  You start with simple-minded feel-good slogans with broad appeal.  Then you point out corruption flagrant enough for anyone to see.

When you denounce your society’s fundamental values, however, you outrage elites and masses alike.  When you merely attack hypocrisy, elites have to worry about making a martyr out of you.  When you spurn Social Desirability Bias, in contrast, elites win popular support by teaching you the price of arrogance.  Who but a hero would openly challenge such a powerful pair of enemies?

Do I hold myself out as a man who embodies the Speech of Heroes?  Barely.  While I routinely challenge Social Desirability Bias, my society remains highly tolerant.  No one’s going to jail me for my words.  Indeed, since I have tenure, no one will even fire me for my words.  If I lived in a normal repressive society, I would publicly say far less than I do.  A gold-star hero would publicly express thoughts like mine… while living in Communist China or Saudi Arabia.

While I wouldn’t advise you to try this, anyone who does so is my hero.

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Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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Trump’s Democratic Critics Want it Both Ways on Biden, Clinton

US president Donald Trump “elevated his political interest above the national interest and demanded foreign interference in an American election,” Peter Beinart asserts at The Atlantic. “What’s received less attention is what the scandal reveals about Joe Biden: He showed poor judgment because his staff shielded him from hard truths. If that sounds faintly familiar, it’s because that same tendency underlay Hillary Clinton’s email woes in 2016.”

Beinart admits that Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s service as a very well-paid member on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time his father’s portfolio included “fighting corruption in the Ukrainian energy industry” was “a problem.”

But it’s not Joe’s fault, see? His staffers didn’t want to confront him about the conflict of interest. They “feared the vice president’s wrath,” and thought him “too fragile” after one son’s death to hear “upsetting news” about the other’s conduct.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, she was briefed on (and signed papers agreeing to abide by) State Department protocols on the handling of classified information and the use of non-government email systems.  But Beinart lets Clinton off the hook because her chief of staff and other aides failed to “forcefully convey” her obligations to her.

Here’s Beinart’s case — one also made by other Democratic partisans — boiled down to its essentials:

When Republicans act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re criminal and/or corrupt.

When Democrats act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re just poor, temperamental, out-of-their-element naifs who of course have no criminal or corrupt intent, but whose staffers — whether negligently, or out of concern for feelings or fear of offending — neglect to button their winter coats for them, take them by their little mittened hands, and carefully walk them across all those busy, dangerous legal/ethical streets.

There are two obvious problems with this double standard.

One is that for the last three years we’ve been told over and over (by, among others, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) that Trump is a loose cannon, an eternal man-child who lacks “adults in the room” to help him navigate the intricacies of governing. So why shouldn’t Trump receive the same “Blame the Aides and Get Out of Jail Free Card” that Beinart tries to play on behalf of the other two?

The other is that in arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton aren’t responsible for their actions because they’re too stupid to discern right from wrong and too simultaneously mean and emotionally delicate to be TOLD right from wrong, Beinart is necessarily also arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were and are, by definition, unfit to entrust with responsibilities as weighty as those that go with, say, the presidency of the United States.

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