Power, Not Policy, Drives American Politics

Claiming to speak for “we the people,” the framers of the US Constitution offered it as a tool to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

More than 230 years later, is the federal government doing a good job of delivering on those purposes? A poor job? Or is it, perhaps, up to some entirely different job? Let’s look behind Door Number Three:

According to the late  political philosopher Anthony de Jasay, the modern state is a “redistributive drudge …. If its ends are such that they can be attained by devoting its subjects’ resources to its own purposes, its rational course is to maximize its discretionary power over these resources. In the ungrateful role of drudge, however, it uses all its power to stay in power, and has no discretionary power left over.”

How much discretionary power does the federal government exercise over your resources?

Well, in 2019, actors in the US economy, including you, will produce goods and provide services worth more than $21 trillion. Also in 2019, the federal government will seize and spend more than $4.4 trillion of that $21 trillion.

Nearly one out of every five dollars’ worth of wealth produced in the US disappears down Washington, DC’s gullet. That’s a lot of discretionary power, and it doesn’t account for state or local government expenditures, or for exercises of discretionary power that reduce the amount of wealth created in the first place.

How much justice, tranquility, defense, general welfare, and liberty does that much discretionary power buy? How much SHOULD it buy?

Personally, I’d say we’re well past the point where giving more discretionary power to the state serves the ends touted in the preamble to the Constitution, and far into a situation where the primary activity of government in the United States is using its power to stay in power.

From any debate between candidates for public office, one may collect a veritable basket full of promises.

But listen closely to the promises and you’ll find that unless the candidate is a Libertarian, they’re  always conditional: Give me more power, give me more money, and I’ll give you X.

Those promises are a pig in a poke: Elect that candidate and you may or may not get some measure of X, but that candidate will definitely get the power.

Even Republican candidates who promise tax cuts tout a “Laffer Curve” equation under which lower tax rates will supposedly produce more total revenue — and with it more discretionary power — for them.

Do you consider keeping politicians in power a project worthy of nearly one out of five of the dollars you earn?

If so, by all means keep voting for candidates who advocate an ever stronger and ever more expensive federal government. There are usually at least two such candidates on your ballot for any office — they’re called Republicans and Democrats.

If not, vote Libertarian. Or abandon politics altogether.

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Against Tu Quoque

War crimes trials often weigh on the consciences of the conscientious.  Aren’t such proceedings mere “victor’s justice”?  The hypocrisy is usually palpable; after all, how often does either side in a violent conflict walk away with clean hands?  Unsurprisingly, then, one of defendants’ favorite legal strategies is to tell their prosecutors, “Well, you guys did the same.”  It’s called the tu quoque defense:

An argument from fairness, the tu quoque argument has an enduring appeal to the human conscience. Simply put, tu quoque is the Latin rendition of “you too”, with the argument built-in, though often unstated: “Since you have committed the same crime, why are you prosecuting me?” Cast in more affirmative terms, the argument is that if one side in a conflict has committed certain crimes, it has no authority to prosecute or punish nationals of the other side for the same or closely similar crimes. Whatever effect a decision-maker may choose to give it, the argument troubles the human soul, when it is presented in a fitting situation.

To be honest, though, I have trouble seeing why this argument has any appeal, much less “enduring appeal.”

Consider: If a law is unjust, the less you enforce it, the better.  This remains true even if 99% of violators get punished, because sparing 1% is less unjust than sparing 0%.  To quote one of the best things Murray Rothbard ever said about ethics:

[T]he justice of equality of treatment depends first of all on the justice of the treatment itself. Suppose, for example, that Jones, with his retinue, proposes to enslave a group of people. Are we to maintain that “justice”  requires that each be enslaved equally? And suppose that someone has the good fortune to escape. Are we to condemn him for evading the equality of justice meted out to his fellows? It is obvious that equality of treatment is no canon of justice whatever. If a measure is unjust, then it is just that it have as little general effect as possible. Equality of unjust treatment can never be upheld as an ideal of justice.

By the same logic, if a law is just, the more you enforce it, the better.  This remains true even if 99% of violators are never punished.  Giving 1% of monsters what they deserve is less unjust than giving 0% of monsters what they deserve.  If you have the chance to inflict retribution on 1% of the camp guards at Auschwitz, why not go for it?  Sure, if you’re a war criminal yourself, we should urge you to submit to punishment as well.  If that’s not going to happen, though, why not take whatever justice you’re willing to dole out?

Justice aside, the consequentialist case against the tu quoque defense is also solid.  Since victory is never assured, it’s good for people on all sides to know, “I will be harshly punished for my war crimes… if my side loses.”  While it would be better if people knew they would be punished regardless of the outcome of the war, conditional deterrence is better than no deterrence at all.

Isn’t it possible, though, that people will commit additional war crimes to avoid prosecution for earlier war crimes?  The answer, of course, is: “Sure, it’s possible.”  Most obviously, fear of war crimes trials provides an incentive to murder witnesses ASAP.  Yet the same goes for any law.  Laws against murder create an incentive to murder people who witness your murders.  Yet this is a flimsy objection to laws against murder, because shrewd consequentialists focus on overall net effects, not worst-case scenarios.

What’s the best case against war crimes trials?  Simple: War crimes trials might delay peace – or reignite a war – and war is hell.  Indeed, war is often hellish enough to overcome the intuitive moral presumption in favor of making violent criminals suffer for their misdeeds.  When countries adopt amnesties to prevent future bloodshed, I keep my mind open.

When you firmly have the upper-hand, though, I say retribution dulce et decorum est.  Letting Soviet war criminals off the hook in 1991 was defensible, though it would have been safe and wise to permanently bar former Communist Party members from holding public office.  In 1945, though, defeated Axis war criminals were sitting ducks.  Making tens of thousands of them pay in full for their offenses would have been easy, just, and instructive.  Punishing all the war criminals on both sides would naturally have been even more just and instructive, but anything but easy.

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Statists Want You to Believe You’re Stupid

Statists want you to believe you aren’t smart enough to know how to solve problems. They say you have to trust the president or congress or the city council to do what’s necessary because you can’t possibly understand the issues. You don’t see “The Big Picture”* and don’t understand “how these things work”.

How convenient for them.

Erich Fromm had something to say about this vulgar lie:

“One kind of smokescreen is that the problems are too complicated for the average individual to grasp. On the contrary it would seem that many of the basic issues of individual and social life are very simple, so simple. in fact, that everyone should be expected to understand them. To let them appear to be so enormously complicated that only a “specialist” can understand them, and he only in his limited field, actually– and often intentionally– tends to discourage people from trusting their own capacity to think about those problems that really matter. The individual feels hopelessly caught in a chaotic mass of data and with pathetic patience waits until the specialists have found out what to do and where to go.” — Escape from Freedom

I see statists use this tactic all the time.

  • You can’t understand why it’s not a good idea to get rid of all anti-gun “laws” because you don’t have the wisdom and experience of the police unions, the BATFEces, the FBI, or federal judges. It’s simplistic to believe you can be responsible for yourself and that an armed populace would deter archation.
  • You can’t understand the nuances of “border security” because you aren’t an expert. You can’t just respect all property rights (including ending all welfare) and respect the right of defense– it would be chaos.
  • You’re not a scientist so you can’t understand the data pointing to Climate Change. Trust the experts to tell you what you’ll have to do to avoid this disaster they say is coming.

Statists need to make you believe the world is too complicated for individuals to understand. Otherwise, you might realize you don’t need their god to save you. So they constantly order you to “leave it to the professionals who know best“. They constantly insult you and your intelligence. They get paternalistic and condescending as they assure you “government knows best”.

Don’t be so uppity as to notice that their “professionals” and “experts” are always on the side of violating YOUR natural human rights and imposing more control over YOUR life.

Yeah, the world is complex. But if the average human can’t understand it, clumping sub-average humans together in a gang you call “government” isn’t going to magically give them superhuman abilities. Quite the opposite. I’ll trust the spontaneous order arising from the self-interested actions of free individuals before I trust the “wisdom” of monopolistic government being imposed on everyone.


*I once worked for a business that I saw doing really dumb, self-destructive things on orders from the manager. Being a good employee who wanted to see the business thrive, I told this manager what I thought and his standard response was that I didn’t see “The Big Picture” that only he could see.

I swear I didn’t say “I told you so” every time the things I warned him of came to pass.

But I sure did think it a lot.

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Illegitimate Laws Poison Society

One way you can tell laws are not legitimate, ethically or morally, is in the way they vary from place to place.

Those of us who live near an arbitrary political line — a state line or a national border — have the opportunity to notice this more easily than others might.

Something that is legal on one side of the line becomes illegal once you cross it. Without otherwise changing your behavior in the slightest you can go from law-abiding to criminal, by law, simply by pacing back and forth across this imaginary line.

Laws against actual wrongs like murder are less variable. You can’t take someone on a road trip to find a place where killing them for a reason other than self-defense is legal. These types of laws are legitimate … and unnecessary. A law forbidding murder doesn’t need to exist before you to have the natural human right to fight back and stop someone from committing murder.

A good illustration of the arbitrary nature of laws are the various laws concerning guns.

There is no such thing as an illegal gun or a legitimate anti-gun law according to the clear language of the U. S. Constitution. You’d never know this by looking at the thousands of laws that have been passed and are being enforced by the national, state, and local political class. These illegitimate gun laws create an arbitrary patchwork for travelers to navigate in a fruitless attempt to try to stay legal as they travel.

Laws concerning the substances commonly called “drugs” are the same way. Depending on which side of a line you find yourself, you might be law-abiding or you might be a criminal.

Even kids’ lemonade stands are subjected to laws. They remain legal, without permits, in only 15 states. This is so ridiculous that one thoughtful lemonade mix company has set up a program to help kids pay fines and license fees.

Yet some people still seem to believe if something is illegal it’s automatically wrong. This has never been true.

While most laws are illegitimate, you can’t safely ignore them. Every law, no matter how seemingly trivial, is a threat to kill you if you are caught ignoring it. This threat isn’t usually carried out immediately; those enforcing the law must normally escalate their enforcement attempts a few times before that happens. Yet it does happen.

Do you see the problem? Illegitimate laws poison society. They get in the way of telling right from wrong.

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North Korea Nuclear Freeze? Finally, a Realistic Proposal

As President Donald Trump met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un for the third time at the end of June — becoming the first sitting US president to visit North Korea — the New York Times ran a piece suggesting the appearance of a new option on the proverbial  table: A negotiated “nuclear freeze” rather than just another cycle of fruitless US demands for  “de-nuclearization.”

The response from National Security Advisor John Bolton came swiftly via Twitter:  “Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK.’ This was a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”

If Bolton and the National Security Council HAVEN’T discussed the possibility,  they haven’t been doing their jobs.  And if anyone’s being “boxed in” by having the idea called to public attention, it’s not Trump, it’s Bolton, who prefers saber-rattling theatrics for his hawkish friends on Capitol Hill to actually safeguarding the US.

There are really only two viable paths forward for improved US-North Korea relations.

One is for the US to start minding its own business: Withdraw US troops from and end all defense guarantees to South Korea, unilaterally lift sanctions on the North, and let the region work out its own problems without further American interference. Highly unlikely, at least for the moment.

The other is a “nuclear freeze” under which Kim keeps his existing nuclear arsenal but refrains from building more weapons, in return for sanctions relief and the US getting, and staying, out of the way of improving relations and closer ties between Pyongyang and Seoul.

That second option is eminently doable. It would cost the US  nothing of real value. In fact, rightly handled, it would immediately reduce US “defense” outlays — a peace dividend, if we can keep the Military-Industrial Complex’s grubby hands off it.

Any US policy toward North Korea must account for two facts:

First, nuclear powers don’t give up their nukes. Only one, South Africa, has ever done so, and that regime didn’t face external foes on any large scale. North Korea has effectively been at war since the late 19th century, first against Japanese occupation, then against the South and the US from 1950 until now. Expecting Kim Jong-un to give up the ultimate deterrent to future invasions — by the US, by the South, by Japan, or even by current allies like China and Russia — is simply unrealistic. It’s not negotiable. The US knows it’s not negotiable. The only reason to even make the demand is to intentionally keep relations hostile.

Secondly, in the case of the United States, Kim has historical evidence as to what giving up his nukes might portend. He saw Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi deposed and killed after they gave up their (never successful) nuclear weapons efforts. Kim would presumably prefer to remain alive and in charge.

A nuclear freeze agreement would not, in and of itself, produce peace. But it would be a giant step in that direction.

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Libertarianism is The Balance

One objection I frequently see against libertarianism is that it’s “too extreme”. “There needs to be a balance between the extremes of libertarianism and fascism” (as illustrated by “border enforcement” and so forth).

This misses the reality.

(Of course, the act of governing others won’t be referred to as fascism. Statists aren’t that self-aware or honest. They’ll call it “rule of law” or will conflate political government with society. You can use whatever substitute terms you wish, as long as you keep this in mind.)

The extreme ends of the spectrum are not libertarianism and fascism– the extremes are nihilism and fascism. Libertarianism is the healthy balance which avoids both of the toxic extremes. It’s the only way to avoid ruin.

Libertarianism is not “extreme” unless your wish is to watch the world burn; unless you want to kill off everyone with your chosen politics. If you choose something other than libertarianism you are choosing one of the deadly extremes. You are choosing to be extreme in defense of something indefensible.

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