Moral Approximates

 “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride–the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.” – Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” Speech

During the Cold War, folks like Ronald Reagan accused their domestic opponents of believing in the “moral equivalence” of the United States and the Soviet Union.  Having lived through the era, I am confident that believers in moral equivalence existed.  Knowing the relevant history, I agree that this was an absurd belief.  However bad the United States was, the Soviet Union was vastly worse.

If you want to nitpick, admittedly, we never find literal moral equivalents in real world.  Why?  Because in a continuous world, one side in any conflict is bound to be at least a little worse.  Still, careful examination of real-world conflict does occasionally uncover not moral equivalents, but moral approximates.  Though the two sides’ moral status is not precisely equal, they are morally more-or-less the same.

It’s easiest to identify examples that are far away in time and place.  During the Wars of Religion, who was worse – the Catholics or the Protestants?  During World War I, who was worse – the Germans or the Russians?  During the War of the Roses, who was worse – the Yorks or the Lancasters?  You could plead ignorance.  Yet even if you studied the history for a year, you would plausibly conclude that the two sides were moral approximates – both sinned so egregiously that it really is hard to know who was worse.

For recent and ongoing conflicts, assertions of moral approximation naturally inspire far more pushback.  If we were rational, however, the opposite would be true.  The very fact that people have strong emotions about recent and ongoing conflicts is a strong reason to discount their judgment.  Furthermore, when a conflict is recent or ongoing, we usually lack a great deal of not-yet-released relevant information.  No one is likely to scare up shocking new revelations about the Lancasters, but in fifty years we’ll have a much better understanding of what the Trump administration actually did.

Those limitations in mind, here are the top three moral approximations I am willing to defend.

1. Communism and Nazism are moral approximates. Why?  Both movements were fanatical attempts to build dystopian societies – and both self-righteously murdered tens of millions of innocent people.  Contrary to much propaganda, Communists did not have noticeably better motives.  Both groups imagined that a totalitarian society would be a big improvement over the status quo – and recklessly embraced the necessity of mass murder to get there.

2. Socialism and fascism are moral approximates.  Why?  Socialism is a toned-down version of Communism; fascism is a toned-down version of Nazism.  As toned-down versions, they aim for much less, and murder far fewer people in the process.  Yet the vision of both movements – society as a big family with a common purpose – remains dystopian.  And while their methods are far less brutal than Communism or Nazism, socialism and fascism both casually advocate pervasive coercion for flimsy reasons.

(My main doubt here is that while I’ve repeatedly publicly debated socialists, I would not so engage a fascist.  Doesn’t that show that I think fascism is markedly worse?  Not exactly.  The main reason I don’t debate fascists is that avowed fascism is now so low-status that its adherents are low-quality and scary.  In a world where fascists were as mainstream as socialists, I would debate them).

3. The Democratic and Republican parties are moral approximates.  Why?  Both are dogmatic, emotional, and demagogic.  Neither party internalizes the maxim that with great power comes great responsibility – or dwells on the possibility that they might be mistreating people who don’t agree with them.  Both parties say they want various radical changes, many of which seem very bad.  The policies Democrats and Republicans actually impose when they have power are similarly mediocre, though that doesn’t stop them from rhetorically making mountains out of molehills.  On immigration, for example, the Democratic-Republican debate basically comes down to whether the border should be 98% closed or 99% closed.  Though I prefer 98% to 99%, it’s approximately the same.

I am well-aware that both Democrats and Republicans will protest angrily being lumped together; in their eyes, the differences between their parties are “huge.”  My question for them: In 200 years, how big will these “huge differences” look to historians?   Yes, during the Wars of Religion, Catholics and Protestants mutually called each other servants of the Antichrist.  Today, however, we can plainly see that both sides were unhinged.

Similarly, if you carefully studied the politics of, say, France in 1970, would you really conclude that the arguments that enraged contemporary French partisans were, in fact, a big deal?

Back in 2016, many Democrats told me that Trump’s election exposed the sheer evil of the Republican Party.  In a way, this understates.  I say that the mere fact that a man like Trump did well in the primaries shows that the Republican Party is rotten.  However, I’d say the same about Bernie Sanders’ success in 2016.  The mere fact that a man like Sanders did well in the primaries shows that the Democratic Party is rotten, too.

You could respond, “Suppose Democrats and Republicans really are moral approximates.  Shouldn’t an economist, of all people, still be eager to discover the slightly lesser evil?”  My answer: If I were America’s kingmaker, then yes.  But when I’m just one voice among tens of millions, no.  While I’m always happy to share my views with curious Democrats or Republicans, I’m too much of a puritan to ever join either party.

P.S. Lest anyone misinterpret me, I think the Democratic and Republican parties are markedly better than socialism and fascism, which are in turn markedly better than Communism and Nazism.  Mathematically: D≈R>>S≈F>>C≈N.

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Anthony Gregory: The Total State (1h4m)

This episode features a lecture by historian and author Anthony Gregory from 2013. He discusses the modern evils of fascism and communism, their commonalities and differences, and their continuing significance today. Purchase books by Anthony Gregory on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (1h7m, mp3, 64kbps)

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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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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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You Can Fight City Hall, but You’ll Almost Certainly Lose

One of the chief reasons why almost every regime in the world has converged to a system of participatory fascism is that this system creates or retains a great variety of institutionalized opportunities for the state’s victims—who compose the great majority of the people—to challenge the state’s exactions and to “make their voices heard,” thereby gaining the impression that the rulers are not simply oppressing and exploiting them unilaterally but involving them in an essential way in the making and enforcement of rules.

These opportunities help to allay public resentment and anger, assuring people that they have had “their day in court,” and thereby serve to prop up the regime and its ongoing exploitation. These official avenues of protest and resistance are, however, rarely of any real avail. The oppressed citizens and other residents are protesting the actions of legislatures, government executives, bureaucracies, and courts run by the very people who are engaged in the oppression and plunder. The opportunities for voicing feedback are, in effect, ways in which people are allowed to request that the slave master stop beating them or reduce the severity of the beating. Rarely do the petitioners win, and even when they do, the costs of making their appeals, especially through the legal system, guarantee that they will be impoverished in the process.

Heads you lose, tails you lose. I promise you that in making the foregoing statements, I am speaking not only from my scholarly engagement with the matter but also from my personal experience, some of which grinds on seemingly endlessly even as I tap out this cri de coeur.

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Yes, I Do Have An Enemies List

It’s a powerful thing to name your enemies. By naming them, you can keep always in front of you what you’re up against.

So I figure I ought to take a page from Arya Stark’s playbook and start keeping tabs on my list of enemies.

Some of my enemies are emotions: despair, terror, vindictiveness, arrogance, numbness.

Some of my enemies are philosophies: authoritarianism, statism, socialism, fascism, anti-human religiosity, sexism, racism.

Some of my enemies are habits: procrastination, stagnation, indebtedness, dishonesty, lateness, failed promises, conformity.

Some of my enemies are attitudes: contempt, subservience, helplessness, status-seeking.

You’ll notice there are no people on this list. That’s because all people are capable of change – all people are capable of being my friends, or at least of not being evil.

If I’m going to choose enemies, I also might as well pick ones that I’m never going to fully defeat. A good long battle will make me strong for a good long time, and a big-enough enemy is a good motivation for a struggle which will take a lifetime.

Another grace of my particular enemies list is that it makes my choice of tactics simpler.

With enemies like procrastination, I can know that any action I take toward a creative goal is a victory- and any procrastination is itself a defeat.

With enemies like despair, I can know that giving up would be the only form of failure.

With enemies like authoritarianism and statism, I can remind myself that I can only win by respecting the freedom of others. The way of power isn’t open to me.

Finally, I think I’ll find that listing out these enemies will make it far harder for me to subconsciously slip into treating them as friends. If I remind myself routinely that vindictiveness is an enemy, it won’t find any hospitality in my heart.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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