The Banality of Evil, COVID-19 Edition

As the COVID-19 pandemic ran its deadly course in New York, governor Andrew Cuomo  affirmed a state policy forbidding nursing homes to reject suffering from the disease.

At least partially as a result (Cuomo himself acknowledged early on that the virus spreads through such facilities “like fire through dry grass”), nearly 6,000 long-term care residents have died so far.

Cuomo, of course, denies any personal responsibility in the matter. He blames the homes (“Do you believe a nursing home operator would accept a patient who they knew they couldn’t care for? Why would a nursing home operator do that?”). He blames the CDC. He blames US president Donald Trump.

Cuomo’s usual “large and in charge” act seems to be crumbling under the weight of the body count. Suddenly, he was “just doing his job,” maybe even “just following orders.” Sound familiar?

Hannah Arendt,  Stanley Milgram observes in his classic study of obedience to authority, “contended that the prosecution’s effort to depict [Adolf] Eichmann as a sadistic monster was fundamentally wrong, that he came closer to being an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job. … This is, perhaps, the most fundamental lesson of our study: ordinary people, simply doing their jobs,  and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.”

The policies Eichmann executed and enforced — policies aimed at the extermination of the Jews — were intentionally murderous.

The policies Cuomo executed and enforced were deadly too, but in a grossly negligent rather than openly intentional, way.

That’s the DIFFERENCE between Cuomo and Eichmann.

The SIMILARITY between the two is in their shared defense: The idea that those who execute and enforce state policy aren’t responsible for their actions BECAUSE they are executing and enforcing state policy.

The Nuremberg trials — and Eichmann’s later trial in Israel — quashed such defenses when it came to German war crimes in general and the Holocaust in particular.

Unfortunately, US law lags the Nuremberg/Eichmann precedents by decades: “Sovereign immunity” and “qualified immunity” shield governments, and those who act on their behalves, from liability for their actions.

The worst punishment Andrew Cuomo likely faces for killing thousands of New Yorkers is maybe — just maybe — not getting re-elected governor of New York, or promoted to a cabinet position, or ever winning the presidency.

If there’s any justice in the world at all, he’ll suffer at least THOSE penalties.

Open This Content

“Liberty is good, but…”

I notice people’s buts. Not their butts (well, in some cases…); their “buts”.

They advocate liberty, but… and I notice.

“Liberty is good, but…”

…they believe government schooling (including vouchers, etc.) is necessary for education, and will discuss twiddling the dials, but never abolishing it.

…they still think the cops or military are somehow “good guys”.

…they imagine it’s OK to have government control who comes or goes, what you do with your property or body, etc. “For your own good.”

…they believe “taxation” is necessary for some things that no one wants bad enough to pay for voluntarily.

…they want to be protected from all the things they’re scared of.

…they insist you obey legislation, even if it’s unethical, until someone changes the “law”.

…they can’t imagine living without government telling them how they should live.

…and on and on and on.

It’s as though they are desperate to be taken seriously by government-supremacists for some reason. Maybe to be allowed a place at the table.

Or for a patronizing pat on the head.

Liberty doesn’t come with any buts. It just is. You either accept it as it is or you reject it.

Open This Content

George Smith: The Moral Right to Resist Authority (56m)

This episode features a lecture by author and educator George H. Smith from 1996. Smith speaks generally on the moral right of resistance to government and particularly from the historical perspective of the American Revolution. Purchase books by George H. Smith on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (56m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

Open This Content

Time to Let People Take Own Risks

I would expect, given the record of failure, this coronavirus experience would cause people to reconsider their belief in the credibility of government. From past experience, I know hope — or something darker — springs eternal. Most people are desperate to believe government is capable and credible in spite of 5,000-plus years of evidence to the contrary.

As face masks become mandatory in more places, don’t forget those same government experts were ridiculing people who were wearing masks early; insisting masks didn’t work — and telling people to stop buying or wearing them — just weeks ago.

They have also been encouraging businesses to limit their hours of service, which forces more people into a business during fewer available hours, and they’re closing campgrounds and other places where people could physically distance in the healthy outdoors. Both policies are the opposite of helpful.

People choose to not remember the deadly errors, but view them as government taking decisive action to “flatten the curve.”

I understand the call to “flatten the curve” — especially in the early days of the pandemic when everyone was just guessing what might happen. We now know that’s not going to work. It’s time to let people make their own choices and take their own risks.

This will solve itself if people let it; faster if government stops dragging it out.

There’s not going to be a vaccine — not a real one, anyway. This virus is going to have to go through its natural cycle. If you’re going to catch the virus, it’s going to happen sooner or later. Since 80 percent of cases don’t cause symptoms, you may never know. You may have already had it.

Let the virus spread and naturally lose strength over time, as these types of viruses always do.

No, that’s not “safe.” Nothing is. Americans are giving up their liberty for promises of safety. Promises that were lies from the start. “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Benjamin Franklin wrote those timeless words on Nov. 11, 1755.

Soon you may be forced to decide which is more dangerous — the virus, the government, or economic disaster — and act accordingly.

Every non-governmental job is essential! It’s time to do the adult thing and get back to normal life. Lead the way and force government policy to play catch-up, as it usually does. Recovery is, and has always been, up to you. Let’s get to it!

Open This Content

Harvard’s Latest Attack on Homeschooling Abuses Reason and Justice

Harvard University publications continue to present a skewed perspective of homeschooling, spotlighting Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s call for a “presumptive ban” on homeschooling while failing to provide an accurate picture of American homeschooling.

In addition to the recent Harvard Magazine article on “The Risks of Homeschooling,” both the Harvard Crimson and the Harvard Gazette ran stories last week reinforcing Bartholet’s one-sided view of homeschooling. While Harvard’s invitation-only summit to address homeschooling’s “problems, politics, and prospects for reform” scheduled for next month has been postponed due to COVID-19, the disinformation campaign against homeschooling goes on.

Interestingly, in the recent Gazette interview, Bartholet admits that most parents are quite able to homeschool their children. She says: “I believe that the overwhelming majority of parents are capable of providing at least a minimal education at home without presenting any danger of abuse or neglect.” Yet, in recommending a “presumptive ban” on the practice she would “require that parents demonstrate that they have a legitimate reason to homeschool—maybe their child is a super athlete, maybe the schools in their area are terrible.”

She would also require parents to “demonstrate that they’re qualified to provide an adequate education and that they would provide an education comparable in scope to what is required in public schools,” as well as “require that their kids participate in at least some school courses and extracurricular activities so they get exposure to a set of alternative values and experiences.” In other words, parents may be able to get permission from the government to homeschool their kids if they can jump through certain government-approved hoops and send their kids, at least part of the time, to the government schools from which they are fleeing.

Bartholet’s rationale for this heavy-handed approach to controlling homeschoolers is that, while most homeschooling parents won’t abuse or neglect their children, a tiny few may and so the entire homeschool population must be managed and monitored—including being subject to frequent home-visits by government officials to make sure they are not doing anything wrong. This guilty-until-proven-innocent approach is not only antithetical to American ideals, it sacrifices the freedom of an entire group out of concern that a small sliver of that group could potentially do harm.

The claim that homeschooling could lead to higher rates of child abuse is unfounded. In fact, three academics responded harshly to Bartholet’s conclusions, writing at EducationNext: “Professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s claims that homeschooling contributes significantly to the scourge of child abuse fail to survive scrutiny.” Some research shows that homeschoolers are less likely to be abused than their schooled peers. And as I’ve written previously, physical and sexual abuse by educators is rampant in public schools, which Bartholet holds up as the gold standard. Still, Bartholet argues that homeschooled children could be abused because they are not in the presence of school teachers and administrators who are “mandated reporters” of child abuse.

Although Bartholet’s recommendations against homeschooling were initiated well before COVID-19 hit, she uses the current school shutdowns as further evidence that parents, unwatched by government officials, will abuse their children. Bartholet says in the Gazette interview: “I do think, though, that the present near-universal home education situation is illuminating. The evidence is growing that reports to Child Protective Services (CPS) have plummeted nationwide, because children are removed from the mandated reporters that schools provide.”

It is possible that declining CPS reports could indicate unreported child abuse, but it could also reveal a CPS system gone awry, with overly-aggressive reporting and investigative practices. A 2018 in-depth report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost, for instance, found that “schools often use child protective services as a weapon against parents.” According to this analysis, school employees use CPS as a way to coerce parents who resist a school’s recommendations or approach. Reporters Rebecca Klein and Caroline Preston write:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

Such a determination is how the vast majority of these investigations conclude, despite terrorizing parents and children. In her powerful book, They Took The Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families at Risk, family defense attorney and policy advocate, Diane Redleaf, finds that the CPS system has ballooned in recent years, with millions of calls and family investigations despite most of them being baseless. She writes in her introduction: “In 2016 alone, 7.4 million children were reported as suspected victims of child abuse or neglect. Of this number, 4.1 million had a case referred for some CPS responsive action, ranging from finding no merit to the allegations and closing the case, to referring the family for social services, to a placement of the children into foster care. At the conclusion of a CPS investigation, 676,000 children were then labeled the victims of abuse or neglect.”

The Hechinger/HuffPost report reveals that poor and minority families are the ones most likely to get caught in the CPS dragnet, and Redleaf’s research reinforces this finding. She writes: “The child protection system most disproportionately intervenes against families of color and those who lack other forms of privilege…A system that is supposed to protect children from their parents ends up too often harming children’s precious attachment to their parents.”

Child abuse is horrific and should never be tolerated, but the growing distrust of parents and the related trend toward increased intervention in family life under the guise of protecting children may hurt more children than it helps. When families are weakened and parents are disempowered, children suffer. As Redleaf concludes in her book:

Family advocates need to proudly proclaim that children’s best interests are one and the same as their families’ best interests, for there is no other way to protect children but to defend their families—and to fight for the right of families everywhere to raise their own children.

Open This Content

Reflections on the Krikorian-Caplan Soho Forum Debate

Thanks again to Gene Epstein and Reason for sponsoring last week’s immigration debate between myself and Mark Krikorian.  Thanks to Mark, too, for debating before an unsympathetic audience.  The resolution, you may recall, was: The current pandemic makes it all the more necessary for the federal government to tighten restrictions on immigration.

Here are my extra thoughts on the exchange.

1. I was stunned that Mark did not think we should limit immigration to help fight contagious disease.  While this position is deeply flawed, it has great surface appeal.  I have to think that most of his supporters would endorse it enthusiastically.  Hopefully he’ll strive set them straight, though I doubt it.  (Prove me wrong, Mark, prove me wrong).

2. Instead, Mark dusted off the classic populist argument that we should limit immigration to fight high unemployment.  Since he never argued in favor of immigration a few months ago when unemployment was at a 50-year low, one can’t take him too seriously.  As I keep saying, immigration restriction is a solution in search of a problem.

In any case, this is a textbook example of misguided recession policy.  Yes, deliberately restricting production during a recession can help some workers, but only at the expense of consumers (most of whom are workers in other industries).   When Roosevelt ordered the destruction of food during the Great Depression, he helped farmers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of affordable calories.  Excluding immigrants, similarly, helps competing native workers, but only by depriving the rest of the population of the goods and services immigrants produce.  Wise recession policy focuses on reviving production, not destructive redistribution.

3. Curiously, Mark granted that during this crisis, we should not exclude foreign agricultural workers.  His logic is hazy.  Today offers a prime opportunity to help native farm workers at the expense of native food consumers.  If you think that’s good policy in general, why not here and now?  The real story, I suspect, is that slashing the food supply during a crisis would be highly visible – and Mark wants to keep the costs of immigration restriction hidden.  I’d be amazed if Mark thought now was a good time to let in more foreign agricultural workers; if the existing number is temporarily good during this emergency, though, why stop there?

4. Mark combines this concession on immigrant farm workers with a bizarre long-run plan to wean U.S. agriculture off its “addiction” to cheap foreign labor.  Yes, a large fall in labor supply would induce mechanization.  But as long as human labor is cheaper, what’s good about switching?  Mark’s central argument is aesthetic; in this modern age, people shouldn’t be digging around in the Earth like “serfs.”  (His word).  This is economically absurd.  As long as the low-tech approach is cheaper than the high-tech approach, the low-tech approach is better.  Sure, we could force-feed mechanization.  If we taxed human-powered lawn-mowers, we’d switch sooner to robotic mowers.  The wise course, though, is to wait until upgrading actually makes us better off.

(Mark did vaguely allude to a technological path-dependence argument, but those are a dime a dozen even when fully fleshed-out).

5. Toward the end of our debate, Mark claimed that our fundamental difference is that he takes our obligations to fellow Americans seriously, while I think our obligation is to all mankind.  I agree that this is a difference, but it’s not fundamental.  Why not?  Because if I were an American nationalist, I would still favor open borders in order to maximize Americans’ standard of living.

6. What then is our fundamental difference?  I say it comes down to misanthropy.  Mark hears about a human being who wants to immigrate here – and presumes he’s going to make our lives worse.  Sure, he’s glad that we got Albert Einstein on our team, but negativity is Mark’s default.  My default is exactly the opposite.  When I hear about a human being who wants to immigrate here, I presume he’s going to make our lives better.  Yes, he could be the next Hitler, but the odds are astronomically against it.  The vast majority of human beings make valuable contributions to the world, even though some of us contribute far more than others.  That’s what the history of the U.S. shows, and what our future history is going to show.

7. Is Mark really a misanthrope?  Notice how he responds when an audience member asks him about government regulation of natives’ child-bearing.  He doesn’t try to argue that native babies grow up to be better people than immigrants.  He explicitly disavows the idea that we’re “superior” to people from other lands.  The concrete social effects of an extra native or an extra immigrant should therefore be comparable.  And since he deems the typical immigrant to be a negative, he should think the same about the typical native as well.  While Mark opposes government regulation of natives’ child-bearing, his rationale is not about consequences, but our “social contract.”  Americans are entitled to have as many kids as they want, even if they’re a burden on society.  Would-be immigrants, in contrast, are only entitled to burden their own societies.  So while we’re obligated to put up with burdensome Americans, we can and should refuse all those burdensome foreigners.

By the way, the misanthropy is palpable if you peruse the main page for the Center for Immigration Studies.  See for yourself; it really is monomaniacal collection of complaints about immigrants.  Assembling an analogous collection of ceaseless negativity about any human group – or humanity in general – would be child’s play.  Just let your inner pessimist fly.

8. The most intellectually solid case for immigration restriction is that natives are civilized, while immigrants are awful barbarians.  (Remember “rapefugees”?)  Why doesn’t Mark defend this position?  The charitable story is that he knows it’s false.  But if so, why doesn’t he try harder to disabuse his fellow restrictionists of their xenophobic pessimism?  The better story, I’m afraid, is Social Desirability Bias.  Calling immigrants “awful barbarians” makes you sound like a mean person, so Mark won’t endorse this position – or even engage it.  Social Desirability Bias elegantly explains why his organization puts the nonsensical “low immigration, pro-immigrant” motto on its masthead instead of a more honest slogan like, “Savages are at our gates!”

9. Suppose we accept Mark’s view that we have special obligations to our fellow Americans, just as parents have special obligations to their own children.  If you take this analogy seriously, you should still be very nervous that the United States is callously violating the rights of foreigners.  After all, parents’ sense of love and obligation for their children often leads them to mistreat strangers for their children’s benefit.  (Remember the quaint “College-gate” scandal of 2019?)  Shouldn’t we similarly expect nations’ sense of love and obligation for their citizens to lead them to mistreat foreigners for their citizens’ benefit?  It would be amazing if it didn’t.

10. Mark casually dismisses estimates of the massive economic gains of open borders.  It’s only a model; and the problem with models, as faulty coronavirus projections show, is: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

The real story, though, is that economists who work with trade models are well-aware of their potential limitations.  If immigration leads to bad economic policies, for example, simple models are overly optimistic.  However, that realization is only the first step.  The next step is to look at the data and measure how much immigration is likely to degrade the quality of economic policy.  That’s what I do in Open Borders, and I conclude that the effect if any is tiny.  The same goes for the other major challenges to the simple model.  And while we’re checking the model for excessive optimism, it’s also worth checking it for excessive pessimism; most notably, the standard Clemens model completely ignores the effect of immigration on innovation.

Further point: Even if Mark were right to reject predictions about the economic effects of extreme liberalization, he has no reason to dismiss predictions about the economic effects of moderate liberalization.  Maybe letting in a billion foreigners would destroy our institutions, but letting in ten million won’t.  Frankly, it seems like he’s more interesting in categorically dismissing a model with uncomfortable results than in figuring out the extent to which the model is true.

Open This Content