Nationalism, the Ideological Delusion at the Heart of Protectionism

Every economic entity, whether it be an individual, a family, or a firm, faces a constant choice with regard to how it will secure the goods and services it desires in order to carry out its economic plans: make or buy?

Most individuals and families give little conscious thought to their making this choice. Yet they make it all the same. Many individuals do many things for themselves, such as house cleaning, home maintenance, personal care of various sorts, meal preparation, and so forth. They do not pause often to consider whether they would be better off to purchase these things, although they might purchase them, and some individuals do. One can hire housekeepers, groundskeepers, meal providers, and many other services. In some cases, provision of these services amounts to a large industry catering to individuals and families who have decided that buying is better than making, that market transactions are better than self-sufficiency.

In contrast, business firms commonly give serious, explicit attention to how they should answer the make-or-buy question, and many specialize in a narrow range of activities, relying on market purchases to provide every item they can buy at a lower cost than that at which they could make it for themselves.

When someone decides to buy rather than make, it is normally the case that no one objects or attempts to impede the transaction. In some cases, local providers of certain goods and services have tried to shield themselves from the competition of providers in other states, but in many, if not all, cases the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such state-level protectionism is contrary to the Constitution’s Interstate Commerce Clause. As a result, the United States of America has long been a vast free-trade area, and this condition explains in no small part how Americans have succeeded in lifting their level of living steadily over the past two centuries, notwithstanding the transitory inability of various suppliers to meet the “outside” competition successfully.

In regard to competitors located outside the national boundaries, however, the situation has often been seen as different and as warranting government action—tariffs, import quotas, prohibitions of trade in certain items, special regulatory, licensing, or documentation demands laid on imported goods or importers, and so forth—aimed at keeping American producers free of foreign competition.

Along with the demands for such government restriction and penalization of international purchases has grown up or been imported from elsewhere a doctrine—protectionism—aimed at making such selfish and predatory use of government power appear to be broadly beneficial to the nation as a whole, not simply to the domestic providers who cannot meet the foreign competition. Although protectionism has had a multitude of promoters through the ages, from the man in the street to the occupant of the White House, it has always been a bogus doctrine, making claims that cannot be upheld by solid economic theory or sound economic history. Analysts going back to Adam Smith, James Mill, and David Ricardo have debunked protectionism’s claims, as have many economists in the following centuries.

Yet it lives on, and even now it is thriving ideologically and politically in many quarters, and the question is, why? What accounts for the fact that a doctrine few people would invoke to justify government interference with competition from outside the neighborhood, the city, the state, or the region nevertheless seems to many people to make sense at the national level?

To ask the question is almost to answer it. People who would balk at city, state, or regional protectionism will not only tolerate national protectionism, but actually hail it as a godsend for overall national prosperity. The doctrine of nationalism, a dangerous brew in which Americans have long indulged to great excess is the cause of this bizarre public sentiment. If you told the people of Cleveland that the city must practice protectionism against all other cities, states, and regions, they would account you crazy. But if you tell them that the entire nation must put protectionism into practice, many of them will swallow the proposal with gusto.

What is this mystical magnetism that nationalism exerts on so many Americans? It is the wholly superstitious conviction that some special, deep, and overriding solidarity binds them to a particular group of almost 330 million strangers, people they have never met, never will meet, and with whom in many cases they have practically nothing in common. Indeed, in many cases, if any given American were to meet with a great many of his “fellow Americans,” he would find them altogether odious. On the other hand, he might find, should the occasion arise, that he has much in common with many Canadians, Guatemalans, and Kenyans. (I myself have done so in all these cases and an abundance of others, so my example is scarcely far-fetched.)

In history, nationalism has served as a powerful means whereby ambitious would-be national leaders have forged groups of unrelated and sometimes hostile people into a unitary political entity with the enlarged force that resides in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the substantive moral irrelevance of nationalism arises from, if nothing else, the mere accident of one’s having been born within the boundaries that contentious rulers happen to have established in their struggles with the rulers of adjacent territories. Genuine, morally defensible loyalties cannot be justified on the basis of accidents beyond one’s choice or control.

Yet, however morally irrelevant nationalism ought to be, it is in practice often of life-and-death importance, and during recent centuries, hundreds of millions of persons have regarded it as so important that they would fight and die in loyalty to the political leaders of “their” nation-state or gladly send their sons to be slaughtered in the same cause. If it is potent enough to cause men to march in legions over the cliffs into oblivion, it is certainly powerful enough to prop up the economically and morally bankrupt practice known as protectionism, and it does so quite commonly throughout the world.

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Patents, Social Justice Warriors, Co-Sleeping, & Tribalism (35m) – Editor’s Break 130

Editor’s Break 130 has Skyler giving his commentary on the following topics: a bizarre occurrence in food delivery; the absurdity that is the stato-legal concept of “first-to-file” and patents; how social justice warriors infantilize their peers; the origin of putting kids in separate bedrooms; confusing nationalism with patriotism and tribalism; why he writes and podcasts, primarily, plus a look at possible podcasts he’d like to start; and more.

Listen to Editor’s Break 130 (35m, mp3, 64kbps)

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Cesspools of Collectivism

Racism and nationalism are among the most menacing forms of collectivism in the world today. Racists and nationalists are among the greatest enemies of people who favor a society of free and responsible individuals, a society in which all persons are seen as equal claimants of natural rights and equally entitled to respect for their human dignity.

Donald Trump, by his words and his policies, draws on both these cesspools of collectivism and seeks to enlist those who have sold their souls to them to form the core of his political base and populate his cult of personality. Anyone who cherishes a society of free and responsible individuals should steer clear of these terrible forms of collectivism and their associated hatreds and superstitions.

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Nationalism Is a Weird Ideology

Nationalism is a weird ideology. It would be easy to imagine that it was cooked up by rulers looking for a means of keeping their victims submissive and cooperative.

A nationalist gives moral priority to others within the boundaries of his nation-state, or at least to his fellow citizens there, and he acts accordingly in political affairs. Yet even in a small nation-state, practically all these people are complete strangers. One has never met them, never will meet them, has only the foggiest idea of the sort of people they are. Maybe they speak his language, but many do not. Maybe they are of the same race, but many are not; and even if they are, so what? Maybe they share his cultural affinities, but maybe they don’t. Maybe they are not even decent people; in fact, many are complete creeps or criminals. Why should anyone give any kind of priority to them merely because they happen to be located within the boundaries of the same tax farm?

Nationalism is, among other things, a gigantic aggregation error. It takes a huge, enormously diverse collection of people and imagines that each and every individual in the collection is somehow better than each and every individual in other nation-states. The more you think about it, the more idiotic it becomes.

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The Insidious Wiles of Foreign Influence: Trump, Bin Salman, and Netanyahu

Even if the Saudi monarchy or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in particular did not murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, that regime is an especially evil one in both its domestic and international conduct. To see that, one need only consider the horrendous Saudi war against the people of Yemen, with the backing of the U.S. government starting with Barack Obama. That war, with its merciless killing of defenseless thousands and its inevitable benefits to al-Qaeda, is just the latest in a series Saudi atrocities.

Predictably, Donald Trump wants it all ways. He’s made the obligatory mild critical remarks at the same time as he floated his “theory” that Khashoggi’s death may have been carried out by rogue agents. But since that explanation, along with the “interrogation gone wrong” alternative, is hardly likely, Trump seems to be banking on his warm relationship with and confidence in the credibility of King Salman and the crown prince to reassure us. Actually, Trump has two things on his mind: arms sales and Iran.

He believes, first, that he can make the U.S. economy vibrant by being the country’s arms-trafficker-in-chief. He can throw multibillion-dollar figures around like confetti all day, but that he can’t erase the fact that a thriving arms industry is not the key to real and general prosperity. Quite the contrary, its products either destroy lives and wealth or rust. Real prosperity is not captured by aggregate numbers, whether they refer to military contractors’ profits, stock prices, or GDP. Real prosperity means regular people having increasingly easier access to the goods and services they believe will enhance their lives. As long as the laws of physics operate, scarcity — though, thanks to technology and innovation, not its severity — will be with us. So if people are devoting resources to making warplanes, killer drones, and bombs, they aren’t making things that you and I actually use. Arms-industry fatcats and their workers will make money, but they could be making money in ways that actually serve consumers instead of murderous and oppressive dictators, monarchs, presidents, and prime ministers.

Trump is wrong: this is not about the economy. His position is a dangerous mix of economic illiteracy fueled by nationalism and a hegemonic geopolitical vision according to which Iran is throttled and Israel is enabled, with Saudi Arabia as a beneficiary. Those objectives serve neither most Americans nor the rest of the world’s people.

The old admonition about permanent and entangling alliances still holds. As often as it’s been quoted, it’s worth quoting again — Washington’s Farewell Address, that is. Despite all its qualifications, Washington’s essential message is clear:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it. Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests.

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. [Emphasis added.]

While steering clear of alliances is good advice, we may still question why the American regime has, beginning long before Trump, chosen one government for an ally over another. Why, for example, is the U.S. government close to Saudi Arabia rather than Iran? It certainly is not the case that the former is more liberal than the latter. That would be a laughable proposition. To pick a random test, how close are centers of Riyadh and Tehran to the nearest synagogues? I wouldn’t want to live in either place, but if those were my only choices, please give me Tehran. As for Iran’s allegedly creeping hegemony in the Middle East, check your premises. George W. Bush made Iran influential in Iraq by invading and knocking off Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein. (Iraq invaded and waged a long war, using chemical weapons, against Iran in the 1980s — with U.S. help — not vice versa.) Then Bush and Obama brought Iran closer to Syria by their continued war in Iraq, giving birth of the Islamic State, and Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s declaring open season on Bashar al-Assad after the putative civil war broke out. Iran, no matter what Trump tells you, does not aspire and never has aspired to be a nuclear power. (See Gareth Porter’s Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.) Nor does it aspire to attack the United States or Israel, though it does oppose Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Iran is not on the march.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been an indispensable party to a great deal of mischief, including mischief involving al-Qaeda — you know, the organization that brought down the Twin Towers — throughout the greater region and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. friendship with Saudi Arabia has benefitted al-Qaeda and even worse offshoots in Syria.

Thus the demonization of Iran and the glorification of Saudi Arabia, whence Muslim extremism was born, has no rational basis.

And Israel? The self-declared State of the Jewish People (a label rejected by countless Jews worldwide) has forged an alliance with Saudi Arabia for the dual purpose of intimidating Iran and cowing the long-suffering Palestinians. America’s entangling alliance with Israel has amounted to a gross offense against humanity, blackening whatever reputation the United States once might have had as a beacon of freedom, justice, and goodwill. Furthermore, the partnership has endangered Americans by provoking a desire for revenge in those who identify with the Muslim victims of U.S.-Israeli policy.

One final matter: the question of whether the U.S. government should block arms sales to the Saudis. We can say for sure that the government should in no way facilitate the sales. That’s an easy one. But maybe the arms makers need neither government material help nor Trump’s salesmanship to close deals with the House of Saud. In refusing to come down too hard on Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi disappearance, Trump said, “I will tell you up front, right now they’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment. And if we don’t sell to them, they’ll say thank you very much, we’ll buy it from Russia or China.” (On the actual size of the deal, see this.)

Is Trump right that Russian or China might have gotten the deal? I don’t know, but if he is right, it raises interesting questions: did Trump make any side promises to close the deal; if so, what were they and would the deal have gone through without them? Most likely, any promises have involved things Trump and perhaps Israel would or would not do with respect to Iran and the Palestinians. We deserve answers.

Assuming American arms makers would sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other regimes without government help, we may complicate the matter further by pointing out that those firms are not actually private enterprises, no matter their appearance. Rather, they are creatures of the American state and deserve no respect from supporters of free enterprise. It’s unlikely they would exist in anything like their current form, if at all, were it not for the U.S. government, its captive taxpayers, and its global imperial apparatus, whose personnel rotate regularly between “national security” jobs and lucrative seats on defense contractors’ boards of directors. The upshot is that these nominally private firms are really state-held, that is, illegitimately held, property and could legitimately be liberated and turned to the production of goods for the consumers. In 1969 Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess wrote provocatively about when an apparently private entity is actually not private and what we might do about it. Some of their solutions are debatable, but Rothbard was surely correct when he wrote: “What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not ‘private’ property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.”

The Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA) requires a president to ensure that arms sold to other governments are used for defensive purposes only. Obviously, this act is flouted every day. Imagine if it were applied to Saudi Arabia and Israel! It’s not that I’m a fan of the AECA: a president who wants to see arms sold to a repressive regime will find ways to give that regime a clean bill of health; the AECA would have no force in such a case. On the other hand, it has been used to harass exporters of encryption software to people who would use it to protect themselves from their oppressors’ prying eyes.

So what can we do? Our options are limited at this point. But one ought to do whatever one can to sow public hostility toward these “merchants of death”: public shaming, divestment campaigns, and the like. It’s the least we can do. At least let us make a loud noise!

If someone is going to sell arms to the Saudis and other regimes, I’d rather it be someone other than us Americans because I don’t want to be even remotely associated with the inevitable crimes against humanity that will follow.

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We Are All Bigots

When I was a kid racism/sexism meant one of two things; visceral hatred of a certain group, or a belief in the inferiority/superiority of certain group(s). I’m only 34, I grew up in a well populated region of California, and my parents were politically mixed … so I don’t feel like my childhood sentiments were far outside of norm. If someone were to say they have racial/sexual bias in various forms, we wouldn’t label that sexism or racism.

By this standard, most people felt very comfortable denouncing racism/sexism.

In the late 90s I started seeing people intentionally blur the lines of bias and bigotry. Victim peddlers largely won their somewhat noble victory, but had to feel relevant and desired to retain their victimhood. It became hip to change the goal posts, and since everyone thought bigotry was bad they could start using the term to mix concepts.

Language in many ways frames the debate. People were stuck in a weird spot …

  1. Admit they are a bigot, live in guilt, and try to pay emotional reparations that can never be paid (since you will always be a bigot).
  2. Avoid the subject and no longer discuss these issues.
  3. Admit they are a bigot, and fuck you. Maybe start flirting with ideologies that are actually bigoted as a perceived means of retaining their integrity.
  4. Reject the conceptual framework people are using to frame the subject.

I’ve found that many libertarians are falling into the first and third camps. I’ve been in many discussions with libertarians who find no need to reframe the debate and either accept white/male guilt or accept being racist/sexist (and fuck you).

A recent poll in a private group I’m in on Facebook about sexism and many other discussions that have occurred seem to reflect these sentiments are there, also.

I have sex/gender and racial biases. However, I can empathize deeply with any race and at least two of the genders. I don’t desire segregation. I don’t desire harm of others based off of race or gender. I feel extremely comfortable leaving racism to be an issue of actual hate or superiority/inferiority.

I strongly believe that the current language and concepts we use to discuss issues of race and gender lead to vastly more bigotry and it largely explains the growth of white nationalism from a couple of losers to a couple more losers. It seems impossible to believe that the shift in language has done anything productive towards getting better treatment for anyone. The modern linguistically framework does nothing for accuracy either … it makes these concepts more vague, distorted and emotionally laden (which was part of the intent).

I believe when tribal identity starts to become such an overwhelming issue, it distorts the individual interests of people to the point where it is profitable for an individual to find protection within a tribe. This means tribalism begets tribalism.

Anyway. According to the latest poll, we are all bigots. Only me and a couple of other people disagree. Long story short, you are all bad people and I am superior to you by means of my tribe.

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