We Wanted Tech

“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”  This line from Max Frisch didn’t just give George Borjas the title of his most recent book.  At last Friday’s immigration conference in St. Cloud, Borjas declared it his all-time favorite immigration epiphany.  The point, he explained, is that immigrants aren’t just machines that produce stuff; they have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.

Borjas is right, of course.  In fact, he doesn’t go far enough.  After all, even machines aren’t just machines that produce stuff.  They too have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.  If you look closely at any major technological development, you can justly say, “We wanted tech, but we changed society instead.”

Consider cellphones.  When they were first introduced, you might picture them as more convenient phonebooths.  But they’ve revolutionized not only our society, but our psychology.  Many human beings now interact with their phones more than they interact with fellow human beings; go to any public place and you will see this to be true.  Even when we are talking to fellow human beings, cellphones have changed the tone and tenor of our conversations.  When I casually chat with my friends, for example, we often fact check each others’ assertions.  And cellphones are crucial for social media, which has dramatically swayed not only public discourse, but elections and policy.  Without Twitter, would Donald Trump’s candidacy even have been able to get off the ground?

When driverless cars come, they’ll disrupt our whole society again.  Commuting time will plausibly skyrocket, especially in high-rent areas.  If you can relax – or even sleep – in your car, why pay $1M for a tiny apartment downtown?  Indeed, once you get rid of the driver’s seat, we’ll probably turn cars into small motorhomes, so “living out of your car” could become an alternative lifestyle rather than a tale of woe.  And what will happen to all the truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and delivery drivers?

Still not convinced?  I trust you’ll admit that nuclear technology did more to the world than slash electric bills.

Verily, we wanted tech, but we changed society instead.

How should you react to this truism?  You could say, “Duh, everybody knows this already.”  That’s my knee-jerk reaction to Frisch’s quote, too.  But both “duhs” are too dismissive.  “Obvious once you think about it”≠”Obvious.”

What else is there to say?

1. You could retreat to agnosticism.  “Well, there are direct economic benefits, plus an array of intangible social effects.  We don’t know how to measure these intangibles; we don’t even know if they’re good or bad.”  This is basically what Borjas said about immigration in his Friday talk.  There’s no reason we couldn’t generalize it.

Reaction: Philosophically, agnosticism of any kind is incoherent sophistry.  We always have some information.  We can and should combine this information with common sense to form reasonable guesses about whatever question is on our minds.  Crucially, “information” includes psychological evidence about the errors to which the human mind is prone.  And one of the best ways to keep your guesses reasonable is openness to bets.

2. You could start by measuring the direct benefits, then see if any of the broader social negatives are plausibly in the same ballpark.  If not, the standard conclusion still goes through despite the complexity of the world.

Reaction: Once you factor in the value of time, this is typically the best approach for laymen.  It’s a quick way to resolve a wide range of policy disputes, especially if you embrace some version of weak deontology rather than consequentialism.

3. You could try a lot harder to study the measurement of so-called “intangibles.”  This might require a massive research program to fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge.  Or perhaps if you play around on Google Scholar, you’ll discover that many researchers have already measured the stuff you imagine “no one knows.”

Reaction: This is the best approach for experts.  If you do good work and/or publicize it, you also help laymen reach the truth with modest mental effort.  So earn your paycheck!

Whatever you conclude, know that immigration is nothing special.  Everything has broader social effects.  These complexities are no reason to defer to popular prejudice, which is what I suspect Borjas hopes we’ll do.  Instead, these complexities are a reason to think broader and work harder to get the best answers we can.

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A Crippling Lack of Imagination and Problem Solving

Here’s one of those (thankfully, rare) long reply posts. Someone had a problem with me not liking socialism/government and responded with a request for answers (link). So I did what I could.

“…paint me a REALISTIC portrait of a world without government

I’d love to, but I can no more do that than the first bully who proposed governing others could have painted the skeptics a realistic portrait of what today’s world would look like with governments. I’m OK with not being psychic and having some unknowns.

I do not believe that humans are designed to operate well in such environments.

And yet, we do. I don’t need anyone governing me, and I seriously doubt you need anyone governing you. You know the best course for your own life… or at least many orders of magnitude better than what some bureaucrat believes is the best for you.

“Though, historically, that ‘government’ might have been a tribal leader, we have always had government.

Only if you believe leaders equal government. I don’t. Leaders can lead without theft and aggression. If I choose to follow someone without them threatening me, I’m not being governed. If I can stop following that person without being attacked, ostracized, or murdered, then he’s not governing. The difference is consent. I do not consent to be governed, but I have consented to follow someone for a specific, limited purpose several times in my life.

[The other anarchist’s] argument always seemed to boil down to ‘the people’ will spontaneously reward good actors and punish evil doers.

Do you continue to do business with someone who cheats you or sells you poisoned food? Or, would you go elsewhere and tell people what the bad actor did to you? Would you go do business with someone you had been warned about?

Though the mechanism for knowing who was good (and the intrinsic generosity of The People) was never established.

So how do you know who to v*te for if you can’t know who is good? Or does that not matter in making your choice?

How do charities survive even when they have to compete with forced support of government “welfare” sucking up the available money? Even people who support welfare programs do it because they are generous; just misguided into believing they can be generous with stuff which doesn’t belong to them. Sounds like evidence that people are intrinsically generous.

Conversely, a boycott only works when you know who is actually responsible (for example, how do you know who littered their trash in front of your house?) and have the capacity to punish them (if I sell widgets to another community – you have no ability to boycott me).”

You don’t have to be certain to shun someone (boycott). Because I’m not initiating force nor violating their property rights, I’m not harming them if I’m mistaken. And it is easy to change course if I discover I’m wrong about who did what.

My next door neighbors litter and throw it into my yard. I haven’t actually seen them (almost!), but the circumstantial evidence is good enough that I shun them. I’m not harming them by shunning them.

I’m not interested in punishing anyone. Self defense and defense of property from an immediate threat, yes, but punishment after the fact. No. I’m not into revenge.

And, if a bad guy is selling his widgets in another community I will tell his potential customers in that community why I am boycotting/shunning him. After that, it is up to them. The internet is a good tool for following bad guys around. In fact, it would be better without governments getting in the way and protecting bad guys from the rightful consequences of their behavior.

I find neither to be credible without an overarching government invested with the power to investigate and punish.

Why do you believe only a government can do that? Why can’t a voluntarily funded, ad hoc group do what you want? If I want to investigate something, and don’t feel capable of doing so myself, I will hire someone to do it for me and when the job is done I can stop paying them. I don’t expect you to be on the hook in perpetuity for something I may never need. And, again, I have no interest in punishing anyone. Do what you want, but not on my behalf.

Further, I do not find it credible that The People will willingly donate sufficient amounts to create public works such as large-scale infrastructure projects.

So you’re saying those things aren’t necessary. Because if they are necessary, and people don’t have the option of robbing their neighbors to pay for it, they’ll chip in or do without. If they are still not willing to fund it, it needs to die.

Nor do I believe that people will factor in their own externalities (oh, yea, I polluted the river, but my portion was only a little bit, and anyway, it’s a problem for those downstream)

When those downstream can seek restitution for your portion of the damage you’ve caused them, you might change your mind. And, in such a society, the tools to discover who added what to a stream will improve– just because of the potential for profit.

Even in the current situation where government protects people from the real consequences of their bad behavior, I do my very best to avoid letting trash blow out of my car on a windy day (which is most days around here) just because that’s not what I want to do to my surroundings. And I pick up massive amounts of litter tossed by those who are less responsible– without asking government to punish them.

Lastly, I ask, how does this society defend itself against an organized aggressor? For example, if the US breaks up into anarchist (or extreme libertarian) communities, what stops the Canadians from taking over?”

What would the Canadians “take over” if there is no government to surrender to them? As it is, all they have to do is make the government surrender and they’ve taken over They can move into the offices, use the “public” records, and easily become the new tyrant. Without a central “authority” to replace it would be much harder. You’d basically have to get each individual to surrender, one at a time. And for what? People who are not brainwashed into paying “taxes” aren’t going to suddenly believe “taxation” is legitimate. They won’t suddenly believe and respect the counterfeit “laws” which the new ruler would try to impose. Plus, they would recognize they have a natural human right (and obligation) to kill– in defense– every government employee they encounter. The only reason people are too scared to do so now is that the “society” around them has been fooled into calling government something other than what it is.

Surely, The People of Bozeman Montana cannot stand up to the Canadian Army. Would it be expected that other city-states would come to its aid?

Again, I doubt they’d ever have to since there would be nothing for Canada to gain, but just hypothetically– I wouldn’t count on city-states, because we are talking about a free society, not a government-infested one. Would individuals come to their aid? Why wouldn’t anyone? Lots of people still sign up for the military without being forced to because they want the excitement of being allowed to shoot people (“the enemy”). I don’t expect that to change.

What makes you think that The People of Tuscaloosa are going to stick their necks out for them?

What makes you think none of them would? The old ads in Soldier of Fortune tell a different story.

And, even banded together, they won’t have the large-scale military to develop and produce tanks and jets and whatnot.

You think all those things will just go away? No one would collect and maintain them in the absence of government? And without a BATFE and other gangs forbidding weapon development, those big scale things might be obsolete soon anyway. In fact, I’d bet on it.

“It would be (roughly) equivalent to the US Army verse the Native Americans – sure they put up a good fight, but the outcome was inevitable.”

Except that the Natives had no concept of the types of weapons (and diseases) the army was using against them. No way to buy or manufacture or invent. Do you think the people of Bozeman would share that disadvantage? I don’t.

Perhaps you can paint the picture better?

I can try, but I’ve discovered over the years that government extremists won’t listen. They want to know exactly how every detail will work out in a free society, with no doubt whatsoever. Something they can’t even do in defense of their own position. What I see in every single case is an astounding lack of ability to think outside their box– lack of imagination and lack of problem-solving skills. But, occasionally I’ll give it a shot, anyway. Just for kicks.

To be sure, it would be nice to live in a world where a crazed orange man does not have access to nuclear weapons and influence over the economy.”

I wouldn’t want anyone having that kind of illegitimate power.

And, sure, the government sucks at its job…

Maybe you are mistaken as to what government sees as its job. I don’t think the “job” is legitimate, but I think government does it well. Like the Mafia.

“…as Mr. Twain said, it is the worst option except for all the others.

That’s the same thing everyone has said about their favorite flavor of government (if Twain actually even said it). It’s a great way to make people give up on looking for a better way. “Sure he beats you, controls you, and sometimes rapes you. He’s the worst husband… except for all the others.” Yeah, that doesn’t work either.

__

Of course then he goes into a long dissertation about how horrible and self-centered people are, not realizing he is negating his own argument. Who does he imagine any government would be made up of? Angels or the people he hates and distrusts?

And another guy describes how nasty people are when they’ve been brainwashed by government, believing this shows how essential government is.

And they get upset when I doubt their intelligence…

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War Over Ukraine?

Today, the United States and Allies conducted an extraordinary flight under the Open Skies Treaty. The timing of this flight is intended to reaffirm U.S. commitment to Ukraine and other partner nations.‎

The United States is resolute in our support for the security of European nations.

–Department of Defense news release, Dec. 6, 2018

Who wants to go to war against Russia in defense of Ukraine over the Kerch Strait, which lies between the Black and Azov seas and between Russia’s Taman Peninsula and Russian-annexed Crimea?

A show of hands, please.

But careful: don’t misconstrue my question. I’m not asking who wants the “United States” to go to war. I’m asking, rather: who is personally willing to fight the Russian military over the strait? Or: who is willing to see his or her sons and daughters fight, kill, and die in that cause?

Now, again, a show of hands, please. Anyone? No one? I didn’t think so.

Who could blame you? Are Americans supposed to be eager to drop everything to go wherever the U.S. government decides they should go to kill and die in its Nineteen Eighty-Four-ish geopolitical games? And short of fighting personally, must they pay the economic price — the taxes surrendered and opportunities forgone — that is required to maintain a military establishment capable of playing those games throughout the world?

What’s does individual freedom amount to if Americans are subject to a regime’s orders to enlist — one way or another — in whatever crusade that may catch the polite elite’s and commentariat’s fancy? Considering that Russia, like “us,” is a nuclear power, this is not hyperbole. American and Russian rulers, should they clash, wouldn’t have to intend to go nuclear. Accidents happen. Miscalculations born of bravado, brinkmanship, or mere uncertainty could not be ruled out.

All those pundits and politicians who are egging Donald Trump on to face down Vladimir Putin in his conflict with Ukraine are playing recklessly with the lives of Americans and many others. It’s damn serious business, so they’d better stop and think about what they’re doing before it’s too late.

True, in a week or two, we noninterventionists may look as though we overreacted to the Kerch Strait “crisis.” But who knows? Why take a chance? War would be a catastrophe, maybe the biggest the world has ever seen. I’d rather overreact now than regret not having said anything later.

The U.S. government has no businesses policing relations between Ukraine and Russia. Even if that role were appropriate for some party, the U.S. government would not be the one because it hardly has clean hands in the matter. Since the 1990s after the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, Democratic and Republican presidents have threatened Russia by moving the anti-Soviet NATO alliance — which at the latest, should have ended with the fall — right up to Russia’s border, contrary to late President George H. W. Bush’s assurances, by incorporating former Soviet allies and republics.

Were the Russians supposed to assume that those obviously aggressive moves were benign? Or were they bound to see them as a systematic encroachment, an affront to their long-standing and not unreasonable security concerns? (Russia was invaded from the west three times in the last century.) You didn’t have to be a wise man like George Kennan to see NATO expansion in the post-Soviet era as “crazy.”

And let’s not forget that major foreign-policy players in the United States favor even more expansion to include, yes, former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have provoked Russia in recent years while assuming the U.S. government would back them up. Most relevantly, the Obama administration, with John Kerry running a State Department staffed with predecessor Hillary Clinton associates, supported a coup in Kiev, in which neo-Nazis had a hand, that drove a democratically elected and Russia-friendly president from office. Spooked by this threatening move, Putin annexed Crimea, which had figured in Russia’s security architecture for hundreds of years. A NATO that included Crimea would have jeopardized Russia’s long-time Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol. The annexation had the support of most of the inhabitants of Crimea. (Yes, Crimea was part of Ukraine, but of course Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union.)

The U.S. foreign-policy establishment likes to portray Trump as soft on Russia, but that’s a joke in light of what he has done. NATO has continued to expand under Trump, and he — unlike Barack Obama — has sent and plans to continue sending weapons to the Ukrainian government, which contains neo-Nazis and which is repressing the separatist-minded people of eastern Ukraine. (Candidate Trump’s opposition to arming Ukraine was once Exhibit A for those contending he was Putin’s lackey. Strangely, his change of heart apparently hasn’t altered that judgment.)

Now, with the Kerch Strait incident, the illiberal, martial-law-imposing president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has done something that looks suspiciously like a provocation intended to shore up his sinking political fortunes and to keep the West agitated about the alleged Putin threat. (See Ted Galen Carpenter’s discussion “Ukraine Doesn’t Deserve America’s Blind Support.”) Poroshenko brazenly tried to send ships through the Kerch Strait without abiding by Russia’s declared procedures. As a result, ships were seized and some sailors injured. Did Poroshenko not know how Russia would react or did he want such a reaction?

Regardless of the merits of Poroshenko’s claims and even assuming Putin is up to no good, we must ask why this is something Americans should have to sweat over. Russia has an economy and military far smaller than America’s. It is no threat to Americans who simply want to live their lives free of government impositions. It’s also not a threat to Europe. Putin did not try to annex eastern Ukraine when he annexed Crimea. For one thing, it would have been an economic burden that Russia was in no position to handle.

But Russia, like the United States, has lots of hydrogen bombs. But that means the threat to Americans comes, not from Russia, but from the U.S. government, which is in a position to start a war with Putin. Therefore, Trump should tell the New McCarthyite warmongers to keep quiet.

The foreign policy appropriate to a free society is noninternvention. These days, that’s more obvious than ever.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy War on Americans

Beyond any reasonable doubt, in substance if not in appearance, Donald Trump is a thoroughly conventional American politician. It’s a wonder that anyone requires proof at this late date.

This couldn’t be more clear in foreign policy. Some of us who understand the links among freedom, durable prosperity, and a noninterventionist foreign policy always doubted the sincerity of Trump’s occasional renegade soundbites during his presidential campaign. But some fantasists fell for them, and they refuse to let go of their tissue-thin hope that this execrable man will liquidate the American empire. Nothing will convince them, so efforts at persuasion are futile.

The funny thing is that Trump himself seems to be working hardest to persuade those supporters that he has no intention of changing U.S. foreign policy. He would no more liquidate America’s global empire than liquidate his global business empire. Alas, America is not going anywhere. Sure, he may hector imperial allies to spend more on their militaries (while insisting he respects their sovereignty), but that’s just a show. He’s an all-in imperialist, so we shouldn’t be fooled by the staged populism that sometimes is mistaken for come-home-Americanism. America First in practice embodies George H. W. Bush’s summation of America’s foreign policy: “What we say goes.”

As Glenn Greenwald writes about Trump’s disgusting relationship with Saudi Arabia, it’s “a perfect example — perhaps stated a little more bluntly and candidly than usual — of how the U.S. has conducted itself in the world since at least the end of World War II.”

Forgive me for repeating myself: Trump is a caricature of a conventional American politician — which is why the political establishment despises him so. He lacks the diplomatic costume that makes brutality acceptable or at least enables people to live comfortably with their heads in the sand. But he’s just another faithful defender of the empire, and as such, he needs an enemy. In fact, he has plenty; take your choice: China, Iran, — and, yes — Russia. If someone thinks North Korea is a counterexample, I can only laugh. He has friends too: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, assorted right-wing politicians. (He is indifferent to what appears to be the barbaric state murder of Jamal Khashoggi, giving the crown prince an out by calling Khashoggi an “enemy of the state” and a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. He also praises the kingdom for lowering oil prices. Does he not know how stupid and naive that sounds? Or does he merely believe his fans are stupid and naive?)

Markers of his devotion to the empire include big boosts in military (please, not defense) spending; his doubling down on the endless Middle East wars; his insane withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, which Reagan and Gorbachev struck in a major step away from the Cold War; continued expansion of NATO (which he pretends to disdain), and his arming of the fascist-infested Ukrainian government.

The latest exhibit in the case confirming Trump as a conventional American politician comes from the New York Times. It reported yesterday that the current White House occupant is doing what presidents have done at least since the onset of the Cold War: insisting that countries have no choice but to side with the United States or with one of its perceived enemies, in this case, China.

“The rivalry, which has reached a new pitch and scope, is now centered on the trade war that President Trump started this year [which is actually a war on Americans],” the Times reported. “But tensions have also sharpened over a broad range of diplomatic and military issues, like Taiwan, the South China Sea and economic sanctions on North Korea and Iran.

“Across the globe the United States and China are jockeying to build alliances or partnerships and shut out the other power.”

That China plays such games is not a good reason for the Trump administration to do so. The Chinese want to sell to us, not annihilate us. However, China’s moves are easily seen as responses to Trump’s aggressive measures in its neighborhood. For every pro-detente member of the administration, there seemingly are two members who think war with China is inevitable. For Trump, trade has nothing to do with individual freedom and prosperity. It’s just part of the arsenal with which to wage war against perceived rivals and reward friends. A charge of “unfair trade practices” is one of the first refuges of scoundrels.

Viewed as a whole, Trump’s foreign policy is nothing but inimical to individual liberty, peace, long-term prosperity, and the right of Americans and others to pursue their private lives beyond the reach of meddlesome rulers. As the Jeffersonian Abraham Bishop said in 1800: “A nation that makes greatness its polestar can never be free.”

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How Is Immigration Like Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power has the ability to provide cheap, renewable, safe, clean energy for all mankind.  But only 11% of global electricity comes from nuclear power.

Why is something so great so rare?

Because government strangles nuclear power with regulation.

Why do governments strangle it?

Because nuclear power is unpopular.

Why is it so unpopular?

First, innumeracy.  The gains of nuclear power vastly outweigh all the complaints put together, but the complaints are emotionally gripping.  Deaths from radiation are horrifying; vastly higher fatalities from coal are not.  Even nuclear accidents that kill zero people get worldwide media attention, fueling draconian populist regulation.

Second, spookiness.  Scientifically illiterate people can imagine endless far-fetched dangers of nuclear power.  And at risk of sounding elitist, almost everyone is scientifically illiterate.

[brief pause]

Immigration has the ability to double the wealth produced by all mankind.  But only 3% of people on Earth are migrants.

Why is something so great so rare?

Because government strangles immigration with regulation.

Why do governments strangle it?

Because immigration is unpopular.

Why is it so unpopular?

First, innumeracy.  The gains of immigration vastly outweigh all the complaints put together, but the complaints are emotionally gripping.  Deaths from immigrant crime are horrifying; vastly higher fatalities from native crime are not.  Even immigrant outrages that kill zero people get worldwide media attention, fueling draconian populist regulation.

Second, spookiness.  Economically illiterate people can imagine endless far-fetched dangers of immigration.  And at risk of sounding elitist, almost everyone is economically illiterate.

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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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