Don’t Let Politicians Use Pandemic as an Excuse for Dictatorship

By invoking the Defense Production Act, which “authorizes the President to require acceptance and priority performance of contracts or orders and to allocate materials, services, and facilities to promote the national defense or to maximize domestic energy supplies,” US president Donald Trump has declared himself America’s economic dictator.

He’s also moved to seal the nation’s borders, even as governors and mayors have banned public gatherings, ordered businesses to close or severely curtail operations, sealed off neighborhoods, and even in some cases — San Francisco comes to mind — ordered the entire populations of cities to remain indoors.

And we’re letting them do it.

Why? Because they say it’s about “public health.”

If this was about public health,  obvious vectors for the spread of COVID-19 like the Transportation Security Administration and its airport security screening lines would have been among the first things shut down.

Your neighborhood tavern, where people are seldom closely packed unless one is trying to sweet-talk another back home, is closed. TSA agents are still making airline passengers line up to be groped and coughed on.

If it was about public health, America’s non-violent prisoners would have been released to make more room for “social distance” between the remaining prisoners, reduce staffing needs, and prevent the virus from raging through captive populations.

Some prisons and jails are releasing some inmates or refusing to take in more. But not nearly as many prisoners are being released as Americans are being made prisoners in their own homes.

If this was about public health, government would be letting the market produce, and set prices for, essential goods instead of trying to seize control of production and suppress “price gouging.”

This isn’t about public health. It’s about political power. And things are getting very ugly, very quickly.

Vladimir Putin WISHES he had the power that American politicians have seized in the last couple of weeks.

Latin American dictators are green with envy at the enthusiasm with which Americans are surrendering our freedoms.

Pardon my French, people, but WTF?

A month ago half of us didn’t trust Donald Trump, half of us didn’t trust Nancy Pelosi, and many of us trusted neither. Now all of a sudden most of us seem to be practically begging both of them, and their henchmen, to order us around.

That’s not going to contribute to the public health. It’s not going to shorten the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s just going to crater our economy and leave us less free after than we were before.

If we force the politicians to knock this nonsense off now — by ignoring their orders until they run to the front of the parade by countermanding themselves — we might get off light. A short recession, maybe, and perhaps even some politicians who are scared into respecting our rights a little bit more, for a little while.

If we keep going along to get along, we’re more likely to end up thinking of the Great Depression and Stalin’s reign as versions of “the good old days.”

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Reflections on the Leiter-Caplan Debate

It was a pleasure debating Brian Leiter last week.  The resolution, to repeat:

“Social democracy is preferable to market capitalism, but ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system.”

Here are some thoughts I failed to fully articulate at the live event.  As always, I’m happy to publish any reply my opponent wishes to compose.

1. To his credit, Leiter expressed zero sympathy for any actual socialist regime.  He even condemned Cuba; good for him.  But Leiter still insisted that the totality of these awful experiences show next to nothing about the desirability of socialism, which frankly seems crazy.  As far as I could tell, Leiter hews to the classic Marxist position that we should transition to socialism only after capitalism creates incredible abundance.  Unlike most historical Marxists, however, he doesn’t think that even the richest countries are ready yet.  My question: If we finally got rich enough for socialism, why think that a socialist regime would be able to maintain the prior level of prosperity, much less provide continued progress?

2. When I discussed the actual performance of social democracy, Leiter was surprisingly apologetic.  He conceded that we have wasteful universal redistribution, instead of well-targeted means-tested redistribution.  His only defense was to repeat the flimsy argument that it’s too hard to sustain popular support for means-tested programs.

3. On regulation, Leiter appeared to endorse open borders; good for him.  He also professed agnosticism on housing regulation.  Since these are by far the two biggest forms of regulation in modern social democracies (measured by how much regulation changes the likely market outcome), it’s hard to see why he would believe that increased regulation has, on balance, been good for humanity or the poor.

4. According to Leiter, “ultimately America will need to move towards a socialist system” because automation will one day cause mass unemployment.  This position baffled me on multiple levels.  Most obviously, why not respond to automation with redistribution rather than nationalization, and thereby avoid killing the capitalist goose that has hitherto laid a mountain of golden eggs?

My fundamental objection, however, is that history teaches us that technological unemployment is only a morbid fantasy.  When firms figure out ways to get more output out of fewer workers, this may cause unemployment in the short-run.  Soon enough, however, business has repeatedly figured out new jobs for workers to perform.  Business has already accomplished the miraculous task of creating new roles for the enormous number of workers disemployed by the mechanization of agriculture.  Every future economic transformation pales by comparison.  Remember: Almost everyone was a farmer for almost all of recorded human history.  Then industrialization eliminated almost all farm jobs.  Yet today, we don’t miss these jobs.  Instead, we get fat on all the cheap food, and do jobs our agrarian ancestors would have struggled to understand.

Leiter had two responses to my reaction.  One was “maybe this time it will be different”; Leiter even appealed to David Hume’s problem of induction to downplay all prior economic history!  If you take this line, however, it would only entitle you to say “it is logically possible that America will need to move towards a socialist system” – a vacuous claim indeed.  Frankly, if you take Hume seriously, even the best empirical evidence shows nothing about the future, so why bother debating at all?

Leiter’s better argument was that capitalists are perennially trying to cut costs – and that in the long-run capitalism works.  So eventually capitalists will figure out a way to run the economy without workers – an outcome that is individually rational for a capitalist, but socially disastrous for capitalism.  My response: Yes, capitalists want to figure out how to produce a given level of output with fewer workers.  Their deeper goal, however, is to figure out the most profitable way to employ all available inputs.  As long as there are able-bodied people who want to work, there will be a capitalist brainstorming how to make money off the situation.  And to echo Leiter, in the long-run this works.

5. Leiter bizarrely insisted that “the” goal of socialism was to allow human freedom – legions of vocally authoritarian self-identified socialists notwithstanding.  He followed up with the classic socialist argument that saying “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is just as much an abridgment of freedom as “If you don’t do what I say, I will shoot you.”

The standard reply, of course, is that there is a vast moral difference between getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are morally entitled (e.g., your life) and getting you to do what I want by threatening to take away something to which you are not morally entitled (e.g. my assistance).  Thus, imagine you will be suicidally depressed unless I marry you.  Is my refusal to marry you morally equivalent to making you suicidally depressed by threatening to shoot you unless you break off your engagement to your willing fiance?  Of course not.  You aren’t entitled to marry me if I don’t approve, but you and your fiance are entitled to marry each other even if I don’t approve.

6. Moral entitlement aside, “If you don’t do what I say, I won’t give you the job you need to avoid starvation” is rarely relevant in modern labor markets.  Why not?  First, there are competing employers, so if you don’t like an offer, you can shop around for another.  (Smarter yet, take what you can get, but keep searching for a better offer).  Second, if you live frugally, even a relatively low-wage worker can save up a nest egg, making it easy to turn down unappealing offers in the future.  Naturally, you can object, “I still face the choice to either live frugally, work for some employer, or starve.”  If so, we’re back to my original reply: Complaining about being “free to starve” is the flip side of demanding that strangers support you whether they like it or not.

7. Leither took umbrage at my authoritarian interpretation of Marx.  I freely grant that Leiter’s invested more time reading Marx than I have.  However, I too have devoted long hours to Marx’s oeuvre (though I’ve spent far more reading about the actual history of socialist regimes), and I stand by my bleak assessment.

Did Marx explicitly say, “We should round up priests and execute them”?  To the best of my knowledge, no.  Yet that is the most reasonable interpretation of what Marx had planned.  What are we supposed to think when Marx makes Orwellian statements like,  “[B]ourgeois ‘freedom of conscience’ is nothing but the toleration of all possible kinds of religious freedom of conscience, and that for its part [socialism] endeavors rather to liberate the conscience from the witchery of religion” (Critique of the Gotha Program)?  It doesn’t sound like Marx plans to respect the rights of people who don’t wish to be so “liberated.”  If Leiter is right, why did so few Marxists protest Lenin’s religious persecution?  I say it’s because Marx provided the Orwellian language they needed to insist that Freedom is Slavery.  As I wrote two decades ago:

Innumerable social thinkers disagree with much of Marx’s thought, but praise his reflections upon human freedom, the depth of his insight in contrast to the shallowness of liberalism. Yet it is difficult to understand how Marx’s concept of freedom is anything more than a defense of tyranny and oppression. No dissident or non-conformist can see society as the “realization of his own liberty.” And what can the attack on “the right to do everything which does not harm others” amount to in practice, except a justification for coercing people who are not harming others? The problem with “broad” notions of freedom is that they necessarily wind up condoning the violation of “narrow” notions of freedom. Under “bourgeois” notions of religious liberty, people may practice any religion they wish (“a private whim or caprice” as Marx calls it); how could this liberty be broadened, without sanctioning the persecution of some religious views?

Listening to Leiter, a law professor at the University of Chicago, I couldn’t help but think, “Leiter is talking like Marx’s lawyer.”  When a Mafia enforcer says, “Sweet kids you got there; be a shame if anything happened to them,” a Mafia lawyer will vigorously deny that his client threatened to murder children.  Any neutral adult, however, knows that the Mafioso did exactly that.  I say the same about Marx’s writings.  “I’m going to bring you real freedom” is a classic Offer You Can’t Refuse – as Marxist revolutionaries have shown us time and again.  A skilled lawyer can obfuscate this scary truth, but a learned philosopher should not.

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None of Your Business

My generation may have been the last one born in which privacy was the default rather than the exception. Of course, it didn’t take long for that to change.

In my younger years I saw the birth of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat – just about every social media tool there is. As more of these platforms gained popularity with me and my friends, our default attitude about life changed.

Once upon a time we might have asked: “will I share this with someone?

Now we go somewhere on a trip, hike some mountains, have some interesting days at work – and the default mode is to think that we’ll share it somehow. Sharing is inextricable from the activity. Every photo taken is a memory we want to show someone else. Every life change or major event is publicly accessible within minutes, hours, or days. We post the photos on Instagram, or Facebook, and the news is out – perhaps to most of our network of friends and family and random people – in one fell swoop. We don’t demand anything of anyone for profound access to our lives.

This is a very interesting change. And it’s not necessarily bad. We’re humans: we like to share things, and we like to look cool. That is not going to change.

But it’s still worth noticing – and worth understanding how strange it is in the grand scheme of history.

Most of our predecessors got to experience what is was like to have anonymous or private experiences that people never found out about – or at least found out about later. People had to actually ask them what they were up to: “where are you moving?” “What are you doing for work?” “Do you have a girlfriend?”. And our pre-digital predecessors had to make the decision on a case by case basis about whether to share and how much to share.

What if things were still like this? What if you didn’t broadcast everything out to a wide audience? If you don’t know or can’t remember, it’s probably a sign.

Privacy is not everything. But we shouldn’t deny ourselves the experience of being the only one “in the know” (about good stuff – not just bad stuff) for a while. We might want to get more comfortable with the phrase “none of. your business.” We might expect people to earn more trust and more respect before we tell them our plans, hopes, dreams, and doings.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Gun Rights are Decent Political X-ray

Whether or not you vote or otherwise pay attention to politicians, do you wish you had a way to see inside their minds to know what they think of you?

Libertarian science fiction and nonfiction author L. Neil Smith has pointed out that you can know what a politician thinks of you and your rights by examining his or her opinions on gun rights. Smith says it’s as good as an X-ray into politicians’ minds.

It works whether the politician is a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian, or something else.

Don’t make the common mistake and assume the “R” by a politician’s name on the ballot means they are a supporter of your rights and liberty — most aren’t.

Smith observes that any politician who is uncomfortable with the idea of you or anyone else walking into a store, plopping down the cash and walking out with any gun you want without showing a scrap of identification or signing even one form, is not pro-gun rights.

If a politician doesn’t recognize your right to own and to carry, openly or concealed, any type of firearm you wish — handgun, rifle, single-shot, “high-capacity” or fully automatic — everywhere you go without asking permission, this politician is not a supporter of your gun rights and probably isn’t a fan of your other rights, either.

Politicians may talk a good game about supporting rights, yet cling to the belief that rights can come with government-approved limits, licenses, and legislation.

They are wrong.

A right doesn’t come with any such requirements, and anyone claiming they do is not respecting your rights. They’re probably hoping you’ll be fooled into confusing rights for privileges as people often do.

Any politician who doesn’t fully respect your gun rights is likely to also believe you need permission or a license to marry, to drive a car, to open a business, to travel the world, or to consume certain plants. Such a politician will probably believe you owe a portion of your property to government. They may quibble over how much you owe, but they won’t doubt you owe something.

I understand the argument for voting in self-defense. I don’t believe it works, and I think there are better ways to defend yourself from politicians and their opinions. It’s still good to know which politicians are worse than the others. Using their stance on gun rights is a convenient and accurate shortcut to find your sworn enemies. I suggest you use it.

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No One Policy Good for Everyone

Did you enjoy our recent winter storm? I did, but I know a lot of people didn’t. Most people are not fans of cold and snow. I don’t like temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit, especially if there’s any trace of humidity, while other people love hot weather.

Variety is the spice of life and I’m willing to deal with things I don’t like, without much complaint, so others can enjoy the things they like.

Since no one can control the weather, anyway, it’s a healthy approach.

Natural weather patterns give the Earth variety. Everyone gets what they like, occasionally, within reason. You might not get snow days in the Amazon or picnic weather on the beaches of Antarctica, but you can still get nice surprises.

Sometimes, though, this variety means there are tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and blizzards. You might believe this justifies a weather control bureaucracy to program the weather, but I don’t think it does.

If there were someone sitting in a government office somewhere controlling the weather, do you think they would serve up weather I like, or weather someone else likes? Maybe we’d all get whatever is dictated by policy. Would some people’s weather preferences be ignored because they aren’t popular?

I’m glad no one can control the weather.

Social control is similar to weather control. It’s going to result in less variety — not as much natural diversity. Even if you could control such things as the weather or society, should you? Whose preferences would be given priority and whose would be banned with reasonable-sounding justifications?

Complex systems with lots of randomness can’t be controlled. Any time someone tries to control a fluid, complex system such as the weather, society, an economy, or healthcare, there will inevitably be unintended consequences that make things worse.

Just as no one type of weather is best for everywhere at all times, there is no government policy — beyond respecting individual liberty — that is best for every individual at every moment.

No matter how unqualified to run your own life you may feel, no one else is more qualified than you. No one knows all the details better than you. If anyone believes they can control your life better than you can, they are not living in reality. What they imagine to be good for you might destroy you. Yet they’ll never suffer any consequences for what they’ve done to you — all the suffering would be yours, alone. I can’t support any such plan.

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Evil’s Supporters

Helping someone commit evil acts, or supporting them while they commit them, is just as bad as committing the evil acts yourself.

If you “Support the troops” in any way beyond supporting getting them back home where they won’t be maimed and killed by those trying to defend their homes from the invaders makes you complicit in their evil acts.

If you “Back the Blue” you’re worse than if you “Support the troops”, although it’s close. There’s no way to back the Blue Line Gang without being tainted by what they do, and there is no such critter as a “good cop“.

You might as well be out there committing evil in person.

I see a lot of people making excuses for the harm committed by both those who are out there doing evil and those sitting around supporting or fawning over the evildoers. As if circumstances or feelings change reality.

But the news isn’t all bad.

I have the greatest respect for those who were in the military and are still able to stand firmly against it, and for those who were once legislation enforcers and now stand against that “profession” without reservation. People can change for the better. They give me hope.

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