On the Violence Inherent in Voting

At some time or another, we were all taught how government works. We learned about the three branches of government and their relationships to each other. We were also told that “we are government” since each citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote for a chosen candidate or on ballot initiatives.

That’s what we were taught.

What they didn’t tell us about was the deleterious effects of voting… the victims of voting. The fact that each voter puts their individual needs, opinions, and desires above, and to the detriment of, others.

The voter believes their actions to be benevolent or caring, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their acts of voting instead cause innocent people to be considered criminals, increases in the surveillance state, increases in the police state, punitive taxation, more war, more prisons, separation of families, et cetera.

They vote because they think they know what’s best for their fellow citizens. What the voter doesn’t know is that they are culpable. They are personally responsible for the victims of their act of voting.

The recreational pot smoker who was sentenced to prison, the hard working couple forced to pay more taxes, the young soldiers who will die on foreign battlefields; these are the victims of voting, among many others, and the “patriotic, god-fearing, tax-paying, Americans” need to realize this fact.

Voting may seem like a responsible, benevolent act, but as Frederic Bastiat wrote, “there is the seen and the unseen.” By that he meant, before you act, consider the repercussions of acting. Your decisions have consequences.

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Voluntaryist Solutions to the Public Benefits and Immigration Problem

December 2018: I read this essay and added commentary for Editor’s Break 119 of the EVC podcast.

Ours is a world filled with organized crime, you may call them “governments.” These governments often, in their quest to legitimize and maintain their rule, offer benefits back to those they victimize on a continual basis. Some governments offer more than others. The United States government, and its many smaller federated governments, have created many different benefit programs for those it considers its citizens, and otherwise.

The funds for these public benefits programs ultimately come from citizens and residents. When people from other parts of the world move into the United States, they have more or less the opportunity to obtain these public benefits for themselves. If too many people move into the United States and exploit these public benefits (and eventually vote for more of them), this will have the very real effect of bankrupting governments if they don’t act to either limit public benefits or increase revenue generation, such as by what is euphemistically called “taxation.”

What’s a voluntaryist, who is a person who recognizes the criminal nature of governments, to do about the problem of immigrants exploiting public benefits? There are several possible solutions to this problem, many of which are consistent with the voluntary principle, that all human relations should happen voluntarily, or not at all, and many of which are not. As a voluntaryist, I do not care to consider or defend solutions that require the violation of the voluntary principle. Here are some which qualify as anti-voluntaryist:

  • Having governments maintain or increase its crime against its citizens in order to fund the building of a wall or other technological barriers to immigrant entry.
  • Having governments repel peaceful immigrants by the threat and use of violence.
  • Having governments increase its surveillance of its citizens in order to monitor for their aiding and abetting of unwelcome immigrants.
  • Having governments coercively interfere with its citizens voluntarily trading with unwelcome immigrants.

I could go on, but I’m sure that’s sufficient to give you an idea of the sorts of solutions that government brings to the problem of public benefits to immigrants. None of these obviously coercive and aggressive solutions appeal to me, nor are any of them compatible with my principles as a voluntaryist. All of them are totally unjust and necessarily violent against peaceful people. So what can be done about this problem? Here are some solutions which are compatible with the voluntary principle:

  • Having governments severely limit or abolish its public benefits programs. No public benefits, nothing for immigrants to exploit.
  • Having governments reduce its aggression against free markets and free trade with people in other places around the world. This would increase the economic opportunities for would-be immigrants at home, decreasing their incentive to leave.
  • Having governments abolish their wars on drugs and other illicit trades. These policies have had major negative effects on poorer places around the world.
  • Having governments end their foreign wars and occupations. These interventions have had major negative effects on poorer places around the world.
  • Having governments abolish gun control so that its citizens have the legal right to defend themselves from attacks by unsavory immigrants.
  • Having interested parties form voluntary education centers to expose immigrants to voluntaryist thought.
  • Having interested parties open their homes, churches, and community centers to immigrants for the purpose of befriending them and showing them how to survive in their new land without the need to exploit public benefits.

I’m sure if you really put your mind to it, you too could discover all sorts of peaceful solutions to this problem. It’s not difficult. At some point, however, you will realize that your enemy is not the poor immigrant trying to find a better life for himself and his family. Your enemy is organized crime, government. Should those who value peace, liberty, and justice pray to their enemy to coercively protect them from the non-enemies their enemy has incentivized in the first place? Seems stupid to me.

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Liberty in America During the Great War

There’s always plenty for libertarians to complain about in our troubled world, but in many respects, things could be much worse. I’m thinking particularly of how the U.S. government punished dissent before, during, and even after America’s participation in World War I. Although it will be a few years before we observe the centenary of Woodrow Wilson’s idiotic decision in 1917 to plunge the country into the Great War, this seems like as good a time as any to review his administration’s, Congress’s, and the courts’ shameful conduct.

My source here is David M. Kennedy’s Over Here: The First World War and American Society (paperback, 2004), especially chapter 1, “The War for the American Mind.” (Also see Joseph Stromberg’s “Remembering with Astonishment Woodrow Wilson’s Reign of Terror in Defense of ‘Freedom.’”)

Wilson of course was reelected president in 1916 after a campaign that reminded voters, “He kept us out of war.” But as Kennedy tells it, most of the public did not need to be dragged into war. (Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare must have had something to do with this.) Resistance did not appear widespread, and efforts to suppress dissent (and activities having nothing to do with dissent) were more virulent at the grassroots level than in Washington. At some point, American nativism kicked in with a vengeance, and the prowar fever was easily exploited to turn up the heat on immigrants and workers.

The propaganda campaign was remarkable, the repression more so, as though the policymakers feared that a little dissent could turn the whole country antiwar. “Woe be to the man or group of men that seeks to stand in our way.” That was Wilson’s warning to the war opponents two months after he asked an obliging Congress for a declaration of war on Germany. “They had no small idea, as yet, just how much woe was to befall them,” Kennedy writes.

Kennedy believes that suppression of dissent was made easier by a traditional American striving for agreement. The government’s public school — known in the 19th century as the common school — won favor out of a desire to homogenize the religiously and ethnically diverse population. The “melting pot” was a popular notion. “Those deep-running historical currents,” Kennedy writes, “darkly moving always beneath the surface of a society more created than given, more bonded by principles than by traditions, boiled once more to the surface of American life in the crisis of 1917–1918.” Social stability was seen as requiring “sameness of opinion … commonality of mind.”

It was in the preparation for war and during the war itself that the notion of “100 percent Americanism” was forged, Kennedy adds, and most people were suspicious of anyone who seemed less than 100 percent American.

Kennedy notes that Wilson was well suited for the role he assumed:

He had all his life been a moralizing evangelist who longed with a religious fervor to sway the public mind with the power of his person and his rhetoric. The war furnished him with a wider stage for the ultimate performance of the act he had long been perfecting.… He subverted the more or less orderly processes of politics by stirring and heating the volatile cauldron of public opinion. Therein lay both his great political genius and a major source of his eventual downfall.

But Wilson’s public reversal on the war caught many people by surprise — particularly the Progressive intelligentsia, which, led by John Dewey and the New Republic, converted to war-boosterism with relative ease — to Randolph Bourne’s horror. (See Murray Rothbard’s classic “World War I as Fulfillment: Power and the Intellectuals.”) But, Kennedy adds,

some of those persons of sensitive conscience would indeed find the passage from neutrality to war impossible to negotiate. The steadfast pacifists — like those who held to the original anti-war principles of the American Union Against Militarism — increasingly found themselves isolated in a wilderness of opposition from which nearly all their countrymen had fled by the end of 1917.

Just as the Eastern Progressives hoped that they could harness the unpleasantness of war to their reformist aims (Progressives further west were skeptical), conservatives and others also “sought to invest America’s role in the war with their preferred meaning and to turn the crisis to their particular advantage,” Kennedy writes. “All, of course, mantled their activities in the raiment of patriotism. But that loose garment could be stretched to many sizes and shapes, and the struggle to define the war’s meaning often cloaked purposes far removed from Wilson’s summons to a crusade for a liberal peace and democracy.”

Thus the demand for solid support for the war bolstered groups that were already suspicious of immigrants and workers showing an interest in unions. Thus opponents of war could be further stigmatized as foreigners and socialists. (Recall that avowed socialists condemned the Great War as a “capitalist war” in which the world’s workers had no interest.)

Washington’s efforts to disseminate a particular view of the war — democracy versus German authoritarianism — reached into the schools, and local school officials obliged by stepping up the effort, for example, by outlawing the teaching of German. “Ninety percent of all the men and women who teach the German language are traitors,” Kennedy quotes one Iowa politician as saying.

By executive order, Wilson created the innocuously named Committee on Public Information, a propaganda mill headed by Progressive muckraking journalist George Creel. Kennedy portrays Creel as a man who believed that the American way of shaping opinion “shunned coercion and censorship.” But apparently not everyone agreed.

Kennedy finds parallels between the American propaganda effort and themes found in George Orwell’s 1984.

The American experience in World War I … darkly adumbrated the themes Orwell was to put at the center of his futuristic fantasy: overbearing concern for “correct” opinion, for expression, for language itself, and the creation of an enormous propaganda apparatus to nurture the desired state of mind and excoriate all dissenters. That American propaganda frequently wore a benign face, and that its creators genuinely believed it to be in the service of an altruistic cause, should not obscure these important facts.

At the grassroots level, vigilantism — including lynching — was not uncommon and too often was more or less countenanced by people in power and prominent members of the of legal community, including a future U.S. attorney general, Charles Bonaparte.

The Justice Department under Attorney General Thomas Gregory encouraged citizen surveillance through its link to the American Protective League, “a group of amateur sleuths and loyalty enforcers,” in Kennedy’s description. Said Gregory, “I have today several hundred thousand private citizens — some individuals, most of them as members of patriotic bodies, engaged in … assisting the heavily overworked Federal authorities in keeping an eye on disloyal individuals and making reports on disloyal utterances.” Kennedy says that by the end of the war, the APL had 250,000 members.

This was also the period in which the United States got the Espionage Act and amendments known as the Sedition Act. Under the authority of the Espionage Act, Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson banned publications from the mail or stripped them of their second-class mailing permits for even suggesting that Wall Street or the arms industry controlled the government. Criticizing the government was regarded as aiding the enemy.

Wilson, Kennedy writes, meekly and privately objected to the heavy-handedness of his underlings on occasion but never did anything about it. His true feelings were revealed after the war, when he advocated a new sedition act to take the place of the soon-to-expire wartime amendment.

The courts were no friendlier to dissenters and government critics. Kennedy says “the courts construed the [wartime censorship] laws broadly, convicting persons, for example, for even discussing the constitutionality of conscription, or, as happened in New Hampshire, for claiming ‘this was a Morgan war and not a war of the people’ (a remark that earned its author a three-year prison sentence).”

An antiwar speech could get you indicted, tried, and sent to prison. Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs went to prison for delivering a speech against the war, although he did not call on young men to defy conscription.

“The Supreme Court,” Kennedy writes, “did not review any Espionage Act cases until after the Armistice. By then, of course, the damage was done.”

When District Judge Learned Hand ordered Postmaster General Burleson to stop closing the mails to dissenting magazines, an appeals court overturned the order and the Supreme Court let the appellate decision stand. In 1919 the high court heard three cases brought under the Espionage Act. In one, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared that in wartime, speech or written work that is “such a hindrance” to the government’s effort may be prohibited.

It was in this opinion that Holmes enunciated the “clear and present danger” standard for when speech and press may be controlled. But Kennedy notes that Holmes and his fellow justices violated their own standard. For example, the court refused to overturn the conviction of a German-American “who had published articles questioning the constitutionality of the draft and the purposes of the war.”

Holmes also sustained Debs’s conviction, writing ominously, “if a part of the manifest intent of the more general utterances was to encourage those present to obstruct the recruiting service … the immunity of the general theme may not be enough to protect the speech.” Kennedy found only one case in which Holmes, in dissent, used the “clear and present danger” test to oppose a conviction.

Holmes, strangely, has a reputation as a great civil libertarian. One perceptive observer was not fooled; H.L. Mencken demolished the renowned jurist in a 1930 book review that reminded readers of Holmes’s wartime opinions.

We are indeed fortunate that speakers, writers, and publishers who today communicate antiwar messages are no longer treated as they were during World War I. That they were not so treated after the 9/11 attacks — considering the other appalling policies and practices the Bush administration engaged in — we might chalk up to the devout respect for freedom of speech and press that is nurtured by hardworking organizations and civil libertarians dedicated to protecting those freedoms.

Kennedy ends his chapter on a note that today’s progressives ought to heed. Eastern Progressives supported Wilson’s war hoping it would advance reform while avoiding the domestic excesses that war can produce. They miscalculated, however. Dewey was wrong. Bourne was right.

The devotees of Barack Obama, who has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the same Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined, still have not learned their lesson.

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The IMF Fears Cryptocurrency; It Should

The International Monetary Fund refers to cryptocurrency only once in its 215-page World Economic Outlook for October 2018, but that reference is telling: “Continued rapid growth of crypto assets could create new vulnerabilities in the international financial system.”

Ironically and counter-intuitively — but in my opinion not accidentally — that sentence is grouped in a paragraph  with worries about the potential of cyber warfare to “undermine cross-border payment systems and disrupt the flow of goods and services.”

Cryptocurrency, of course, is the perfect solution to “cross-border payment systems.” In terms of both movement and accounting, it simply ignores borders.  A Bitcoin is a Bitcoin is a Bitcoin — in Minneapolis, in Mumbai, in Moscow. And it can be moved between those three cities in a tiny fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort  it takes to set up wire transfers between bank accounts and to exchange dollars for rupees, or for rubles. All without government permission, too.

The “vulnerabilities” the IMF worries about are its own. Cryptocurrencies are, to varying degrees, resistant to supervision, surveillance, and regulation by entities like the IMF and its 189 member governments (the so-called “international financial system”).

Those governments (and their intermediary institutions like the IMF) fear money they can’t control. Who can blame them? The long history of central government banking is a history of money and markets easily subjected to taxation and political manipulation. Its purpose is to shear the sheep — that is, to clothe the ruling class at the expense of those who produce goods and services of actual value.

The brief history of cryptocurrency, on the other hand, is a history of emerging financial (and, ultimately, political) freedom for the productive class. That’s its philosophical genesis and its technical goal: Putting wealth beyond the reach of the thieves and extortionists who call themselves “governments.” Crypto is, as the anarcho-syndicalists like to put it, “building the new world in the shell of the old.”

Some players in the crypto sector seek co-option by the existing “international financial system” — for example, seeking regulation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and its global equivalents.  They’re backing the wrong horse. The old “international financial system” will be replaced, not reformed.

The IMF’s purpose is not to facilitate “cross-border payment systems and … the flow of goods and services,” but to control them.  Fortunately, the time when that was even remotely possible is coming to an end.

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Schools Are Tracking Your Child’s Mental Health—Whether You Like It or Not

A worrying trend is emerging in schools across the country. With increasing regularity, school districts are tracking students’ mental health and raising flags if a screening shows something amiss.

Student mental health tracking is often framed in terms of safety or prevention, arguing that all kids should be screened to identify the few who could potentially serve as a danger to themselves or others. Last week, NPR reported that in Florida all students who registered for public school this fall were required to disclose their mental health history. Has the child ever seen a therapist? That information must be revealed as a condition of school registration.

This mental health tracking measure is part of the response to the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida last February that left 17 people dead. The high school where the shooting took place instituted heightened safety measures this school year, including 52 new security cameras, automatically locking classroom doors, and more armed guards.

Some of these enhanced security measures, as well as the mental health history disclosure, are not at the discretion of individual schools or districts. They are now Florida law. Troubled by the Parkland shooting, state lawmakers recently passed legislation requiring more armed guards at public schools and mandating mental health disclosures on public school registration forms. The new Florida statute spotlights the willingness of many citizens to give up personal liberty in exchange for an increase in perceived government security.

According to the NPR article, the Florida law is particularly concerning to parents with special needs children. One mom with a young child on the autism spectrum told NPR: “If you do say, ‘Yes, my child has seen a counselor or a therapist or a psychologist,’ what does the school then do with that?”

Florida may be the most recent example of public schools monitoring students’ mental health, but the practice is widespread—and often surreptitious. A Wall Street Journalarticle written last year by a New Hampshire physician blew the lid on secret school screening of mental health. In her article, Dr. Aida Cerundolo writes: “Educators and administrators increasingly are using psychological screening tools to identify children who are at risk for social and emotional issues, and to assess programs geared toward improving social and emotional skills.”

Many of these screening tests are administered to schoolchildren without the parents’ knowledge or consent. Dr. Cerundolo suggests that the intent of these screenings may be well-meaning in terms of helping struggling students receive necessary mental health services, but the negative impact on privacy is large. She asks: “What is the privacy cost to students who are not at risk for a psychological imbalance, yet whose mental-health information is being documented by teachers and tracked over time?”

Whether it’s security cameras and armed guards, or psychological screening, mass schooling is becoming increasingly prison-like. It’s no wonder, then, that there is now a quiet exodus from mass schooling, as more parents seek to take back control of their children’s education. Rather than tolerating invasive privacy breaches and state intrusion on personal matters, many parents are opting-out of government schooling in favor of homeschooling and other private school options. As schools continue to erode individual freedoms, parents will continue to walk away.

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Gratitude in an Unfree World

Everyone who knows me knows that I loathe government as it now exists everywhere. For fifty years, my professional activity has pertained in large part to awful actions that governments at every level have taken. Because governments have been such a pervasive part of social and economic life in the past century or more, bringing into being the welfare/warfare/surveillance/therapeutic/police state under which most people in the world now live, specializing as I have is bound to leave one with a jaundiced view not only of the state but of much of society as well. And such an outlook does not make for personal happiness.

But yesterday, as I set out to walk Fly Boy down the road through the jungle as usual, I was struck by what a beautiful day it was, and I determined to count my blessings. They are too many to enumerate here, but let me simply mention some of the greatest.

Above all, I am grateful for the people who have loved me and whom I have loved in return. My old friends have been loyal, my newer ones appreciative and kind. Very seldom have I been betrayed or abandoned. I have enjoyed relatively good physical health, with no major diseases or injuries in my life since infancy. I have had opportunities to travel widely and to see things I never imagined seeing when I was growing up, from the cultural treasures of London and Paris to the amazing Maya pyramids at Tikal and the natural wonders of the Kenyan game reserves. I have never been imprisoned or hospitalized (except once overnight when I was in the Coast Guard and really didn’t need to stay in the hospital that night). I have had a measure of success in my profession and contributed a bit to what is called the stock of knowledge in economic history—again far exceeding my expectations when I began my work.

Like everyone else, I have had some setbacks, but none of them destroyed me or left me bereft of friends willing to assist me. I have never had to beg, so my dignity has been left afloat at least to this degree. I live in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. For all these things, I am truly grateful. As my wife always tells me, a man can be happy even in the gulag. I thank God that I have not had to find out for myself, but I do get her point.

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