Reviewing Paranoia

We often hear about “movies that are better than the book,” but rarely of “book reviews that are better than the book.” Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh has just published one such book review.  Here’s Nowrasteh on Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders:

The gap in quality between the book described by reviewers above and the actual book Melting Pot or Civil War? is wider than in any other book that I can remember reading. Descriptions of “calm” and “reasonable” are the most perplexing. True, he appeals to Americans “who are willing to meet others halfway” to solve the problems that he’s identified. On the other hand, he also argues that we need to follow his policy recommendations or face a racialized civil war. That is the very opposite of a “calm” or “reasonable” argument. A better description would be “hysterical” or “paranoid.”

Hysteria and paranoia aside, what’s wrong with the book?  Salam engages in extreme reverse engineering, where even the most favorable facts about immigration somehow become extra reasons to oppose it:

For example, Salam disagrees with himself over whether the goal of immigration policy should be to increase wages and employment for low-skilled immigrants and their descendants, or per capita productivity growth in small sectors of the economy. He rightly claims that immigration barely affects wages in the United States, but then argues that a major benefit of stopping low-skilled immigration is higher wages for native-born and immigrant dropouts. Salam correctly points out that low-skilled immigrants today compete mostly against other low-skilled immigrants, so he wants to help low-skilled immigrants here by stopping more from immigrating in the first place.

Much of the book, moreover, is simply odd:

Forgetting everything that he wrote about labor markets, Salam praises a science fiction-esque scenario of “virtual immigration” where workers would work remotely by operating robots in the United States from their home countries — even though the labor market effects of that would at best be economically identical to allowing them to immigrate and work here. Salam argues that “virtual immigration will do more good than harm for U.S. workers, provided we have the right safeguards in place [emphasis added].” Salam does not explain what those safeguards are, how they would prevent competition in labor markets, and why the government couldn’t just apply those same safeguards to prevent labor market competition between low-skilled immigrants and low-skilled natives.

And:

Salam mentions the enormous economic cost to those foreigners who would be locked out of the United States under his preferred immigration policy. He proposes a package of U.S. foreign aid to bribe foreign governments to establish charter cities so that low-skilled immigrants can go there instead of the United States. Oddly, he predicts those charter cities will become “fonts of entrepreneurship and public policy solutions” and that excellent new ideas developed there will enrich America. If low-skilled immigrants are entrepreneurs who will create fantastic new ideas in these charter cities that will eventually make it to America, why not just let them come here in the first place? Why spill so much ink supporting a utopian scheme of charter cities as a solution to global poverty when immigration is a tried and true method?

You might think the “civil war” stuff is just hyperbole on the book cover, but no:

To his credit, Salam does admit that there is no private political violence in American today that is comparable to the chaos before the Civil War, but that “it is hard to shake the feeling that our luck might soon run out.” Civil war is a deadly serious topic and perhaps this reviewer is being too nitpicky, but I require more than Salam’s difficultly in “shaking a feeling” to take his worry seriously. He should have done more to show that the choice is really between his “melting pot” or a “civil war.”

Better yet, Salam should have proposed a bet.  I say that America – indeed, the entire First World – is not only too rich, but too electronically sedated, to physically fight about much of anything.  The risk of civil war in the First World is small enough to make even the trivial danger of terrorism look big by comparison.

If you think me naive, come take my money.

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Which “Minarchy”?

I understand the appeal of minarchy. After all, it’s where I came from; what I used to advocate. Even though I knew I was an anarchist personally, I used to imagine minarchy as the most practical way to be as liberated as possible.

But minarchy– keeping a little bit of cancer around and under control to prevent a different cancer from getting a foothold– is an unsustainable Utopian fantasy. Much more so than anarchy could ever be.

And, it’s confused.

As a minarchist, which “minimal government” would you pick? Only things such as government fire protection, government policing, military, government-controlled roads, and government courts? Other minarchists might have other preferences. Some would include “securing the borders” or other Big Government welfare programs. Any version includes the “taxation” to pay for it all, along with the bureaucracy to collect and distribute the money and find and punish the opt-outs.

Does every minarchist get to impose the particular flavor of “minimal government” they want? If so, it is no longer “minimal”.

Do you use v*ting to decide which bits of government you get to impose on me? Then it’s mob rule– “might (through superior numbers) makes right”.

Through v*ting and “taxation” you’ve cut the brake line on anything holding back government growth.

As I say, I understand, but a “little bit of statism” is still evil.

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Anarchism and Kavanaugh

Regarding Brett Kavanaugh, I’ve been wondering how I can blame the state for what we’ve endured these past weeks. I can safely say that without the state, we would have been spared the Kavanaugh episode.

Natural-law, pro-market anarchists are not utopians. To paraphrase the old hit: we beg your pardon; we never promised you a rose garden. Anarchism refers to a set of means — persuasion, consent, and voluntary cooperation — and not an end. It permits the emergence of solutions through a range of cooperative activities as opposed to the state’s imposition of one-size-fits-all alleged solutions from on high — from, say, Capitol Hill, our Mount Olympus.

But some things are less likely to occur in a stateless society than in a state-saturated one. And the Kavanaugh problem is one of those things.

Let’s start with the basics. Kavanaugh has been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Court justices have lifetime jobs. While an impeachment process exists, it is close to impossible to remove a high official. Second, the Court’s rulings are the “supreme law of the land.” It takes just five of nine justices to set binding precedents, which lower federal and state courts obviously must apply. Third, parties who elect to take cases to the Court are stuck with whoever happens to be on the Court at the time. If a party has doubts about the character of one or more of the justices, tough luck. (This doesn’t mean the government’s courts are unavoidable for some people, as the popularity of private arbitration demonstrates.)

In light of these facts, I can’t think how a situation like the one created by Kavanaugh’s nomination could arise in a stateless society. No supreme court would exist because no monopoly legal system would exist. (See my “Of Bumblebees and Competitive Courts.”) Judges would not have guaranteed lifetime jobs. Nor would their rulings serve as binding (as opposed to persuasive) precedents. (On the emergence and downside of stare decisis, the doctrine of binding precedent, in the common law, see Todd Zywicki’s “The Rise and Fall of Efficiency in the Common Law: A Supply-Side Analysis.”)  Parties to disputes would, through mutually agreed-to procedures, choose anyone they wanted to hear their cases. This could happen ad hoc in one-off disputes, but the more common practice would likely be prospective arrangements among associations of various kinds, insurance, defense, and so on.

As I say, it’s hard to imagine how the Kavanaugh situation could arise under anarchism. Parties looking for members of an arbitration panel usually could strike from consideration anyone about whom they had any doubts whatever. Other parties who had no concern about someone under a cloud like Kavanaugh’s could choose that person, subject to the conditions agreed to with fellow disputants. But, crucially, the choice to include or exclude such a person would have implications for only the parties to the specific dispute.

Obviously, prospective arbiters’ reputations, especially for fairness and honesty but not only those traits, would matter immensely. In effect, prospective arbiters would face a confirmation review — by disputants or their representatives — every day. A Supreme Court nominee does so just once. If the Senate errs, too bad. As mentioned, under the Constitution, justices “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” But in 229 years, Congress has never removed a justice. Only one, Samuel Chase in 1804, was impeached by the House, but he was acquitted by the Senate. in the 20th century, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas escaped House impeachment votes, though hearings were either held (twice in Douglas’s case) or almost held (Fortas). Under anarchism, no impeachment process would be necessary because no one would be appointed to any judicial role except by parties to their own particular cases or by the associations or communities with which they chose to affiliate.

So a big advantage to anarchism is that it would blessedly spare us from the sort of repulsive spectacle we’ve lived through these last weeks — repulsive in an assortment of ways. I’m thinking now of that band of self-righteous frauds called senators and that amoral boor with the “really, really large brain” who imagine themselves to be guardians of the people’s welfare when in truth they are impediments to it. Imagine a society in which, for most of us, nothing much hinged on whether Brett Kavanaugh or Christine Blasey Ford is telling the truth.

Anarchism’s looking pretty good now, isn’t it? I know that some people are frightened by that word, but they ought not to be. Rather, they ought to think of anarchism as Roderick Long presents it in his critical look at the recent exchange over anarchism that took place at Reason. Long tells us that anarchism amounts to little more than an expansion to all areas of life of the manner in which we typically deal with one another today, thereby shrinking the sphere of coercive relationships until it disappears. He draws on earlier thinkers to make the point:

Recall Gustav Landauer’s famous formulation: “The state is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.” And another anarchist, Paul Goodman, has noted: “A free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life.”

So, just imagine a world where you could ignore, among many others I could name, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake, Dianne Feinstein, and Donald Trump. To quote Louis Armstrong, “What a wonderful world it would be.”

(For discussions of law under anarchism, see Roderick Long’s essays “Why Objective Law Requires Anarchy,” “Libertarian Anarchism: Responses to Ten Objections,” and “Market Anarchism as Constitutionalism”; John Hasnas’s “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” “The Depoliticization of Law,” “Toward a Theory of Empirical Natural Rights,” and “The Obviousness of Anarchism”; and David D. Friedman’s “A Positive Account of Rights.” Also see the chapter “The Constitution of Anarchy” in my America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. and Gary Chartier’s Anarchy and Legal Order.)

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“Be Realistic” = Be a Jerk

If someone truly believes it is “Utopian” to expect human interactions to be voluntary, how would you like being one of their family members, or a neighbor?

Do you think they’d be a good cow-orker or employee? (Be careful while orking cows!) Could you trust them at all if you weren’t holding them at gunpoint?

Are they really that barbaric, or are they talking through their hat; not understanding the concepts they feel the need to preach at you about? Perhaps they are just saying what they feel needs to be said to justify archation. I suspect it’s that last one, since they are apparently still alive and able to speak, so they must be choosing voluntary interactions the vast majority of the time.

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“Avengers: Infinity War” Is A Cosmic Battle of Individualism vs. Collectivism

WARNING: this post contains spoilers.


“Whoever destroys a soul [of Israel], it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life of Israel, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” – The Talmud

One of the oldest wars in history is the conflict between the ideas of collectivism and individualism. Collectivists have always been willing to sacrifice other people for the sake of group well-being, and there have always been individualists willing to stop them.

This battle has found its newest dramatization in the epic new Marvel movie Avengers: Infinity Warwhich brings our ass-kicking Marvel superheroes together for a showdown with the villain Thanos. Thanos is out to acquire the Infinity Stones, elemental stones which will give him control over existence itself – and which will enable him to carry out his mission of “restoring balance” to the universe by killing off half of its population.

Throughout this film, we see that a defining characteristic of our Avenger heroes is a stubborn belief in the supreme value of individuals and a stubborn refusal to sacrifice human life, even when collective human survival seems to be at stake.

Loki gives the Tesseract/Space Stone to Thanos in order to save Thor. For much of the movie, Red Witch fiercely resists the idea of hurting Vision, even though the practical course is to destroy the Mind Stone embedded in his forehead. Starlord can hardly bring himself to kill Gamora, even though letting her live risks the revelation of the Soul Stone to Thanos. Gamora chooses to reveal the Soul Stone to Thanos to save Nebula’s life. Dr. Strange gives up the Time Stone to Thanos to save Tony Stark (who he doesn’t even like).

On the other hand, to Thanos, individuals are utterly expendable. He has a utopian vision of a “balanced” world, and he has no problem committing genocide to make that possible.

Thanos’ collectivism expresses itself in a backwards view of the world which many viewers may not immediately catch on to. Despite the film’s scenes on the devastated and once-populated Titan (which attempt to make Thanos’ mission seem sympathetic and reasonable) there are literally zero cases where eliminating half of a population by genocide improves productivity and wellbeing for the other half. And so far, there have been zero cases of rising world population leading to worldwide death and destruction.

The world’s population has increased by more than 2 billion since 1983. If Thanos was right, you would expect that we on planet Earth would be in dire straits.

On the contrary, by the World Bank’s measure there was a decline of 74.1% in extreme poverty from 1987 to 2013. Even if you don’t take the World Bank’s figures for granted, extreme poverty seems to be falling by other measures, too.

Why is poverty falling? There’s no simple answer to that, but there’s not much reason to think that additional humans are making things worse. And even a basic understanding of division of labor should make us realize that humans tend to become more productive and wealthier as they join larger and more complex networks of people. Given peace and freedom, that’s usually what happens.

Thano’s backward (and unproven) view of the world stands in contrast to human reality, and it also contrasts with the reality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Tony Stark is an individual human being who has been instrumental in creating wealth and technology to lift millions, if not billions, out of poverty. Prince T’Challa and his sister Shuri help to lead a society that is wealthy, prosperous – all while protecting the lives of individuals.

All of the Avengers are remarkable individuals who contribute enormous value to the world by means of their individual strength and freedom and ability. Their existence (and the existence of real remarkable individuals) is a signpost to the unexpected truth that there is no conflict between individual self-realization and collective well-being.

Everything the Avengers represent proves Thanos’ philosophy wrong, but it’s left to the viewer to see that. It’s my hope that people come away from this movie seeing just how deeply flawed Thanos’s worldview is.

Reality vindicates the quote at the beginning of this piece. To save one life really is to save the world entire, more often than you might think. Let’s hope that the next Avengers movie reflects the victory of that idea.

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“Theoretical”? “Utopian”?

Anarchy* is neither theoretical nor Utopian.

It’s a way to live among others without violating them. Probably the only way. It works in real life, every day, in the real world in which we live.

You already know this, I’m sure. If you don’t know it yet, experience will drive the point home if thinking it through isn’t enough for you.

*Or you can call it Voluntaryism. libertarianism, or abolitionism. Same deal.

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