Pessimistic optimistic pessimistic optimist

In the short term, things look bad. Debt is exploding and politicians seem unwilling to curb wasteful spending. The most popular presidential candidates are running campaigns based on pure demagoguery, with little to no evidence that they understand basic laws of economics or principles of liberty.

In the medium term, things are actually all right. Living standards are rising across the world. Despite complaints of political paralysis and economic stagnation, scientific and technological progress seems to be continuing apace.

In the long term, on the other hand, we have the prognoses of environmental disaster due to global warming and rising population. Government-led efforts to deal with these problems at the international level are failing miserably.

In the very long term, however, these projections lose their force when we remember the past achievements of human ingenuity in the face of similar obstacles. I have confidence that we will figure out how to deal with all these issues eventually, though I believe that such solutions will come from the private sector, which is where the vast bulk of real progress takes place.


On the practicalities of rolling back government: the case of immigration

Between the libertarian utopia of complete privatization and the current reality, wherein so much of the country is government-owned or controlled, how do we draw a path from our current place to our ultimate destination? Let’s consider immigration policy, first of all.

The libertarian dream is for government not to be involved in border control. This is not to say that there would be no border control; rather, the control would be in private hands. The US would not control who came over the border from Mexico, for example; on the contrary, private landowners situated along the border would each make his own decision on who to admit and who to exclude. So the only foreigners who would enter the country would be those granted employment or tenancy by a private citizen, i.e. only those foreigners that the domestic market and civil society already have room for.

There are various theoretical objections to this policy on the part of nationalists and conservatives, which are generally grounded in some ideal ethnic and demographic balance that they believe is necessary for a healthy society, or else in economic arguments, such as the need to protect domestic wages. Ultimately, however, they all rest on the assumption that the national government should be responsible for regulating national demographics or the national economy, which to me smacks too much of central planning. If we trust government, rather than private citizens, on the matter of who the individual may employ or lease property to, why should we not trust government over private citizens in other matters? The nationalist conservative line of thought leads inevitably to entertaining collective solutions to every other social problem, which libertarians should reject on principle, or at the very least treat with extreme skepticism.

On the other hand, there is the practical problem of how private citizens can defend their property rights. For example, in most communities, a visible police presence is considered an acceptable deterrence to threats against person and property; the individual citizen is not expected to take complete responsibility for his own protection. The same should hold for the national borders: some control over who enters is needed to spare private citizens the enormous burden of protecting their own property against all the foreigners who might wish to gain entry.

Short of private landowners each acquiring the necessary force to repel intruders, the government is still needed to control immigration. At the same time, government should not be used to suppress any real economic demand for immigrant workers, nor, on humanitarian grounds, should government be used to keep out foreign refugees who would be otherwise be able to avail themselves of native charity.

My solution, therefore, is not to have open borders, but to use government border agents to check whether non-citizens wishing to enter the country have a guarantee of employment, tenancy or charitable assistance in this country. This would avoid the phenomenon of massive groups of unemployed immigrants that cannot be controlled and that might infringe on private property rights. You would not be allowed in the country if you would simply end up begging on the street or on state welfare (which also wouldn’t exist in a libertarian paradise, but that’s another matter). This would also mean, of course, that you couldn’t enter the country and then find a job or an apartment only after entering; you would need both in hand before entering.

Yet while the government should regulate immigration to this extent, I am wary of letting it manage the economics of migration by e.g. imposing quotas. A country can’t tolerate an infinite number of immigrants who have no secure employment or residence, but it may well need some, and it’s hard to see how the government, rather than the market, can know the precise number of economic migrants that the domestic economy needs. And attempts to suppress immigration in order to boost domestic wages strikes me as about as sensible as suppressing imported goods to boost domestic production. In both cases, one sector of the economy is favored at the expense of the rest, and in every case where the government favors one sector, the net cost to the economy is greater than the net benefit. Why should immigration be different?

Lastly, I would also return powers to the states and local authorities. If a state offers welfare benefits, for example, I don’t see why it should be compelled to offer them to non-citizens, though I also don’t see why they should be forbidden from doing so by the federal government. The path to a libertarian society, including libertarian immigration policy, should start with a decentralization of society and government policy. Admittance to the union would require proof of residence and employment or financial support on the part of a private individual or organization or a state or local government, if they are prepared to shoulder the burden of supporting an immigrant. But states and local government would retain powers to exclude non-citizens for any other reason they saw fit. This is particularly important for immigrants who might lose their employment or residence after being admitted and who might then become vagrants and public nuisances. It should be permissible as well for local authorities to report vagrant aliens to federal authorities, who would be able to check the employment or residential status of the alien and deport as necessary.

Final words on founding principles

So we established in the first two of this series of three posts that:

  • Government does not have an intrinsic right to order us how to dispose of ourselves and our property, provided we are not infringing on the rights of others to dispose of themselves and their property
  • Government nevertheless has the right to demand payment for protecting our rights to ourselves and our property, and to punish us for refusal to pay, just as it punishes individuals when they refuse to pay for services rendered by other private individuals, or other breaches of contract

What services can the government render and demand payment for, and how is the government allowed to collect payment? As indicated, these services are rightly limited to protecting our rights to ourselves and our property. We do not have a right to, say, money or property belonging to others, so government programs that redistribute wealth through taxation are intrinsically unjust. Just as the government cannot rightly punish me for refusing to give to one who asks, so the government should not have the right to punish me for refusal to pay a tax that is to benefit other private citizens. The only services that government has a right to charge for are those services that all citizens benefit from equally.

But are there limits on how the government can collect payment? Insofar as everyone equally benefits from the government’s protection, it follows that everyone should pay the same fee. The problem with progressive taxation is that those who pay less benefit just as much as those who pay more. While a private individual or organization is, of course, free to charge different rates from different customers for any reason at all, including poverty or financial need, such charges are never coerced from the customer. Government, on the other hand, coerces payment from citizens, so the wealthier cannot opt out of paying more than the less wealthy.

At the same time, there is a sense in which those with more property benefit more from government protection of property rights than those with less. One possibility is for government to assess the total value of an individual’s property and charge tax at a flat percentage of that value. The bureaucratic hurdles of this are daunting, however; among other concerns, individuals might find ways of concealing wealth before collection day in order to fool assessors. A more practical means is to tax sales or income or other exchanges. Those who earn more income, or those who buy more property and so accumulate more wealth in that way, will then be paying more into the system that protects the security of their free exchanges.

As is well known, attempts to charge income tax on the wealthy run into problems, since they can find means to conceal the source of their income, e.g. by disguising income as gifts that should not be taxed. Similarly, a sale can be disguised as an exchange of gifts. At the same time, giving and charitable exchange is not protected by the state. Failure to give one gift for another cannot form grounds for a lawsuit, while failure to pay for goods or services in a commercial sale are. So sellers and buyers have an incentive to record and register their sales in order to be able to act on them in court if necessary; such registers also provide a tax base for the government.

Some libertarians, like Ron Paul, believe sales or excise taxes are a legitimate source of revenue, while income taxes are not. I have not yet worked out whether this is a correct view. Probably material for a later post.

More on founding principles

In my last post I said I didn’t believe the government has a right to tell us how to dispose of our property, and that if we enter into any kind of voluntary exchange with another person, without taking away anyone’s life, liberty or property against his will, the government has no business being involved.

It then occurred to me that, short of adopting a fully anarchist system, government is needed to enforce property rights and punish violence and property crimes, i.e. to deal with private infringements of the aforementioned rights to life, liberty and property. This government must be paid for in some way. I suppose one could imagine a government funded purely by voluntary donations, but there is an intrinsic injustice in that notion, since everyone living under the government’s jurisdiction benefits from the government’s protection of their rights. If they benefit, they should be required to pay, which is where taxation comes in.

Taxation is from one point of view always a kind of theft. If you don’t pay up, the government punishes you with forfeiture of liberty or property. This is not the kind of exchange that is normally tolerated in society: refusal to pay should simply lead to refusal to provide service. But the government can’t abdicate its role of defending the borders from invasion, or decide only to defend those who paid their taxes and leave those who didn’t pay.

The other view is that, since everyone benefits from the government’s protection, everyone under the government’s jurisdiction already owes the government payment for service. Just as the government rightly forces one to pay for services to another individual that have already been rendered, so the government rightly forces inhabitants to pay for services they already benefit from. Justice is maintained.

But what are the limits of the kinds of services government can provide and legitimately charge the public for? And does it matter how the taxes are collected and levied? That is the subject for another post.

Founding principles

My weakness has always been an urge to understand things from founding principles, even at the cost of developing comprehensive empirically-based arguments. Supporting ideas with empirical evidence is all very well, but I need to know exactly what the empirical evidence is in service of. For instance, for many people peace is the ultimate goal of public policy, and any policy that promotes public peace, even at the cost of freedom, is worth the price if it can achieve its goal. So the government should take away people’s weapons, whether or not those weapons have been used in a crime, if it makes society more peaceful by lowering gun homicide rates. The loss of freedom and independence that law-abiding gun owners suffer as a result is just a minor concern, of no consequence in the balance of things.

I have come to the belief that for me, freedom is the ultimate aim of policy. I don’t believe anyone should be deprived of life, liberty or property unless they have themselves deprived someone else of those things. The objection to this, of course, is the notion that people will misuse their freedom and that it is government’s duty to prevent such abuses by, paradoxically, taking away people’s freedom. So, even if you have never committed a crime with your guns and are not about to do so, the government should be able to take your guns since you might at some unspecified future date commit a crime. If you enter into a voluntary contract with another person to pay him three dollars an hour for some work, the government can punish you because it doesn’t think your wage is “fair”, even though both you and the worker agreed to it without compulsion. If you rent your room to a foreigner without proper documentation, the government has a right to punish you for disposing of your own property as you see fit. If you refuse to cater for a gay wedding, the government allows the dissatisfied customer to sue you for your refusing to put your own time and energy at his disposal, even when he has not paid you for your time or contracted with you to do so.

All these situations demonstrate an intrinsic injustice in government actions that really shows up the intrinsic injustice of the public policy goal that lies behind the actions. They can only be justified on the assumption that government has a right to dispose of our time, energy and property as it sees fit, and that we are not free to dispose of ourselves and our property as we see fit. In other words, the government owns us, according to statists. I find I simply cannot accept this as a basis for formulating public policy.

Two levels of freedom

At one level, I’m a libertarian minarchist (also curious about anarcho-capitalism, but not convinced I can go all the way there yet). I think, in an ideal world, government should be limited to a military, a police force and a court system, with every other “public good” being provided by the market. The activities of even these limited government functions would also be highly constrained, with the military only used to repel invasions, and the police only used to arrest criminal suspects, and the courts only used to prosecute those charged with illegitimate use of force or fraud, or to adjudicate between competing claims.

At another level, I’m a strict constitutionalist. This is specific to being an American, whereas libertarianism could apply anywhere. I think the federal government should only pass and enforce laws within its enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution. Everything else should be left to the states. That means the states can be as libertarian or as authoritarian as they wish, as liberal or as conservative as they wish, provided they don’t encroach on the highly limited powers given to the federal government by the constitution. I think several constitutional amendments that empower the federal government against the states, particularly the 14th amendment, may have been well-intentioned and may even seem in a certain light to be useful for libertarian goals, but ultimately they have been disastrous for the proper balance of power between the federal government and the states.

I guess you could think of strict constitutionalism as a libertarian approach to local government. A real libertarian, of course, wants to see the state wither at all levels; anarcho-capitalists want to see it disappear completely. But I think the revolution to bring about the end of the State must be waged from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. I dislike abuse of federal authority to promote individual freedom, at the expense of state power, more than I dislike the states’ authoritarianism. And this, of course, is treating the intention of the federal authorities as charitably as possible; just as often, if not more so, they steal powers from the states in order to promote themselves, or to favor some private interest at the expense of other citizens.

Reactions to “Politically Incorrect History”: ethnic commonalities and differences among the early colonists

Tom Woods un-PC history of America is very light reading and not a serious work of scholarship at all, but I think it provides a useful summary of paleoconservative and paleolibertarian viewpoints concerning our past. I think it’s interesting that it was so heavily promoted by mainstream conservative outlets when it came out a decade ago, since many of his claims contradict much of current conventional wisdom even on the Right, e.g. his sympathy for the Confederacy and antipathy toward FDR and our involvement in World War II.

Here is one initial reaction I had:

Woods makes the very interesting observation that mutual suspicion among the colonists, owing to sectarian divisions mainly, may have laid the groundwork for the Founders’ caution towards central government. However, he also alludes to the common WASP background of the colonists, without really explaining how that related to their differences or how much of the founders’ legal wisdom owes itself to this common cultural inheritance.

In a seeming dig at the progressive reading of the Founders, which holds that they abjured mixing religion and government and that the intention of the First Amendment was a complete separation of church and state at all levels of government, he notes that the Founders did not wish to interfere in the states’ established churches, wherever they still existed, and that they also took note of their common Christianity as an important cultural foundation. But did their Christianity inform their legal reasoning, in particular their design of the Constitution? And did it influence their thoughts on what kind of people could qualify for citizenship?

This is an important question because of the debate over immigration and naturalization: did the Founders see the federal government as having power over immigration, or was that power reserved to the states? What of naturalization? My own research informs me that the early naturalization acts limited citizenship to white men of good moral character. So, in order to maintain the cultural preconditions for a free society, do we need to severely limit who can enter our country, or do we need to give powers to the states to do so? Do we need to restrict the franchise? These are serious questions among paleoconservatives, though libertarians tend to eschew discussion of immigration restriction and so far in the book Woods has not touched the topic at all.

Of course, it’s very hard to bring up the subject outside of “alternative right” circles because of the severe stigma against racism and anything that smacks of it, a stigma that I myself share to an extent. But I think it should be possible to talk about, say, the cultural impact of immigration. If a free society requires a WASP majority, for example, then we might want to make sure that only or mostly WASPs immigrate or get the vote.

I don’t have a principled disagreement with the idea that political systems depend on cultural foundations. However, there’s always the question of who controls the development of the culture? Is that a power government should have? I would say from Woods’ reading of history, that was at least a power that the Founders allowed to the states, if not to the federal government.

As a libertarian, I generally abhor the idea of giving government the power to direct culture and demographics even in that way. Why can’t private citizens hire foreigners, say, or sell or rent them property or provide them with services by voluntary exchange? It seems that, if the people are not ready to welcome foreigners, there are plenty of ways that they can resist them and exclude them through the natural rights of freedom of association, without the need for state interference.

The demand for government to step in to “save the nation” from foreigners seems peculiar to a situation where ordinary people have been rendered powerless to exercise their freedom of association, including their right to discriminate without restriction in the provision of goods and services. It is also the product of a welfare state, whereby resources are forcibly taken from citizens to be redistributed to other citizens, but in practice are also given to non-citizens, even those who are not in the country legally.

Freedom of association, and restoration of powers to states and local communities to restrict immigration, should be enough to solve the economic and cultural problems of immigration. The issues concerning naturalization are another thing. If, say, you live in a society that is both libertarian and democratic, you ideally only want to give the franchise to libertarian-minded people in order to preserve limited government. But again, what is the proper way to control who gets the franchise? Democracy is inherently risky, since people may change their minds. You can guess what kind of people on average will vote for limited government, which is the basis for restricting immigration to WASPs or white people, but that is a crude measure, excluding many people who might be ideologically sympathetic and including many who might not be. Some of the most welfare-dependent parts of the country are majority WASP, such as in Appalachia.

It’s getting late and I’m too tired to continue the discussion, but if you’re reading this, thanks for bearing with me. I’ll try to return later with clearer and conciser thoughts on the topic.

Ethnic homogeneity and liberty

I’m reading Tom Woods’ “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”. The book got predictable criticism from liberals and neoconservatives for its sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy and skepticism towards the New Deal, but right at the very beginning he makes an interesting point that should give many conservatives (if not libertarians) pause. The point is this: while from our viewpoint the first European settlers in America were highly homogeneous, being all white Protestants from the British Isles, they were in fact culturally quite diverse, being split between Massachusetts Puritans, Virginian aristocrats, Delaware valley Quakers and Appalachian hillbillies. This diversity in turn gave rise to a great deal of mutual suspicion and hostility, which in turn led them to insist on a central government that left local communities as much alone as possible to run their own affairs.

In the current debate, conservatives have taken the lead in arguing for immigration restriction, with the more sophisticated among them pointing to much evidence that ethnic diversity harm trust levels in society. However, in the US at least, these conservatives also generally bemoan the expansion of government and the growth of the welfare state. But if Woods is right, then the last thing we should try to do, if we want to roll back the welfare state, is insist on keeping ourselves ethnically homogeneous. Instead, the more diversity we encourage through immigration, the more likely that political pressures will arise that will force central government to back off, returning ourselves to the highly decentralized system of the early US.

Strict enumeration of powers and limited government

Lately I’ve been bumping into a lot of hardcore libertarians who disdain the US Constitution as just another apology for statism. In the context of US politics, where fidelity to the Constitution is a hallmark of the Ron Paul Revolution and the Tea Party movement, this attitude seems bizarre. Most of these types seem to be anarcho-capitalists anyway, i.e. they don’t believe in any state at all, not even a highly limited one that would be prepared to defend property rights, right to liberty and freedom from coercion and the other assorted “natural rights”. But not all of them identify as such. Sometimes they cite the anti-Federalists, who believed the Constitution gave the federal government too much power. For a strong believer in “states’ rights”, this attitude could make sense, but for a serious libertarian, not so much, since the anti-Federalists were not proto-libertarians, but simply wanted to give more powers to the states. As US history has shown, even where federal powers have been highly curtailed, state powers have been extensive, denying people all sorts of liberties. Weak federal government is not a recipe for a libertarian society.

Yet I believe in a weak federal government, even though I also believe in libertarianism as a general principle. I would prefer all levels of government to respect natural rights and individual liberties, but I prefer these issues to be resolved locally, rather than giving federal authority the power to override lower levels of government in the name of “freedom”. The revolution must be bottom-up, not top-down.

One thing I’m really coming to admire about the original constitution is the explicit enumeration of federal powers in article 1, section 8. Dogmatic libertarians may quibble over the powers given to Congress in that section, e.g. Congress has the power to establish a post office and post roads, while many distinguished non-anarchist libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, have argued for the complete privatization of both roads and the postal service. But the point is that, whatever your views on the theory of government and the kinds of powers a government should have, the strict enumeration of powers in the constitution forced a certain restraint on all parties. Whether you liked it or not, the Constitution authorized Congress to establish a post office, but not to establish a national education or healthcare system, for example. This forces politicians to work these issues out at a local level, which in my view is always a better thing, better than trying to force a single ideological vision on the entire nation.

I suppose one could be a strict constructionist about the constitution, while also adhering to Austrian economic principles and other libertarian ideas. The fact that the constitution authorizes a federal post office does not require Congress to establish such an office. But I like that the constitution, as originally framed, only allows discretion in one direction, i.e. in the direction of less government.

Now, if only we could get Congress to just limit itself to its constitutional limits. How did they end up expanding their powers so far beyond the original constitutional vision? That’s the subject for a later post.

Optimism and pessimism

I am pessimistic about the prospects for liberty and restrained government. A recent piece in Politico points to Rand Paul’s flagging campaign as evidence that America has lost its libertarian, if indeed it ever had it. Republican voters seem to prefer the xenophobic economic nationalism of Trump or the warmongering of the other candidates to Paul’s all-round message of restraint both at home and abroad. Democrats, meanwhile, are flocking to the socialist Bernie Sanders, with the runner up being the interventionist Hillary Clinton, as bad as your average GOP runner.

I’m optimistic in that the laws of economics are what they are. Our society will either succeed despite government attempts to repress it, or else we will eventually be forced to pay the cost of our bad choices and the correct choices will become that much more obvious. In the long run, liberty must win.