Friday, February 23, 2018

The Trees



There is unrest in the Forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the Maples want more sunlight
And the Oaks ignore their pleas.

-        The Trees, Rush


This book is a compilation of sixteen essays by Murray Rothbard.  The title of the book is also the opening essay: Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature.  It is this opening essay that I will examine in this post.

For well over a century, the Left has generally been conceded to have morality, justice, and “idealism” on its side; the Conservative opposition to the Left has largely been confined to the “impracticality” of its ideals.

With this, Rothbard sets the stage.  The Conservatives have ceded the moral ground; by doing so, they have created an environment where the Left can achieve gradual change – over the long run “practicality” cannot succeed against “moral” and “ethical.”

Rothbard describes the “impracticality” argument as one that holds up economic considerations against the Left’s ideals.  I find this a tremendously important point.  In how many arguments in favor of libertarian (or supposedly libertarian) ideals are the economic justifications raised, while moral and ethical considerations are deemed secondary – if even considered?

The trouble with the Maples
(And they’re quite convinced they’re right)
They say the Oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light

Regarding the value judgment on behalf of “equality,” Rothbard asks:

Is there no requirement that these value judgments be in some sense valid, meaningful, cogent, true?

How is one to judge what is “valid, meaningful, cogent, true?”  From the Introduction to the First Edition, Rothbard writes:

Libertarianism is a new and emerging discipline which touches closely on many other areas of the study of human action: economics, philosophy, political theory, history, even – and not least – biology.

“True” is found in the reality of humanity.  Essentially, the student of libertarianism cannot ignore the reality of the world around him, the reality of humans as they are, the reality of the successes and failures in history and the causes of these.  The better grounded the student of libertarianism is in this reality, the better grounded his advocacy in this reality, the more seriously will his ideas be considered.

But the Oaks can’t help their feelings
If they like the way they’re made
And they wonder why the Maples
Can’t be happy in their shade?

Rothbard asks: “should equality be granted its current status as an unquestioned ethical ideal?  In response, he offers:

Thursday, February 22, 2018

An Impossible Task



Tell him to buy me an acre of land,
Between the salt water and the sea sand,
Tell him to plough it with a ram's horn,
And sow it all over with one peppercorn,
Tell him to sheer't with a sickle of leather,
And bind it up with a peacock's feather,
Tell him to thrash it on yonder wall,
And never let one corn of it fall,
Then he shall be a true lover of mine.

-        Female Part, Scarborough Fair

John Mauldin has written a piece on the task of the Federal Reserve.  The title is sufficient to disabuse anyone of the idea of central planning money and credit – although the title only tells part of the story: Data-Dependent ... on Imaginary Data.

He begins with the oft-stated mantra by the Fed: “our decisions are data dependent!”

…how could their policy choices not be data-dependent? The only alternatives would be that they made decisions randomly or that there was an a priori path already determined by previous Fed policymakers that they were forced to comply with.

Or that they make decisions politically….

He asks: are they looking at the right data?  Is the data accurate?  We know the answer to the first: it isn’t the right data because it can’t be the right data – the right data can’t be measured; the right data is tens of millions of individual decisions every day, not yet even know to the actors, let alone to the Fed.

Well, if it isn’t the right data, it doesn’t really matter if it is accurate, does it.  But it isn’t accurate, either.

Mauldin cites an op-ed by Jared Bernstein (bolded by Mauldin):

Recent events have exposed a hole in the middle of economists’ knowledge of key economic parameters: We know neither the unemployment rate at full employment nor the potential level of gross domestic product (GDP).

Recent events?  What about 2008?  What about every bust since 1913?

In any case, that’s a problem if you want to centrally plan money and credit.  But no respectable writer will label the Fed’s work as communist-style central planning.  As is pointed out often enough to me, I am no respectable writer.

Mauldin continues by offering several ways by which such economic statistics are little more than guessing.  He doesn’t offer that they are guesses about wrong things, but in many cases this is also true.  For instance, why is GDP considered to measure the health of the economy?  Do you measure your economic well-being by how much you spend?  Is it irrelevant what you spend your money on and why?

The various hurricanes and fires of the last year have been a boon to GDP – a boon to spending.  What does this say about the health of the economy?  The best case is a return to where we were before these tragedies.  Does the broken window fallacy come to mind?

GDP is good for one thing: it measures state-accessible-product.  Much of taxation is dependent on economic activity, and GDP measures economic activity.  That’s it.

Mauldin accepts that the Fed must act on such whimsical data; this despite comparing the Fed to your doctor or an airplane pilot: would you trust either of these professionals with your life if all they had was data as useless as GDP and unemployment?  Of course not:

All this is very obvious to people who lack graduate degrees, yet for some reason the economics profession persists in thinking it knows things it simply does not. Economists have physics envy. They want their profession to be a hard science, when it is probably one of the softer of the soft sciences.

If the market is competent to set long-term rates or LIBOR, then maybe we should trust the market to set short-term rates.

This is the closest I have heard Mauldin come to suggesting an end to the Fed.  But he doesn’t.  The Fed governors should be more humble, but central planning should not be discarded:

That doesn’t mean there would be no role for the Fed. There are points in the economic cycle when the Fed can be quite useful, typically during a liquidity crisis that follows hard on the heels of too much irrational exuberance.

Irrational exuberance.  Let a few major money-center banks go belly up (along with the wealth of its stockholders, bondholders and executive management) next time and you will go a long way toward purging the system of irrational exuberance.  In other words, if there is some reason for the Fed to exist, it shouldn’t be to bail out stupid banks.

Conclusion

Think about this: 12 people sit around a table, chew the fat over masses of data and metadata, and then set the price for the most important commodity in the world: the US dollar, the world’s reserve currency.

Yes, think about this.  It doesn’t take much thought to conclude that this is a power no small group of people should have; it is a responsibility that is impossible to carry out.  It is central planning “for the most important commodity in the world.”

I have a better idea: End the Fed.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Fall of the Ottomans




In this book, Eugene Rogan tells the story of the Great War in the Middle East – not from the side of the Great Powers, but from the side of the Ottomans.

He begins with the story of his great-uncle, Lance Corporal John McDonald.  His great-uncle was born in a small Scottish village.  Along with his friend, Charles Beveridge, McDonald enlisted with the 8th Scottish Rifles (the “Cameronians”) when war broke out.

They said farewell to friends and family on 17 May 1915, headed to the eastern Mediterranean.  They arrived at the Greek island of Lemnos, the staging post for British and Allied forces, on 29 May – one month after the fighting on Gallipoli had broken out.  By mid-June they sailed onward to the peninsula.

Passing some who had returned from the fighting, the fresh-faced recruits would shout out: “Are we downhearted?  No!”  In reply, “some Australian wag” shouted back, “Well you damned soon will be.”

On 14 June, the battalion was safely ashore, and four days later they were headed up Gully Ravine to the fighting.  On 28 June, following two hours of bombardment from the sea, the 8th Scottish Rifles came out of their trenches and attacked.  Within five minutes, they were wiped out.  McDonald died in the camp hospital; the body of his friend Beveridge was never found, assumed to be in the unidentifiable conglomeration of remains buried in a mass grave only after the war.

The author, Rogan, went to Gallipoli in 2005 to see firsthand this place of infamy – and the site of his great-uncle’s death.  He was accompanied by his mother and his son, the first family visitors in nine decades.  While trying to find the Lancashire Landing Cemetery, they took a wrong turn and ended up at the Nuri Yamut Monument – a memorial to the Turkish war dead of the same battle in which his great-uncle died.

While my great-uncle’s unit suffered 1,400 casualties – half its total strength – and British losses overall reached 3,800, as many as 14,000 Ottomans fell dead and wounded at Gully Ravine….All the books I had read on the Cameronians treated the terrible waste of British life on the day my great-uncle died.  None of the English sources had mentioned the thousands of Turkish war dead.

It was this Ottoman front that turned the European war into what we now call a World War.  Certainly there were other battle lines outside of Europe, but none as devastating and devastated.  As if to emphasize the “world” participants, the author offers:

Australians and New Zealanders, every ethnicity in South Asia, North Africans, Senegalese and Sudanese made common cause with French, English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish soldiers against the Turkish, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, and Circassian combatants in the Ottoman army and their German and Austrian allies.

Battles were fought in the territory of the modern states of Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.

Of course, there was also an eastern front to the Ottoman war in which all of the same Ottoman combatants would fight against Russians and other minority populations of the Russian Empire.  It seems this region has been facing Armageddon for over 100 years – with armies from all around the world fighting over a few square miles of desert.

For the Ottoman Turks, this war was existential.  After reaching the peak of their power and territory in 1529, with Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the gates of Vienna, the Ottoman armies made their final push on Vienna in 1683 – with the empire spanning three continents.

Over the next two centuries, slowly and regularly, control over this territory was lost – Greece and the various Balkan provinces gained independence during the nineteenth century; Britain, France, and Russia controlled much of the rest.  The Ottomans were faced with internal and external threats – no longer the end of empire, but now facing the end of Turkish rule.

Now it is 1908.  We will pick up the story here next time.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Twenty-first Century Conservatism



I can hear the howls in the audience already, given the title of this post….

Jordan Peterson gave a presentation entitled “12 principles for a 21st century conservatism.”  While I will not cover all twelve, there are several that dovetail nicely with topics discussed here and with my views of the cultural soil required if one wishes to develop and maintain a reasonably libertarian social order.

As I am taking his comments from a video and not a transcript, I have done my best to capture the words and the intent.

The fundamental assumptions of western civilization are valid.  He determines this with simple, rhetorical questions: Which countries do people want to move away from?  Which countries do people want to move to?

What does he mean by “valid”?  He does not describe it in this presentation, however given what he has said elsewhere is seems to me that “valid” is something like that which sustains and improves life.  In other words, people aren’t moving to the west (and avoiding places like Africa and much of Asia) because they hope that their lives will worsen.

Peaceful social being is preferable to isolation and to war; this demands some sacrifice of individual impulse and idiosyncrasy.  Yes, I know this isn’t the NAP.  But without “peaceful social being,” there is no chance that a society will approach and / or remain reasonably close to a libertarian society. It requires something of each individual within that society – something that I have described as agreeing to live in a manner that accords with the generally accepted culture and traditions.

The idea of egalitarianism is folly.  I don’t think I need expand on this for this audience; in any case, I am thinking to write something on this topic in the next several days.

Borders and limits on immigration are reasonable.  He makes an interesting argument about borders: we have borders around everything – our property, our relationships, and our time (I hadn’t thought of that).  Without borders, everything mashes into untenable chaos.  As to immigration, he really put it well (paraphrased):

A complex system cannot tolerate extensive transformation over too short a time.  Arms-open-to-everyone immigration policy is rubbish.  It should not be assumed that citizens of societies that have not evolved functional individual rights-predicated polities will hold values in keeping with such polities.

[And in his dripping, sarcastic tone] Don’t assume that when they immigrate that they will have their innate democratic longings flourish.

Respecting the value of the traditional nuclear family.  It looks like that structure worked quite well for the duration of mankind, maybe we should leave it alone.

Government should leave each of us alone as much as possible.  He offers an argument similar to Hayek’s “The Pretense of Knowledge” speech. 

Conclusion

None really.  I know it isn’t plumb-line libertarianism, but it does support what I believe to be necessary if one wants to ever see something approaching that plumb-line libertarianism come to fruition.  Which you would think, after all, is the objective.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

When the State is the Only Option



The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray N. Rothbard; May 1, 1970

When we last left Rothbard’s bi-weekly dialogue through this periodical, he concluded that the New Left was dead, having abandoned any connection to true libertarian objectives such as its anti-war stand.  I remind you of this because the story continues with this edition.

Rothbard identifies several instances of the New Left attacking, occupying, or destroying private property, for example:

Recently, hooliganesses of the Women’s Liberation Movement seized the offices of Grove Press, and issued numerous “demands.”

Grove Press called in the police to carry those female invaders out, and proceeded to charge them with criminal trespass.

This seems to me a reasonable response to the trespass; yet, I know that there is a libertarian objection – one which Rothbard addresses (emphasis added):

But, it might be asked, isn’t it a terrible thing to call in the state police for self-defense?  Certainly not.  While no libertarian enjoys calling on the State for defense, the fact remains that the State had arrogated to itself a compulsory monopoly of the function of police protection.

Let me get this straight: if the State has a “compulsory monopoly” on what would otherwise be a perfectly libertarian-consistent function, Rothbard does not believe that anyone who suggests it is acceptable for a libertarian to utilize the State to carry out that function somehow loses his NAP membership card.

For example, say your house is on fire; it seems it is OK to call the county fire department (thank God).  Or, say you want to get to the department store; it is not a capital offense to drive on public roads (too bad, now I have to go to work next week).  How about if you want to buy a candy bar?  Sure, go ahead and spend those Federal Reserve Notes (there goes the paleo diet). 

So…I have this problem…me and a bunch of my neighbors decide we like the make-up of our neighborhood.  In fact, everyone in the county feels about the same.  We don’t want Commies moving in – not anywhere near us, not anywhere that they can get a foothold in our neighborhood, in our city hall – even in our state capital.

For goodness’ sakes, they are Commies!

Now, if all property was private, it is perfectly consistent with the non-aggression principle for us to agree to such a thing and enforce it.  But I don’t even need to say “if all property was private.”  Any polity can decide such a thing: no Commies allowed within the geographic area that incorporates all of our homes and businesses and schools (and the roads and parks that we have paid for through taxes).

But…but…but…we have no means to enforce this voluntarily, through private means.  You know why that is; actually, let me allow Rothbard to remind you why:

“…the fact remains that the State had arrogated to itself a compulsory monopoly of the function of police border protection.”

So, I ask…if it is OK to utilize the State for the purpose of protecting private property when the State has taken a monopoly in the function of protecting private property, why is it not OK to utilize the State for the purpose of protecting the private property of me and a few thousand of my neighbors when the State has taken a monopoly in the function of protecting the private property of me and a few thousand of my neighbors?

I’m just asking.

Bonus Coverage

There is more.  Remember those “hooliganesses of the Women’s Liberation Movement” mentioned by Rothbard earlier?

And it is not only the current means employed by the Left that I am attacking; it is also their newfound ends as well.  Of what relevance to libertarianism, for example, are the demands of the Women’s Liberationists?  In what way is it “libertarian” to foist their perverted values upon the general culture and upon society?

One can think of many “perverted values” foisted on society during and since the inception of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  These “perverted values” seem to be foisted at an ever-increasing rate.  Many so-called libertarians delight in these “perverted values” being foisted on society.

Rothbard asks: in what way is this “libertarian”?  Rothbard leaves the rhetorical question unanswered, but Rothbard is clearly leading a horse to water.  He is quite clear – it is in no way “libertarian.”

Now I suppose that Rothbard could mean that libertarianism is indifferent to such matters.  Technically, this rings true to my ears.  But take his tone.  He is not writing in a manner of indifference.  He is placing some value in the “culture”; he identifies these New Left values as “perverted” toward this culture. 

If one could ask Rothbard today, do you think that he would suggest that these “perverted values” would be helpful or harmful toward achieving and maintaining a libertarian order?  Or would he be indifferent?

I will leave these rhetorical questions unanswered…but the water is right in front of you.  Care to take a drink?