Power & Market
Jeff Deist recently joined our friend Jay Taylor's podcast.
Many billionaires—Ray Dalio, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates among them— like to call for higher taxes on people such as themselves. But this raises a compelling question: would they have become rich in the first place under the kind of tax system they now advocate? Would they have accumulated a critical mass of investment capital if taxes had consumed more of their profits along the way? Would they have been able to maintain sufficient capital expenditures in their respective businesses to stay dynamic? Or would revenue, capital, and personal wealth lost to the IRS have relegated these super achievers to the status of merely successful? Jeff provides insights into those questions.
Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew, Eds. University of Pittsburgh Press. Xi + 460 pages.1
This excellent book mirrors in its choice of contributors the odd relationship between Ayn Rand and libertarianism. On the one hand, her own proposals for the political organization of society are a version of minimal state libertarianism, and her novels and essays have had an enormous impact on many libertarians. On the other hand, she not only denied she was a libertarian but denounced libertarianism in characteristically fierce fashion. The anarchist position of Murray Rothbard especially aroused her opposition.
Many of the contributors to the book are members of the “official” Objectivist organization of philosophers, the Ayn Rand Society, but others, including Matt Zwolinski, Peter Boettke, and Michael Huemer, are not Objectivists. The “official” Objectivists are more inclined than was Rand herself to acknowledge the similarity between her political thought and libertarianism, but, like her, they criticize libertarianism and denounce Rothbard’s anarchism.
In what follows, I shall address the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism, as these are likely to be of most interest to readers of mises.org. Before turning to this, though, I should like to examine the more general criticism of libertarianism raised by the Objectivists, as this has considerable philosophical value.
Given the manifest similarity between Rand’s political proposals and minimal state libertarianism, why are Objectivists so critical of libertarianism? One is tempted to ask them, “All right, you don’t like anarchism, but why isn’t support for a minimal state that has no power to tax and for laissez-faire capitalism enough for you? What more do you want?” Their answer is that non-Objectivist libertarianism lacks proper philosophical foundations. In the absence of these foundations, libertarians are unable adequately to support their political conclusions.
As an example, Darryl Wright, a philosophy professor at Harvey Mudd College and a rising star among Objectivist philosophers, criticizes Rothbard for not grounding his non-aggression principle in normative ethics. Although Rothbard accepted an ethics of natural law, he also held that political philosophy was autonomous, and this was his fatal error: “The source of the difficulties with Rothbard’s conception of aggression. . .lies in a particular way of understanding self-ownership, which in turn proceeds from Rothbard’s commitment to what I will call the autonomy of political philosophy. By this I mean the view that political philosophy should be independent of normative ethics---that is, independent of any substantive ethical theory applicable to the whole of one’s life.” (p.107). More generally, Wright says, “Since Rand’s approach to philosophy is holistic, a proper understanding of the[non-initiation of force] principle requires us to see how it grows out of her more fundamental positions in ethics and epistemology. . .” (p.16)
Harry Binswanger, who along with Leonard Peikoff is the most senior philosopher of the Ayn Rand Society, in his response to Michael Huemer also stresses the need for foundations: “Rand repeatedly criticized the libertarians for treating the non-initiation of force principle as if it were an axiom, observing that is a quite derivative principle, requiring a complete philosophic base.” (p.273)
What are the proper ethical foundations? Here the Objectivists begin from an indisputable truth: Human beings need to use reason in order to survive. Animals survive through instinct, but for human beings, as Wright says, “functioning is not determined by our genetics. . .We must create the equivalent state [to that of animals] in ourselves---in our souls---a state that can underwrite the basic kinds of cognitive and existential actions that our lives require over their entire span.” (p.18) (When I say that this truth is indisputable, I do not mean to endorse the use that Objectivists make of it in ethical theory. That is far from indisputable.)
Human beings need reason to survive, but what is reason? Here Rand’s theory of concept formation comes to the fore. We abstract concepts through “measurement omission” from preconceptual perceptual states. From these concepts, further abstractions take place, and this process continues, creating a hierarchy of concepts. However high the hierarchy grows, it is grounded in first-level concepts abstracted from percepts.
I do not propose here to dispute this account of concepts, but two uses of the theory, much emphasized by Objectivists, do not follow from it. Suppose it is right that the mind acquires concepts in just the way that Rand suggests. It is a further step, and one that seems to me unsupported, to say that we ought to bring this process of hierarchical concept formation under our conscious control. That is to say, Objectivists hold that we ought to trace our concepts back to their perceptual foundation and that, at each stage in the hierarchy, we should be able to produce a clear definition of the concept abstracted at that stage.
Perhaps the process of abstraction operates better when it proceeds without conscious direction. What exactly is the argument that it does not? Are those who endeavor to bring concept formation under conscious control better able to survive than those who do not? That seems a matter open to investigation, and I am unaware of any studies that show this to be the case. To sharpen what is at issue, the question I raise is not whether those who are rational are more likely than the irrational to survive. Rather, it is whether rationality requires, or even suggests, that consciously tracing concepts to their grounding in perception is more rational than not doing so. To anticipate an objection, in speaking of the need for investigation I am not assuming the truth of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, brought into question in a famous essay by Leonard Peikoff. I do not claim that all truths not in a narrow sense “analytic” are contingent; rather, I question whether a particular claim about reason is true, let alone necessarily true. Objectivists have moved uncritically from the obviously true claim that we need reason to survive to the unsupported claim that using our reason in a particular way aids our survival.
There is another claim made by Objectivists that seems to me dubious. They stress a proper hierarchy of knowledge, in which one begins with a theory of concepts, used to ground ethics, which in turn grounds political philosophy. The theory of concepts on this view is at the most fundamental level. It does not follow from this that the hierarchy may be without argument transmuted into a theory of historical causation, according to which beneficial or harmful political doctrines stem ultimately from the theory of concepts held by their advocates. This theory of causation is basic to the account of Nazism in Dr. Peikoff’s well-known book The Ominous Parallels a book that in my opinion does not succeed in making its case. 2
Before getting to the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism, I should like to make one further point about Rand’s philosophy. Objectivists contend that the concept of value stems from life. Not only is the Objectivist account of value better than rival theories of value, it is the sole basis for the concept of value. As Dr. Binswanger states, “The essential point is this: only life makes possible an objective, nonarbitrary distinction between value and disvalue, or good and bad. . .It is the conditionality of life upon action that creates good-for and bad –for.”(p.265, emphasis in original)
That is a possible story about how the concept of value is acquired, but I cannot see why it is more than that. (Again, in raising this objection, I take as given that we need to use reason in order to survive and I do not challenge Rand’s account of concept acquisition.) What precludes defenders of other theories of value from suggesting their own theories of how the concept of value---of course using another definition of value from that of the Objectivists—is acquired? Life is conditional on action, but how exactly does this generate an account of how the concept of value must be acquired? Why is this particular conception of value the concept of value?
Let us now turn to the criticisms of Rothbard’s anarchism. To a large extent, these criticisms rest on a misapprehension of Rothbard’s position. For example, Dr. Binswanger assumes that on an anarcho-capitalist view, people are free to exercise force at their discretion. He contrasts this with Rand’s position, in which the use of force is based on objectively true standards. “The attempt to invoke individual rights to justify ‘competing’ with the government collapses at the first attempt to concretize what it would mean in reality. Picture a band of strangers marching down Main Street, submachine guns at the ready. When confronted by the police, the leader of the band announces: 'Me and the boys are only here to see that justice is done, so you have no right to interfere with us.’ According to the ‘libertarian anarchists,’ in such confrontation the police are morally bound to withdraw, on pains of betraying the rights of self-defense and free trade.” (p.229)
Against this, Dr. Binswanger says: “In fact, of course, there is no conflict between individual rights and outlawing private force: there is no right to the arbitrary use of force. No political or moral principle could require the police to stand by helplessly while others use force arbitrarily—that is, according to whatever private notions of justice they happen to hold.” (p.229)
This objection has no relevance to Rothbard’s position. He too believed in an objective law code, largely based on the tradition of common law, not on agencies with conflicting views deferring to one another or “fighting it out.” In a review of Bruno Leoni’s Freedom and the Law, he says: “In short, there exists another alternative for law in society, an alternative not only to administrative decree or statutory legislation, but even to judge-made law. That alternative is the libertarian law, based on the criterion that violence may only be used against those who initiate violence, and based therefore on the inviolability of the person and property of every individual from "invasion" by violence. In practice, this means taking the largely libertarian common law, and correcting it by the use of man's reason, before enshrining it as a permanently fixed libertarian code or constitution. And it means the continual interpretation and application of this libertarian law code by experts and judges in privately competitive courts.” See, e.g. this article regarding law without legislation.
Another objection to anarcho-capitalism also fails. Dr. Binswanger advances a startling claim: “Ultimately, anarchists who oppose monopoly government have to end up as pacifists. This is because all force is monopolistic. . .There is no such thing as force that lets dissenters go their own way. Force does not tolerate ‘to each his own.’ Force is precisely the attempt to subjugate another’s will to one’s own. If force in self-defense is justified, this means that monopolizing an interaction is justified. If I use force to defend myself against an aggressor I am not trying to persuade him---I am attempting to stop him from acting as he chooses. If the government monopolization of force were wrong, so would be the private use of force by individuals. The argument against government’s monopoly on force is thus an argument against self-defense, and it leads to pacifism.” (p.278)
This objection baffles me, because it has nothing to do with the dispute between Rothbard and supporters of Rand’s minimal state. Whether using force against an aggressor is inconsistent with persuasion may well be a significant topic, but the question at issue is whether objective law requires a state. Even if Dr. Binswanger is right about persuasion and the aggressor, so what?
All of the essays in this collection merit careful study. I especially admire Lester Hunt’s outstanding analysis of rights as side constraints in “Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick on Rights”
Ayn Rand was an important thinker, but she was not always right.
- 1. I am grateful to Mr. Neil Parille for sending me a copy of this book and asking me to review it.
- 2. I hope I may be allowed a personal note. My review of the book, written for Inquiry so long ago as 1982, has been the second most criticized of all my reviews. My most criticized review was of a book written by an admirer of a well-known painting by Frans Hals.
Libertarianism. By Eric Mack. Polity Press, 2018. Vi + 167 pages. + online bonus chapter http://politybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Mack-Libertarian-FINAL-Online-Chapter-pdf.pdf
Eric Mack, for many years a philosophy professor at Tulane University, has a well-deserved reputation as a critic of philosophical arguments, and that talent is on abundant display in Libertarianism. In what follows, I shall comment on only a very few of Mack’s penetrating discussions.
The book is intended as an introductory guide to libertarianism, which Mack characterizes as “advocacy of individual liberty as the fundamental political norm. An individual’s liberty is understood as that individual not being subject to interference by other agents in her doing as she deems fit with her own person and legitimate holdings.” (p.1) The position may be defended with varying degrees of strictness, ranging from hardcore libertarians, who confine coercion to the protection of individual liberty, to soft-core libertarians, who allow coercion for a few additional reasons, such as aid when people are in “dire straits.” As the extent of permissible coercion grows, libertarianism shades into classical liberalism.
What is the justification for libertarianism? Mack distinguishes three principal answers, though noting that libertarianism can be defended in other ways as well. “There is the natural rights theme, according to which certain deep truths about human beings and their prospective interaction allow us to infer that each person has certain basic (‘natural’) moral rights that must be respected by all other persons, groups, and institutions.” (p.40)
Here I wonder whether one should make a distinction. Sometimes people use the term “natural rights” to mean basic rights, but sometimes people have in mind a narrower usage. In this understanding, it follows from human nature that human beings have certain rights. For example, in the Objectivist philosophy, because you need freedom in order to survive as a rational being, you have a right to freedom. There is no “is-ought” gap. Philosophers like Nozick, who accept the is-ought gap, would in this usage count as supporters of basic rights but not of natural rights.
The second justification for libertarianism “is the cooperation to mutual advantage theme, according to which general compliance with certain principles of justice engenders a cooperative social and economic order that is advantageous to all its members.”(pp.4-5) These two justifications vie in popularity among libertarians, but there is a third justification as well, though this has been less influential. “A third possible approach. . .is a form of utilitarianism that maintains that the greatest happiness must be pursued indirectly through steadfast compliance with certain constraining moral norms—as it turns out, pretty much the same constraining norms that are celebrated by the natural rights and mutual advantage approaches.” (p.5)
Mack takes Locke to be an example of the first approach, Hume of the second, and John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer of the third. Among twentieth-century figures, he concentrates on Robert Nozick as a representative of the natural rights approach and Friedrich Hayek as a representative of the mutual advantage approach. Mack devotes most of the book to a close analysis of these two great thinkers. He mentions Murray Rothbard, who exerted a profound influence on Nozick, several times, but I wish he had devoted more space to him. Mack in the bonus online chapter subjects to critical scrutiny a number of contemporary libertarians: Hillel Steiner, Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, Loren Lomasky, and David Schmidtz.
In what follows, I shall comment on only a few points. These concern Robert Nozick though some of the issues are relevant to others as well. This makes for an idiosyncratic review, but Nozick’s thought has fascinated me since I first encountered it some forty-five years ago, and that is why I have chosen this path. Despite the narrow scope of my review, I hope that readers will gain some idea of Mack’s concerns and his style of argument.
Mack gives an excellent account of the argument, given by both John Rawls and Nozick, that utilitarianism does not take seriously the separateness of persons. The greatest happiness principle may require that you sacrifice yourself for the benefit of society. But, so the objection goes, this wrongly assimilates an individual’s sacrifice of part of himself for his overall good to the sacrifice of a person for the good of society. You may need to have your leg amputated to save your life, but there is no social entity having persons as its parts.
Mack considers a utilitarian response to the point raised by Rawls and Nozick, which does not rely “on the conflation of persons into a social entity.” (p.45) This response is that “what makes it rational for an individual to incur a lesser cost within her own life in order to attain a greater benefit within her own life is simply that the benefit is greater than the cost. The fact that the cost and the benefits are hers---that they both occur with her life---plays no role in making rational the production of the greater benefit at the lesser cost. Therefore, no contentious inference is needed to get from the so-called principle of individual choice to the principle of social choice.” (p.45, emphasis in original)
Mack responds on behalf of Rawls and Nozick to this rejoinder. They might reply that the rationality of prudential sacrifices within the life of one individual is “far less contentious” than the utilitarian’s balancing of costs and benefits across lives. (p.46) Can one show that utilitarian balancing is rational, without assuming the existence of a social entity with persons as parts? It seems doubtful that one can.
Mack’s response is excellent, but another answer is also worth considering. James Buchanan maintains that if one takes adequate account of the subjectivity of costs and benefits, a cost or benefit exists only relative to a single person. Your cost or benefit may be a cost or benefit to me, but only if I view it as one. I do not say that this view is correct, but it is at least worth considering. (Amartya Sen, like Buchanan a Nobel laureate in economics, thought there was a great deal to be said in favor of Buchanan’s view) If it is correct, benefits and costs cannot be added up across persons.
After a careful discussion of Nozick’s condemnation of using others as means, Mack says, “Nozick is concerned that his unqualified condemnation of using others as means will support anti-libertarian prohibitions, , for example, taking pleasure in another person’s appearance or trading with another person to one’s advantage. He then rules out such implications by declaring that, for the purposes of political philosophy, we need only be concerned ‘with certain ways that persons may not use others: primarily, physically aggressing against them. [quoting Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia]However, this restriction is ad hoc because no reason is given for why political philosophy should only be concerned with this subset of usings.” (p.49, emphasis in original)
I do not think this objection altogether fair to Nozick, though it would be no doubt desirable to show how this view of political philosophy can be deduced from moral theory, as Nozick acknowledges. Confining political philosophy to the topic of when force is permissible (or obligatory) is not idiosyncratic to Nozick but a commonly used approach, especially among libertarians. He might respond to Mack, applying a strategy he often used on critics, ---much to their frustration, I might add---- that the problem of why political philosophy is thus confined is no more a problem for him than for anyone else. As such, it should not be taken as a decisive criticism of him.
Mack makes an excellent criticism of Nozick’s argument that if one starts with a network of competing protective agencies, as free market anarchists like Rothbard wish, “one of the protective agencies or the cooperative network as a whole seems to attain a natural ( non-coerced) monopoly in the provision of protective services.” (p.117), Nozick contends that if an agency or group of agencies attracts more clients than its rival agencies, there will be a cascade of new clients to it, because people will find it less costly to settle disputes if they are in the same agency. This will enable the largest agency to become a de facto monopoly. Mack is skeptical: “The fact that it may be less complicated and costly to resolve automobile collision claims when both parties are customers of the same insurance company has not led to one company having a virtual monopoly within the automobile insurance business. In addition, Nozick’s argument seems to overestimate the homogeneity of the services that competing protective agencies would offer.” (p.117)
There is an additional point here that seems worth making. Suppose that the process Nozick describes results in everyone’s joining the same agency. In that case, we would not have a state as Nozick characterizes it, because one of his requirements for a state is that it offers free or low-cost protective services to disadvantaged independents who are not its clients. Thus, Nozick requires for his argument to the minimal state to succeed that the very process by which the derivation starts will come to an end before it completes itself, but he offers no reason for this.
Mack raises against Nozick the specter of public goods. “For our purposes here, we can think of a public good as a good which, if it is produced and enjoyed by some members of a given public, cannot readily be withheld from other members of that public. . .The standard and useful example of a public good is national-scale defense. . . The conventional economic wisdom. . .is that the total value of the orders that the state or firm [ that offers defense services]will receive will be markedly less than it naively expects.”(p.122) People will prefer to free ride, hoping that others will pay for the good; but if everyone reasons this way, the good will not be purchased.
Mack is certainly right that if anarchist protective agencies or a Nozickian minimal state, lacking the power of taxation, proved unable to supply effective defense, that would be a serious objection indeed. But I think his argument has moved too fast. According to the customary neoclassical analysis, public goods will not be supplied efficiently. It does not follow from that, though, that the good will not be supplied at all, or in a quantity insufficient to “do the job.” The extent of the supply is an empirical matter. It is not a requirement for a theory of libertarian rights that it never requires efficiency losses, as neoclassical theory defines these. (The same difficulty also applies to Mack’s argument for a “dire straits fund” on pp.39-40 of the online bonus chapter.)
Suppose, though, that the free market turns out to be unable to supply defense. Would Mack then be correct when he says that a taxation minimal state may be justifiable on Nozickian grounds? He says, “Persons’ rights indicate what must not be done to them---or more specifically, what must not be done to them without their consent. But what about cases in which consent is not feasible?. . .A person’s right over her own body entails that she has a right not to be cut open without her consent even by an expert surgeon seeking to save her life. However, what if the person who needs that surgery to save her life is already unconscious and, hence, unable to give consent? If it is permissible for the surgeon to proceed with the needed surgery on the already unconscious individual, this seems to be true because the requirement that the subject consent to the physical intervention is really a requirement that she consent if and only if consent is feasible.” (pp.123-124)
If this is right, then, “the libertarian advocate of the TMS may argue that, precisely because of the non-feasibility of attaining consent from individuals to make payments in exchange for the public good of rights-protection, it is permissible to impose those payments without actual consent.” (p.124, emphasis in original)
I do not think this argument succeeds. In the first case, it is permissible to proceed with the life-saving operation because there is reason to believe that is what the patient would want. Most people would. Had she given instructions beforehand not to operate, then the operation would not be permissible. In the taxation case, the reason consent is not feasible is that people refuse to consent. It is hardly plausible to say that I may force you to pay me for my services, because, owing to your refusal of my services, getting your consent is not feasible.
Mack himself raises an important problem for the argument for the taxation minimal state. ”Recall. . . . .that this defense of the TMS turns on a striking assumption about information. It assumes that the state’s tax assessors would know, for each assessed party, what magnitude of taxation would leave that party net better off in light of the value for that party of her receipt of the tax-funded public good of protective services.” (p.124)
In Libertarianism, Mack does not, for the most part, discuss his own views but confines himself to the exposition and criticism of others. An exception is his brilliant presentation of Mises’s calculation argument against socialism (pp.58 ff.), one of the best known to me, where it is clear that he endorses the argument. Readers should be aware though, that Mack has written a large number of papers setting forward his own views in great depth and detail. Readers of Mack’s work will encounter a very fine philosophical intelligence. Few can approach his power of critical analysis. Libertarianism is must reading for anyone interested in libertarian theory.
 For challenges to the neoclassical analysis of public goods, see Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter 23, pp.650 ff; and Anthony de Jasay, Social Contract, Free Ride. See also the discussion in David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government.
After a hiatus of about 10 years, the Mises Institute is resuming publication of the Journal of Libertarian Studies, with volume 23 scheduled to appear before the end of the year. This peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal, with David Gordon as editor, will complement the economics-focused Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.
The influential JLS dates back to 1977, with Murray Rothbard as the founding editor and many of the brightest scholars in libertarianism serving on the editorial board. The first volume contained articles by Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, Walter Block, Ralph Raico, Don Lavoie, Randy Barnett, Williamson Evers, and many others. Back issues of the journal are available here.
Prominent economist and super successful textbook author Greg Mankiw writes:
I have a confession to make: I love the Federal Reserve. And I suspect that, in their heart of hearts, most other economists love the Federal Reserve, too.
But why this gushing profession of love by Mankiw for the Fed? Is it because the Fed provides valuable services to the U.S. economy? Mankiw's answer leaves this all-important question unaddressed:
The nation’s central bank employs about 20,000 Americans. They monitor the economy, develop analyses to help set monetary policy and regulate the banking system. None are paid the extraordinary salaries found at the nation’s private banks. But they do their jobs with solemnity and tenacity and without a whiff of scandal. And, most important, they do their jobs well.
Even the admittedly "unforced errors" that deepened the financial crisis "did not diminish [Mankiw's] love for our central bank." For people, "should not be judged by the standard of perfection. They should be judged by whether they are doing the best they can." On this score, Mankiw gives the Fed a "top grade." And what constitutes the Fed's success "as a public institution"? There are "two ingredients" to its success. First, the the Fed "aims 'to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible and more stable monetary and financial system.'” Note the emphasis I place on the the word "aims." Mankiw does not say something like "by and large, succeeds in attaining." It appears that maximum effort in pursuit of advertised goals rather than actual results achieved is the first criterion by which Mankiw evaluates the Fed. But Mankiw's theory of the Fed's value is even more clearly revealed in the second input to success he proposes:
The second ingredient to the Fed’s success are the talented people who dedicate their lives to it. Every year the Fed recruits new research assistants from top colleges and new staff economists from top Ph.D. programs in economics. Over the years, I have known many great students who have taken these jobs. For someone interested in economic policy, there is no better place to work.
Well, if your beloved public institution doesn't succeed in producing desired results . . . simply appeal to Ricardo's outmoded labor theory of value.
The arrest of Julian Assange has produced rapturous cheering from the American political elite. Hillary Clinton declared that Assange “must answer for what he has done.” Unfortunately, Assange’s arrest will do nothing to prevent the vast majority of conniving politicians and bureaucrats from paying no price for deceiving the American public.
“Truth will out” is a phrase that is routinely recited to keep Americans paying and obeying. Politicians and editorial writers toss this phrase out to simmer down any fears that the government might be conspiring against the people. Actually, “truth will out” is the biggest fairy tale in Washington.
The phrase “truth will out” is first recorded in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Often in Shakespeare’s plays, truths come out only after almost everyone has been conned, stabbed, or screwed. It’s not much better nowadays.
When it comes to politics, “truth will out” should be confined to sarcasm and satire, not to serious pontificating.
Consider the assassination in 1963 of John F. Kennedy. The Johnson administration rushed the Warren Commission to issue a verdict approving the official story of the killing. But the commission announced that the key records would be sealed for 75 years. Truth would out — but not until all the people involved in the coverup had gotten their pensions and died. In 1992, Congress (responding to the uproar provoked by Oliver Stone’s movie on the assassination) shortened the disclosure schedule, but federal agencies are still conniving to withhold key evidence.
The following year, Johnson was running against Barry Goldwater. Folks were warned back then that if they voted for Goldwater, the United States would get involved in a massive land war in Asia. Well, Johnson won and he dragged the United States into the Vietnam War on the basis of totally false claims about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The Johnson administration built entire pyramids of lies about that war — actually, they were funeral pyres, not pyramids. As philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, during the Vietnam War “the policy of lying was hardly ever aimed at the enemy but chiefly if not exclusively destined for domestic consumption, for propaganda at home and especially for the purpose of deceiving Congress.” CIA analysts did excellent work in the early period of the Vietnam conflict. But “in the contest between public statements, always over-optimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public,” she observed.
Fast-forward a few decades to 2003. The Bush administration was claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that he was tied to the 9/11 attacks. Both of those charges turned out to be complete hokum — but they were enough to justify dragging the United States into another pointless war against Iraq. A few years later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, “Ultimately the truth gets out, notwithstanding people’s efforts to the contrary.” For Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, truth was simply another bomb to drop on opponents, at home or abroad. Los Angeles Times columnist William Arkin noted that Rumsfeld’s redesign of military operations “blurs or even erases the boundaries between factual information and news, on the one hand, and public relations, propaganda, and psychological warfare, on the other.” As reported in the New York Times on May 24, 2006, army officers under Rumsfeld’s command bribed Iraqi journalists to produce favorable newspaper and television reports about U.S. military operations. The campaign was aided by psychological warfare experts authorized to use “doctored or false information to deceive or damage the enemy or to bolster support for American efforts.” The program’s exposure spurred momentary outrage in Washington, after which it resumed on a larger scale.
While some people were shocked by Rumsfeld’s manipulations, he was following hallowed Pentagon traditions. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Assistant Defense Secretary Arthur Sylvester announced, “It’s inherent in [the] government’s right, if necessary, to lie to save itself. News generated by the actions of the government … [are] part of the arsenal of weaponry that a President has.” But, as the Pentagon Papers showed, that weapon cripples citizens’ ability to control their government.
The U.S. government became far more secretive after the 9/11 attacks. The federal government made almost 50 million decisions to classify information last year. Politicians and federal agencies have long recognized that “what people don’t know won’t hurt the government.”
U.S. troops are now fighting in 14 foreign nations: will the Pentagon tell us all about it? The chances are slim and none and, as Dan Rather liked to say, “Slim just left town.” And how about our chances of learning the sordid details surrounding the U.S. government’s dealings with the Saudi regime, despite its atrocities at home and abroad?
For an even bigger pipe dream, when do you think we’ll learn the facts of U.S. policy in Syria? The U.S. government has massively intervened in Syrian civil war since 2011. U.S. policy has always been a tangle of contradictions and absurdities: Pentagon-backed Syrian rebels actively battled against CIA-backed Syrian rebels. Maybe backing both factions guaranteed that the U.S. would be on the eventual winning side? When U.S.-backed rebels launch a chemical-weapons attack on civilians, the U.S. government usually simply ignores it: “Oh those boys.” The New Yorker reported in November that the U.S. military is building up its forces in Syria in preparation for a conflict with Iran. I don’t recall that that issue was on the ballot — or on the radar — for the 2018 congressional midterm elections. Will Donald Trump use secrecy to drag the United States into another pointless Middle East war?
I’ve been an investigative journalist for more than 35 years. I have fought many federal agencies to get the facts of what they are doing. Sometimes I get some dirt, sometimes I get a smoking gun — or a few whiffs — but most government coverups succeed.
I have been using the federal Freedom of Information Act since the early 1980s. This law is supposed to make Americans think the government is transparent — federal agencies are bound by law to reply within 20 business days to requests for documents and other information.
Some years ago, I sent out a bunch of FOIA requests to federal agencies to see what they had in their files about me. The FBI replied that they had nothing — even though FBI chief Louis Freeh publicly condemned my articles on Ruby Ridge. No records? The FBI told a lot of lies about the Randy Weaver case — enough to con much of the media — but they got whupped by a brave Idaho jury. There are some federal agencies that routinely and wrongfully deny FOIA requests, presuming that people are not seriously seeking information until they sue the agency in federal court.
I wrote a lot about trade policy in the 1990s and clashed at times with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. I filed a FOIA to get their files on me, including the uproar after I rattled them by acquiring a secret copy of the U.S. tariff code that they had denied existed. Their response came back — “We have no records on Kevin Bovard.” This was not even “close enough for government work,” but it was typical of the charades of disclosure practiced by many agencies.
I have been slamming the Transportation Security Administration for 15 years, so I sent them a FOIA request for their records on me. The TSA chief had publicly condemned an article I wrote in 2014 but their response to my request contained no information on that. Was I supposed to believe that TSA boss John Pistole had typed his retort in an online portal that the newspaper provided, leaving no internal trace?
After a tussle with the TSA at Reagan National Airport back in March, I filed a FOIA request for the videos of that encounter. I have received nothing on that incident and remain sitting on the edge of my chair waiting. Admittedly, I did already whack the TSA on that ruckus in the Los Angeles Times. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reprinted that article with the headline “TSA: the world’s most incompetent agency” — I wonder if that will show up the next time I file a FOIA request with TSA.
Government coverups became a hot issue in November when a Justice Department snafu revealed that the U.S. government had secretly indicted WikiLeaks whistleblower Julian Assange. We do not yet know the specific charges against Assange but the U.S. government has had him in its crosshairs ever since he released scores of thousands of documents exposing U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010. During the 2016 presidential campaign, WikiLeaks released emails from the Democratic National Committee showing that its nominating process was rigged to favor Hillary Clinton. During the final month of the campaign, WikiLeaks disclosed emails from Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. At the same time, the Obama administration had been illegally denying FOIA requests for years that had sought Hillary Clinton’s emails from her four years as secretary of State. But there was no danger that a secret indictment would look into that trampling of the law. The ACLU warned that prosecuting Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be “unconstitutional” and would set a “dangerous precedent for U.S. journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has denounced WikiLeaks as a “non-state hostile intelligence service” and labeled Assange a “fraud,” “coward,” and “enemy.” He warned, “To give them the space to crush us with misappropriated secrets is a perversion of what our great Constitution stands for.” But “our great Constitution” never intended for Washington to keep endless secrets from the American people.
If Assange is going to be indicted, it should be for lèse-majesté —which has not formally been a crime in this part of the world since 1776. Any prosecution of Assange would ultimately rest on a presumed divine right for the federal government to deceive the American people. Assange is a heretic to people who believe the feds have a right to be trusted.
Attorney General Ramsey Clark declared in 1967, “Nothing so diminishes democracy as secrecy.” If someone had massively leaked U.S. government documents on Iraq in January 2003, the Bush administration campaign for war might have been thwarted. If Americans had known the full extent of George W. Bush’s torture regime and domestic spying, he might have failed to win reelection in 2004. If Americans had known that Obama’s National Security Agency was illegally vacuuming up their email, he might have gotten tossed out by voters in 2012.
Myths about truth empower liars. The more people assume that truth automatically outs, the easier it becomes to cork it up. Americans must realize that they will not receive even token disclosures without whistleblowers, journalists, and activists vigorously fighting the political-bureaucratic system.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.
The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris isn't the first historically significant church to go up in smoke. The Basilica of Saint Paul's Outside-the-Walls — after standing for more than 1,400 years — was almost totally destroyed by fire in 1823. It housed the tomb of the Apostle Paul, and was a major basilica, second only to St Peter's as a pilgrimage site. Thanks to a construction worker, the church was accidently set on fire.
Its destruction was a great disaster at the time, and an international appeal went out for assistance in its reconstruction. The world responded and the church was rebuilt to the original design. Today, it is a beautiful church, and it remains the site of the Apostle's tomb. It also still contains many works of art preserved from the Middle Ages and other elements from the original church.
Today, few pilgrims to Saint Paul's are much perturbed by the fact it is not entirely the original fourth-century structure. Most ancient churches are really a mixture of (relatively) new and much older elements. Old Saint Peter's Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine, stood for 1,200 years before being shamefully neglected and knocked down by the popes. It was replaced by the new basilica now known as (new) St Peter's. Although I personally wish the old basilica had been rebuilt — and the new basilica never constructed — few people nowadays complain about the new St Peter's value as a work of art. It has itself now become "ancient." When it comes to important churches, renovations and changes take place. It's not the end of the world.
But maybe the destruction of Notre Dame is different. Those who built the new Saint Peter's figured they were perfectly capable of building something even better than what came before. They had Michelangelo.
But what about today? Perhaps many observers of Notre Dame's destruction suspect modern artists and architects aren't up to the task of recreating or surpassing the artisans of the thirteenth century. That would be a grim realization, indeed.
What strikes me as especially significant about Notre Dame is that its reconstruction will have to take place in a world colored by a worldview that is far, far removed from the one that produced the original. Notre Dame was built in the High Middle Ages — an era when Europe invented the University. It was the time of Aquinas, and of Francis of Assisi. It was a time of immense interest in new technologies and new types of learning. Much of which made Notre Dame possible. It was also, of course, a time of widespread Christianity.
Europe today, however, has largely rejected Christianity and mocks it regularly in Europe's artwork, politics, and scholarship. Thus, the worldview that created Notre Dame is anathema to the modern European mind. Europeans may value the physical building that is known as Notre Dame, but Europeans have been happily burning down Notre Dame in spirit for centuries.
Given the widespread disdain for the medievals who built it, why do we hear so much about what a wonderful thing Notre Dame is today?
The answer lies in the fact that modern Europeans have redefined the building as a safe, watered-down version of what it was meant to be.
We're told Notre Dame is just a symbol of France, and of Europe. We're told it's a work of art, and that it's a great place for people watching. It gives us "a sense of community." And perhaps most importantly, it's a world famous tourist attraction.
Some who have pledged to rebuild the structure have been explicit in this. One wealthy donor announced today: "Notre Dame is an extraordinary landmark and an immeasurable symbol of Paris. It represents love and unity, bringing people together from all over the world no matter who they are and where they come from."
Nevertheless, for all the attempts to redefine Notre Dame today as something of non-religious importance, the fact remains the building was constructed as a church. It was made as a place to say Mass, to pray to what Christians regard as the eternal God, and to confect the Eucharist. That is, the building was created primarily to provide a holy place for the priests to participate in the process of making Christ physically present in flesh and blood on the altar. The artwork, structure, and design were all made to focus the senses and attention of visitors on this reality.
Yes, Notre Dame was also built to showcase and advertise the wealth and power of those who built it. But this wealth and power could have been equally well advertised through the construction of palaces, and military outposts, and other civil buildings.
The fact that so many resources and so much artistic fervor were put into the construction of a church, however, reminds us that European civilization — many within it, at any rate — took their religion seriously, even if their devotion was hampered by vices such as the usual human desires for prestige and bragging rights.
But those who will rebuild the church are likely to regard New Notre Dame as something far different from a monument to an ancient deity. In reading the words above about the rituals Notre Dame was designed for, most modern day Europeans and Americans will scoff at the very idea that anyone believed in all that superstitious "god stuff." Words like "Eucharist" and "Mass" are quaint relics from absurd notions passed down by semi-barbarian medievals. (Ironically, moderns will mock medieval Europeans for their alleged ugly backwardness, even while praising their beautiful churches in the next breath.)
The contempt for the idea of Notre Dame as a place good for anything loftier than civic pride and tourism has been recently illustrated in the fact the mass media and the global pundits assign virtually no value at all to other French churches. For example, most media outlets have largely ignored the fact that French churches are increasingly targeted by vandals. According to the International Business Times:
A total of 875 of France's 42,258 churches were vandalized in 2018, with a small fire set to the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris in March, according to French police.
In the same week that the fire broke out at the Saint-Sulpice church, another 11 churches were vandalized. According to the Ministry of the Interior, a total of 1,063 anti-Christian acts were recorded in 2018 alone.
We only hear about Notre Dame because its famous. It's status as a church is of little importance.
And this, ultimately, is what sets the reconstruction of Notre Dame apart from the reconstruction of St. Paul's or St. Peters. It will be rebuilt and placed in a culture that regards it primarily as a museum or a community center. Notre Dame has been domesticated. It's been made ideologically safe.
The way Notre Dame is treated today is not unlike what many political theorists do when they regard religion as superstitious nonsense, but nonetheless tolerate it for its supposed societal benefits. Religion, they cynically claim, can have its advantages. It keeps the rubes in line by imposing on them a moral code. It distracts the mob from their troubles. It's all fine so long as it doesn't challenge the status quo.
And who can be surprised that a French church is popularly regarded in such a way? Only 51 percent of the French population claim to be Catholic at all. Among those, only five percent attend Mass regularly. In other words, virtually no one in France is much interested in Notre Dame beyond it's mundane perks.
None of this is to say I oppose the reconstruction of the church. It's a good thing if the Church is rebuilt. It is good to have a beautiful church in the center of Paris. It's good that many people value the church on some level, even if they mock what it was intended to be.
But as I'm lectured by pundits and columnists about the need to value Notre Dame as a symbol, I can't help but think of the Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor who took exception to the idea that the Eucharist was a mere symbol, and not the flesh and blood of the Christian God:
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
This sort of radical devotion on the part of O'Connor will strike most modern Westerners as unpleasantly radical. Perhaps even extreme. Or worse yet: intransigent. We're not supposed to have convictions like this anymore, or take religious propositions seriously. That's all for a past "dogmatic" age we're now supposed to condemn. And it is condemned, by exactly the sorts of people now singing the praises of Notre Dame. They tell us the most important thing about Notre Dame is that it's a symbol. Flannery O'Connor might have disagreed.
While Republicans continue to profess their opposition to socialism, their love of socialism is being demonstrated in the healthcare arena. Do you remember when they were campaigning for control over Congress and the presidency with full-throated calls to repeal Obamacare? Not anymore. According to an article in the Washington Post, Republicans have come to love and adore President Obama’s signature achievement as president. More important, of course, is their deep-seated, unwavering devotion to Medicare and Medicaid, the two socialist programs enacted during the leftist regime of President Lyndon Johnson.
The Post’s article states:
Even Republicans who furiously fought the creation of the law and won elections with the mantra of repeal and replace speak favorably of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement.
“Quite obviously, more people have health insurance than would otherwise have it, so you got to look at it as positive,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a recent interview….
“For the people who are in that tranche of expanded Medicaid, I think it has been very helpful,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)….
The public’s increasing reliance on the ACA was reflected in the dramatic failure of congressional Republicans to roll back the law or even unify around a plan to replace it as it has grown in popularity.
Even President Trump is caving:
Bowing to pressure from some in his own party, Trump recently backed off a new pledge to take another crack at eliminating the ACA and said a vote on a GOP health plan — still unformed — would be delayed until after the 2020 election.
This is one of the horrific consequences of socialism: It creates mindsets of dependency on the government, much like going on heroin. Once people go on either heroin or socialism, they’re done. At that point, they cannot imagine life without their narcotic. And they come to love it.
President Franklin Roosevelt, who ushered in America’s welfare-state way of life, understood this phenomenon perfectly. He knew that if he could just make people dependent on governmental largess, the federal government would own them. That’s what Social Security, the crown jewel of American socialism, was all about it. FDR knew that once he got seniors on the dole, he and successor regimes would own them.
Roosevelt’s protégé, Lyndon Johnson, learned this lesson well from his mentor. Give seniors not only a welfare retirement dole but also free or heavily subsidized healthcare, and they would thereafter belong to the federal government.
That’s how we have ended up with entire generations of older people who have been scared to death of losing their Socials Security and Medicare and absolutely convinced that they would die without them. Equally important, you’ll never see any seniors, except libertarian ones, who dare to challenge the federal government at a fundamental level. They’re too scared that the government will retaliate by threatening to cut off their retirement and healthcare doles.
The Post article says that one reason why Republicans have become enamored with Obamacare is their fear of what will happen if it is repealed. This fear was expressed by former Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of the leading Republicans to embrace parts of Obamacare, who stated that ending the program would bring “total chaos.” Kasich reflects the conservative mindset — that socialism equals stability and that freedom and the free market equal chaos.
In fact though, government involvement in healthcare, including Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, occupational licensure, insurance regulation, and income-tax manipulation, have brought America a healthcare system that is best described as “planned chaos.” The Post article hints at the real situation: “Democrats have often acknowledged that the ACA is not a perfect law and can be improved….”
Indeed, if Obamacare was the panacea it was made out to be, there would be no reason for Democrats to now be advocating an expansion of Medicare to everyone in the country. The reason they are doing that is because despite (or because of) Obamacare, the healthcare crisis just keeps getting worse. And the reason it continues getting worse is because each new government reform makes the situation worse.
America once had the finest healthcare system in the world, one that was based on free-market principles. Healthcare costs were reasonably priced, innovations were soaring, and doctors absolutely loved what they did in life.
Medicare and Medicaid succeeded in destroying that healthcare system. That’s when healthcare costs starting soaring, healthcare quality began decreasing, and increasing numbers of doctors began opting for early retirement.
Rather than repealing Medicare and Medicaid, American socialists, including conservatives, instead began enacting reform upon reform, hoping against hope that their healthcare socialism would finally succeed. Nothing worked. Each reform only made things worse. And it’s no different with Obamacare. The healthcare crisis will only get worse.
The same holds true if Medicare for All is adopted. At that point, American socialists, both Democrats and Republicans, will be calling for a full-fledged federal takeover of healthcare, with doctors working for the government and with the government in charge of people’s medical treatment and medical records.
No one should look to Republicans to save our country from socialism. They threw in the towel and made peace with the welfare state a long time ago. The only thing they have left is empty pro-capitalist rhetoric.
The only hope for the future of American healthcare and American liberty lies with libertarianism and libertarians. It is only we who have the correct diagnosis and the right prescription for America’s healthcare woes: Repeal Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare and end all governmental involvement in healthcare. Separate healthcare and the state, just as our ancestors separated church and state.
Yesterday's terrible fire at the Notre-Dame Cathedral reminds us how quickly centuries of accumulated "cultural capital" can be destroyed. Oak timbers dating from the 1200s in the roof and spire were lost forever; some priceless stained glass windows appear to have suffered damage. As the saying goes, France is the heart of the West, Paris is the heart of France, and Notre Dame is the heart of Paris—and as such the sight of the iconic church ablaze makes an uneasy if simplistic metaphor for the decline of the West.
"Cultural capital" here of course means something far broader than economic definitions of capital as financial wealth or factors of production. Even the broader Austrian view of capital as heterogeneous production goods, what Rothbard termed an "intricate, delicate, interweaving structure of capital goods," can't capture the sum of wealth in a society. Capital ultimately is measurable, reducible to units, while the value of Notre Dame to Catholics around the world cannot be measured. We cannot quantify the cost of its damage or destruction in purely economic terms. But we can recognize a loss. Hundreds of years of wealth bound up in the beauty of Notre Dame's roof and spire are now lost to us forever.
The blogger Bionic Mosquito reminds us that civilizational wealth compounds over time, and thus wealth can be material, cultural, spiritual, even civilizational:
...Think of wealth not just on a balance sheet, but wealth in terms of culture, accumulated wisdom and knowledge, the captured savings of time.
Accumulation and time are key. Healthy societies build and preserve wealth, which is to say they are made up of individuals who strive to create more than they consume. The people who built Notre Dame over two centuries, using rudimentary pulleys and scaffolding, certainly did not expect to see the end results of their work. In fact no single Pope, architect, financier, mason, artist, laborer, or French monarch saw the project through from start to completion. But they built something lasting, something of incalculable benefit to future generations. They created wealth lasting far beyond their lifetimes.
All healthy societies do this. The notion of being concerned with things beyond one’s lifetime is innately human. Humans are hardwired to build societies, and the most ambitious humans have always sought to build lasting monuments and modes of living. That’s not possible unless people work toward a future they will not enjoy themselves.
This was especially true for our ancient primitive ancestors, who lived very short and difficult lives. We can imagine how much they wanted to have lasting forms of sustenance: food, water, clothing, shelter — instead of having to produce that sustenance day after day.
In fact, this trait perhaps more than any other is the hallmark of civilization. We can call it many things, but we might just say healthy societies create capital. They consume less than they produce. This capital accumulation creates an upward spiral that increases investment and productivity, making the future richer and brighter. Capital accumulation made it possible for human populations to develop beyond subsistence misery. It made the agricultural, industrial, and digital revolutions possible.
Technical know-how, artistry, and craftsmanship also represent forms of wealth which can be lost over time, and apparently have been. This article questions whether Notre Dame really can be rebuilt in quite the same way:
While architects have enough detailed information about the cathedral to pull off a technically very precise reconstruction, the craftsmanship is unlikely to be the same. Today, the stone that makes up the cathedral would be cut using machinery, not by hand by small armies of stonemasons as in the 12th century. "Nineteenth-century and 20th-century Gothic buildings always look a little dead, because the stone doesn't bear the same marks of the mason's hand," Murray told Ars Technica.
Civilization is far more than just economics, but it needs economics. Mises cautions us that it "will and must perish if the nations continue to pursue the course which they entered upon under the spell of doctrines rejecting economic thinking." So when we consider the sad spectacle of Notre Dame burning, we should ask ourselves whether the politics and economics of our age encourage or discourage building wealth for future generations. Even if one reduces the inheritance of western countries today to material well-being, the threat of losing what makes us rich certainly concerns us all. Short-term political thinking, coupled with demand-driven mania in fiscal and monetary policy, can consume our future just as fire consumed the roof of Notre Dame.