Support for Decentralized and Limited Government from the 18th Century Scottish Enlightenment

In the wake of my second-highest viewed post of all time, which covered the topic of decentralization of government (please don’t ask for actual viewing values; allow a man writing an obscure blog his small relative victories), I was pleased to get philosophical support from one of the greatest writers on the topic of government and political science of all time – David Hume. Most people who have enjoyed, or endured, depending on one’s perspective, an Economics 101 course are well familiar with one lion of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith. Smith gave credence in his Wealth of Nations to a philosophy of full-throated support of the individual liberties of merchants practicing their crafts and generating profits unencumbered by the meddling state that was a novel philosophy and code of ethics for the times. Smith forcefully advocated that betterments in society occurred in imperceptible and novel ways through people seeking profits, guided by the “invisible hand” of the pricing mechanism, which effectively coordinated their ideas and actions in ways that no government planner could match. Never mind that both modern day proponents and detractors of Smith both seem to believe that Adam Smith was some form of Machiavellian profit maximizer and utilitarian, thereby completely missing his comprehensive views of bourgeois ethics that he espoused in his perhaps even more compelling and powerful book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which Smith speaks of the “impartial spectator” within us which guides and regulates our behavior such that it is socially acceptable and in most cases benevolent. The impartial spectator of Smith is driven by a mysterious combination of divine nature and the nurture that occurs as people (or the vast majority of people comprising society) interact with each other and seek approbation and praise of others. Scorn is something most of us do our best to avoid. In other words, while profit-seeking is a virtue of prudence, the vast majority of people operate in their daily lives with other self-regulating and self-controlling virtues that balance the prudence of profit-seeking. All of this social self-regulation is performed through emergent order without the need of heavy-handed law and government.

I digress, so back to the topic of David Hume. Hume was a Scottish Enlightenment contemporary and great friend of Adam Smith, and it is through his remarkable Selected Essays as compiled by Oxford World Classics that I find support for decentralized government under a different and additional rubric than I articulated in my original musings on the subject. Specifically, in his essay on Of The Rise and Progress of the Arts and Sciences, in which Hume generally makes the case that people living in free governments are much more likely to contribute to the progress of arts and sciences than those living in autocracy, Hume makes compelling arguments for divided and decentralized government. The first point Hume articulates is this:

A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny, because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which being distant from a majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. Besides, a large government, though the whole be discontented, may, by a little art, be kept in obedience; while each part, ignorant of the resolutions of the rest, is afraid to begin any commotion or insurrection: not to mention that there is a superstitious reverence for princes, which mankind naturally contracts when they do not often see the sovereign, and when many of them become not acquainted with him so as to perceive his weaknesses. And as large states can afford a great expense in order to support the pomp of majesty, this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them.
In a small government any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole; the murmurs and discontents proceeding from it are easily communicated; and the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not to apprehend, in such states, that the distance is very wide between them on their sovereign. ‘No man,’ said the prince of Conde, ‘is a hero to his Valet de Chambre.
In other words, a large central government presiding over a wide swath of people and with large amounts of power can more readily get away with persecuting minorities, be they ethnic minorities or minorities in dissenting thoughts and views. Additionally, the further removed from proximity to a ruler or ruling elite, the more prone people are to superstitious reverence and obsequious behavior towards them. I loved the quote related to no man being a prince to his valet, since such close proximity as to that of a valet makes us all aware of any human’s noxious flaws and weaknesses. I would gently point out that Americans are no strangers to this superstitious reverence for powerful leaders – witness the rise of the bumptious Trump riding a wave of American voters seeking brash authority. Witness also the esteem, admiration, and honor we typically reserve for presidencies such as the two Roosevelts, who consistently abused executive power and authority. Contrast that to practitioners of great executive power restraint, such as Calvin Coolidge and William Howard Taft, who receive no such comparative historical encomiums.
Hume proceeds in the essay with the following observations:
But the divisions into small states are favorable to learning, by stopping the progress of authority as well as that of power…To balance a large state or society, whether monarchical or republican, on general laws, is a work of so great difficulty, that no human genius, however comprehensive, is able by the mere dint of reason and reflection, to effect it. The judgments of many must unite this work: experience must guide their labour: time must bring it to perfection: and the feeling of inconveniences must correct the mistakes, which they inevitably fall into, in their first trials and experiments. Hence appears the impossibility that the undertaking should be begun and carried on in an monarchy; since such a form of government, ere civilized, knows no other secret or policy, than that of entrusting unlimited powers to every governor or magistrate, and subdividing the people into so many classes and orders of slavery. From such a situation, no improvement can ever be expected in the sciences, in the liberal arts, in laws, and scarcely in the manual arts and manufactures. The same barbarism and ignorance, with which the government commences, is propagated to all posterity, and can never come to a period by the efforts or ingenuity of such unhappy slaves.

In other words, a centralized government taking on too much power is reduced to trying by sheer exertion of a “Tyranny of Experts” to borrow the William Easterly phrase, of trying to plan for and rule a great diversity of people. As Hume implies, it is an impossible task that starves us of all natural freedoms and the ingenuity that we would have exhibited without the heavy hand of a meddling government, and it makes us “unhappy slaves.” Or as Hume’s good friend Adam Smith might say, it also torches our invisible hand and extinguishes the impartial spectator within. Lest anyone think that I am speaking of some distant and ancient European monarchy, I am looking at you America and your Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, your Health and Human Services, your Obamacare, and your Dodd-Frank.


The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – Modern Education and the Creation of “Men Without Chests”

I have written in previously in support of freedom of choice in our education models and in particular for support of the classical education model. I firmly believe that it is an inalienable right to be free to choose what manner or education is received, rather than the myopic and freedom of choice smothering one size fits all and centrally directed and dictated (and increasingly expensive with little return on investment) modern American education model we have blundered into. Recently, I found an ally of sorts in an unexpected corner – in the writings of C.S. Lewis. Many will recognize Lewis for \ his Chronicles of Narnia series or perhaps his more direct Christian books such as Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters, but oft neglected is his powerful and remarkably prescient book on primary education, The Abolition of Man.

In the Abolition of Man, Lewis takes aim at the then (1940s) education reformers and their zeal for removing the development of a foundation of objective values and replacing it with something in which the individual becomes much more critical and subjective. In a sense, this era witnessed the shift from attempts at educators to develop the moral and ethical character of a child to simply treating them as children to be loaded up with facts and to ostensibly create nothing more than rational and logical human beings who could conform to a certain desired standard way of thinking. With the hindsight of the year 2016, it is apparent to me that such reformers were successful in their aims with the modern education system as we know it. Of the reformers, Lewis has these rather harsh critiques:

They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the young minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head…. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.

The consequence of such teaching is not benign in Lewis’ estimation, rather, it leads to the creation of an adult who is not really a human at all. Lewis has these dire observations about what the new education model would produce:

The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the bird knows nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda…

…We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment- these are indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man…

…It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism or self-sacrifice or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings by fruitful.

[As an side, since Lewis invoked the great word Magnanimty – I am linking to a previous article on the subject of that very word, that also connects back to the broader themes and points I am attempting to make in this one.]

To be clear, what Lewis has in mind when he speaks of the “old” is a return to fortifying the character of a child through teaching of objective values. One might call this conecpt ‘Natural Law’ – basic, fundamental, or even first principle universal virtues that we should all aspire to and should commonly agree should be inculcated in our children. Lest I set off any alarm bells for my secular friends, I should indicate that of all the Lewis books, this is one that is the least explicitly Christian. In fact, the virtues and values he builds up in the narrative he collectively labels The Tao, borrowing heavily from an ancient Chinese term that seems to translate roughly into “The Way.” While there are many Christian principles that are consistent with the Tao, Lewis endeavors to build a comprehensive list of virtues that reach back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Confucius China, Indian Hinduism as well as building on ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it is a very Aristotelian list of virtues and ethics that Lewis builds into his Tao, echoing much of what Aristotle includes in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Specifically, Aristotle indicated that, “The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Years prior, Aristotle’s mentor Plato said much the same about education when he stated that, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred.”  In Plato’s Republic, he elaborates that the well-nurtured youth is one, “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.All this before he is an age of reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”

Lewis provides ample examples of what is included in the Tao – Natural Law elements such as honor, courage, good faith, justice, being free from cruelty and calumny, charity, and many others. The list of objective values that we could be teaching in schools could be distilled to seven virtues or as expansive as four-hundred. Our ample history and thousands of pages published on the subject from some of the world’s greatest philosphers and theologians provides us plenty of rich and viable options to choose from. I am personally partial to a recent innovation and list from Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality in which she arrives at seven core values – a snapshot at which I have taken liberty of including in the (rather amateurish) picture below. Perhaps the broader point is that our public education systems aren’t teaching any of these. If there is any “value” being taught, it is the maniacal pursuit of of tolerance under a veneer of moral relativism. I believe this to be a travesty of the highest order, and I find it morally repugnant and offensive that we are under the shackles of being forced to pay tax dollars and forced to send our children to a school teaching such methods (and neglecting all others) by simple virtue of the arbitrarily drawn school districts we live in. We scramble to live in the right neighborhoods and pay dearly for housing  and property taxes to buy into certain school districts while ignoring that there truly is little difference in the education that is received out of them. There may be better “outcomes” due to clustering into wealthy neighborhoods, but ask yourselves, is there truly any differnece in what is learned? Does your chid truly develop any better character than the child forced into the “poor” school down the street? Isn’t it an injustice that the child born into poverty has no choice but to go to their locally zoned school? The connection back to my opening paragraph is that I believe school choice and reform is an idea ripe for harvest. I only hope to convince my fellow citizens of this fact one day, so that we can benefit our children, our families, communities, states, and nation.

Seven Principle Virtues.jpg



What freedom entails: facing the good and the bad consequences of our decisions

For men and women to be free from paternalistic domination from others and free to make our own choices necessarily means that we are in turn subjected to the vicissitudes and the consequences, for better or for worse, of those decisions. It is a fundamental concept that for us to remain free, we must not in turn be “protected” by government from the downside risk of flawed choices or bad luck. It was in fact this form of “protection” that for centuries kept peasants under the feudal domination of their class superiors – the knights, earls, and dukes under which they served and whom they paid exorbitant rents to. Predictably, famine only ever struck the peasants when harvests failed, while nobles and priests always maintained a relatively bountiful diet. Ostensibly, this was the price to be paid for protection by the lords of the castle and his soldiers and mercenaries. The reality was that for most peasants throughout the ages, the only real danger to their lives was in fact the deprivations of the lords supposedly protecting them.

Alas, for centuries and the better part of human history, this system kept a stable class of hereditary beneficiaries in control of a never growing and largely agrarian-based economic pie. People lived consistently on the modern equivalent of $3 a day and under a Malthusian system in which population growth led to a decrease in individual agrarian and artisanal wages, wages which only rose again the next time a plague wiped out swaths of the population and the supply of labor.  On that note, this never growing economic pie also led to no real advancements in science and medicine, and those frequent plagues (thought for centuries to arise out of miasmas in the sky that needed to be avoided by clustering indoors and blood that needed to be let out of the body – an ignorantly fatal combination) killed noble and peasant alike. In the words of Thomas Hobbes, life for the vast majority of our ancestors’ histories was lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Shakespeare poetically wrote of death as, “the arbitrator of despairs, just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries…” Let me pause for a moment and express my extreme gratitude to have been born into the relative bounty and ease of modern-day American life. Whatever our problems, they pale in comparison to the way humanity lived for thousands of years; well into the 1800s most people lived in these Hobbesian conditions. Many millions of people on earth still reside in dark removes of similar medieval conditions in places such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

Deirdre McCloskey, in her remarkable book, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World, makes the above points eloquently and with her unique ability to draw upon an impressive panoply of analogies, anecdotes, and historic intellectual luminaries’ thoughts and writings to buttress her points. I highly recommend the book and credit it with much of my facts (i.e. the $3 a day factoid, Malthus’ theories). In direct contrast to the idea that we as individuals need protection and on the topic of the reality and essential connection between freedom and potential loss, she observes:

“The ideas of equality led to other social and political movements not uniformly adorable. Hannah Arendt remarked in 1951 that ‘equality of condition…is among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind.’ Alexis de Tocqueville had said much the same a century earlier. And Scottish equality has a harsh, even tragic side. It entails equal reward for equal merit in a marketplace in which others, by freedom of contract, can also compete. As John Stuart Mill put it in On Liberty, ‘Society admits no right, either legal or moral, in the disappointed competitors to immunity from this kind of suffering; and feels called on to interfere only when means of success have been employed which it is contrary to the general interest to permit – namely, fraud or treachery, or force.’ Yet in the real world, unhappily, if the poor are to be raised up, there is no magic alternative to such competition. An ill-advised and undercapitalized pet store, into which the owner pours his soul, goes under. In the same neighborhood a little independent office for immediate health care opens half a block from a branch of the largest hospital chain in Chicago, and seems doomed to fail the test of voluntary trade. Although the testing of business ideas in voluntary trade is obviously necessary for betterment of the economy (as it is too by non-monetary tests for betterment in art and sport and science and scholarship), such failures are deeply sad if you have the slightest sympathy for human projects, or for humans. But at least the pet store, the clinic, the Edsel, Woolworth’s, Polaroid, and Pan American Airlines face the same democratic test by trade: Do customers keep coming forward voluntarily? Does real income rise?
We could all by state compulsion backed by the monopoly of violence remain in the same jobs as our ancestors, perpetually “protected,” though at $3 a day. Or, with taxes taken by additional state compulsion, we could subsidize new activities without regard to a test by voluntary trade, “creating jobs” as the anti-economic rhetoric has it. Aside even from their immediate effect of making national income lower than it could have been, perpetually, such ever-popular plans – never mind the objectionable character of the violent compulsion they require – seldom work in the long run for the welfare of the poor, or the rest of us. In view of the way a government of imperfect people actually behaves in practice, job “protection” and job “creation” often fail to achieve their gentle, generous purposes. The protections and the creations get diverted to favorites. Laws requiring minority or female businesses to be hired, for example, tend to yield phony businesses run in fact by male whites. In a society run by male whites or inherited lords or clan members or Communist Party officials, or even by voters not restricted by inconvenient voting times and picture IDs, the unequal and involuntary rewards generated by sidestepping the test of trade are seized by the privileged. The privileged are good at that.”

 The implicit conclusion is that while there are unfortunate consequences of freedom and a free market, the alternative is worse. The plea, as McCloskey states in her book’s foreword, is this:  “Perhaps you yourself still believe in nationalism or socialism or proliferating regulation. And perhaps you are in the grip of pessimism about growth or consumerism or the environment or inequality. Please, for the good of the wretched of the earth, reconsider.”

Limiting health insurance plan choice is harmful to consumers

A significant component of the Affordable Care Act is the forced standardization of health care coverage through prescribed components that must be carried by insurance plans. Ultimately, this approach has been tremendously disruptive and has moved millions of people off of the plans that in the previous market paradigm they were happy to buy. I refuse to call it a free market since it really has not been that for decades. This disruption is the impetus behind much of the lampooning of Obama’s language, which later proved to be an astoundingly incorrect bit of marketing and hype, that if you had a plan that you liked you could keep it.

Standardization of plans ostensibly removes buyer searching costs for complicated products. Such as approach would only make economic sense if the searching costs were higher than the benefits obtained from the selected product. The challenge is that this sets a remarkably paternalistic precedent – if we dupes in America can’t be trusted to buy health coverage that suits our needs, perhaps we can’t be trusted to buy financial instruments or real estate either. It also has the perverse effect of cutting off product innovation that caters to individuals and unique segments of the healthcare market. Something to consider and question: can government possibly keep up with the changing demands of consumers as well as the unpredictable emergent order that drives market-betterment ideas and innovations? Even if government might be approximately right on the first iteration of defining product standards, it would be impossible for them to keep up with the pace that a free market comprised of consenting adults engaging in commerce could drive. Furthermore, a significant philosophical challenge is that such an approach mandated by government significantly violates an essential freedom of consumers to choose for themselves what is best for them. Finally and perhaps most perniciously, such an approach allows government to enact their own views of desirable social policy through diktat. The Supreme Court case of Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby  is an example in which a private employer was forced to provide contraceptives against their own religious beliefs. Whether one believes Hobby Lobby is outside of the societal norms in their stance on contraceptives is quite beside the point. The point is really whether we believe government should be powerful enough to be able to force anyone in society to choose which product to purchase and what it should contain. This is the first-order principle freedom-loving citizens should be concerned with.

In the book The Future of Healthcare Reform in the United States, Richard Epstein, of the NYU School of Law, pens the following compelling narrative on the challenges with the elitist assumptions of government needing to protect consumers through standardized plans:

Any decision such as that made in healthcare markets – to require given firms to offer a particular type of contract with predetermined coverage – does not facilitate competition but thwarts it by restricting the dimensions over which innovative firms can compete. To be sure, it is unlikely that either midsize firms or ordinary consumers can canvass the entire market. But they can make a series of initial cuts to focus on the market segment they care about most. At this point, one of the key drivers of good competition is the ability to offer a particular configuration of goods and services that make sense to some segment of the overall market. The standardization of service packages thus prevents innovation along certain key dimensions, which hardly improves the overall competitive market. Put otherwise, product differentiation is the great and beneficent spoiler because it allows rapid and discontinuous changes in the market such as the rise and fall of BlackBerry and the now possible decline of Apple in the face of potential disruptive technological developments from a host of competitors. In my view, these large gains dominate any negative effects. Indeed the constant use of product differentiation, both large and small, in market after market, suggests healthcare regulators engage in a dangerous gambit by limiting product choice to a few set choices in order to reduce the buyer’s costs of search. People can truncate searches using sensible strategies. They do not have similar ways to expand market options.

Imagine if government decided that our smartphone choices were overwhelming to consumers and determined that we should all have certain features based upon some government committee’s determination of a rightful specific set of requirements. I suspect the product so described by the committee in the duly published 500 page document would prescribe usage of something resembling the BlackBerry more so than the iPhone. And despite Hillary Clinton’s fondness for this device, we obviously would be immediately worse off as consumers. Further imagine that the government decided that we could no longer buy the phones at Apple stores or Best Buy, but purchasing of these devices had to occur at government licensed locations. Behold the entirety of the healthcare market: a market in which there is an inherent paternalistic assumption that consumers are too ignorant and overwhelmed to make their own choices. The government committee decisions on what we can buy and where we can receive our products described in the smartphone analogy is precisely the kind of marketplace we have allowed our government to create in healthcare. Perhaps it is time to step back and ask ourselves why and whether we are getting good outcomes out of this approach.


Three simple rules to live by

Do not take what does not belong to you.

Keep your promises.

If you fail to abide by the first two, then you must make just compensation for what you took or what you failed to deliver.

Try to do some good in life.

Within two separate Free Thoughts podcasts on the topic of the philosophical underpinnings of the U.S. Constitution, Dr. Roger Pilon does as remarkable and scholarly of a job as anyone I have ever heard on the topic. He discusses in great depth the intellectual traditions embodied in the Constitution as well as how that has evolved from its originalist and natural law construct over time to something much more expansive and interpretative that has moved significantly away from the original guiding principles of a federal government that is a necessary evil that should be deliberately kept small. It was so small in fact, that in the move from Philadelphia to the new White House in Washington D.C. in 1800, all of the federal government files could be transferred in just 12 boxes. Imagine that! The most salient moment for me is when Dr. Pilon distills all of the Constitution and the philosophy behind it into four simple rules for us to live by, which are quoted above.

The first rule is the concept of property rights and rights to be free from physical harm and is embodied most visibly in the opening words to the Declaration of Independence. The second rule is the concept of rights of contract and enforceability of contracts that are freely entered into by citizens. The third rule is based upon the concept of remedies and justice and is essential in upholding the first two as general principles, allowing us to retain trust in the good of fellow man and of just redress if they happen not to be good. The fourth rule is something that Dr. Pilon indicates is entirely optional. If we are to retain our essential freedom and a true good and virtuous nature, we can’t be compelled to do good. However, a preponderance of people doing good seems to be the most secure way in which to uphold a free society and thus ensuring that government does not grow in scope inexorably. As Benjamin Franklin indicated – we have a Republic, if we can keep it. It increasingly seems to be appropriate, given how large and arbitrary our federal government has become, to say that we had a Republic, and we have the blueprint for how to get it back, if we want it bad enough.


School choice in America – what are we waiting for?

This podcast on school choice, in which Jason Bedrick is interviewed on the landscape and philosophical rationale in support of school choice, is highly informative and I highly recommend the full listen. Some highlights that I found insightful are as follows:

  • University of Arkansas School Choice Demonstration Project has several studies demonstrating the positive impact school choice has, including a meta-analysis (a study of studies) that showcases the beneficial impact of school choice and school reform at statistical levels of significance. The volume of positive results rolling in from a growing number of localities and states where there are pockets of school choice is becoming harder to refute and ignore. It is time for individuals to start looking at their own localities and asking why their own school choices are so restrictive.
  • While school vouchers are the funding option that is most discussed in policy circles, they are not the only or even perhaps the best option available to school reform advocates. Education savings accounts and tax credits are alternatives that present compelling economic benefits as well as possessing legal characteristics that allow for circumventing the Blaine laws that exist in many states. On the former, vouchers have one economics limitation in that their actual dollar value is recognized and known across the education system and thus can be gamed by school providers as a price floor, which can spur cost inflation and undermine the desired impact of providing better education options to disadvantaged communities as they get priced out of the market. Contrast this with savings accounts that can accumulate and can be spent in a more flexible manner across a wider range of education activities, which present economic forces that mitigate inflation. The Blaine laws that exist in many states was originally a muddle-headed approach in the late 1800s to prevent Catholic schools from receiving federal dollars. Nowadays the laws are now widely used to prevent any religious school from receiving government funds. My own aside to this is that we should always be extremely cautious when promoting government power at the expense of someone else’s individual liberties, even if we firmly believe it is in our own personal and parochial interests. Indeed, the Blaine laws were fomented by Protestant Christians concerned with immigrants from Catholic-dominant lands, such as Ireland and Italy, setting up their own Catholic schools and not assimilating into American culture. Ill-founded xenophobic concerns unfortunately often lead to using government power to coerce our fellow man and trample on their rights. Nowadays, it is these same largely Protestant Christians fighting Blaine laws in the hopes of clawing back their tax dollars to use on the private Christian schools of their own choosing. The fact that our Protestant forebearers created this anachronism is a cruel irony.
  • One common attack against one form of school choice reform, public charter schools, is that in some cases they have not outperformed their traditional public school peers in the same area. Mr. Bedrick indicates that if one goes beyond that surface level point-in-time comparison one quickly realizes that in most cases, the fact that there was competition forced the public school to increase their performance; in essence the mere fact of school choice and competition created a rising tide that lifted all boats. Furthermore, qualitative surveys and interviews with parents in these districts point to much higher satisfaction amongst parents on the responsiveness and customer service aspects of the pre-existing public schools. In short, options and competition made everyone better off and forced the previous public school monopoly to be far more responsive to their customers.
  • There is a common fear that school diversity will wind up breaking the common societal bonds that we idealistically believe we benefit from as communities out of common public schools. Mr. Bedrick points out that private school students actually achieve higher scores on civics and in their support for other views and pluralism than their public school peers.

What prevents greater school choice and diversity? What keeps us captive to the school of the zip code we happen to live in? One commonly maligned enemy are the teachers unions. While they certainly seem to be a roadblock, I sincerely believe that the real enemy is our own individual and collective inertia. Public schools are the status quo and represent how it has been done for generations, so why should we change? I would submit to you as parents, grandparents, and students, that the world could be a great amount brighter if we have school choice and schools innovating and diversifying their curriculum. Picture all of our collective laments on how the public schools fail to deliver on the arts, liberal arts, STEM, trades, or how they are prone to centralized dictates such as common core. Imagine how that might change if we could take our highly creative child to the new school started in our area that focuses highly on the arts, or if we could take our burgeoning engineer to the school focused on STEM.  These innovative and diverse models would blossom and grow if only they were allowed to.  Aside from all of that, it would seem to me that freedom of choice of where to spend your dollars and where to send your kids to school, while also allowing the poor and children captive to failing school to escape them, is the right thing to promote as a policy in of itself.



“Protectionism is Economic Terrorism”

While the analogy may seem a bit sensational, I urge the reader to hear Don Boudreaux from Cafe Hayek out on this thought.

The fundamental concept is confusing wealth and scarcity of select groups (i.e. steelworkers) with wealth at large for society. The same economic fallacy would be similar to assuming that if terrorists struck our water supply, thereby making sellers of bottled water and water engineers that can figure out how to overcome the problem better off and more wealthy, that would somehow make society at large better off. The logic easily fails in both scenarios, it is just more obvious and mentally repugnant in the second scenario.

“The GOP’s Mexico Derangement”


Bret Stephens has a biting critique of the GOP in his recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. Stephens, as ever, is able to criticize the party that he aligns with most often with eloquence and forcefulness that I admire. The GOP’s myopia and fixation, to say nothing of the lack of economic soundness and adherence to liberty, small government, and plain moral decency – was a primary source of frustration of mine with the party long before the rise of Trump. The combination of stances on immigration, free trade, and Trump are the main reasons I will be casting a Presidential Libertarian ballot this election season.

Some of the piquant highlights of the article, in which Stephens addresses common canards leveled against Mexico and Mexican immigration are as follows:

Mexico is a failed state. Mexico’s struggles with drug cartels—whose existence is almost entirely a function of America’s appetite for dope—are serious and well known. So are its deep-seated institutional weaknesses, especially the police forces that collude with the cartels and terrorize rural areas.

Then again, Mexico’s 2014 homicide rate of about 16 murders per 100,000 means that it is about as dangerous as Philadelphia (15.9) and considerably safer than Miami (19.2) or Atlanta (20.5). Are these “failed cities” that you don’t dare visit and that should be walled off from the rest of America?

Mexico steals U.S. jobs. Donald Trump recently resurrected this chestnut by inveighing against Nabisco and Ford for shifting production to Mexico from high-cost Illinois and Michigan. Never mind that one reason Ford made the move was to take advantage of Mexico’s free-trade agreements with the European Union and other countries, meaning that opposition to free trade is the very thing that drives business abroad. Then again, Mexico is the second-largest purchaser of U.S. products; the Wilson Center’s Christopher Wilson has estimated that “six million U.S. jobs depend on trade with Mexico.” That is especially true for border states. ‘Mexico is the top export destination for five states: California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and New Hampshire, and is the second most important market for another 17 states across the country.’

Illegal immigrants are a drain on the system. This whopper should be sold at Burger King, since illegal immigrants pay billions in state and local taxes, along with about $15 billion a year to Social Security—the benefits of which they are unlikely ever to get back. Entire U.S. industries, agriculture above all, depend on illegal migrants, without whom fruits and vegetables would simply rot in the field.

If there is a drain, it’s Mexicans going home—roughly one million returnees between 2009 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, outpacing the number of Mexicans moving north by about 140,000. That owes something to growth and stability in the Mexican economy, which is largely a function of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

This makes Mr. Trump’s opposition to Nafta all the more misjudged. Without it, Mexico could easily have become Venezuela, run by an Hugo Chávez-like strongman, that would have posed a real threat to U.S. security, as opposed to the one in Mr. Trump’s imagination.


Modern Day Towers of Babel – Lessons from the Soviet Union Man-made Famines

Tower of babel

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, mankind busied themselves with building a giant tower stretching up to heaven, united in a common goal of reaching high enough in the firmament to achieve the status of God. In order to prevent this prideful use of mankind’s time and talents, people are thrown into confusion through divine intervention forcing  people to grapple with different language barriers. This ended the quest to build the tower, which presumably required a great degree of communication and collaboration as well as coercion of others to lend their time and energy to the project. It is the latter point on coercion to achieve Utopia that I use as an analogy for something I have been reading a lot about as of late, which is the tragedy that is Russian history; in particular, the part of Russian history that was the quest to build a humanist utopia on earth in the guise of a workers’ paradise ideology of Marxist Communism.

Robert Conquest’s seminal work, The Harvest of Sorrow, provides a chilling narrative of Stalin’s mad and macabre drive to implement his five-year plan to force all peasants into state-owned collective farms. Having recently won a string of political and ideological battles in the wake of Lenin’s death, including the completion of transforming urban areas into economies based largely on state-owned factories, state ownership of the press, orienting the essential arms of the Communist Party under Stalinist control through the appointment of his own self-selected protégés into essential roles in the Party, achieving Stalinist dominance of the essential arms of the Government (Commissariat and Politburo), internal police (OGPU), and military, and with a dictatorship based upon a cult of personality largely established, Stalin opened the next front in the Communist revolution – consolidation of the farms along Communist ideological lines. It is remarkable that up into this point in the late 1920s, a full decade after the initial Bolshevik revolution, that the great mass of Soviet land, population, and largest sector of the Soviet economy, agriculture, was relatively untouched by the maiming and malignant arm of the Soviet state. Indeed, market forces were tolerated in agriculture for a relatively long duration of time under Lenin and subsequently Stalin under something deemed the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, which was for a season a tactical retreat from an aborted attempt at crash collectivization launched in the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately for the peasants, this lifestyle under market forces was ultimately doomed to be short-lived as it was anathema to Marxist Communist ideology. Stalin is known as many things and has accumulated a wide degree of historical scorn and unflattering sobriquets that are warranted, but less discussed and known is the actual degree to which he truly was a fully committed Marxist more so than he was a practical tactician, which is the typical reputation historians grant to him. The degree to which peasants and farms continued undisturbed and living under market forces was irreconcilable with his dream of a unified and fully communist Soviet Union, and their destruction was always inevitable so long as Stalin had power.

There were largely two high level essential elements of the plan, if the crash and chaotic collectivization that ultimately ensued can be considered planned. The first critical element was fomenting class warfare and eliminating a class of so-called rich peasants. In Communist Party parlance, this class of peasants was pejoratively labeled “kulaks.” While there were numerous official central party attempts to define what a kulak was (tragically comic attempts to define them include the number of cows they owned, acreage tilled and owned, other peasants employed, etc.), in the chaos and opportunism of other peasants seeking to gain kulak assets, opportunism of career ladder seeking party members, internal police officers (OGPU, also know throughout the years as Cheka, NKVD, and KGB), party activists, and sycophants eager to prove their mettle and communist dutifulness, the reach and definition of who would be a kulak was ever-expanding and completely arbitrary and ultimately boiled down to who might be a leader that had the potential to cause trouble for the regime. Thus, “wealthy” peasants, middle class peasants, clergy, and village leaders all got caught into the snare of what occurs when humanity devolves into its most beastly and evil forms. The great irony is that many of the oppressors were far more handsomely paid from their official perches than were the wealthy peasants they were murdering, deporting, and sending off to the gulags of Siberia. The second critical element in the “plan” was to force the remaining peasants into collective farms. The ostensible utopian goal behind the collective farm was the theoretical notion that large industrial farms would produce much more efficiently than small landowners could and the centralized planning would align the needs of the country at large. More malevolently and cynically, the Soviet leaders knew that state collective farms would give them control of the all-important grain that they required to feed their core political base, the urban populations, and to export grain to obtain the needed cash for the state.

The predictable outcome of all of this state-induced crash collectivization was a massive decrease in agricultural production due to the massive deportation, imprisonment, and murder of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers and ranchers who were mostly located in the Ukraine and the Central Asian steppes, respectively. The disruption that the oppression caused and the lack of incentives the new system created to produce anything more than what your family required were also significant contributing factors. What relatively little products did get extracted out of the peasants was more prone to rot on trains and in warehouses due to Soviet government incompetence than it was to get put into the mouths of Soviet citizens, further exacerbating the problems in a tragically ironic way. Needless to say, the offshoot was to further scapegoat ever-growing numbers of kulak saboteurs and calls from the central planners to extract more in the form of expropriated grain requisitions from the peasants, which often had the effect of not leaving families with enough grain to even feed themselves. At one point in this terror, the Soviet government relied upon newly deputized Communist activists that were largely city dwellers to descend upon the farms to discover grain wherever they could and forcibly take it from the peasants with the aid of OGPU officers.  These 25-thousanders, as they were called after the approximate number of them that were commissioned for the task, had little knowledge of agriculture, but what they possessed in abject ignorance they made up for in their fervent desire to do their part to build the workers’ utopia. They were easily whipped into a mob mentality frenzy based upon a notion that anyone that opposed them was an enemy of the state and inimical to the necessary changes that the revolution needed in order to complete its idealistic aims. One of their members, who would defect decades later, recounts a speech chronicled in Conquest’s book that was given to the 25-thousanders by a Party member who addressed them in order to provide direction on the terror that they were to unleash on the countryside.

The local village authorities need an injection of Bolshevik iron. That’s why we are sending you. You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or it’s us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

Secondly, comrades, it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s plan for grain delivery. The kulaks and even some middle and poor peasants are not giving up their grain. They are sabotaging Party policy. And the local authorities sometimes waver and show weakness. Your job is to get the grain at any price. Pump it out of them, wherever it is hidden, in ovens, under beds, in cellars or buried away in back yards.

Through you, the Party brigades, the villages must learn the meaning of Bolshevik firmness. You must find the grain and you will find it. It’s a challenge to the last shred of your initiative and to your Chekist spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking extreme measures. The Party stands four-square behind you. Comrade Stalin expects it of you. It’s a life and death struggle; better to do too much and not enough.

Your third important task is to complete the threshing of the grain, to repair the tools, ploughs, tractors, reapers, and other equipment.

The class struggle in the village has taken the sharpest forms. This is no time for squeamishness or rotten sentimentality. Kulak agents are masking themselves and getting into the collective farms where they sabotage the work and kill the livestock. What’s required from you is Bolshevik alertness, intransigence, and courage. I am sure you will carry out the instructions of the Party and the directives of our beloved Leader.

Carry out the instructions of the dear leader is indeed what was done. According to Conquest’s research and analysis at the time, close to 5 million so-called kulaks and their family members were killed or sent to the Gulags where many, including wives and children, would go on to perish. As a result of the predictable subsequent man-made famine, another estimated 10 million would go on to die in the following years. What is striking is that at the time of Conquest’s forecasts and estimates (made in the 50s), Western media outlets lampooned the account as overly sensationalized and hyper-critical of Stalin and the Soviet system. As it turned out, once the Soviet archives were opened in their entirety decades later, Conquest’s estimates proved to be remarkably prescient.

My own interest in these accounts is that I am often fascinated, humbled, and terrified by the conditions that led to such a human created humanitarian crisis. The ultimate human paradox is the great good that we are capable of, but also the tremendous evil that we are equally capable of. I don’t get the sense that any culture, society, or ethnicity is immune to such deprivations.  While I don’t think the conditions are ripe for such a disaster in many Western nations and feel compelled to ward off charges of being an alarmist, it is still a valuable lesson of the arrogance of building utopias on the backs of oppressed and coerced individuals. Individual liberties and freedoms are essential elements that we should cherish dearly, even if it means we pass up some immediate expedient aim and benefit that would force us to give them up.  Conquest chronicles another party member and activist who participated in the actions against the peasants and who would go on to later write that,

We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in communism that we were prepared to accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least bit of communist phraseology…confronted by something unpleasant, we compelled ourselves to believe that it was an isolated phenomenon and that on the whole the country’s state of affairs was just as the party described it…in other words, just as it was supposed to be according to communist theory.

This quote is classic and could be applied to any urge to participate in mob mentality and populist urges, either from the political far right or left. Oppression and catastrophe really take nothing more than a passionate minority that believes that all that stands in the way between them and a paradise on the other side is a smaller minority that deserves to be trampled, coupled with a largely complicit mass majority that stands silent while atrocities are committed in the vain hope that they won’t be touched. Evil can be whitewashed and rationalized by us all if it is deemed a necessary act to bring about a hoped for greater good or paradise.

The modern-day Tower of Babel is not a tower reaching up to the heaven, it is a belief that an institution of the state can create better conditions for all, even if it means destroying rights of the few. There are much less malevolent forms of this urge in the Western world today, but the same desire to build paternalistic utopian societies that aim hopelessly to improve the lot of the majority, even if it means expropriating the property and wealth of the minority, is still something that we should be extremely careful with and which we see as prevailing themes in much of the drive for proposed “free” goods in higher education and healthcare, to name just a couple of issues. To borrow from Milton Friedman, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

Free Trade Lessons for the Economically Challenged

Yes, the would be trade war General Donald Trump is included in those that need these lessons. Whether he actually believes his own tirades against Mexico and China or whether he finds them politically astute given his blue collar base is beside the point, the lesson on the virtues of free trade are in constant need of defending – like a garden that is surrounded by malevolent spreading weeds that are aggressive but thoughtless.

This Neighborhood Tale from Cafe Hayek is one Orwellian dystopian view of the topic that asks the obvious question – why should government backed by freedom-hating voters decide what I get to consume and where I get my products from? Drawing the arbitrary consumption boundary to the United States is really no different philosophically and morally than drawing a consumption boundary around my neighborhood. When one paints it in this light, then the restrictions on individual liberty and punitive tariffs becomes quite the sophistry.

Another highly insightful and thought provoking entry on the topic comes from the American Enterprise Institute constructed video debate between Trump and Milton Friedman on the topic. Of course, Friedman having passed away some years ago we don’t get the pleasure of Friedman actually destroying Trump’s immature trade arguments in real time, but the artful creation of AEI does the job well enough.

A key phrase from Friedman in the video montage that I particularly enjoy (at the 2:00 minute mark) summarizes the topic of free trade quite well, “When I look at the legislation it always seems to me that the legislation is enacted to benefit a small group at the expense of the large group. Free trade is a way of benefiting a large group at the expense of the small group. But, politically, a small group always speaks with a bigger voice.”

Another common bogeyman of the protectionist is the trade deficit. To the protectionist, this is a pernicious sign of unfair trade practices. The problem with this simplistic view is an assumption that those dollars will exist in a permanent vacuum of no escape. Eventually, those dollars will have to be spent on something, which is most often re-invested back into the United States. Friedman also observes that trade surplus countries are often driven by the lack of savings opportunities in their own countries, driving them to invest in countries such as America where investment opportunities are better.

“When I look at the legislation it always seems to me that the legislation is enacted to benefit a small group at the expense of the large group. Free trade is a way of benefiting a large group at the expense of the small group. But, politically, a small group always speaks with a bigger voice.” – Milton Friedman

Another brilliant quote that I want to call out is when Friedman uses a quote (7:35 minute mark) from the classical American economist Henry George (circa 1890) that, “It’s a very interesting thing that in times of war, we blockade our enemies in order to prevent them from getting goods from us. In time of peace we do to ourselves by tariffs what we do to our enemy in time of war.”

AEI provides a fuller version of Henry George’s arguments on the inanity of protectionist policies in their text, which I have copied below. I find the similarities between Trump’s proposed 45% tariff and the 47% tariff of George’s day that President Grover Cleveland was attempting to lower an amazing coincidence.

Trade is not invasion. It does not involve aggression on one side and resistance on the other, but mutual consent and gratification. There cannot be a trade unless the parties to it agree, any more than there can be a quarrel unless the parties to it differ. England, we say, forced trade with the outside world upon China, and the United States upon Japan. But, in both cases, what was done was not to force the people to trade, but to force their governments to let them. If the people had not wanted to trade, the opening of the ports would have been useless.

Civilized nations, however, do not use their armies and fleets to open one another’s ports to trade. What they use their armies and fleets for, is, when they quarrel, to close one another’s ports. And their effort then is to prevent the carrying in of things even more than the bringing out of things—importing rather than exporting. For a people can be more quickly injured by preventing them from getting things than by preventing them from sending things away. Trade does not require force. Free trade consists simply in letting people buy and sell as they want to buy and sell. It is protection that requires force, for it consists in preventing people from doing what they want to do. Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their object is the same—to prevent trade.The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading. What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.

Can there be any greater misuse of language than to apply to commerce terms suggesting strife, and to talk of one nation invading, deluging, overwhelming or inundating another with goods? Goods! what are they but good things—things we are all glad to get? Is it not preposterous to talk of one nation forcing its good things upon another nation? Who individually would wish to be preserved from such invasion? Who would object to being inundated with all the dress goods his wife and daughters could want; deluged with a horse and buggy; overwhelmed with clothing, with groceries, with good cigars, fine pictures, or anything else that has value? And who would take it kindly if any one should assume to protect him by driving off those who wanted to bring him such things?