In Praise of Business

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All week I’ve been receiving emails from the companies I do business with, telling me what they are doing to keep customers safe during the coronavirus scare. My airline companies have waived cancellation and change fees to help me navigate my changing travel plans. When Royal Caribbean was forced to cancel a cruise I was set to take next week, they not only waived the cancellation fee, they offered me a 125% credit if I would reschedule my trip and sail with them sometime before December 2021. Numerous online teaching resources have offered links to their study guides for harried parents who suddenly find themselves homeschooling — and they aren’t charging a fee for the service. Distilleries began making hand sanitizer from their castoff alcohol. Meanwhile, my local grocery store has had all hands on deck for the past two weeks, continually restocking the shelves and checking customers through the lines as quickly as possible without a break. And still they offer to help me to my car. With a smile.

As the crisis has deepened, restaurants have stepped in to help. Chick-fil-A has delivered mountains of hot meals to hospital workers — for free. Whataburger, headquartered in Texas, has delivered food to exhausted employees at H-E-B grocery stores — for free. And Jimmy John's sandwich shops have vowed to provide meals for at-risk kids during the school closures — for free. Amazon has stepped up its delivery service, hiring over 100,000 new employees so that valued customers can receive needed goods — including food — at our own homes. Not for free, but at their normal prices.

No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free.

There is nothing like American business. This is what Adam Smith meant when he talked about “the invisible hand” of the marketplace. No government agency directed these companies to step up their services, double their workloads, or give away their products for free. In fact, government told private labs to stand down when they were ready to develop and distribute test kits. Yet there they are, anticipating needs, increasing their orders, doubling their staffs, and limiting the sales of certain items (hand sanitizers, toilet paper) through an appeal to good will rather than strict rationing. I shudder to think how all of this will change if our mayors decide to get in on the act and commandeer the stores.

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over. The educational companies such as National Scholastic who give their resources for free today are likely to have new customers tomorrow. And the CEO of Albertsons will go to bed with a satisfied smile, knowing that because he doubled and redoubled the efforts of his employees, you and I will have enough nonperishables to last through a quarantine — and even enough toilet paper. (Although that seemed doubtful two weeks ago, Georgia Pacific has ramped up its factories to keep up with demand.)

Meanwhile, I am concerned about the performers and amateur athletes and musicians and artists and event organizers whose livelihoods are already a bit tenuous. Competition for a gig is always so stiff, and one’s shelf life, especially for athletes, is so brief. Can they survive a season of cancellations? Will performing arts theaters bounce back, or do they face bankruptcy from the forced closings?

The airlines and hotels and car mechanics and retail stores know that if they provide excellent service to their customers now, those customers will be back when the crisis is over.

I’m even more concerned about the barbers, restaurant workers, amusement park attendants, and other modest earners who are out of work right now — will they be able to pay the rent and other bills?

Over the weekend I saw businesses adjusting to the new social distancing. Retailers were scrubbing their surfaces and spraying their keypads after every customer, and greeters were slowing anxious shoppers as they entered the store. My favorite restaurant took out half its tables in order to keep diners at least six feet away from one another, and they were encouraging take-out rather than dine-in. Movie theaters were selling only 50 tickets per screening so patrons could have at least two seats between them.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust. Universal, for example, has decided to release its new films each week on streaming platforms so they can be viewed at home (great for us, though not so great for the cineplex). Dine-in restaurants are creating pickup lines (great for us, though not so great for the wait staff). Others will innovate as well.

All of these innovations will go away as governments begin issuing mandatory closing edicts, but even then, businesses will find ways to adjust

As you go forward through these difficult times, consider not requesting a refund for the tickets you’ve purchased to shows, games, and other events that have been canceled. Help the theaters and venues stay alive by accepting a credit for a future event, or letting them keep the money altogether. Leave a tip in the pickup line and ask that it be donated to the wait staff who have been laid off. Offer to help your neighbors who suddenly have children at home during the day with no babysitter and a job they need to keep. Thank the retail workers for being at their jobs during these extra-hectic days.

Be calm. Be patient. Wash your hands. And don’t take the last roll of toilet paper.




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The Failure of Government

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Wall Street is (I hope) discovering that the Fed can't wave a magic wand to make problems disappear.

As you know, the stock market has been in chaos for the past month. Four times it had dramatic, even historic declines — 7%, 10%, 13%, and just yesterday over 6%. But it also had a day of gaining 9% after Trump declared a national emergency, 5% on a spike after the first time the Federal Reserve indicated it would act, and a sharp spike the first time Congress announced legislation.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid.

Here is my take on Wall Street. Investors read about the coming recession and sell. The market collapses. Then they read about the Fed or the White House or Congress taking action. The market shoots up. Then they read more bad news, and the next day there’s another collapse. This cycle of ups and downs has repeated over and over.

What are the lessons? Wall Street is stupid. It has a short memory and low long-term vision. Investors really think the federal government can wave a magic wand and make any problem disappear. Now Wall Street is learning that is not true, and stocks tumble. In the long term, it seems that the market will be down 25% to 40% from its peak in February 2020.

Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity.

As the virus crisis unfolds, there will be much antilibertarian sentiment, to the effect that we need a social safety net, socialized medicine, etc. Instead of replying by talking about what capitalism can do, let's talk about what government cannot do. It can't find a cure by magic. And it can't create money by magic. It cannot eliminate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. It has no magical powers. This is not a crisis that government will solve. It is a crisis that we as a human species will overcome.

Now that Wall Street is learning that the Fed is mortal, not a deity, if you own stocks, strap on a helmet. You're in for a volatile, rough ride. As are we all, in the months and year to come.




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Sanders, Biden, and the "Ideological Struggle”

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In the March 15 debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, the immediate news was that Biden promised to pick a woman as a running mate. I already assumed he would do that. (Amy Klobuchar? Kamala Harris?) Biden also said he would appoint the first black woman to the US Supreme Court (Harris?), though the newsies didn’t focus on that.

To someone more interested in ideas, the memorable line of the evening was from Sanders: “We are winning the ideological struggle.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.”

His statement hit me on several levels. First, the language. Joe Biden would never use a phrase like “ideological struggle.” Old-line Democrats don’t talk that way. Combine that with Sanders’ condemnation-in-advance of “profiteering,” his bewailing of America’s “unjust and unfair economic system,” and, in his closing statement, his call to “rethink America. Create a country where we care about each other rather than a country of greed and corruption.”

Sanders speaks the language of the Left. Note that he repeatedly talked about “workers.” Here in Seattle we have a Trotskyist on the city council. In the council’s debate in 2018 about the employee head tax, when all the other council members talked about helping “the homeless,” our local Marxist talked about helping “the workers.” And that’s how Bernie talks.

At one point, Biden went after Sanders for his history of praising Cuba and the Soviet Union. Sanders’ reply was that he has always been against authoritarianism; he had never praised that, but the things he’d said about medical care in Cuba, for example, were accurate. So is the statement, “Extreme poverty in China today is much less than 40 to 50 year ago.” Should he not say that because China’s government is authoritarian? Biden replied by denouncing China as a dictatorship. He also dismissed the material progress in China as “marginal,” which is not true, but by red-baiting Sanders he had drawn blood. I wished he had done more: Sanders’ fellow-traveling to Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union (his honeymoon!), done years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, were the actions of an admirer. The white-haired “democratic socialist” has never disowned his youthful pinkhood. Back then, he was full of admiration for State Doctors for All; now he wants Medicare for All.

Biden didn’t pursue it.

On the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions.

On the political level Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle,” sounded like an admission that he wasn’t going to win the Democratic Party’s nomination. After the voting of the past two weeks, Sanders is toast, as long as Biden stays healthy and passably lucid.

On the literal level, Sanders’ statement, “We are winning the ideological struggle” hit me as true. Biden is against “Medicare for All” because it would cost trillions of dollars, making it too lumpy to jam through Congress. But Biden said, “We don’t disagree on the principle.” Biden assured the viewers of his plan, Obamacare 2.0, “I can get that passed. I can get that done.”

Indeed, on the great issue of the day, how the federal government should respond to the pandemic of COVID-19 coronavirus, the two candidates staked out predictable positions. President Trump had just had a press conference announcing government money to pay much of the cost of the quarantines, and that all COVID-19 testing would be free. Biden promised to outdo Trump: everything would be free. “Nobody will pay for anything to do with the national crisis,” he promised. “We’re going to have a major, major, major bailout package.”

One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.”

Sanders’ reply was that Biden’s money blowout wouldn’t have changed the healthcare system. “We don’t have a system,” Sanders said. He wants a single-payer system. “You have a single-payer system in Italy,” Biden retorted. “It doesn’t work there.” But nobody cared about Italy.

Earlier, Trump had come out in his press conference with a bevy of corporate leaders, some of them from retail chains such as Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS, and others from medical-related companies. All these CEOs had pledged to cooperate in fighting the virus. One wonders whether either Biden or Sanders would enlist corporate leaders. Probably not Sanders, who declared, “We have a bunch of crooks running the pharmaceutical industry ripping us off.” Maybe Biden would, though I doubt it.

Biden had been in Democratic leadership in the Senate for decades, casting votes for tactical reasons, often in times when the Democrats played second fiddle to the Republicans. Sanders, a radical backbencher elected as an Independent, challenged Biden to justify some of these votes. In the George W. Bush years, Biden had voted for a bankruptcy bill that forbade the charge-off of student debt. He had repeatedly voted for the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited the use of federal funds for abortions. In the Clinton years he had voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage, and for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which increased competition from Canada and Mexico. Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq. “Everybody knew that when you voted for that, you were voting Bush and Cheney the authority to go to war,” Sanders said.

Biden had voted in 2008 to bail out the banks because, he said, the alternative was a depression. Sanders had voted no because, he said, the bankers were a bunch of crooks.

Biden had, most notoriously, voted in 2002 for the authorization to use force in Iraq.

Sanders said that on one occasion that Biden had talked with the Republicans about cutting Social Security and veterans’ benefits. Biden protested that he had never voted to cut those benefits — he never would! — but he had to admit, under Sanders’ pressure, that he’d talked about it.

Responding to this list of political sins, Biden said that Sanders had voted to forbid the victims of gun violence, or their families, from suing the manufacturers of guns. Sanders let that go by without comment.

And so it went. Both of them were for saving the Earth with wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars, and both would ban fracking. Biden repeated his fantastic claim that passenger trains “would take millions of automobiles off the road.” Biden promised to reenter the Paris Climate Accord. Sanders said, “Who cares? It’s not a big deal,” though of course he was for it. The Vermont Sandino promised to hold the oil-industry leaders “criminally accountable” for warming the planet and lying to the people about it.

The “criminally accountable” part was a difference between the two men. Sanders has a hard edge that Biden does not. The person watching the debate with me, who has not followed the campaigns, pointed to Biden and said, “He’s the slick one.” And then to Sanders, “He’s more honest.”

I suppose. And more openly threatening.




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Were You Ready for Corona?

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The TV is on CNN, everything is coronavirus, and national attention is on my hometown, Seattle. Washington Governor Jay Inslee — he who ran for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president on the promise to fight carbon dioxide — is fighting an entity much more immediately dangerous. As I write, Inslee has declared a ban on all public meetings, public or private, of 250 or more, in the county in which I live. I’m a libertarian, but in matters of pandemics, I bow to the inevitability of state power.

The inevitability of it, if not the complete effectiveness. This is clear if you listen to officials on TV talk about the coronavirus. Whenever the holders of power over public health get on TV, they begin a kind of ritual, like baboons picking lice out of each other’s fur. The ritual is the effusive assertion that the official standing next to them (especially if that official controls a lot of money) has been doing a fantastic job. President Trump talked that way at his first press conference, as did Vice President Pence when he came to Olympia, Washington. All these politicians and political-public-health people do it, nearly as over the top as the actors and actresses at the Oscars. Here in the Coronavirus State it doesn’t feel like anyone has done a fantastic job. Everyone is scrambling to catch up with a microscopic bug.

And did you expect better? I didn’t. I never expected even an adequate job from government officials or from the private sector either, at least in the beginning. CNN’s earnest talking heads are rabbiting on about Trump not being ready, the rest of the government not being ready, about test kits being short, surgical masks short, blah, blah, blah. Ground zero for the infection of the United States is a nursing home 15 miles from my house, in the town of Kirkland. (If you shop at Costco, you will be familiar with that name.) The media people say that the employees at the nursing home weren’t ready, that when they found out about the virus they didn’t use the proper protective gear, implying that their ignorance and sloppiness let the sickness spread to dozens of patients.

Well, hell. Of course the nursing home people weren’t ready. Why would they be? Were you ready? And you might say, “Yeah, but I’m not a nursing home. They’re in the health care business.” Nursing homes are in the feeding-old-people and helping-them-in-the-shower business. You can’t expect them to be ready for a microscopic invasion from China. And you think the county health department, or the state, should be ready? In theory, sure. They are supposed to manage this sort of thing, be right on top of it, master it, kill it, and protect us all. But pandemics don’t often happen, and other problems do. Health workers are good at fixing those problems because they deal with them all the time.

Mostly we prepare for what we know. Several years ago, my wife slipped on the front porch and shattered her ankle. After that I put in a handrail. She had mentioned a handrail before, but it wasn’t urgent, and I hadn’t put one in. A few miles from my house a schoolboy was hit and killed by a car while crossing a busy street where there was no crosswalk. After that, the city put in a crosswalk. That is how we get crosswalks. It’s unfortunate, but it’s how people are. Recently I put in a grab bar in the bathtub. No one had fallen in that tub, but I thought I had better put one in. I can pat myself on the back for being “proactive” this time, but falling in the bathtub is a common thing for older people. Global pandemics are not. We’ve had a few of them now, and if we start having them every year or so, we will be ready for them.

As I write, Trump has just taken network time to address the nation, banning travel from continental Europe for 30 days. He seems more focused on the problem than he was, and more realistic — and of course, the talking heads on CNN still take him to task for not answering every concern they have. In Seattle the school board has just closed the public schools. And so we lurch forward.




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Sleepy Joe Awakens

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First thoughts on Super Tuesday:

By moving toward Joe Biden, Democrats are responding to messages in the media. We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket (or maybe even a Sanders-Gabbard ticket; imagine that!) and posing tough questions. And for good reason. Bernie had it coming. The media like a horse race, and tend to handicap frontrunners. And they pile on candidates who wander outside the lane markers of the politically acceptable.

In this case, good. The not so good part is that Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. may become the nominee, and possibly even the next president of the United States. Biden has better table manners than Donald Trump. Biden has experience by the tubful. As he keeps reminding audiences, he’s Been There, Done That. In 2008 Obama, who was only two years out of the Illinois legislature, chose Biden for vice president because Biden had been in the Senate since the administration of Richard Nixon.

We have a liberal media, not a socialist media, and in these past days it has been imagining the crash-and-burn of a Sanders-Warren ticket.

Libertarians might ask themselves: which is worse, a President Biden who wheels and deals and Gets Things Done (especially for his boy, Hunter!) — or a President Sanders who puffs up his cheeks, hectors and damns, and demands utopia? You could argue that an effective Biden would be worse than an ineffective Sanders. Two Democrats I know — Biden supporters now, I suppose — have told me that even I should vote for Sanders, if it’s between him and Trump. Their argument was that Sanders could never get his utopian programs through Congress, and is therefore not a serious threat to the Republic, but that Trump is.

I find this argument unconvincing. Trump is boorish and domineering, he likes to bully Congress and the Federal Reserve, and he has some policies I don’t like. But Trump has not dropped the atomic bomb, he has not gotten the country into a major war, he has not attempted to stack the Supreme Court, and he has not ordered an entire minority group into concentration camps. I can think of other presidents who did those things. The Republic survived them, sort of. I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump — at least better than it could survive four or even eight years, God forbid, of President Bernie Sanders.

I think of the men Trump has appointed to the Supreme Court — and I think: who would Bernie Sanders appoint?

I could be wrong, but I think the Republic can survive Donald Trump.

The reason for not preferring Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden is the long-term consequences to the Democratic Party of nominating a socialist. It mattered in 1964 when the Republican Party nominated an anti-New Deal conservative, Barry Goldwater. He got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country. Nominating a socialist would change the ideology of the Democratic Party, and perhaps the country, in the other direction. It would change which proposals were acceptable in the Democratic Party, and which ones were not. To a disturbing extent the Vermont Sandino has already done this. Letting him have any more success cannot be good. That being so, it would be even worse if Sanders won the nomination and beat Donald Trump. Then we would have a new two-party system: the Socialists and the Nationalists. (And yes, I know, some libertarians will argue that that’s what we have now, but all I can say is, just you wait.)

No; it is better that Sanders be defeated, even by Joe Biden, warts (as Liberty Editor Stephen Cox has highlighted) and all.

Goldwater got only 38% of the vote, but he changed the ideology of the Republican Party and paved the way for Ronald Reagan. And that changed the country.

I was going to add, “or by Mike Bloomberg,” but he is finished. Bloomberg has proven once again that it takes more than money to win elections. Votes are what wins elections, and there are never enough votes for sale for a rich man to corner the market and become president. That Mike Bloomberg spent upwards of $500 million is a measure of his ambition, and his foolishness. It was even more so for Tom Steyer, a man I’d never heard of until last summer. Hey, guys! You made bad investments! You earned it in the market and spent it on political campaigns. You should have bought yachts!

The Democratic Party is not going to give its prized spot to a self-funded practitioner of capitalism.

The Republicans are different that way, some. They nominated Wendell Willkie in 1940 and he had been a businessman, sort of; and in 2016 they nominated Donald Trump, who was a businessman, sort of. Really Donald Trump was a showman, a media guy. A much better politician than a developer of high-rise buildings. Trump knew how to wow a crowd, how to use the electronic media, how to intimidate his opponents with crude one-liners. He won because he’s a fabulous bullshitter who delighted in violating the proprieties of the Politically Correct. In 2016 Hillary Clinton outspent him by almost 2 to 1 — and all good Democrats keep saying, we’ve got to get money out of politics . . .

Money helps, to be sure. All by itself, it’s useless. Votes are what counts. Sanders has them, and now Biden has them. Let’s see if one will knock the other out before the convention, and if the winner can unify the Democratic Party. It won’t be easy.




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A Free-Market Path to Corporate Reform

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On economic issues, libertarians have historically played a supporting role to conservatives, at least in the eyes of the general public. The upcoming election season provides us with an opportunity to throw off this image and craft a public identity of our own.

One of the more contentious disputes in the ongoing political wars is what to do about the substantial power wielded by large corporations in our political, social, and economic lives. On this issue, liberals and conservatives have staked out positions that appear at first glance to be diametrically opposed. Many liberals and far-left “progressives” portray large corporations — especially those in the social media, fossil fuel, and pharmaceutical industries — as rampaging beasts, whose predatory behavior must be curbed by strict government oversight and control. Many conservatives, on the other hand, paint a benign picture of large corporations as consumer-friendly instruments of free markets and prosperity, which must be protected at all costs from further government interference.

By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests.

To the extent that libertarians deal with this issue at all, we tend to side with conservatives. Although a vocal minority of libertarians oppose specific corporate perks such as limited liability and corporate personhood, most of us view corporations in a favorable light, as essential providers of the multitude of goods and services we use every day. Our lack of political influence, however, makes us marginal players in this debate, and we are perceived as little more than cheerleaders for the mainstream conservative viewpoint.

This need no longer be the case. Our fundamental principle, the nonaggression principle, provides us with a chance to speak in our own voice and introduce a totally new perspective to this debate. Using the nonaggression principle, we can identify specific government policies that enable and encourage corporate dominance, and we can actively promote explicitly libertarian reforms aimed at creating a more level playing field between people and corporations.

Such reforms are way overdue. By any rational standard, large corporations have acquired too much economic and political power, and most of them are not shy about using this power to undermine the free market when that serves their interests. A current example is an all-out effort by many corporate healthcare providers, through lobbying and lawsuits, to block price transparency for consumers, a key feature of the free market that is essential to its functioning.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations. These rules violate free-market norms in two major ways: as all libertarians know, they require corporations to submit to intrusive government oversight and regulation of their activities; and as not all libertarians fully realize, they give corporations special privileges that are not granted to unincorporated firms or individuals.

Chief among these special privileges is “limited liability,” designed to shield owners of corporations from financial risk relating to corporate negligence or misbehavior. Although libertarians disagree about the extent to which individual stockholders should be held responsible for corporate misconduct, that is not the issue here. The issue instead is that, by granting limited liability to owners of corporations and denying it to unincorporated firms, the government is creating a double standard in the marketplace, one that favors corporations over individuals.

Unfortunately, all modern economies have specific sets of rules for corporations — rules that are distinct from and often opposite to those for individuals and other types of organizations.

Corporations have additional ways of avoiding the consequences of their wrongful actions. Suing a corporation is a difficult, expensive and time-consuming process — much more so than suing another person. A corporation can easily dissolve or go bankrupt, even as its owners continue to prosper. A judge’s approval is usually needed to “pierce the corporate veil” and sue the owners directly. Such approval can be difficult or impossible to obtain, especially in jurisdictions that advertise themselves as friendly to corporations.

Since corporations can own, buy, and sell one another, a privilege rightly denied to individuals, it is easy to establish a chain of corporate ownership to conceal the identity of the true owners, by setting up the controlling corporations in different domestic jurisdictions or in other countries.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves. Corporations are brought into existence by legislative permission. They can be snuffed out of existence just as easily through government revocation of their charters. This gives governments tremendous power to regulate corporations as they see fit, and encourages corporate decision makers to seek the “friendship” of powerful government agencies and do their bidding. The result is a toxic blend of crony capitalism and a “mixed” economy, within which the marketplace is anything but free.

The competitive advantages conferred by government permit corporations to grow larger than they would in a free market, “crowding out” other types of business organizations in the process. Eventually we arrive at an economic landscape dominated by corporate executives and their regulators, at the expense of everyone else’s freedom.

These state-granted corporate privileges come at a steep price — to our economic freedom as well as to corporations themselves.

Should libertarians regard this state of affairs as incompatible with the proper functioning of a free economy? If so, what should be done to fix it?

The answer to both these questions can be found by applying the basic principle that guides our political philosophy. The nonaggression principle declares that governments should not interfere with anyone’s peaceful activities, provided those activities do not violate the rights of others. For libertarians, this principle applies not only to individuals, but also to groups of individuals — and a corporation, at its root, is simply a group of individuals who share an interlocking set of contractual relationships.

The nonaggression principle logically leads to this conclusion: any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people. Conversely, activities that violate the rights of others should be prohibited to all such groups. When it comes to legal rights and responsibilities, a free society should not treat corporations any differently from the way it treats any other privately organized groups, such as labor unions, religious and charitable organizations, foundations, and political parties.

This leads to a further conclusion that some will consider radical: there is no need or justification for “corporation” as a legal concept at all. An unincorporated business should have exactly the same standing under the law as an incorporated business in matters such as taxation, liability, reporting requirements, and recognition of contracts. Aside from protecting the rights of third parties, governments should have no say regarding any firm’s form of organization, purpose, or method of operation. Legal protections extended to corporations should be equally available to all other groups.

Any activities that are legally and morally legitimate for corporations should be equally legitimate for all other private, voluntary groups of people.

Such a set of reforms, if applied consistently, would have far-reaching effects. It would do away with any reason to treat corporations as privileged legal entities.It would remove the need for a body of corporate law, separate from individual and contract law. It would render irrelevant the legal fiction of corporate personhood, along with the torturous logic needed to justify such a concept. It would create a more level playing field between people and corporations. It would bring more consistency and fairness to government policies regarding liability and secrecy. It would ensure that any legal protections given to corporate owners and agents would also extend to unincorporated individuals and groups. Taken together, these reforms would constitute a major step toward a freer economy.

As a means of generating favorable publicity for libertarianism, promoting such reforms has much to recommend it. These proposals derive directly from our fundamental principles. They are straightforward and easy to explain. They stand in stark contrast to the spurious “reforms” dished out by the mainstream Left and Right. They appeal to people’s sense of fairness. And by promoting both economic liberty and equality before the law, they have the potential to gain support from people on both sides of the mainstream political divide.

But advocating such reforms should be more than just a strategy to improve our public relations, burnish our image, and promote our brand. A more important consideration is at stake here. As principled champions of the free market, we libertarians should actually be defending the free market, not the flawed simulation that we see around us. As principled champions of individual rights, we should be defending these rights not only against the government but also against any corporations that violate them with the government’s blessing.

As the 2020 political season heats up, the issue of corporate power will increasingly command the public’s attention. This presents us with a clear choice. We can continue playing second fiddle to the conservative-led campaign to further deregulate large corporations, while doing little or nothing to take away their unfair advantages in the marketplace. Or we can strike out on our own, and boost our credibility as champions of individual rights, by leading the charge to put an end to corporate privileges and make the marketplace more free.




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Fantasies of the Filmerati

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So Parasite has won Best Picture at the Oscars. Certainly it is well-made (as discussed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen). Director Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won it for him is its leftward political message. A similar message is what struck me about the other movie of Bong’s I saw, Snowpiercer, which I wrote about in Liberty back in January last year.

Unlike the post-apocalyptic science-fiction Snowpiercer, Parasite is set in today’s Seoul, Korea (Bong’s homeland). The story concerns two families. The Parks are rich and the Kims are poor. The “parasites” are — at least, on the surface — the Kims, who worm their way into the household staff of the Parks, displacing the other servants. In the course of a story that begins as social realism and ends as a surrealistic horror movie, the Kims become the parasites that consume their host.

Bong Joon Ho knows how to make movies. But I can’t help thinking that what won the Oscar for him is Parasite's leftward political message.

The movie is a story of how the class structure drives ordinary people to weird violence. This is supposed to be a deep criticism of modern capitalism — what the Left calls late capitalism. (Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?) I’ve heard several viewers say Parasite is really not a dig at capitalism, because Bong has imagined the poor family, the Kims, as the parasites. They are dishonest, dissolute, and ultimately destructive. The Parks, thanks to their money, are “nice,” and nothing like the evil exploiters imagined by the Old Left.

That interpretation is overly generous, I think. Google “Parasite” and “capitalism” and see what you get. There is Bong Joon Ho saying at the Golden Globes ceremonies, “This film is about the rich and poor and about capitalism.” And Richard Brody saying in The New Yorker that Parasite is about “the injustice of inequality” and a system in which “the warped, the undeserving, and the incompetent . . . lord over a new generation of embittered and marginalized strugglers.” And Gabriella Paiella in GQ asserting that Parasite is “a taut thriller that vividly evokes the acute desperation of late capitalism, all wrapped in a layer of dark comedy.” And Nathaniel Bell of LA Weekly summing up the film as“Alfred Hitchcock by way of Karl Marx.”

And that’s the mainstream press. If you want the hardcore, try the Marxist LeftVoice.org, where Julia Wallace writes, “Parasite captures the inherently parasitic relationship between capitalists and the working class and imagines the headlong plunge that is coming when the working class will get fed up with creating things for the ruling class to take.”

Why “late”? Is this the capitalist End Times? Is there also a “late socialism”?

Are arts writers politically biased? Well, of 398 reviews of Parasite on RottenTomatoes five are unfavorable, and two of those argue that the movie’s anticapitalist message isn’t militant enough. One is Paddy Kehoe of RTE, Ireland’s version of NPR, who says, “It doesn’t point up a route . . . towards radical change.” The other is Rick Krisonak of Seven Days, a publication in Bernie Sanders’ hometown of Burlington, Vermont, who writes that Parasite “offers zero thoughtful comment on capitalism or inequality. It simply gives us poor characters gaming rich characters and assumes we'll side with the poor.”

I think that is Bong’s intention.

His main characters are the members of two families of four: husband, wife, boy, girl. The poor family, the Kims, are thoroughly Asian, working intelligently (if connivingly) as a family unit. The rich family, the Parks, are Westernized to the point of parody. Each soul is on its individual path, mostly lost, with the sheltered, smiling wife praising her son’s childish crayon drawings and wondering why he doesn’t obey his parents. The boy imagines himself an American Indian, prancing around the big, modernistic house, shooting toy arrows at the household staff. The mother’s idea for taming her boy is “art therapy.” The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a smell. George Orwell said the same in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

Some of the details of Bong’s story make no sense at all. Kyle Smith of National Review, who may be the only right-winger in Rotten Tomatoes’ fawning herd, notes that the rich people in Parasite are never shown doing any work. The husband doesn’t drive the Mercedes-Benz and the wife doesn’t boil the water for noodles. They don’t really do anything. How did they become so rich? Bong doesn’t think we need to know. In Parasite, work is mostly bullshit, and only the poor do it.

The only overt bit of “class oppression” — which many of the critics noted — is the husband’s complaint that everyone in the poor family has a "smell."

At the outset, the Kims are making a bare living in their roach-ridden, urinated-on basement apartment by folding boxes for takeout pizza — and the employee from the pizza store berates them for messing up that simple task. But these are not the Joads. They are intelligent — school-smart and street-smart. They don’t have a full measure of morality, at least regarding the rich, but they have discipline. And when they try, they are successful. The poor-family daughter does a bangup job as an “art therapist,” instantly transforming the little wild Indian into an obedient boy. The National Review’s man asks how such a smart, disciplined, enterprising family came to be stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, folding pizza boxes: “In order to cock a snoot at supposed class injustice, artists like Bong have to fundamentally misrepresent what’s going on.”

That was my bellyache about Bong’s 2013 movie, Snowpiercer. If you’re going to criticize a system, show us what’s real. Others have done this with the world of household servants — most recently Alfonso Cuaron in Roma (2018), which recreates the home in Mexico City where he lived as a boy. That was real. Parasite is not.

The critics like that it’s not real. They praise it. A.O. Scott of the New York Times calls it “intensely metaphorical and devastatingly concrete.” (Got that?) Scott concludes, “Whether we know it or not, it’s Bong’s world we’re living in. Literally.”

Does the New York Times know what “literally” means?




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Remove Trump from Office

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About this time in the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump announced that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

In the years since, his popularity among Republican voters has only risen, to the point that there is no room in the GOP for constitutionalists such as Justin Amash, who left the party and now appears likely to lose his House seat in Michigan under a blizzard of primary challengers funded by formerly friendly groups such as the Club for Growth.

The question of whether Trump should be removed from office for any one specific offense — Ukraine quid pro quo or otherwise — is a moot one.

I say “such as” Amash, but really he’s the only one. All the rest are more or less, and usually more, in the bag for Trump, and thus he will not be removed from office, not even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. For better or worse, and almost certainly worse, the party’s fate is tied to a prissy oaf whose very notions of truth and falsehood shift wildly according to whatever is foremost in his mind at any particular moment. As a man who has never been told “No” in his entire life — at least not in any way he’s felt bound to respect, and certainly not in any way backed by the force of law — his defining feature as president has been his shrill frustration, given incessant voice through his Twitter account, that he can’t just do completely as he wishes at all times in the manner to which he’s accustomed.

The question of whether he should be removed from office for any one specific offense — Ukraine quid pro quo or otherwise — is a moot one. He is monstrously corrupt, a vast sewer mouth that in no way strains at the gnat while in the midst of swallowing the camel. He is at once rapacious and remarkably petty; famously, he once dipped into his own Trump Foundation charity for $7 to pay Donald Jr.’s Boy Scout registration fee. As president, he has not hesitated to profit in ways either little or large: on the one end, he attempted to keep his failing golf resort in Scotland in the black by requiring military stopovers there. On the other end, he cozens the Saudis, likely not because our poisonous foreign-policy institutions favor them, but because they drop enormous sums at his hotels.

The corruption in the Trump White House outstrips any other, including the oft-cited example of Warren G. Harding, who at least had the excuse that those goings-on were carried out behind his back while he was kept busy playing cards, drinking illegal liquor, and cavorting with his mistress. Commentators may differ on whether l’affaire Ukraine is sufficient for Trump to be ousted — Judge Andrew Napolitano certainly thinks so — but it’s of a piece with his conduct in every other area of public life. When Trump runs into an obstacle he can’t remove through money or sheer will alone, he surrounds himself with people who advise him to plow ahead anyway. Such problems are of his own making, because he’s the one who chooses to bring on board the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Alan Dershowitz, John Bolton, and the rest of his deeply embarrassing cast of once and former surrogates. But he experiences them only as further frustrations, and thus digs himself even deeper when a lighter touch would have extricated him long ago. It’s not a temperament you would want in a chief executive, or really an authority figure of any sort, much less someone inhabiting the most powerful office in human history.

Which president of recent vintage would survive a genuinely independent inquiry into the misdeeds done in his name?

But the error is to rank Trump’s open corruption and, let’s say, criminal adjacency, as somehow worse than the more veiled corruption and crimes carried out by nearly every former occupant of the White House, and the squandering of cash on a magnitude that even a Trump can’t comprehend.

Take a look back. Which president of recent vintage would survive a genuinely independent inquiry into the misdeeds done in his name? Obama should have been impeached over Libya as well as his continuation, even acceleration of the George W. Bush-era projects of drone bombing, extraordinary rendition, and massive governmental bailouts. Bush should’ve been impeached for all of the above, though he wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to do most of it if, as should have happened, he’d already been impeached for lying the country into multiple disastrous wars. Clinton should’ve been impeached, not for lying about affairs or provincial land deals, but for his many stupid bombings of places such as Sudan and Serbia, his administration’s responses to Waco and Ruby Ridge, his own seedy corruption, and so on. George H.W. Bush should have been impeached for his role in Iran-Contra and his war in Nicaragua and, between those and whatever CIA undertakings he was involved with, he should never have been president to begin with — and wouldn’t have been, if Reagan had been justifiably impeached.

You can extend this line back as far as you wish, back even to our vaunted Founders. Perhaps the only president immune to the approach would be William Henry Harrison, and that’s because he spent his entire time in office dying. But even if you consider one or another of these cases to be a stretch, consider the benefits of a blanket impeachment policy. Each president would have to spend much of his ideally brief time in office preparing for his inevitable trial, and though not all of them would be removed from office, enough would that the personality cult of the job would be weakened. Both parties would be tied up in proceedings, which would pull their attention away from whatever blinkered ideological projects or rentseeking they were going to carry out, and also channel those whose egos demand constant time in the spotlight toward confrontations with each other rather than with the American public (or indeed, publics around the globe). Contrary to those such as the hilariously hypocritical Kenneth Starr, who lamented before Congress our “age of impeachment,” and asked “How did we get here?”, we need not fewer impeachments, but many, many more.

Perhaps the only president immune to the approach would be William Henry Harrison, and that’s because he spent his entire time in office dying.

Despite the attempt at separation of powers, the Constitution — as the Anti-Federalists foresaw — doesn’t actually allow for a lot of checks on a unitary executive determined to test every barrier and dare the system to stop him. Impeachment is just about it. And while the process itself is almost unbearably tedious, even that has its good side: those whose brains don’t fixate constantly on what’s happening in Washington DC can just tune out and get on with living their various lives.

So impeach and remove Trump. Then impeach and remove Mike Pence, preferably within seconds of his swearing-in. Then impeach and remove Nancy Pelosi, and so on down the line. It’ll take quite a while before you find anyone who can actually do the job. But along the way you’ll have gotten rid of a whole lot of people who can’t, and shouldn’t.



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Qelling Qassem

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As libertarians, you would assume I am not writing this to defend the president, but, in the unlikely event this reflection escapes into the wild, I want to go on record that I did not vote for him last time around. I will not vote for him next time, I do not believe we should have troops in Iraq, and I do not think he should have killed Qassem Soleimani last week.

I think we should have done it years ago . . . the moment we first had him in our sights. I can speak with some authority on this because, half a century ago, the moral cowardice of doing nothing cost me five months in a series of army hospitals and the lives of something like 19 of my buddies.

Back when I drove a patrol boat in Vietnam I was assigned, along with a lot of others, Americans and soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam, to guard a bridge across the Saigon River. The North Vietnamese, naturally, wanted to blow up that bridge. They only had one group of sappers capable of doing that, and only four bridges in South Vietnam worth their effort. Three were on the coast. Ours was inland near the Cambodian border.

The moral cowardice of doing nothing cost me five months in a series of army hospitals and the lives of something like 19 of my buddies.

The odd thing is, we knew where the sappers were. We knew it at the squad level because, every now and then, our sergeant would update us.

“They’re in Hanoi, resting and refitting,” was the first thing we heard.

A few weeks later they’d disappeared from Hanoi. “If they show up on the coast, we’re off the hook. If they’re coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail, they’re heading for us.”

Then, “They’re in Laos. On the Trail.”

In a week or two they were in Cambodia.

We knew America had firepower unparalleled in the history of the world. What we did not have was the political will to use it.

Not long after, they were just across the Cambodian border: 32 river miles upstream. We knew where they were.

We knew why they were there, too. Officers. Men. Sergeants. We all knew.

And we knew something else: we knew America had firepower unparalleled in the history of the world. We had B-52’s. We had carrier-based bombers. We had AC-47 gunships that could put a 7.62 mm NATO slug into every square foot of an acre within seconds. We had attack helicopters with rockets and door gunners. We had artillery and mobile assault teams. What we did not have was the political will to use them and so, we sat on our hands

When sampans started drifting beneath our bridge, the men inside waved as they went by. Three nights later, the bridge went up in a huge explosion. My buddies died. Others were wounded. A bridge that had cost our nation taxes and thought and sweat and skill was gone and I was in the hospital knowing in my bones how serious wars are for the people we send to fight them. And how, if we’re not willing to fight, we shouldn’t be there.

But when we do have people there, we undertake an absolute moral obligation to treat the war as seriously as they have to, which means doing everything in our power to cover their backs. This means not shillyshallying around while the enemy gets into position to kill our people. And it definitely means not giving the likes of Qassem Soleimani a free pass to roam the Middle East murdering Americans.

A bridge that had cost our nation taxes and thought and sweat and skill was gone and I was in the hospital knowing in my bones how serious wars are for the people we send to fight them.

That man wasn’t sitting in his living room watching Netflix when we took him out. He was a uniformed soldier conducting military operations against our country. Specifically, he was an Iranian who, three days earlier, had dispatched a militia to attack the American embassy in Baghdad. He was as legitimate a target as a target could get, as legitimate as Isoroku Yamamoto when we sent our airmen to shoot him down over Bougainville.

I have no opinion as to whether taking out Soleimani disrupted specific future attacks on our troops. What I do have an opinion on is that Soleimani was a soldier, in uniform, on the battlefield, hip deep in killing Americans. And that Iranians have overrun and looted our embassies in the past, and taken our diplomats hostage. And that putting a stop to him was our only possible ethical response. Anything less would have been a betrayal of the people we send to fight people like Soleimani.




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The Good News about Us

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I was teaching a seminar, a week or so ago, when I got an interesting response to a simple observation.

The text was the Divine Comedy, and the topic was sin. I wanted to emphasize the distinction between “original sin” and what theologians call “total depravity.” There’s plenty of evidence for original sin, I noted; just look at children. They quite naturally lie, steal, and commit aggression. But the idea that there’s nothing good about people — that’s something different. “The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good,” I said. “Every day, almost everything they do is right.”

The students looked confused. “Our world couldn’t exist,” I continued, “if the vast majority of people’s decisions weren’t right. That’s how I was able to get here on the freeway this morning. Everybody was operating a lethal instrument, and one that’s not easy to handle, either; but everybody made the kind of moral and practical decisions that allowed thousands of us to get to our destinations.”

The empirical evidence indicates that people are mainly good. Every day, almost everything they do is right.

Suddenly the looks of doubt and confusion turned to surprise and joy. No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself. As you know, I am especially prone to forget it while writing about the shocking state of our political affairs.

Yet the overwhelmingly correct decisions that people make in their daily lives are not just a vindication of human nature; they are a vindication of libertarian ideas about the importance of letting people make their own decisions. It’s true, there’s a difference between moral and practical choices. And it’s true, education is needed. Teenagers need to learn how to drive. They also need to learn that it’s morally wrong to express their irritations by aiming a huge hunk of steel going 70 miles an hour at the targets of their displeasure. But once they have the necessary education — which is not too hard to acquire, if authority figures don’t mess it up — they do pretty well in their own bailiwick. Better than the authority figures ordinarily do in theirs. So leave them alone! Laissez-faire!

No one had thought of this obvious truth — a truth so obvious that, frankly, I usually forget it myself.

Speaking of education, this isn’t a lesson that’s particularly difficult to convey to our friends and neighbors. It’s a joyful lesson. And here’s the corollary: The genius of limited government is that it reduces the number of bailiwicks in which authority figures can intervene, and make a mess of things. I don’t know how to spend your money, and neither does President Trump. And I don’t know how to run your race relations, healthcare, retirement schemes, diet, college choice, weapons provision, electricity consumption, or — to return to the original example — means of transportation. Neither does Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any of the rest of them. So they should butt out.

Again, not hard to understand. And not even new. Alexander Pope said it 300 years ago:

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.




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