Rendering Caesar

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At first glance, it will appear to the reader that my title omits the word “unto.” The omission was intentional. There’s no “unto,” because my view of the familiar gospel story (Matthew 22:15–22) is unconventional. For most of my life, I read it in the way everybody else does. But although my religious convictions have changed little since early adulthood, I now see that story in an entirely different light, because of the change my politics have undergone.

The meaning I see: was it there all along? Purists may claim that I made it up, but I wonder. The feeling usually derived from the story is that Jesus was a crafty guy, because he really punked those Pharisees. I have a hunch that Jesus was even craftier than we realize.

For the scripturally uninitiated, some self-righteous types came to Jesus asking whether it was indeed lawful to pay taxes to Rome. They were always trying to trap him, and this time they really thought they had him in the bag. As the people of Palestine were subjects of the empire, they were forced to pay taxes to it. But the Jewish people regarded their overlords as tyrants, and cherished the dream of one day overthrowing them. As a rabbi, if Jesus were to say that these taxes were the empire’s due, he would stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment.

Government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source.

“Show me a coin,” Jesus tells his inquisitors. When they produce one, he asks them whose picture is on it. Of course they say it is Caesar’s. To which he responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They went away disappointed, and perhaps a bit awed. Jesus had really gotten out of that one!

My purpose in retelling this story is not to force religion on anybody. My point isn’t particularly religious, but in my retelling of this story, it does have a moral, just not the one usually supplied.

From the time the gospels began to be circulated to the present day, the moral that has been understood is that there are some things that belong to us, and others that belong to the government. But it is precisely this moral that I wish to challenge. As a matter of fact, I challenge the very notion that government rightfully owns anything.

In truth, government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source. Everything it gets its hands on, it has taken from us. Or from whatever other nation it has plundered, or from which it has demanded tribute.

How, then, can government legitimately be said to “own” anything? It doesn’t earn; it simply takes. From others. Whether they want to give it or not. And for all that it takes, it gives astonishingly little in return.

Because I’m both a Christian and a libertarian, I’m sometimes accused of hypocrisy. How can I believe that taxation is theft, when — for crying out loud — Jesus himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Whenever people remind me of this, they give me a smug smile, certain that they’ve punked me.

I used to get frustrated by this. But not so fast. Having now deeply considered the matter, I see the other side of the coin.

Jesus didn’t specify exactly what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. Technically, he never really answered the Pharisees’ question. That aspect of the story almost always goes unnoticed. Actually he left us considerable leeway in deciding that for ourselves.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs.

Do we owe that coin to Caesar? Or do we “owe” Caesar anything at all? Those who call themselves “progressives” love to tell us that “we are the government.” If that is true — and I think that when they say it, understanding government as they do, it is the hollowest of lies — then where did “Caesar” get it in the first place? He neither made it, created it, nor earned it; he simply pulled out a sword and took it.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs. They didn’t want his picture on their money; he told them they would use that money or die for treason. Then he forced them to give up a crushingly sizable portion of the money they had earned — by the sweat of their brows — and give it to him. No part of how Caesar came about that coin was sanctioned by the law of the God they worshiped.

“I came not to destroy the Law,” said Jesus elsewhere in Scripture, “but to fulfill it.” Again, not to force religion on anybody, but even those who have no religion have a conscience that says what belongs to one may not be forcibly taken by another. Caesar owns nothing at all, beyond, perhaps, the image on “his” coin.

Were many, many more of us to recognize that fact, we could render Caesar powerless to demand anything from us at the point of a sword. We’d tell him what we wanted, and he would do it — because he’d serve us instead of the other way around. Every shekel and widow’s mite in this country belongs to us — the people who created it, worked for it, and rightfully earned it. It’s time for a reassessment of who owns what. And of who owes what unto whom.




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The Coase Theorem and the Environment

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About 25 years ago, when I worked for a national bank in Europe, I had an interesting meeting. Three tall, redheaded representatives of the Icelandic fresh cod (as opposed to dried or salt-cod) fisheries cooperative were looking for a loan to expand packaging operations in France. To justify the loan, we had to learn about their business. How to get collateral from things that can swim away, for example.

The Icelanders confidently and proudly addressed every question. I learned a lot, much of it surprising. For example, I learned that the cooperative itself was not a corporation or association, but an entity created by special act of the Icelandic legislature (the Thing, or more precisely the Althing or General Assembly). I also learned that property rights were the key to the fisheries’ reliability.

For many years, I forgot about this meeting, then a friend of mine posted this link to a social media website. The story identifies a trend: young adults not buying cars. His comment on the story was, “We are renters on this planet, not owners.” That was meant as a conservationist statement to encourage good ecological stewardship of planetary resources.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does?

I thought to myself that if exhortation would make us greener, the hot air coming out of Al Gore and many others would have restored the planet to Eden at least a decade ago. What I said online was, “Renters always trash the place. In economics, one version of this is called the tragedy of the commons. Ownership and property rights promote good management of natural resources. We drive on public roads, burn subsidized fuel, get fat on subsidized farm commodities.” But all of this made me remember the Icelandic fishermen and a certain Mr. Coase.

If acting like a renter does not make for good ecological stewardship of planetary resources, what does? Part of the answer is in the Coase theorem. (Here tip your hat to Ronald Coase, who died in 2013.) It suggests that clear and tradable ownership rights help people bargain to allocate resources efficiently.

The Wikipedia entry on the theorem offers alternative versions of it:

  • Version 1: A clear delineation of private property rights is an essential prelude to market transactions.
  • Version 2: As long as private property rights are well defined under zero transaction cost, exchange will eliminate divergence and lead to efficient use of resources or highest valued use of resources.
  • Version 3: The allocation of resources is invariant to the assignment of private property rights under zero transaction cost and zero income effect.

I think of it as the opposite of the tragedy of the commons. Overfishing is a big example of the tragedy. In most parts of the ocean, fish stocks are not owned but regulated (or not). People trolling through the waters are not owners. Instead they have some usage rights, like renters in an apartment, and they have rules to obey that are analogous to the clauses of a rental contract. But like a lot of renters, they don’t always obey the rules. They trash the place, as they would not if they owned it.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, because there is competition to trash the place. As an edible species of fish gets rarer, the price goes up and competitors vie to take as much as they can before the stock is depleted. They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway. There’s no owner to get the long-term benefits of fishing sustainably.

Property rights created by governments are attractive alternatives. Iceland, for example, for more than 25 years has been regulating its fisheries in a way that partly approximates ownership. Basically, license holders get quota rights that they can trade. In (Coasian) theory, the rights end up in the hands of the fishers who get the most value from the quota. I believe that the results have been good. In June of this year, Iceland Magazine reported that the country’s cod population was at historic highs and quotas would increase.

They might know it’s a disaster in the making, but that does not change the incentives. If they moderate their catch, the depletion occurs anyway.

My examples and observations here make for an extremely superficial treatment of ideas and phenomena that have been debated, studied, and written about for more than half a century. I intend them only as an initial antidote to the implications of vapid slogans like “We are renters on this planet.”




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The Pope: Enough Already

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Everywhere in the American media, Pope Francis is lauded as a “humble” man. The evidence? He sometimes has himself driven in a Fiat, rather than a Mercedes, and he has abandoned the papal apartments in the Vatican for a smaller residence. Isn’t that a waste of money, by the way? The magnificent papal residence will still be maintained (I hope), despite the Pope’s refusal to sleep in the bed provided for him.

The real problem, however, is that no one seems to be asking whether he is humble in any other way.

Certainly he isn’t humble about throwing his weight around. He isn’t humble about broadcasting his opinions on global warming and what should be done about it. He isn’t humble about attacking capitalism. He isn’t humble about demanding that Europeans provide free livelihoods for as many Islamic immigrants as want to force their way across the borders. He isn’t humble about addressing the United States Congress and dispensing his views about America’s duty to welcome its own illegal migrants.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics.

Of course, there is no reason why any of this should be of any more interest than the views of any other individual who (1) knows little or nothing about science, (2) knows little or nothing about economics and history, and (3) will not be paying for the policies he recommends. When one weighs the Pope’s moral pretensions against his intellectual abilities, the thud on one side of the scales is deafening.

It is noteworthy that the very Democrats and other leftists who are always demanding that Christmas be called the Winter Holiday and political candidates refrain from religious utterances have gone completely over the top in pushing the Pope to endorse their own positions on immigration, “climate change,” and welfarism. The Republicans have been equally giddy about welcoming the Pope to the spiritual feast that is Washington politics. On September 24, Speaker Boehner was so overwhelmed by the Pope’s political presence that he broke down in tears.

I have a proposal. Politicians should curb their tongues about religion, and priests should curb their tongues about politics: no pols addressing the crowds at Sunday services, and no Pope addressing Congress. The very idea of inviting a religious leader to lecture American legislators is a nightmare vision to anyone who actually values the separation of church and state.




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The Problem of Inequality

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Left unfettered, the capitalist system always has and always will produce a rising standard of living for the poor and the middle class, and for the people as a whole. It also produces a constant circulation of wealth among economic classes, ensuring that great capitalist enterprises will eventually be overwhelmed by competition, and great private fortunes will soon be dissipated by their heirs, who will be replaced in the economic hierarchy by nouveaux riches. Another way of putting this is that the poor will get richer and the rich will get poorer — but there will always be large differences of wealth between the people who are most successful at the moment and the people who aren’t.

If you don’t like that, you can consider what happens under the precapitalist system, which fools are always trying to revive — the system in which the state constantly tries to control economic differences by redistributing wealth, thereby destroying it. Isabel Paterson said it best: “Destitution is easily distributed. It’s the one thing political power can insure you.”

The poor will get richer and the rich will get poorer — but there will always be large differences of wealth between the people who are most successful at the moment and the people who aren’t.

Recently, after reading some of Hillary’s Clinton’s demagogic rants about “inequality,” I happened on some words that reminded me of the unfortunate fact that total ignorance of political economy is nothing new. The words are part of an essay, “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over,” by the early sociologist William Graham Sumner. They were published in 1894, and they show how persistent economic fallacies, and their political exploitation, have been. They were chronic even in Sumner’s time, which was supposedly the great age of laissez-faire.

Sumner writes:

It is repeated until it has become a commonplace which people are afraid to question, that there is some social danger in the possession of large amounts of wealth by individuals. I ask, Why? I heard a lecture two years ago by a man who holds perhaps the first chair of political economy in the world. He said, among other things, that there was great danger in our day from great accumulations; that this danger ought to be met by taxation, and he referred to the fortune of the Rothschilds and to the great fortunes made in America to prove his point. He omitted, however, to state in what the danger consisted or to specify what harm has ever been done by the Rothschild fortunes or by the great fortunes accumulated in America. It seemed to me that the assertions he was making, and the measures he was recommending, ex-cathedra, were very serious to be thrown out so recklessly. It is hardly to be expected that novelists, popular magazinists, amateur economists, and politicians will be more responsible. It would be easy, however, to show what good is done by accumulations of capital in a few hands — that is, under close and direct management, permitting prompt and accurate application; also to tell what harm is done by loose and unfounded denunciations of any social component or any social group. In the recent debates on the income tax the assumption that great accumulations of wealth are socially harmful and ought to be broken down by taxation was treated as an axiom, and we had direct proof how dangerous it is to fit out the average politician with such unverified and unverifiable dogmas as his warrant for his modes of handling the direful tool of taxation.

Great figures are set out as to the magnitude of certain fortunes and the proportionate amount of the national wealth held by a fraction of the population, and eloquent exclamation points are set against them. If the figures were beyond criticism, what would they prove? Where is the rich man who is oppressing anybody? If there was one, the newspapers would ring with it. . . . Wealth, in itself considered, is only power, like steam, or electricity, or knowledge. The question of its good or ill turns on the question how it will be used. To prove any harm in aggregations of wealth it must be shown that great wealth is, as a rule, in the ordinary course of social affairs, put to a mischievous use. This cannot be shown beyond the very slightest degree, if at all.

I can think of only one exception to this line of argument, but the exception has become a mighty one. When people become convinced that wealth is indeed dangerous, and they create a political culture based on the fallacies Sumner reproved, they transform their fears into reality; they make wealth dangerous. Most rich people are politically harmless, but some act on the fallacies they have been taught, and try to better the country by political activism. The heirs of Ford, Rockefeller, Kennedy, and many others have done this. George Soros is doing it right now. Almost always, these people work toward constricting the capitalist system and therefore (strange, unanticipated, and unrecognized effect) toward freezing poor people in their poverty. And as government, under such influences, attains more power, it attains the power to generate fortunes directly. This, not the capitalist system, is the origin of the vast Clinton fortune, a fortune now being used, as was the fortune of Julius Caesar, the richest man in Rome, to devastate the republic in which it grew.

This, I believe, may be the great domestic political problem of our time. (We have a lot of others, I know.) How will libertarians address it?




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A Choice Not an Echo . . . Please

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I would be surprised if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton became the nominees of the two major parties in 2016. Not shocked, mind you, but surprised. We’ve seen stranger things. Consider Jesse Ventura.

But the prospect of a “Trump v. Clinton” ballot makes me uneasy — in part, because they both seem so ideologically ambiguous. While I know they must differ ideologically, I’m not quite sure how.

It seems Trump prefers markets where he can put his thumb on the scales. Level playing fields are apparently for stupid people.

Mr. Trump, after all, has yet to release a lucid statement of his political and philosophical views. In all likelihood, he never will. We are left to infer them from his well-documented actions and inchoate utterances. Here are a few such inferences.

We know he doesn’t believe in free markets because he boasts of buying favors from politicians. It seems he prefers markets where he can put his thumb on the scales. Level playing fields are apparently for stupid people. Or perhaps to him, buying influence from politicians is simply part of a truly free market.

We know he isn’t for free trade because he brags that he will use every weapon at his disposal, including tariffs, to force America’s trading partners to their knees. While this proposal may have a certain appeal, it has the appearance of ignoring the lessons of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff. (Anyone? Anyone?) Do we really want an international trade war?

So, if Mitt Romney is a free-market capitalist who supports free trade, what is Donald Trump?

Let’s just say that it’s not so easy figuring out which school of philosophy is Mr. Trump’s alma mater.

On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton was a Goldwater Girl in high school, campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate. By the time she finished at Wellesley, she had converted to radical activism, enamored of Saul Alinsky’s grassroots Marxism. Since then, she has written and spoken many, many words about her political and philosophical beliefs, all of which assure us that she is a woman of the progressive left. But what about her actions?

To my knowledge, she is the only progressive leftist to have served on the board of the Walmart Corporation. She did so for seven years. This line of her résumé is unappreciated by many on the Left.

Without a doubt, Clinton is the only progressive leftist to have raised tens of millions of dollars from Wall Street donors in the first three months of her presidential campaign.

It is probable that she is the only progressive leftist to have turned a $1,000 stake into almost $100,000 by trading cattle futures. At the time, she was supplementing her husband’s meager $35,000 salary as governor of Arkansas. It was her version of clipping grocery coupons.

Without a doubt, she is the only progressive leftist to have raised tens of millions of dollars from Wall Street donors in the first three months of her presidential campaign. It could be that no one has told them she is a progressive leftist.

I could go on, but just ask yourself this: if Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, what the heck is Hillary Clinton?

Let’s face facts. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both acolytes of the same philosophical school. They are opportunists. They crave money, fame, and power. If either of them became president, the only thing we know for sure is this: the office would be used to seize more power.

They would view the system of checks and balances that limits the abuse of power as nothing more than an annoying restraint on the authority of the president. These safeguards would be seen as mere obstacles, narrowing the range of means available for achieving the noble ends of “making America great again” and “moving the country forward.”

How in the world would you choose between them?

On one side we have a rich, fat, old, white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, candidate with an unpleasant voice, an arrogant manner, and an authoritarian personality. On the other side we have Donald Trump. Apart from sex, they’re like two megalomaniacal peas in a pod.

What is a voter to do? Imagine a ballot with Benito Mussolini and Eva Perón. Choose one. Go ahead.

On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton was a Goldwater Girl in high school, campaigning for the Republican presidential candidate. By the time she finished at Wellesley, she had converted to radical activism, enamored of Saul Alinsky




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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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Cuba and the Yanqui Dollar

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Now that the United States has restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, the communist government is insisting that the US pay reparations for the gigantic economic losses allegedly caused by America’s long refusal to trade with the island state. Undoubtedly the Obama administration is hard at work figuring out how to provide disguised subsidies to the communist regime and to crony capitalists who would like to make money on “free trade” with the kleptocracy. “I feel very much at home here. . . . We wish each other well,” proclaimed John Kerry, at his August 14 lovefest in Havana. When American officials say things like that, communists and their capitalist shills hear cash registers starting to ring.

It’s highly unlikely that “reparations” will be openly paid. Nevertheless, the demand for reparations illustrates some of the global Left’s most mesmerizing fallacies. These fallacies have nothing to do with the interesting question of whether economic embargoes ever “work,” in the sense of penalizing those whom they’re supposed to penalize. That’s a matter for empirical research, which no ideologue can bear to do, except to “prove” some pre-existing notion. I’m talking about the perennial war of faith — faith in the state — against logic.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty.

Every communist state has initially justified itself as an economic enterprise. That’s the point of communism, isn’t it? It’s an economic philosophy designed to deliver economic prosperity. Soon, however, there comes a surprise. Who woulda thunk it — communism turns out to be economically disastrous! But, this having been established, the communist state doesn’t slink off to the side and wither, demoralized by its failure to do what it proposed to do. Instead, it loudly justifies itself on opposite principles — heroic endurance of poverty, disdainful rejection of the good life, the prosperous society.

Of course, it’s always helpful to have someone else to blame for this morally stimulating poverty. For Cuban communists and their sympathizers around the world, and for many unthinking noncommunists as well, the United States is the one to blame. First the US was to blame for ruthlessly exploiting Cuba, by trading with it and investing in it; then, and still worse, the US was to blame for ruthlessly refusing to trade with it or invest in it.

It’s useless to say that you can’t have it both ways. Of course you can, if you refuse to think. In fact, if you’re an American leftist, you can even have it four ways: Cuba is prosperous; Cuba is impoverished; isolation from capitalism made Cuba prosperous; isolation from capitalism made Cuba poor. With these comforting thoughts packed away in all relevant heads, pity for Cuban communism and outrage over US imperialism can continue, with no reduction of self-righteousness. They will come in handy whenever the New York Times notices that post-embargo Cuba is cursed (like pre-embargo Cuba) with that worst of all evils, income Inequality. Again we will witness the catastrophic effects of exploitative free enterprise.




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Here’s What’s Wrong About Price Gouging

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Here are some situations. See what you think of them.

You’re getting ready to drive to work when you turn on the radio and discover that an accident has closed two lanes of the freeway you usually take. Unwilling to spend two extra hours inching through horrible traffic, or to forfeit half a day’s wages so you can go to work at a later time, you decide to sacrifice four dollars and take the toll road.

Your friend has a birthday tomorrow, and you want to give him his favorite thing, which is a certain kind of Brazilian coffee. When you get to the store, you find that the cost has gone up. Several would-be customers are shaking their heads and turning away: they’re not buying at that price. “Bad season in Brazil,” one of them says. “Half the crop wiped out.” Hence the price increase. But you want to please your friend, so you pay the extra money and buy him a pound of coffee.

The first snowfall of the winter turns out to be a bad one. When you see the stuff clogging your driveway, you regret that you didn’t contract with the neighborhood snowplow guy to clear the drive whenever it snowed. You call him on his cell, and over the sound of heavy equipment you hear him say something about wanting to “do the customers with contracts first.” In fact, he’s got all the contract customers he can handle — but he’d be willing to help you out today, for twenty dollars extra, fifty dollars for doing it right away. You happily agree.

Do you see anything wrong about any of these little episodes? I mean, do you see anything contrary to common morality? Anything contrary to common sense? Anything contrary to normal economic reasoning? No? You don’t? I don’t either.

You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

Now suppose the government decreed that no motorist should have to pay more to drive, just because there was some dumb accident on the freeway. Suppose the government therefore closed the toll road, just to make things fair, meaning that you would be required either to spend extra hours on the freeway or to forfeit some of your pay for a much delayed arrival at work, or both.

Or suppose the government decided that no one should pay more for essential foodstuffs (e.g., coffee), just because some unpreventable meteorological event occurred. Suppose the government therefore decreed that no one should be allowed to pay more for coffee than the price that prevailed before that event, meaning that all available supplies of coffee would be long gone before you went to shop for it — purchased by casual customers who would never have bought any coffee at the price it is worth to you.

Or, to go at this one more time, suppose the government refused to allow the snowplow guy to charge you extra just because there was a big snowfall and you hadn’t been prepared for it. Obviously, you wouldn’t get your driveway plowed, despite the fact that some of the people who got theirs plowed, at the ordinary price, had nothing better to do with their cars than drive to the convenience store for a bag of chips, whereas you needed to show up at the office to sign an important contract. You would have paid a hundred dollars, if the snowplow guy had asked for it. It would have been worth it to you. But no, he’s not allowed to ask for more.

What do you think of the morality and economics of that second set of situations? Not much, I imagine. Yet that is the morality and economics that is official in our country. That is the morality and economics that the people, as a corporate body, loudly applaud.

Consider what happens when some meteorological accident befalls an East Coast state. As soon as a hurricane is foretold, state and local officials decree that no one will be allowed to charge more for gas, food, or lumber than they do on a normal day. To charge more would be “gouging,” and an awful thing. The result? The economy grinds to a halt. Long lines form at stores and gas stations. People in urgent, perhaps desperate, need wait in line up behind people who have nothing better to do that day, and no one has a compelling economic interest in rerouting supplies to the weather-threatened region from other places; it’s a hassle, and the price would be the same anyhow. Besides, if you made a mistake in pricing, you could be arrested. Fat little Chris Christie, or some similar buffoon, bustles from one gas station to another, threatening to arrest “profiteers” and occupying the 6 o’clock news. And the people cheer.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law.

The other day, federal officials made headlines by announcing an investigation of airline companies because they allegedly raised prices on flights in New England after a government train had an accident that disabled the main line from New York to Boston. The idea of these high-level feds is that it would have been scandalously immoral for the airlines to charge more money for their seats, thereby allowing travelers who were willing to pay more to go ahead and pay it, and travelers who didn’t set so high a priority on getting to Boston right away not to pay it. Except on John Stossel’s show, no murmur of disapproval greeted the well-publicized announcement of this sanctimonious investigation, or witch hunt.

So this is the mystery of contemporary politics. Actions that would, in certain contexts, make almost all Americans shake their heads in wonder are welcomed, in other contexts, with pious approval. Why is that? I don’t know.

It appears to be an article of the national faith that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. This idea is even taught in high schools, where realistic ideas almost never appear. But another article of faith is that the government can and should violate that law (which it constantly does), and that no one will pay a price for the government’s action: no one will spend hours waiting to buy something he’d prefer to pay a bit more money for; no one will find that the items he wants to buy have disappeared when he finally gets to buy them; no one will lose his life or livelihood because of an arbitrarily imposed “fair price.”

Americans believe that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. They also believe that the government can cook one up for you, at any time, and no matter what happens. No problem! Just make a law.




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They Don’t Know What Everyone Else Knows

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According to an AP report of July 17, the FBI is feverishly hunting for a motive for the terrorist massacre committed in Chattanooga by a radical Muslim named Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez:

Authorities “have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act,” Ed Reinhold, an FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. “We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism — whether it was domestic, international — or whether it was a simple, criminal act.”

“We have no idea what his motivation was behind this shooting,” Reinhold said.

A leading Muslim imam did better, lots better. Suhaib Webb, who leads an Islamic institute in Washington DC, said, “It will probably be that he’s done this in the name of some radical Muslim group. . . . No official motive has been established, but sadly, I've seen this too many times. While millions are excited to celebrate Eid [the Muslim holiday], groups like ISIS, al-Qāidah and others continue to show that they have no regard for life or traditions, Muslim or not, young or old.”

But back to the FBI agent. For what reason would he possibly say such a preposterous thing? For what reason should anyone be paid for suggesting that he and his colleagues had “no idea” what they were doing? It used to be that we paid cops less, and they had more brains.




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Compassion Fatigue

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We are a compassionate society. Or at any rate, so we keep being told. Why is it, then, that as the list of those deemed worthy of our compassion grows — ever longer — we find it more difficult to overflow with it? Our human kindness comes forth, much of the time, at no more than a trickle.

I keep hearing that libertarians are unkind. That we’d starve our grandmas for a tax break, or something to that effect. But the people most inclined to exalt themselves as paragons of compassion often behave the most hard-heartedly. They say they are compassionate, so we’re supposed to believe them. Yet in their interactions with their fellow human beings, they show precious little evidence of it.

Most of us have had the bizarre experience of being informed what we believe, even before we can tell others what we think.

The genius of libertarian philosophy is that it honors the individual, even as it acknowledges the universal. We can — at least theoretically — empathize with any other person because we share a common humanity. Yet even though each of us shares in the human condition, every one of us is unique. You and I can appreciate, in those we love, that each of them is distinct from every other human being who ever has been or will be born.

It’s a privilege for me to know the people I love, and even the ones I merely like. My life would be far less meaningful if it lacked a single one of them. None of them is enough like another that I could lump them together and sum them up. Each is a beautiful stone in the mosaic of my personal world. If I saw all of them as alike, instead of seeing each of them as a unique part of a mosaic, I’d be looking at nothing but the antiseptic wall of a public bathroom.

Compassion fatigue sets in not because we’re lacking in that particular quality, but because it gets exhausted. We’re shamed into genuflecting before a political altar, but that is hardly the same as feeling solidarity with our fellow human beings. This is the bitter fruit of statism. As individuals, the state considers us useless. We matter to it only as a herd, so we’re conditioned to behave, and to treat each other, like livestock.

I happen to be something called a white Christian gay female middle-class American. That’s quite a lot to wrap my mind around. I very much prefer to think of myself as me. In any interaction that I have with each of you, I prefer to think of you as you.

When I started living as openly gay, I began to notice that instead of being recognized more fully as an individual, I’d merely joined another herd. I wasn’t even expected to have opinions or preferences of my own; they were all assigned to me by others. People with fixed opinions about gay issues are always telling me what I should believe, what I can’t believe, or what I do believe — whether I actually believe those things or not. To those who care only about power, our individuality is nothing but a nuisance.

The latter treatment is given tolibertarians in general. Most of us have had the bizarre experience of being informed what we believe, even before we can tell others what we think. Even though many of the things we’re told that “all libertarians believe” bear little or no relation to our actual convictions.

On the libertarian spectrum, I’m left of center, but center-left. I used to be much more of a statist progressive. I still care about the same issues, my concerns having changed very little. I simply no longer believe that government action is capable of making the world a better place. All I’ve seen it do is create one gigantic mess after another, and make life even worse for those it endeavors to “help.”

Were we able to give of ourselves voluntarily, without the guns of government compassion pointed at our heads, I suspect that we would prove ourselves as generous as anyone.

I’ve become something of a gadfly for better treatment of the mentally or emotionally ill. I’m also involved in work on behalf of alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless. Of course I care about women’s issues and gay rights. But I no longer trust in politicians to save anyone. All they do is say pretty things, while doing whatever serves their own, petty interests.

The “compassionate” left hasn’t yet figured out how to exploit people suffering from psychological disorders — beyond offering them Obamacare, which is to say, offering them no help at all. Women and gays are of interest to social justice warriors only so long as we obediently march in their army. Alcoholics, drug addicts, and the homeless tend to vote only when they’ve succeeded in freeing themselves from the curse of perceived helplessness foisted upon them by “progressive” politics. And then, they’re dangerously likely to vote for those who tell them they’re capable of running their own lives. Truth be told, no one’s plight is of much interest to the ostentatiously compassionate unless it can be exploited in one way or another.

My progressive friends fear that I’ve gone over to the dark side. I’m frequently accused of having lost my “compassion.” But when I try to interest them in actually getting off their bums and doing things to help those for whom their hearts bleed, I often get blank stares or even anger. They are afflicted with compassion fatigue.

All thatmany of them think they need to do, for those they’re officially informed they should care about, is vote for the potentates who claim they’ll accomplish what needs to be done. Thus assured, they’re likely to sit back passively and do what they’re told — to give whatever is demanded of them, without asking what’s done with it. They are always admonished to obey their self-appointed superiors — those who insist that they know best.

Given the limited view they have of the world, I can hardly blame them. They are perpetually being told to feel for this gripe-group or that one. Never are they encouraged to recognize anyone in these groups as actual, flesh-and-blood people, with names, and faces, and stories of their own. But on behalf of separate and disparate groups, victimized by the disembodied forces of evil, their compassion is milked daily. We can only take so much of that before we are milked dry.

Libertarians like to save our milk for the nourishment of those we truly care about. We recognize that it belongs to us, and that no one else has any automatic claim on it. Certainly, we know that no one else’s claim on our milk supersedes our own, or that of those to whom we choose to give it.

Were we able to give of ourselves voluntarily, without the guns of government compassion pointed at our heads, I suspect that we would prove ourselves as generous as anyone. Maybe more than most. Those who truly need our help would likely never find it lacking. What a shame it is that because it is so often squandered, when it’s actually needed and deserved we may have nothing to offer but an empty pail.




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