Author Archive for David Gordon

John Tamny on Money and Credit

B121Mr. John Tamny has kindly taken notice  of my review of Money by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames. (Tamny’s comments are here.) In my review, I questioned the claim of Forbes and Ames that money is a measure of value. In doing so, Tamny thinks, I disagreed with Mises. Unlike me, Mises did not deny the obvious truth that money is a measure of value.

Is that so? Here is what Mises says about this exact point in The Theory of Money and Credit:


On the Measurement of Value

1 The Immeasurability of Subjective Use-Values

Although it is usual to speak of money as a measure of value and
prices, the notion is entirely fallacious. So long as the subjective
theory of value is accepted, this question of measurement cannot arise.
In the older political economy, the search for a principle governing the
measurement of value was to a certain extent justifiable. If, in
accordance with an objective theory of value, the possibility of an
objective concept of commodity values is accepted, and exchange is
regarded as the reciprocal surrender of equivalent goods, then the
conclusion necessarily follows that exchange transactions must be
preceded by measurement of the quantity of value contained in each of
the objects that are to be exchanged. And it is then an obvious step to
regard money as the measure of value.

In the plan of Forbes and Ames, the government would aim to keep the dollar price of gold constant. Doing this would require the government to issue or withdraw dollars, from time to time. Amazingly, Tamny says, “Von Mises seemed to agree. As he wrote in The Theory of Money & Credit, ‘No individual and no nation need fear at any time to have less money than it needs.’”  In other words, Forbes and Ames, seconded by Tamny, think that, depending on the dollar price of gold, a nation may have less money than it needs. The government should issue or withdraw enough dollars to restore the dollar price of gold which these authors want to maintain as a constant. A quotation by Mises that denies that a nation need fear having less money than it needs is taken by Tamny to support Forbes and Ames’s contrary opinion.

Evidently, in Tamny’s lexicon, “seems to agree” means “directly contradicts.” This is not the only unusual entry to be found there: “credit” means, as he uses the word, “real resources.” Some remarks from Through the Looking-Glass come to mind:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Joey Rothbard

images (2)Today would have been the eighty-sixth birthday of JoAnn Rothbard, the beloved wife of Murray Rothbard for forty-two years. In the dedication to America’s Great Depression, he called her “the indispensable framework,”and anyone who knew them could have no doubt why he said this. Murray discussed all his ideas with her, and she was a gifted historian in her own right–I recall in particular an excellent talk she gave on Lincoln’s economic policies.

She was totally devoted to Murray, and she regarded it as a principal task to shield him from those who tried to exploit him. She had hilarious stories about some of these people. During the 1979 convention of Libertarian Party at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, someone took the occasion to get Murray to speak at her supper club.  She said to me, “Do you know what she paid him? Zip.” Once you were her friend, though, you were her friend for life.

She had an amazing number of stories about people she had known. No one kept up with people as much as she did; and, as she once said to me, “There ‘s a lot I know that I don’t tell anyone.” The memory of her that is clearest in my mind is the kind look in her eyes. This stays with me, “in thinking of the days that are no more.”

Understanding the Cold War: A Bibliography

AMERICA-UNDER-COMMUNISMI recommend that readers begin with the essay by Murray Rothbard listed here. As Rothbard often stressed, one cannot infer a nation’s foreign policy from the nature of its domestic regime. Communist totalitarianism did not necessitate an aggressive foreign policy; and in the post-World War II period, Rothbard contended, Russian foreign policy was largely defensive in character. The main Communist danger to America was internal rather than external.

Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to the Use the Atomic Bomb. Argues that the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan was intended as an anti-Russian move.

Blackett, P. M. S. Fear, War, and the Bomb. Contends that America sought to use nuclear policy to secure dominance over Russia.

Chomsky, Noam. American Power and the New Mandarins. Criticizes American intellectuals for their role in promoting a Cold War ideology.

Chomsky, Noam. At War With Asia. Emphasizes the destructive effects of American policy in this region.

Cumings, Bruce. The Korean War: A HistoryChallenges exclusive North Korean responsibility for the Korean War.

Doenecke, Justus. Not to the Swift: the Old Isolationists in the Cold War Era. Good analysis of the reactions of the opponents of American intervention in World War II to the Cold War.

Du Berrier, Hilaire. Background to Betrayal: the Tragedy of Vietnam. Shows how American leftists mounted a pressure-campaign in favor of American support for Ngo Dien Diem, with dire consequences.

Ekirch, Arthur. The Civilian and the Military. Criticizes American policy during the Korean War.

Fein, Bruce. American Empire Before the Fall. Detailed criticism of America’s longstanding expansionist policies.

Fleming, Denna Frank, The Cold War and Its Origins, 1917-1960. A massive work that stresses American responsibility for the Cold War. Valuable especially for its account of the Truman Doctrine.

Garret, Garet. The People’s PottageShows how the drive for empire has destroyed America’s traditions of liberty. Only the form of the republic remains. Garrett draws a parallel with the fall of the Roman Republic.

Higgs, Robert. Depression, War, and Cold War. Shows the enormous economic costs of the Cold War.

Kolko, Gabriel and Joyce Kolko. The Limits of Power: the World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954. Argues that the dominant aim of American policy during the early Cold War years was the construction of a world economic order under American hegemony.

La Feber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945-2006.  Shows the domestic considerations that influenced American Cold War policy.

Layne, Christopher. The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present. American foreign policy since 1940 has been consistently based on an attempt to secure American global dominance.

Leffler, Melvyn. A Preponderance of Power: National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War. Shows that America was vastly superior in power to Russia in the post-World War II period.  America successfully sought predominant economic and political influence in Western Europe.

Leffler, Melvyn. The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953. Stalin’s post World War II policy was cautious and defensive, in contrast with the American quest for global hegemony.

Logevall, Fredrik. Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire: The Making of America’s Vietnam. Shows how America’s Vietnam policy stems from earlier  American policy toward Indochina during the 1940s and 50s.

Lukacs, John. A New History of the Cold War. Argues that Russian foreign policy was more influenced by nationalism than by Communist ideology.

McMahan, Jeffrey. Reagan and the World: Imperial Foreign Policy in the New Cold War. A careful analysis of United States policy in Latin America. The author later became a distinguished moral philosopher.

Mills, C. Wright. The Causes of World War III. Strong attack on the “crackpot realism” of American policy.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. Argues that American policy is run in the interests of an alliance of powerful financial and military groups.

Paterson, Thomas G., ed. Cold War Critics: Alternatives to American Foreign Policy in the Truman Years. Contains essays on leading critics of American policy, including Walter Lippmann, who shifted from his World War II interventionism.

Quigley, John. The Ruses for War: American Interventionism Since World War II. American’s numerous military interventions since World War II have been based on lies and violations of international law.

Raico, Ralph. Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal. Contains a devastating essay on Harry Truman’s Cold War policy.

Rothbard, Murray N. “Harry Elmer Barnes as Revisionist of the Cold War” in Harry Elmer Barnes, Learned Crusader, ed. Arthur Goddard [ See my “Murray Rothbard and the Cold War” for further listings and discussion.]   A detailed account of the views of Barnes, a leading revisionist historian, on the Cold War. This article is the best account of Rothbard’s  own position.

Shoup, Laurence H. and William Minter. Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and American Foreign Policy. America aimed for world dominance even before the ostensible beginning of the Cold War. The Council on Foreign Relations played an important role in policy formation.

Smoot, Dan. The Invisible Government. Shows the influence of the Council on Foreign Relations in promoting an interventionist American foreign policy.

Stone, I.F. The Hidden History of the Korean War. Stresses the aggressive policies of the Syngman Rhee regime and the American government at the onset of the Korean War.

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. American Cold War policy must be seen in the context of a longstanding American search for economic empire. Empire was a substitute for the ending of the frontier.

Wills, Gary. Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State. The advent of nuclear weapons has resulted in a vast growth in presidential power.

Wilson, Edmund. The Cold War and the Income Tax: A Protest. A leading literary critic challenges the use of fear by the American government to control the public. Cold War propaganda scares people into paying their income tax.

Happy Birthday, Hans

unnamed (2)Today is the sixty-fifth birthday of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. In the Preface to his The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Hans says: “My largest debt is to Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard, the twentieth century’s two greatest—though much neglected—economists and social philosophers.” Hans is the worthy successor of these great thinkers; and, like them, he is devoted to freedom and utterly rejects compromise.

In The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, he argues that all deviations from the free market are forms of socialism. The choice between these two systems is no matter of arbitrary preference. It can be shown by strictly rational argument that socialism will not work. Here he follows Mises; but he goes further. He contends that libertarian rights can also be justified by reason, without any appeal to controversial value judgments.

Hans does not hesitate to challenge an idea that nearly all mainstream political philosophers accept. In Democracy: The God That Failed, he contends that the political evolution from monarchy to democracy has been inimical to liberty.  He will have nothing to do with any attempts to tie libertarianism to politically correct leftist dogmas. Dante’s words apply to him: “Come, follow me, and leave the world to its babblings.” (Purgatorio, V. 13)

Steve Forbes Misunderstands Money

Billets_de_5000A recent column by Steve Forbes on money is a peculiar mixture of insight and error.  Forbes rightly says, “The blunt truth is that an active monetary policy has never, ever led to sound, sustainable growth. Without exception it has always done more harm than good, the only variable being the degree of damage rendered…It’s truly amazing that economists and policymakers remain obliviously impervious to the mountains of evidence proving that you cannot constructively guide an economy by manipulating interest rates and bank reserves.” Given these wise words, you might expect Forbes to call for a total end to government monetary policy.

Unfortunately, a key mistake prevents him from taking this step. He thinks that money measures economic value. “Money isn’t wealth. It measures wealth the way a ruler measures length, a clock measures time and a scale measures weight.” Forbes ignores the Austrian insight that economic value is purely subjective. There is no “unit of value” that corresponds to the objective measurements Forbes mentions.

Because Forbes thinks that money measures value, he favors “stable” money. “Central banks have only two legitimate tasks: preserving stable values for their money and dealing quickly, decisively with financial panics.” Beguiled by the illusion of a stable measure of value, Forbes winds up in support of an activist monetary policy.

Forbes discusses at greater length his account on money in his recent book Money, written with Elizabeth Ames.  I review this book, with my customary lack of enthusiasm, in the forthcoming September issue of The Free Market.

Books on World War II

GreatWarsGreatLeaders_Raico_20101124_bookstoreThe dominant view of World War II is that it was the “good war.” Hitler bears exclusive responsibility for the onset of war, because he aimed to conquer Europe, if not the entire world. The United States tried to avoid entering the war but was forced into the fight by the surprise Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The authors on this list dissent. For them, Responsibility for the war was mixed, and Roosevelt provoked Japan’s attack.   Allied conduct of the war, furthermore, was characterized by grave ethical misconduct.

Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb  Comprehensive study that shows dropping the atomic bombs was not needed to bring about Japanese surrender.

Baker, Nicholson  Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization Stresses the violations of the norms of civilized war in World War II, with full attention to the role of Winston Churchill

Barnes, Harry Elmer, ed. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace A collection of essays by leading revisionist historians, concentrating on Franklin Roosevelt’s policies.

Beard, Charles A.  President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941 Beard, one of the foremost twentieth-century American historians, argues that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Buchanan, Patrick J.Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War. Argues that the British guarantee to Poland in March 1939 was a mistake, because there was no feasible means of fulfilling it.

Chamberlin, William H., America’s Second Crusade A highly critical account of American policy during World War I. America failed to learn the lesson of intervention in World War I.

Crocker, George, Roosevelt’s Road to Russia Emphasizes the extent to which American involvement in the war led to a pro-Soviet policy.

Cowling, Maurice, The Impact of Hitler A detailed study of British cabinet politics in the 1930s, countering the view that Chamberlain sought peace at any price with Hitler.

Doenecke, Justus   Storm on the Horizon: The Challenge to American Intervention, 1939-1941.  A detailed study of the American anti-war movement, showing the diversity of arguments used to oppose Roosevelt’s bellicose policies. Read More→

Mises University

A young man who attended Mises University last week posted the following on Facebook:

At Cato U in San Diego. Just saying: between the two there is NO COMPARISON. Mises remains the gold standard of ideas. The intellectual conversations, the overall decency of the people, and just the welcoming attitude just isn’t the same. Miss you guys

Peikoff on Snowden

220px-Edward_Snowden-2Leonard Peikoff, much to my surprise, has an excellent podcast on Edward Snowden.  He praises Snowden for revealing the vast amount of information the NSA collects about us. The government’s program is in essence totalitarian, and Peikoff aptly draws a parallel with Orwell’s 1984. To those who say that Snowden gave American secrets to Russia, Peikoff replies that even if this were true, Snowden is still a hero. Obama is a much greater threat to us than Putin. The information Snowden gave the American people about what the government is doing far outweighs in importance anything Putin may have learned from him about America.

Unfortunately, Peikoff  near the end  of the podcast reverts to form and calls for a nuclear attack on Iran; but at least he does not claim to derive the necessity of such an attack from “A is A”.

Kirzner on Rothbard

What did Israel Kirzner think of Murray Rothbard? Robert Wenzel has linked to a video interview of Kirzner that answers this question.  Kirzner calls Rothbard  “an extraordinarily brilliant person” and says that “genius is perhaps not too extravagant a word to use” about him.

Krugman and the Babysitters

749px-Paul_Krugman_BBF_2010_ShankbonePaul Krugman in End This Depression Now! and elsewhere uses a story about a babysitting cooperative near Washington, D.C., to illustrate how Keynesian stimulus policies work.  Each of the families in the cooperative needed a babysitter if it wanted to go out for an evening. Every family was given a certain amount of scrip, each unit of which was good for half an hour of babysitting services. If a family wanted to go out, it could use its scrip to purchase the hours of babysitting services it needed.

Unfortunately, the families got so little scrip to begin with that almost everybody preferred to offer to be a babysitter, in order to accumulate scrip, than to go out.  But if almost no one wants to go out, there will be almost no demand for babysitters and people will be unable to accumulate scrip. The system was at an impasse.

As Krugman tells the tale, the problem was solved by giving everybody more scrip. After doing this, people were more willing to go out, because they now had enough scrip to purchase babysitting time; and then those who wanted to accumulate scrip were able to find purchasers for their services. Krugman uses the story to show the merits of a Keynesian policy of stimulus. An increase in government spending can, he says, get us out a situation where almost no one wants to spend but almost everyone wants to save.

According to Tim Harford, in his recent The Undercover Economist Strikes Back, Krugman did not tell the full story. Just as Krugman says, the increased distribution of scrip got the babysitting cooperative going. What he failed to mention was that the cooperative soon broke down again. The amount of scrip grew beyond the amount needed to balance supply and demand for babysitting , and now people wanted to go out but there were few babysitters available. Because people had large amounts of scrip already, they saw no need to add to their supply of scrip through offering to babysit.

Krugman’s story, though designed to show the merits of Keynesian stimulus, actually shows, as Austrians have long pointed out, that. a stimulus policy can quickly become inflationary.


Binswanger on Anarchism

456px-BlackFlagSymbol.svgHarry Binswanger, a leading Objectivist philosopher, advances a simple argument that he thinks suffices to undermine libertarian anarchism. The argument is found in his article of January 24 for Forbes, “Sorry, Libertarian Anarchists, Capitalism Requires Government.”

Binswanger’s argument starts from a correct premise. In a free market exchange, each party to the exchange expects to benefit. In Objectivist language, a trade is an exchange of value for value. But force is not a value — it is the negation of value. Therefore, protective services are not a proper subject for market competition. They must be provided by a government monopoly.

As Binswanger puts his argument:

Production is the creation of value, and trade is the voluntary exchange of value for value, to mutual benefit. Force is destruction, or the threat of it. It may be the destruction of a value, as when a hoodlum throws a rock through a store window. Or it may be the destruction of destruction, as when a policeman pulls a gun on that hoodlum and hauls him off to jail. But in either case, it is the opposite of wealth-creation and voluntary trade.

Force properly employed is used only in retaliation, but even when retaliatory, force merely eliminates a negative, it cannot create value. The threat of force is used to make someone obey, to thwart his will. The only moral use of force is in self-defense, to protect one’s rights. . . . The wielding of force is not a business function. In fact, force is outside the realm of economics. Economics concerns production and trade, not destruction and seizure.

Ask yourself what it means to have a “competition” in governmental services. It’s a “competition” in wielding force, a “competition” in subjugating others, a “competition” in making people obey commands. That’s not “competition,” it’s violent conflict. On a large scale, it’s war.

I’m surprised that Binswanger missed the obvious mistake in this argument. A policeman arresting a suspect is not engaged in an economic exchange with him. So far, Binswanger is entirely right. But someone who purchases defense services from a protection agency is not using force. He is exchanging money for the service of protection; and that is, contrary to Binswanger, an exchange of value — money — for value — protection. The fact that protection may involve the use of force on criminals does not change its status as an economically valued good. Binswanger, in brief, confuses, the economic transaction of purchasing protection with the use of force .

Binswanger falls into a related confusion in another passage of his article. He says:

The anarchists object to the very idea of a monopoly on force. That only shows that they cannot grasp what force is. Force is monopoly. To use force is to attempt to monopolize. The cop or the gunman says: “We’ll do it my way, not your way–or else.” There is no such thing as force that allows dissenters to go their own way. If a man wants to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want it, only one of them can have their way. It’s either “Back off” or rape. Either way, it’s a monopoly.

This is not correct. Someone using force does not allow those whom the force is directed against to go their own way, true enough. But the user of force need not claim a monopoly. He need not claim that no one else is free to use force against his target. By the way, I would have thought that after The Fountainhead, Objectivists would stay away from examples that involve rape.

Binswanger’s article contains other mistakes as well. He says that a free market presupposes objective law, but he fails to show that objective law requires a government. But he devotes his principal attention to the argument that contrasts force with economic value.

As an Objectivist in good standing, Binswanger had better hope that this argument fails. The sort of government that Ayn Rand and her followers favor does not extract resources from people through taxation. It depends on voluntary funding, e.g, user-fees for its protective and judicial services. If Binswanger were right, such services could not be the object of market purchase. Because they involve the use of force, they are not a value. How then can they be offered for sale? Or does Binswanger think that it is all right to purchase protection from a monopoly, but not from a competitive enterprise?

By the way, readers who come across philosophical arguments that try to refute Austrian economics or libertarianism are invited to send them to me.

Economics and Value Freedom

3824791020_dc042b8cf6_bMises and Rothbard taught that economics is a value-free science. Propositions of economics, such as the law of diminishing marginal utility, neither state nor imply any judgments about what is good or bad, right or wrong. Robert Grant, an Irish philosopher who teaches at Trinity College, Dublin, disagrees. In an article that appeared January 23 on the Irish news website ,  Grant claimed that “the view of economics as value-free is, at best, illusory and, at worst, dangerous.” Economics is not value-free, according to him; and the myth that it is helps nefarious supporters of the free market occlude the truth that the free market helps the rich, not the poor.

Grant’s argument against value-freedom in economics is not very good. He points out that economists choose to investigate certain topics rather than others, Their choices reflect the values they hold. “The very decision about what aspect of the world to examine is an expression of what is important to us, ie, an expression of our values. . ., economists can choose to aim their analysis at the private financial markets and the banking system, or they could focus on public issues such as welfare economics, or how to make healthcare affordable. Each analysis may display incredible intellectual and mathematical sophistication, yet the choice is a normative one. It means that you deem some particular issue to be more worth your time and effort than the myriad of other issues you could investigate. Values are inescapable.”

Grant has fallen into an elementary confusion. Of course he is right that your choice to study something expresses your values. It hardly follows from this, though, the results of your investigation are, in whole or in part, value judgments. When it is claimed that economics is value-free, the claim is about the propositions of economics, not the reasons economists have for studying these propositions.

Read More→

Rothbard on Coase

Murray Rothbard was an early admirer of Ronald Coase, who died Monday at age 102. In a memo in two parts for the Volker Fund, dated July 16, 1957, Rothbard reported on two series of lectures delivered by Coase.  He praised Coase’s insight that “under planning, government, if it cannot force labor directly, must. . .condemn any public criticism as subversive.” A free press requires free enterprise. Coase was a pioneer in calling for privatization of air frequencies, and Rothbard enthusiastically agrees with this proposal. Coase was of course a keen observer of the British scene, and the BBC came in for withering scorn from him. In the lectures, “the personality of the guiding genius of the BBC is deftly pointed up as the prototype of the arrogant bureaucrat.’”(This is apparently a  reference to Lord Reith, called by Churchill “that human Alp.”)

Rothbard reports on a second series of lectures in which Coase “shows that the post office originated in government thought control attempts and that the government still continues to censor and suppress communications it does not like.” Although Rothbard thinks that Coase erred by conceding that advertising can be “wasteful”, he applauds Coase for a “caustic statement that political propaganda is far worse, and consistently so, than any business propaganda in advertising.”

Rothbard’s enthusiasm for Coase is not unalloyed. He  finds “grave collectivist deviations” in Coase’s thinking. Coase wrongly allows a large role for the State to counter private efforts that make the economic system less competitive. Rothbard will have none of this.”But since the State can and has defined almost any act as reducing competition, this opens the gates for tyranny, or, as Coase admits, ‘a very considerable regulation of business by the State.’”

Rothbard’s memo on Coase is available in the collection Strictly Confidential (Mises Institute, 2010), pp.253-256.

Krugman on Economic Policy Uncertainty

In his column “Phony Fear Factor,” published in The New York Times on August 8, 2013, Paul Krugman mocks the view that “economic policy uncertainty” helps to explain the failure of the American economy to recover from the collapse of 2008. Unfortunately, Krugman displays little knowledge of the view he wishes to challenge. He says very little about it. As he sees it, it is the “the Great Whinethe declaration by one leading business figure after another that President Obama was undermining confidence by saying mean things about businesspeople and doing outrageous things like helping the uninsured.” Cutting away the rhetoric, Krugman is saying that the view he wishes to challenge claims that business is unwilling to invest because of a hostile “climate of opinion” in the Administration, as well as policies that business dislikes.

But this is not the uncertainty hypothesis, at least as this is found in the best version of it, the brilliant work of Robert Higgs on “regime uncertainty”. Krugman nowhere refers to Higgs; instead, he cites, if only to dismiss, the paper “Measuring Economic  Policy Uncertainty” by Scott R. Baker, Nicholas Bloom, and Steven J. Davis, economists from Stanford and Chicago.. The uncertainty view, as the word suggests, is that business is reluctant to invest because it isn’t possible to foresee what the government intends to do. The view is not that the government follows policies that business doesn’t like: if these were known, it would be possible for investors to take them into account. The claim, rather, is that investment is lacking because people are in the dark about the government’s intentions.

Krugman, following a paper of 1943 by the Polish Marxist Michal Kalecki, claims that business propagandists appeal to the lack of business confidence in order to deter the government from instituting policies that go against the interests of the wealthy. No doubt they do, but Kalecki’s point does not speak at all to the surely plausible hypothesis that doubt about the government’s intentions may adversely affect investment.

Krugman has another argument against the uncertainty view.  Recovery has been “slow”, he euphemistically says; but this is merely “the normal aftermath of a debt-fueled asset bubble”. Besides, we have failed to spend enough money. The logic of Krugman’s argument is hard to discern. It is hardly a point against the view that regime uncertainty inhibits investment to say that current investment has not been more lacking  than in periods that followed past economic collapses.

One implication of Kalecki’s paper should not be missed. Kalecki said that business assertions of lack of confidence could be countered by an increase in government spending. In other words, if private business will not invest, the government can  through increased spending step in to do the job. The is a recipe for government control of large parts of the economy, a state of affairs no doubt welcome to Kalecki and his latter-day successor.

Judge Napolitano at Mises University

Mises University this year featured a  “conference within the conference”.  The distinguished jurist and television commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano offered a course of five lectures on “The Growth of the Commerce Clause as an Instrument of Federal Power.” Judge Napolitano presented a masterful survey of how the Supreme Court has interpreted the commerce clause, from Gibbons v.Ogden (1824) to the present. In clear defiance of the plain meaning of the constitutional text, the Court expanded the scope of the clause so that the power of Congress to regulate the entire economy had by the 1940s become little short of plenary. Wickard v. Filburn (1942) was perhaps the culminating case in this sorry record of biased construction. Fortunately, the Court has recently indicated some willingness to recognize limits to the power of Congress in this area. In his final lecture, Judge Napolitano noted that in its recent opinion upholding the individual mandate of Obamacare  as an exercise of the taxing power, the Court also held that use of the commerce clause for this purpose was unconstitutional.

Judge Napolitano followed the Socratic method in teaching the course, but he was a Socratic interlocutor of great kindness, and it was clear that he had won the hearts of his students. His impressive command of the intricate legal issues at stake was everywhere apparent, and no less apparent was his devotion to individual liberty.

Oakley on Pathological Altruism

Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, has just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a brilliant article on “pathological altruism.” People often act out of a desire to help others, but this by no means ensures that what they do will have good consequences, whether for the intended beneficiaries or for others. Sometimes these bad consequences cannot reasonably be foreseen; but all too often action proceeds in blithe disregard of them. It is this sort of misguided action that Oakley characterizes as pathological.

Several of her examples deal with public policy and are likely to be of great interest to readers of this blog. The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac loans aimed to promote better access to housing for those unable to meet prevailing standards to obtain mortgages. This misguided attempt to assist the disadvantaged helped to bring on a severe financial crisis. Foreign aid to Africa has served to entrench tyrants in power. More generally, various altruistic measures have led to a massive government deficit with dire consequences to come.

Oakley also gives examples of the baneful effects of pathological altruism in personal conduct. These effects are not confined to the intended beneficiaries or to third parties; the altruist may also in certain cases suffer personality damage. Oakley’s discussion of these various effects  is informed by an extensive knowledge of the literature of evolutionary psychology and other relevant disciplines. She calls for more research on pathological altruism but suggests that such research will confront obstacles. Researchers tend to be sympathetic to altruistically motivated conduct, even if it has bad effects,and as a result studies that challenge such conduct tend to be viewed with disfavor. People who criticize accepted ideas tend to have great difficulty in gaining an audience for their views. This suppression of research into the malign effects of altruism is itself an expression of pathological altruism. Oakley calls for a new research paradigm that will put an end to the harmful taboos that constrain the study of altruism.

Rothbard on Rent Seeking

Murray Rothbard anticipated the concept of “rent seeking,” generally associated with Gordon Tullock. In Man, Economy and State, he says:  “Furthermore, the more government intervenes and subsidizes, the more caste conflict will be created in society, for individuals and groups will benefit only at one another’s expense. The more widespread the tax-and-subsidy process, the more people will be induced to abandon production and join the army of those who live coercively off production. Production and living standards will be progressively lowered as energy is diverted from production to politics and as government saddles a dwindling base of production with a growing and more top-heavy burden of the State-privileged. This process will be all the more accelerated because those who succeed in any activity will invariably tend to be those who are best at performing it. Those who particularly flourish on the free market, therefore, will be those most adept at production and at serving their fellow men; those who succeed in the political struggle for subsidies, on the other hand, will be those most adept at wielding coercion or at winning favors from wielders of coercion. Generally, different people will be in the different categories of the successful, in accordance with the universal specialization of skills. Furthermore, for those who are skilled at both, the tax-and-subsidy system will encourage and promote their predatory skills and penalize their productive ones.” (Scholar’s Edition, p.942)

A similar passage can be found on p.1256. The latter is from Power and Market, which was not published until 1970; but Rothbard completed the manuscript of MES and Power and Market, which were written as part of a single work, in 1959. MES was published in 1962, and Tullock’s seminal article appeared in 1967.

Murray Rothbard in The New Yorker

Kelefa Sanneh,  a music critic and journalist who writes for The New Yorker, has a brief discussion of Murray Rothbard in his article “Paint Bombs” He devotes most of the piece to the anthropologist David Graeber, an anarchist but no friend of the free market, and his influence on the Occupy Wall Street movement. James C. Scott, another anthropologist who sympathizes with anarchism, also comes in for attention. Sanneh says that the  Occupy movement is not influential in electoral politics, but he finds one anarchist “who could be considered influential in Washington.” This is none other than Murray Rothbard, who is identified as Ron Paul’s intellectual mentor. Sanneh doesn’t say much about Rothbard, but discussions of anarcho-capitalism are hardly a regular feature in The New Yorker. As Samuel Johnson said, “it is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


Is the NAP a Useless Tautology?

Julian Sanchez has carried criticism of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) to a new level. The principle tells us not to commit aggression; but, as Matt Zwolinski and others have pointed out, you don’t know what counts as “aggression” unless you know what rights people have. You can’t judge who the aggressor is simply by seeing who uses force first. The person who does so may be responding to a violation of rights and not be an aggressor at all. The NAP cannot, then, be used as an axiom to derive the rest of libertarian theory.

Sanchez goes further. The NAP is a tautology that adds nothing of importance to moral theory. A right is, by definition, a claim that is enforceable. “But all the real action is in the definition of rights; invoking the NAP adds nothing. It is tantamount to saying ‘only enforce rights that are really rights.’ To establish your right over (say) your car just is to establish that I ought not to take or use it without your permission (perhaps barring extraordinary circumstances, the parameters of which will tend to be implicit in the argument establishing the right). It is neither necessary nor illuminating to add the additional premises that taking what you have a right to counts as ‘aggression,’ and that one ought not to aggress.”

Here Sanchez has focused on the wrong word. He says, in effect, “Of course you should only enforce an enforceable claim. What else do you propose to enforce — a non-enforceable claim?” He is certainly correct that you shouldn’t enforce a non-enforceable claim, but he has missed something. He has not paid enough attention to “claim.” If you have a moral claim, then something is owed to you. Moral claims are personal. But some moral theories don’t tie the use of force to claims.

As an example, someone might favor transfers of wealth from billionaires to the poor on the ground that this will increase utility. The person might further hold that force can properly be used to do this. In taking this view, the person need not have rights in mind at all. The argument isn’t that the poor have a right to the transfers of wealth, so that if the transfers aren’t made, the poor have been deprived of what is morally owed to them. Rather, the theory holds that transferring wealth in this circumstance is a good thing to do and that’s all you need to justify using force.

In brief, there are non-rights based moral theories. The NAP, by tying the use of force to rights-violations, rules out using force to achieve moral goals not founded on persons’ claims. It is thus not a tautology.

Sanchez might answer that the NAP adds nothing to “People have rights” or a list of these rights.  These already exclude moral theories not based on rights. This answer is also not correct.  Someone who favored the wealth transfer might say that enough of an increase in utility overrides the billionaires’ property rights; the billionaires can be forced to transfer their wealth if they don’t want to do it. Again, this isn’t to say that the poor have a right to the transfer. Some moral theories include both rights and other considerations as well that justify using force. The NAP blocks using force that doesn’t respond to a rights violation, so it does add to “People have rights.”

Sanchez is correct that the NAP doesn’t by itself block a theory that includes non-libertarian rights, but this doesn’t make it useless for libertarians. The NAP doesn’t do everything, but it does do some things.

Zwolinski on the NAP

Matt Zwolinski, a libertarian political philosopher and the founder of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, has a surprising proposal. Libertarians, he suggests, should drop the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). The NAP holds that “aggression against the person or property of others is always wrong, where aggression is defined narrowly in terms of the use or threat of physical violence.”

Zwolinski raises six objections to the NAP, targeted especially against the way Murray Rothbard interprets it. Supporters of the principle need not worry. The objections don’t hold up.

Zwolinski suggests that, according to Rothbard, it would be wrong to trespass on someone’s property to feed a three-year old child whom someone was starving to death. The person starving the child isn’t aggressing against him, but trespass is aggression.

That is nonsense. To starve someone who cannot leave is to murder him. You don’t have to touch somebody to kill him: there isn’t a special libertarian concept of murder, different from the ordinary one. Neither is it the case that you are free to violate people’s rights, so long as you do so on your property. Rothbardian libertarianism is not the doctrine that each person is an absolute despot over his own property.

Zwolinski finds another flaw in the NAP. If, as Rothbard thought, industrial pollution violates the NAP, then must we not prohibit the slightest bit of smoke blown onto someone’s property, if the owner objects? Further, he asks in an earlier post, what if someone objects to a few photons of light beamed at him: should so trivial a matter be treated as harm? The NAP, taken strictly, threatens to derail nearly all human activities. If Rothbard replies to this that pollution below a certain level does not count as harm, why does he get to decide the limits of harm?

I don’t think Rothbard made the absurd claim that the limits of harm were for him to decide. Rather, he recognized that setting the limits of harm is matter of convention, settled by the understanding that prevails in a society. Zwolinski here falls into a mistake that many libertarians make. They deny a role to convention in delimiting the boundaries for the application of a concept: unless “nature” settles the matter, use of a concept is an all-or-nothing affair. Zwolinski‘s objection about risk fails for the same reason. Why must a supporter of the NAP hold that either all risks of harm must be prohibited or none? Once more, that dread word “convention” must not be uttered. Or is it rather that he thinks that Rothbard rejects it? Let us leave Zwolinski to sort out his own confusions on this question.

Zwolinski is not always wrong. He rightly notes that the NAP does not tell us what property rights people have. He is also correct that “aggression” in the principle must be understood to cover violations of property rights, as well as direct physical assault. Certainly Rothbard understood the NAP this way. But why, immediately before pointing this out, does he claim that a prohibition of fraud isn’t compatible with the NAP, because fraud is not physical violence? Is it too much to expect Zwolinski to realize that his point about the meaning of aggression invalidates his own objection regarding fraud?

Zwolinski concludes by suggesting that rather than deal with his objections by adding more epicycles to the NAP, we should, in a Copernican Revolution, put aside the idea that the NAP is the center of the moral universe. Zwolinski’s analogy limps: Copernicus offered an alternative to Ptolemaic astronomy but Zwolinski confines himself to posing objections to an existing theory. By the way, Copernicus’s theory has epicycles in it as well.