JRR Tolkien on the Danger of Centralized Political Power

JRR Tolkien on the Danger of Centralized Political Power

08/01/2018Zachary Yost

At the recent Mises University, Jeff Deist and Ryan McMaken recorded a live edition of Mises Weekends focused on radical decentralization and addressing some of the points raised against it. While in this conversation and in many others related to it intellectual titans like Mises and Rothbard are invoked to support the decentralist view, many libertarians unfortunately fail to call upon one of the most articulate critics of centralized political power with unparalleled intellectual and cultural influence; JRR Tolkien. While Tolkien is no doubt a popular figure among many libertarians, an unfortunate unfamiliarity with his work on a deeper intellectual level often prevents his enormous cultural influence from being brought to bear against the forces of statism and centralization.

There is no need to wonder about Tolkien’s political leanings, as he made them quite explicitly clear in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher Tolkien (who would later edit a great many of Tolkien’s posthumous works) he wrote “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to 'unconstitutional' Monarchy.” In the same letter Tolkien continued that “Anyway the proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”

With such political sentiments, it is hardly surprising then that Tolkien incorporates a disdain for centralized power and a warning about its seductive nature in his work. In The Lord of the Rings, perhaps Tolkien’s best known work, the story traces the journey to destroy the One Ring of Power and chronicles the various effects the potential to wield this power can have. Tolkien does not attempt to hide the nature of the Ring, its purpose is clearly labeled upon itself:“One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them, one ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” The One Ring is just that, one, singular, representative of a unitary will that imposes itself upon all.​

Sauron, the creator of the One Ring, is unambiguously evil, driven by a desire to impose his will and dominate all others. Yet, Tolkien’s message does not simply end with the idea that power should not rest in the hands of clearly evil tyrants, but rather penetrates much deeper into why centralized power by its very nature is too dangerous to exist.

One of the first characters to fall prey to the temptation of the Ring’s power is the wizard Saruman. Saruman’s reasoning for wanting power is quite simple and is certainly a sentiment that we hear everyday from the DC class. “The time of the Elves is over” he tells fellow wizard Gandalf, “but our time is at hand: the world of Men, which we must rule. But we must have power, power to order all things as we will, for that good which only the wise can see.” Such an attitude is all to common when it comes to the actual and aspiring members of the governing class who believe that they know best and are justified in imposing their kind hearted plans upon everyone else. Whether it is social democrats who believe they can plan the economy, or neo-conservatives who believe they can plan the entire world order and engage in “building” entire nations at the point of the gun in the Middle East, the world is full of wannabe Saruman’s fully convinced of their own wisdom and infallibility.

Tolkien examines in great psychological depth the process by which ordinary people end up abusing power, most poignantly in his creation of the Ring Wraiths; men who were once mighty kings who over time became subdued to Sauron’s will after accepting the nine rings of power gifted to men. Tolkien expert Dr. Thomas Shippey has said that “the Ringwraiths are Tolkien’s most original and distinctive image of evil” in part because they represent the danger that power poses in the hands of anyone, even oneself. Shippey calls this process by which ordinary people who begin with good intentions end up becoming corrupted and twisted as they acquire power the “wraithing process.” The use of the adjective “twisted” is quite intentional, as the word “wraith” stems from words such as wreath and writhe which are both twisted things. The etymology of “wraith” also draws upon the important element that wraiths are more defined by shape than by substance. According to Shippey, what fills this shape is ideology with power.

The suspicion is that people make themselves into wraiths. They accept the gifts of Sauron, quite likely with the intention of using them for some purpose which they identify as good. But then they start to cut corners, to eliminate opponents, to believe in some ‘cause’ which justifies everything they do. In the end the ‘cause’, or the habits they have acquired while working for the ‘cause’, destroys any moral sense and even any remaining humanity. The spectacle of the person ‘eaten up inside’ by devotion to some abstraction has been so familiar throughout the twentieth century as to make the idea of the wraith, and the wraithing-process, horribly recognizable, in a non-fantastic way.1

The dangers of the wraithing-process by which ordinary people end up becoming consumed by ideological power and committing atrocities are known all too well to anyone familiar with the bloody history of the 20th Century, a century in which, with bureaucratic efficiency, millions were exterminated in the ideological crusades of the USSR, Nazi Germany, and Communist China among others. According to Shippey, Tolkien’s portrayal of evil through the wraithing-process “is a curiously distinctive image of evil, and… a very unwelcome one because what it says is it could be you and under the right circumstances, or I should say the wrong circumstances, it will be you.”

While there is still much left to unpack from Tolkien’s prodigious body of work, one of his central theses is very clear: centralized power is too dangerous to be allowed to exist. If concentrated power exists people will be corrupted by it. This important point cannot be ignored in arguments for decentralization.

  • 1. Shippey, Tom J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century pg. 125
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Rothbard on Slavery Reparations

07/12/2019Jeff Deist

In 1969 the hottest new libertarian publication was The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray Rothbard in New York and Karl Hess in Washington. Hess, famously as associate of Barry Goldwater before becoming a deeply disillusioned anarchist, was a man of many talents—welding, motorcycle racing, and no-holds-barred philosophy among them. His street fighter style, combined with Rothbard's acerbic writing and penetrating political eye, made the Forum an outlet for strategy and tactics more than anything. And it had a surprisingly long run, until 1984, in physical print no less.

There is nothing like it today, either in style or content.

As just one example, consider the short essay Rothbard penned for the June 15, 1969, issue. "Confiscation and the Homestead Principle" elaborates on Rothbard's earlier writing in Power and Market concerning homesteading of land. In the latter, he criticized the Georgist notion of "societal" ownership or control of real property in favor of a "first-user, first-owner" principle. In the former, he considered how we might determine proper title to stolen property, i.e. land where current possession is not based on legitimate homesteading or title transfer.

The homesteading principle means that the way that unowned property gets into private ownership is by the principle that this property justly belongs to the person who finds, occupies, and transforms it by his labor. This is clear in the case of the pioneer and virgin land. But what of the case of stolen property? 

This is especially tricky when the thief is the state and the victim is not readily identifiable:

Let us now apply our libertarian theory of property to the case of property in the hands of, or derived from, the State apparatus. The libertarian sees the State as a giant gang of organized criminals, who live off the theft called “taxation” and use the proceeds to kill, enslave, and generally push people around. Therefore, any property in the hands of the State is in the hands of thieves, and should be liberated as quickly as possible. Any person or group who liberates such property, who confiscates or appropriates it from the State, is performing a virtuous act and a signal service to the cause of liberty. In the case of the State, furthermore, the victim is not readily identifiable...All taxpayers, all draftees, all victims of the State have been mulcted. How to go about returning all this property to the taxpayers? What proportions should be used in this terrific tangle of robbery and injustice that we have all suffered at the hands of the State? 

The answers are thorny. State-owned entities, like universities, are readily identified and seized. But seized by whom, and given to whom? When decades or centuries have passed, how do we determine rightful owners of land? And what about corporations that derive 50% or 75% of their income from taxes, such as defense contractors? Should they be nationalized, liquidated, and the proceeds distributed to taxpayers?1 

But the most interesting feature of the essay, deals with the idea of land reparations for descendants of American slaves.

This brings us to Karl’s point about slaves. One of the tragic aspects of the emancipation of the serfs in Russia in 1861 was that while the serfs gained their personal freedom, the land – their means of production and of life, their land was retained under the ownership of their feudal masters. The land should have gone to the serfs themselves, for under the homestead principle they had tilled the land and deserved its title. Furthermore, the serfs were entitled to a host of reparations from their masters for the centuries of oppression and exploitation. The fact that the land remained in the hands of the lords paved the way inexorably for the Bolshevik Revolution, since the revolution that had freed the serfs remained unfinished.

The same is true of the abolition of slavery in the United States. The slaves gained their freedom, it is true, but the land, the plantations that they had tilled and therefore deserved to own under the homestead principle, remained in the hands of their former masters. Furthermore, no reparations were granted the slaves for their oppression out of the hides of their masters. Hence the abolition of slavery remained unfinished, and the seeds of a new revolt have remained to intensify to the present day. Hence, the great importance of the shift in Negro demands from greater welfare handouts to “reparations,” reparations for the years of slavery and exploitation and for the failure to grant the Negroes their land, the failure to heed the Radical abolitionist’s call for “40 acres and a mule” to the former slaves. In many cases, moreover, the old plantations and the heirs and descendants of the former slaves can be identified, and the reparations can become highly specific indeed. 

Rothbard wrote this a century after the Civil War, and another 50 years have gone by since. Can old plantation land be seized today, given all the subsequent owners and land development? (e.g. parceling into housing owned by innocent good faith buyers). Can we identify slave descendants accurately? And if so, wouldn't such a descendant living in another part of the US likely prefer cash to a land title in a southern state? Some slaves may have hundreds of living descendants, will cash amounts be reduced pro rata? 

One thing is certain: if paid, reparations will be financed via deficits and general taxes, not specific payments from person X to person Y. "The government," an amorphous blob, will pay—which means all of us, including black Americans, will foot the bill via taxes and inflation.

  • 1. For more on the distinction between stolen and unowned land, see Stephan Kinsella's blog on Rothbard's evolution regarding the subject. As Kinsella explains, Rothbard appears to have changed his thinking between 1969 (when "Confiscation and the Homestead Principle" was published); 1974, in an article titled "Justice and Property Rights," and in Chapter 9 of 1982's The Ethics of Liberty. Kinsella suggests Rothbard does not assert that any cloud over a land title's provenance means the land is open to seizure or homesteading. Subsequent or current owners may be completely innocent in any case, and their rights cannot simply be dismissed.

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Free Trade, Not Foreign Aid, Will Reduce the Incentive to Flee Central America

07/11/2019Ryan McMaken

Former Secretary of State George Schultz has an idea for dealing with increased immigration from the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which includes of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras: he wants to spend more money on foreign aid.

In yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Schultz writes that the countries of the Northern Triangle could "increase the 'supply' of good governance by us[ing] foreign aid to fund better policing, transparency and higher-quality services—and apply international pressure to root out corruption and encourage political reform."

And who could supply this foreign aid? According top Schultz, "the U.S. is the only nation with the economic, technological and political authority to lead," and "[t]he Inter-American Development Bank could do so by redirecting existing funds without new U.S. expenditures, and could get started with a phone call in Washington."

Schultz wisely doesn't mention any dollar amounts. How could he? His proposal is clearly meant to be a sort of trial balloon: demand more government spending now, and work out all the details in the back rooms later.

But we know how this sort of thing works. There is no real expectation that foreign aid would actually remake the economies of the Northern Triangle.

In reality, it will be yet another foreign aid boondoggle: friends of the US regime will receive funds. There will be little follow-up as to how the money is spent. The money may even go to fund despots who will use the funds to murder their enemies. George Schultz's personal friends and colleagues will no doubt get their cut. This is how the US foreign aid game is played.

It is interesting that Schultz doesn't mention something that does have the potential for revolutionizing the region's access to capital and its standard of living. It will do this while greatly lessening the incentive to emigrate from the region to the US: unrestricted trade with the United States.

To accomplish this, the US need not collect any new taxes. It need not impose any new regulations. It need not form any international "coalitions."

Instead, it only has to make the Northern Triangle a true Free Trade Zone with full access to US markets.

At this point, some observers may claims "the US already has a free trade agreement with Central America! In fact, the region is largely duty free!" But this objection helps to illustrate just how much the term "free trade" has been corrupted in the phrase "free trade agreement." In practice, only qualifying goods can be imported to the US from Central America duty free. In order to qualify, goods must meet a variety of bureaucratic requirements stemming from "rule of origin" requirements. These rules exist to prevent "trade diversion" and other types of trade in which a Central American country might import parts from outside the free trade zone, add only small amounts of value, and then export the finished product to the US. Thus, trade between Central America and the US is not really free, and the trade agreements specifically prevent Central American countries from becoming trade and shipping centers where goods and services can be freely imported and exported globally.1

If Central America had a true free trade agreement with the US, however, both US and foreign manufacturers would have an enormous incentive to set up shop in the region and produce goods there for the US market.

Over time, capital would flood into the region, greatly increasing the standard of living for Central Americans while providing new sources of goods and services for American entrepreneurs and consumers.

The success of such a plan, of course, is not guaranteed. The regimes of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras could squander the opportunity. They could insist on high domestic taxes or an insecure legal environment in which private business owners would have reason to fear expropriation by the regime.

But when facing the possibility of true free trade with the US, the stakes would become very high indeed, and the regime could choose between guaranteed moderate levels of tax revenue, or the disastrous policies of expropriation.

But no matter how it turns out, the US taxpayer is not on the hook for anything. There is no risk of foreign aid flushed down the toilet. Instead, the upside is substantial: access to low-cost goods and services from American, Asian, and European firms all hungry to take advantage of this new "free trade zone" in the western hemisphere. American entrepreneurs would be able to provides goods and services at lower prices. They could hire more workers. They could invest more of their profits.

Moreover, the geo-political benefits would be substantial. The regimes of the Northern Triangle would become committed to maintaining friendly relations with the US, and the pressures of high levels of migration from the region would be lessened.

In his essay " The Case for Free Trade and Restricted Immigration ," Hans-Hermann Hoppe recognized the benefits of free trade in immigration policy:

The relationship between trade and migration is one of elastic substitutibility (rather than rigid exclusivity): the more (or less) you have of one, the less (or more) you need of the other . [Emphasis added.] Other things being equal, businesses move to low wage areas, and labor moves to high wage areas, thus effecting a tendency toward the equalization of wage rates (for the same kind of labor) as well as the optimal localization of capital. With political borders separating high- from low-wage areas, and with national (nation-wide) trade and immigration policies in effect, these normal tendencies—of immigration and capital export—are weakened with free trade and strengthened with protectionism. As long as Mexican products—the products of a low-wage area—can freely enter a high-wage area such as the U.S., the incentive for Mexican people to move to the U.S. is reduced. In contrast, if Mexican products are prevented from entering the American market, the attraction for Mexican workers to move to the U.S. is increased. Similarly, when U.S. producers are free to buy from and sell to Mexican producers and consumers, capital exports from the U.S. to Mexico will be reduced; however, when U.S. producers are prevented from doing so, the attraction of moving production from the U.S. to Mexico is increased.

Bizarrely, protectionists take the opposite self-defeating approach: they want to cut off trade with other nations, thus reducing the standard of living. This then increases the incentive for foreigners to emigrate to the United States. The protectionists then complain there's too much immigration and the government must intervene even more to control both trade and migration.

Not surprisingly, Ludwig von Mises saw the ridiculouslness of this position. As I noted in my article " If You Don't Like Immigration, You Should Love Free Trade ":

Opponents and proponents of immigration may argue endlessly about the potential downsides and upsides of immigration. (For an especially nuanced and insightful view of the downsides, see Ludwig von Mises's work on nationalism and immigration .)

With free trade, though, there is no downside, which is why Mises, who allowed for a number of caveats on immigration, made no exceptions for free trade.

For many modern protectionists, though, the desire to close off trade stems not just from economic ignorance, but from an emotional desire to actually harm other countries on nationalistic grounds. The economic implications of these policies then become secondary to other ideological agendas. Mises understood this well, and in Human Action concluded :

We may, for the sake of argument, disregard the fact that protectionism also hurts the interests of the nations which resort to it. But there can be no doubt that protectionism aims at damaging the interests of foreign peoples and really does damage them. ... The philosophy of protectionism is a philosophy of war.

George Schultz is correct in the sense that a prosperous Central America is a Central America with less incentive to send its workers and families to North America. But the real solution does not lie in throwing a few extra bucks at the central American regimes in hope they might build a couple of new highways. The real solution lies in expansion of trade, capital investment, and . Only then can a sustainable solution to the region's poverty be found.

  • 1. It should also be noted that the burden of gaining "certification" for qualification under the free trade agreements place small companies at a relative disadvantage compared to larger companies. For more on how these rules affect trade flows, see: "Preferential Rules of Origin in Regional Trade Agreements." https://www.wto.org/english/res_e/reser_e/ersd201305_e.pdf
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Murray Rothbard: "Pioneer of Praxeological Analysis"

In the last decade or so there has been a concerted attempt by some economists associated more or less closely with the Austrian school to deny Rothbard’s central role in the modern revival of Austrian economics and to downplay his status as a leading proponent of the Misesian paradigm.  In response, I have provided what I believe to be compelling textual evidence that Mises himself, as well as some of his closest followers, regarded Rothbard as Mises's foremost intellectual heir (here, here, and here).  Now from the Rothbard archives comes a small treasure that corroborates the evidence I adduced in my earlier posts.  This is in the form of Mises’s charming and pithy inscription in Rothbard’s copy of the third edition of Human Action, which reads:

To Murray N. Rothbard, pioneer of praxeological analysis with all good wishes.  March 2nd, 1967.

“Pioneer of praxeological analysis”—given Mises’s well-known restraint in meting out compliments to fellow economists, this is high praise indeed and fits nicely with Mises’s remarks about Rothbard’s work in his letter defending praxeology to the French positivist Louis Rougier, which I cited in an earlier post:

The proof of the cake is in the eating.  I can only refer to the systematic exposition of the whole doctrine of praxeology in my book Human Action and nowadays in the brilliant book of a younger man, Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy and State. . . .But, please, first of all read the book of Rothbard.  It is very interesting also from the epistemological point of view. 

Mises inscription to MNR in Human Action.jpg
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St. George Tucker: Distinguishing Laws from Dictates, and Freedom from Servitude

07/10/2019Gary Galles

While many of America’s founders are justifiably famous, others have received too little attention. St. George Tucker is one.

Born in Bermuda on July 10, 1752, Tucker was a militia colonel in the American Revolution, who even wrote Liberty: a Poem, on the Independence of America (my favorite line being “Freedom! thy joys alone are riches to the brave!”), that George Washington said “was equal to a reinforcement of 10,000 disciplined troops.” Afterward, his service included his appointment, with James Madison and Edmund Randolph, to the 1786 Annapolis Convention that led to the Constitutional Convention, and his opposition, with Patrick Henry and George Mason, to adopting the Constitution in the absence of a bill of rights.

Tucker’s greatest service to posterity, however, involved the law. Not only was he a law professor and judge on three different Virginia courts, historian Clyde Wilson noted that,

St. George Tucker’s View of the Constitution of the United States was the first extended, systematic commentary on the Constitution after it had been ratified by the people of the several states and amended by the Bill of Rights. Published in 1803 by a distinguished patriot and jurist, it was for much of the first half of the nineteenth century an important handbook for American law students, lawyers, judges, and statesmen.

David Kopel wrote, “St. George Tucker is perhaps the preeminent source of the original public meaning of the Constitution. His 5-volume American edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries was by far the leading legal treatise in the Early Republic.” Tom DiLorenzo summarized it as laying out “the Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution, which was replaced by the centralizing, big government … interpretation after 1865.” The fact that the Supreme Court has cited Tucker 40 times illustrates the importance of his work.

Today, with St. George Tucker’s commitment to limited government, states’ rights, and the judiciary’s role of preventing government oppression a too-dim memory, his insights into liberty and the original understanding of government under our Constitution are worth re-visiting.

In this country … the blessings of liberty have been … dearly purchased.

In a government founded on the basis of equal liberty among all its citizens, to be ignorant of the law and the constitution is to be ignorant of the rights of the citizen.

What can be more absurd than that a person wholly ignorant of the constitution should presume to make laws pursuant thereto?

 A distinction … does exist between the indefinite and unlimited power of the people … and the definite powers of the congress and state legislatures, which are severally limited to certain and determinate objects.

All men being by nature equal, in respect to their rights, no man nor set of men, can have any natural, or inherent right, to rule over the rest.

Legitimate government can … be derived only from the voluntary grant of the people, and exercised for their benefit.

Every extension of the administrative authority beyond its just constitutional limits is absolutely an act of usurpation in the government.

Government originally founded upon consent, and compact, may by gradual usurpations on the part of the public functionaries … become a government of force. In this case, the people are as completely enslaved as if the original foundations of the government had been laid by conquest.

No people can ever be free, whose government is founded upon the usurpation of their sovereign rights.

If in a limited government the public functionaries exceed the limits which the constitution prescribes to their powers, every such act is … treason against the sovereignty of the people.

A constitution is a thing antecedent to a government. … Hence every attempt in any government to change the constitution (otherwise than in that mode which the constitution may prescribe) is in fact a subversion of the foundations of its own authority.

A written constitution … [is] a beacon to apprise the people when their rights and liberties are invaded, or in danger.

Abuse of power is despotism … the right of one man is at the mercy of another, and freedom in such a government, has no existence.

It is indispensably necessary … that there be a perfect equality of rights among the citizens. … Equality of rights necessarily produces inequality of possessions; because, by the laws of nature and of equality, every man has a right to use his faculties in an honest way, and the fruits of his labor, thus acquired, are his own.

The rights of property must be sacred.

A thousand … pretexts and arguments … form the ladder by which the agents of the people mount over the heads of their constituents … from whence they behold those who have raised them with contempt.

The American states have reserved to themselves … the administration of justice … in all cases whatsoever, in which they have not specifically consented to the jurisdiction of the United States.

[Federal] jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects, only, and leaves to the several states a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.

This original compact … is to be construed strictly, in all cases where the antecedent rights of a state may be drawn in question … it ought likewise to receive the same strict construction, wherever the right of personal liberty, of personal security, or of private property may become the subject of dispute.

The authority of the federal government … ought therefore to receive the strictest construction. Otherwise the gradual and sometimes imperceptible usurpations of power, will end in the total disregard of all its intended limitations.

The federal government. … Having no existence but under the constitution, nor any rights, but such as that instrument confers … can possess no legitimate power, but such as is absolutely necessary for the performance of a duty prescribed and enjoined by the constitution.

Until, therefore, the people of the United States … shall think it necessary to alter, or revoke the present constitution of the United States, it must be received, respected, and obeyed among us, as the great and unequivocal declaration of the will of the people, and the supreme law of the land.

The powers delegated to the federal government … have no relation to the domestic economy of the state. The right of property, with all its train of incidents … and the rights of persons appear to be no further subject to the control of the federal government, than may be necessary to support the dignity and faith of the nation in its federal or foreign engagements, and obligations.

Since the citizen is on no other account obliged to pay taxes, or undergo any other public burden, but as they are necessary to defray the expenses of the state, it ought to be the singular care of the government to draw no further supplies than the exigencies of the public require.

The first question is whether the power be expressed in the constitution.

All governments have a natural tendency towards an increase and assumption of power; and the administration of the federal government, has too frequently demonstrated, that the people of America are not exempt from this vice ... parchment chains are not sufficient.

A representative democracy ceases to exist the moment that the public functionaries are by any means absolved from their responsibility to their constituents.

The right of self-defense is the first law of nature.

Every power which concerns the right of the citizen, must be construed strictly, where it may operate to infringe or impair his liberty.

In the United States, the great and essential rights of the people are secured against legislative as well as executive ambition … by constitutions, paramount to all laws: defining and limiting the powers of the legislature itself, and opposing barriers against encroachments.

The congress of the United States possesses no power to regulate, or interfere with the domestic concerns, or police of any state.

Absolute independence of the judiciary … [is] necessary to the liberty and security of the citizen, and his property.

The judiciary … is that department of the government to whom the protection of the rights of the individual is by the constitution especially confided, interposing its shield between him and the sword of usurped authority.

A law limited to such objects as may be authorized by the constitution, would … be the supreme law of the land; but a law not limited to those objects, or not made pursuant to the constitution, would not be the supreme law of the land, but an act of usurpation, and consequently void.

The object of the several states … was not the establishment of a general consolidated government … but a federal government, with powers limited to certain determinate objects.

Acts of congress to be binding, must be made pursuant to the constitution; otherwise they are not laws.

As the subjects upon which congress have the power to legislate are all specially enumerated, so the judicial authority … is limited to the same subjects as congress have power to legislate upon.

People of America have not thought proper to suffer the freedom of speech and of the press to rest upon such an uncertain foundation as the will and pleasure of the government.

Whenever [civil] liberty is, by the laws of the state, further restrained than is necessary … a state of civil slavery commences. ... This species of slavery also exists whenever there is an inequality of rights, or privileges, between the subjects or citizens … for the pre-eminence of one class of men must be founded and erected upon the depression of another; and the measure of exaltation in the former, is that of the slavery of the latter.

St. George Tucker searched for “the criterion that distinguishes laws from dictates, freedom from servitude, rightful government from usurpation.” And Clyde Wilson suggests that his answer is best summarized in his statement that, “It is the due [external] restraint and not the moderation of rulers that constitutes a state of liberty.” Given that today, the federal power to oppress has clearly increased at the expense of Constitutional restraints, we should give Tucker’s understanding as much serious thought now as our forefathers did when our great experiment in liberty began.

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Art Laffer Isn't Crazy For Questioning Fed Independence

07/09/2019Tho Bishop

Arthur Laffer, the recent Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and occasional Peter Schiff gambling partner, made headlines yesterday for questioning the value of an independent Federal Reserve. 

As he told CNBC's Squawk Box:

I don't understand why the Fed is independent, to be honest," said Laffer, a former economic advisor to President Donald Trump and former President Ronald Reagan. "Fiscal policy is not independent. Military policy is not independent. Social policy is not. Why should monetary policy, this very powerful tool to control the economy not be subjected to democracy just like every other instrument of government?"


As expected, this quickly came under attack by Fed romanticists who believe that an independence should never be questioned (a faith they grasp on to in spite of the record of both Fed failures and its history of being politically influenced.)

In fact, as Dr. Joseph Salerno has written about over the years, there may be real value in getting rid of the illusion of an independent central bank. 

As he wrote in The Austrian:

The desideratum of the Austrian political economist with classical-liberal or libertarian leanings involves the complete separation of government and money through the establishment of a commodity money like gold (or silver), the supply of which is determined exclusively by market forces. Nonetheless, there is great merit in replacing the opaque and pseudo-scientific control of “the money supply process” by entrenched Fed employees and officials with overtly political control of money by elected officials and partisan administration appointees. There are a number of benefits of stripping the Fed of its quasi-independent status and transforming it into a handmaiden of the Treasury, as the American Monetary Institute (AMI) and early Friedmanite reform programs call for.

Of course, a better approach would be to open the Fed up to competition by repealing legal tender laws and exempting parallel currencies from taxes. But, considering other Fed reforms that have been discussed in recent years, Laffer's suggestion is hardly that outlandish.

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Keynesian Fake News in the Wall Street Journal

Given the repeated failures of Keynesian economic policy, both in America and around the world, you would think the theory would be discredited.

Or at least be treated with considerable skepticism by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of economic affairs.

Apparently financial journalists aren’t very familiar with real-world evidence.

Here are some excerpts from a news report in the Wall Street Journal.

The economy was supposed to get a lift this year from higher government spending enacted in 2018, but so far much of that stimulus hasn’t shown up, puzzling economists. Federal dollars contributed significantly less to gross domestic product in early 2019 than what economic forecasters had predicted after Congress reached a two-year budget deal to boost government spending. …Spending by consumers and businesses are the most important drivers of economic growth, but in recent years, government outlays have played a bigger role in supporting the economy.

The lack of “stimulus” wasn’t puzzling to all economists, just the ones who still believe in the perpetual motion machine of Keynesian economics.

Maybe the reporter, Kate Davidson, should have made a few more phone calls. Especially, for instance, to the people who correctly analyzed the failure of Obama’s so-called stimulus.

With any luck, she would have learned not to put the cart before the horse. Spending by consumers and businesses is a consequence of a strong economy, not a “driver.”

Another problem with the article is that she also falls for the fallacy of GDP statistics.

Economists are now wondering whether government spending will catch up to boost the economy later in the year… If government spending were to catch up in the second quarter, it would add 1.6 percentage points to GDP growth that quarter. …The 2018 bipartisan budget deal provided nearly $300 billion more for federal spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019 above spending limits set in 2011.

The government’s numbers for gross domestic product are a measure of how national income is allocated.

If more of our income is diverted to Washington, that doesn’t mean there’s more of it. It simply means that less of our income is available for private uses.

That’s why gross domestic income is a preferable number. It shows the ways – wages and salaries, small business income, corporate profits, etc – that we earn our national income.

Last but not least, I can’t resist commenting on these two additional sentences, both of which cry out for correction.

Most economists expect separate stimulus provided by the 2017 tax cuts to continue fading this year. …And they must raise the federal borrowing limit this fall to avoid defaulting on the government’s debt.

Sigh.

Ms. Davidson applied misguided Keynesian analysis to the 2017 tax cut.

The accurate way to analyze changes in tax policy is to measure changes in marginal tax rates on productive behavior. Using that correct approach, the pro-growth impact grows over time rather than dissipating.

And she also applied misguided analysis to the upcoming vote over the debt limit.

If the limit isn’t increased, the government is forced to immediately operate on a money-in/money-out basis (i.e. a balanced budget requirement). But since revenues are far greater than interest payments on the debt, there would be plenty of revenue available to fulfill obligations to bondholders. A default would only occur if the Treasury Department deliberately made that choice.

Needless to say, that ain’t gonna happen.

The bottom line is that – at best – Keynesian spending can temporarily boost a nation’s level of consumption, but economic policy should instead focus on increasing production and income.

P.S. If you want to enjoy some Keynesian-themed humor, click here.

P.P.S. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can watch my 11-year old video on Keynesian economics.

P.P.P.S. Sadly, the article was completely correct about the huge spending increases that Trump and Congress approved when the spending caps were busted (again) in 2018.

Originally published at International Liberty
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An Interview With Ron Paul’s "Faithless Elector"

07/08/2019Atilla Sulker

I woke up this Independence Day morning, surprised to find out that Bill Greene, the great 2016 faithless elector who cast his vote for Ron Paul, passed away. Among other things, Bill was a fierce advocate of making gold and silver legal tender, and was an assistant professor at South Texas College. He was an early supporter of Ron Paul, his support going as far back as Paul’s 1988 campaign.

[Editor's note: see Greene's Mises Institite author profile.]

Last summer, I had the privilege of interviewing Bill while working on a paper on the history of the Mises Institute and the Austrian Revival. Here, we discussed various different subjects, including Ron Paul’s 1988 campaign, and the growth of the Mises Institute. This has not yet been published, and I would like to do so as a tribute to Bill. Below is our interview, conducted on 6/19/18:

Atilla Sulker: Describe the state of the libertarian movement in 1988, and the extent to which the Mises Institute influenced the overall movement in America at this time?

Bill Greene: In 1988, the Mises Institute was only six years old, having split off from the Cato Institute in 1982 (a Mises co-founder, Murray Rothbard, had co-founded Cato). Up until that split, the Cato Institute was the leading influence on the libertarian movement in the United States since its founding in the mid-1970s (not long after the founding of the Libertarian Party itself in 1971 – Cato’s co-founder, Ed Crane, was the LP’s National Chair from 1974-1977). Even at such a young age, the Mises Institute had already begun to have a strong impact on the libertarian movement – specifically, on its economic policy foundations. Cato’s focus was on government policy recommendations from a libertarian-leaning position. Since that time, the Mises Institute’s influence on libertarianism in the U.S. has equaled, if not surpassed, Cato’s influence. [The Mises Institute was in fact never part of Cato.]

AS: Describe the relationship Ron Paul had with the Mises Institute in 1988, and the extent to which the organization influenced his campaign platform?

BG: Ron Paul’s relationship with the Mises Institute in 1988 was initially through one of its co-founders, Llewellyn (Lew) Rockwell, who had been Paul’s chief of staff, (from 1978-1982) when Paul was a Republican U.S. Congressman. When Rockwell left for Mises in 1982, Paul – who had been heavily influenced by the works of Rothbard beginning in the 1970s – continued his relationship with the co-founders of Mises, drawing much (or most) of his policy positions from the writings of Austrian school economists. When Paul ran for President as the LP nominee in 1988, most of his campaign platform was pulled from these same policy positions. He has continued to be a Senior Fellow of the Institute since that time, often working, writing, and speaking with others connected to it.

AS: Is there a point in Dr. Paul’s career in which it appeared that the Mises Institute’s influence on him was climactic?

BG: I don’t think so, because the relationship has always been symbiotic, and Ron Paul was already firmly in the Austrian school’s camp even before the Mises Institute was founded. Since its beginnings, it’s been difficult to separate the two from each other.

AS: Describe the influence the Mises Institute had on Dr. Paul’s VP candidate Andre Marrou.

BG: I don’t have any personal knowledge of the Mises Institute’s influence on Andre Marrou.

AS: Describe the overall size and sentiment of Ron Paul’s 1988 presidential campaign based on your experience.

BG: Ron Paul’s 1988 presidential campaign appeared to me to be more extensive than the LP’s past campaigns, as this was the first time they had two former elected legislators on the ballot (Paul was a former GOP U.S. Representative, and Marrou was a former LP Alaska Representative). As usual, the campaign’s biggest challenge was getting on the ballot in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Due to highly restrictive ballot-access laws in a number of states, Paul’s campaign was only on the printed ballot in 46 states & DC (although he did achieve write-in status in Missouri –and in North Carolina, where I headed the N.C. Students for Ron Paul and participated in ballot-access petitioning). Despite Paul’s (and Marrou’s) extensive travels across the country, the campaign was excluded from any debates and only achieved 432,179 votes (0.5%) – still twice as much of Lenora Fulani’s (New Alliance Party) campaign, which actually did achieve 50-state ballot access.

AS: Describe the nature of Andre Marrou’s 1992 Libertarian presidential campaign.

BG: I was not active in his 1992 presidential campaign, although I remember reading news stories on it here and there, such as when he received the highest vote total in the primary results of the first town in the nation to report its votes (Dixville Notch, NH).

AS: Briefly describe, based on your experience, the development of the libertarian movement in America up from Dr. Paul’s 1988 presidential campaign to his 2008 presidential campaign, and outline the role of the Mises Institute in this development.

BG: Based on my own experience, the Mises Institute played a vital role in the development of the libertarian movement in America during the 20 years after Dr. Paul’s first campaign for U.S. president. During the first decade, they published and disseminated massive amounts of literature, newsletters, books, audio, video, and more; once the internet became more and more ubiquitous, they were able to have an ever-growing impact, rivalling the much better-financed Cato Institute in scholarly publications and economic education activities. The Mises Institute’s website soon became the highest-trafficked economics website in the world, and when Dr. Paul decided to run for president again in 2008, he was able to draw upon, and direct his new followers to, that large body of works in support of his policy positions. As a result, his following grew and became ever more educated in libertarian thinking.

AS: Describe the instances in which you attempted to run for office. 

BG: When I ran for various political offices over the years, most of my own policy positions were influenced by publications I got from the Mises Institute. This was especially true of my unsuccessful campaign for the Florida House of Representatives in 1994, when I became the first state house candidate to be officially endorsed by the Political Action Committee of the nascent Republican Liberty Caucus (the “libertarian wing of the GOP” co-founded in 1991 by Paul). I had followed Dr. Paul out of the LP and back into the GOP, and I have been a member of, and active in, the RLC since that time.

AS: Is there anything else we should know about Dr. Paul’s 1988 campaign, or anything pertaining to the subject matter?

BG: My favorite story from Ron Paul’s 1988 campaign for President is from the time our N.C. Students for Ron Paul group brought him to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for a speech to around 150 students and local residents. Following his speech (which professed many of the same policy prescriptions as his speeches today), he opened the floor for questions. A local group of Socialist Workers’ Party members were in attendance, and began challenging his free-market stances in a number of different areas. I remember Dr. Paul’s eyes lighting up at that, as he almost gleefully shot down every challenge with logical rebuttals, point by point. Twenty years later, when I chanced to run into Dr. Paul at a local restaurant while he was campaigning in Florida, I mentioned that event – and he remembered it, clearly and (quite obviously) fondly, remarking on how much fun he had that day. I was, to say the least, impressed.

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The Bionic Mosquito on Rothbard and Reason

07/08/2019David Gordon

In a series of outstanding posts, the Bionic Mosquito has written on “The Search for Liberty.” In these posts, he presents a penetrating analysis of natural law and metaphysics. I admire these posts and have learned a great deal from them

 In his latest post, he  argues that Murray Rothbard’s defense of natural law fails. Rothbard thinks that human reason can establish natural law. But, Bionic says, “if each of us are free to make up our own minds – especially regarding ends – how will we come to a natural law that is useful toward liberty and peace?  How will justice be determined?  Who will arbitrate our ‘differences of opinion’?  On what basis?”

Bionic thinks that if you say human reason can establish natural law, then you are holding that “the judged [human beings] can also be the judge.”

This criticism of Rothbard seems to me to be mistaken. Suppose, like Mises and Rothbard, that you claim reasoning can show maximum price laws cause shortages. You are not thereby claiming that it is up to human beings whether this is so. Rather, you are claiming that it is not up to human beings: the effect holds, regardless of what people think about it.

In like fashion, in claiming that human reason can establish natural law, Rothbard is not claiming that the content of natural law is up to human beings. I do not think Thomas Aquinas would have disagreed with this. He offered proofs, based on reason, that God exists. These proofs do not make it up to human beings whether God exists, nor does accepting their validity depend on first accepting Christianity. The principal aim of the first three books on the Summa contra gentiles is to demonstrate the existence of God, and some of God’s attributes, to unbelievers.

Even when I disagree with Bionic, though, I continue to learn from him

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Marx and His Exploitation Theory

07/05/2019George Reisman

Marxists hate capitalism and want to replace it with socialism because they believe that profits are stolen from wages. They begin with the idea that originally there were workers but no capitalists and that the value of the products the workers produced and sold was all wages. But then allegedly came the capitalists, who proceeded to deduct a part of wages and claim it as profits. Adam Smith expresses this idea in paragraphs 1,2, & 5-8 of his chapter on wages in bk. I of The Wealth of Nations.

Marx took over Smith's view of profits and went on to claim that the alleged deduction of profits from wages would be so great as to leave the wage earner with nothing more than minimum subsistence, for which he would have to work unbearable hours in unbearable conditions.

I will now show that PROFIT, not wages, is the original and primary form labor income and that this follows both from the actual nature of Smith's "original state of things" and from Marx's version of it that he called "simple circulation."

In simple circulation, "C-M-C," workers produce commodities, "C," sell them for money, "M," and use the money they receive, to buy other commodities, "C." I say that the money the workers receive in exchange for the sale of their commodities is not wages but sales revenues. (To my knowledge, I am the first economist to identify this, and its implications. I was inspired by reading Henry Hazlitt's discussion of John Stuart Mill's proposition "demand for commodities is not demand for labor.") Wages are money paid in exchange for the performance of labor. Here, money is paid not in exchange for the performance of the workers' labor but for the workers' commodities. Thus, the workers have sales revenues, not wages.

However, because this is simple circulation, not "capitalistic circulation," there are NO COSTS to deduct from these sales revenues. Costs appear only in capitalistic circulation, "M-C-M," where they are the reflection of the first "M."

(Costs in business are the prior expenditures of money for the purpose of bringing in the sales revenues. If there are no such expenditures, there are no costs to deduct. Simple circulation is characterized precisely by the fact that there are no such expenditures.) (For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Marx, capitalistic circulation means the outlay of money, "M," for the purpose of producing commodities, "C," which are to be sold for a further sum of money, "M," [or "M'," to indicate a larger sum of money].)

As I say, given the absence of capitalistic circulation and its first "M," there are no costs to deduct from the sales revenues and thus the entire amounts of the sales revenue is profit. In addition, because there is no first "M," there is no monetary capital. The workers of simple circulation have not spent anything for tools or materials, let alone the labor of other workers. Thus, the amount of capital on their books is zero. It follows that in simple circulation profits are both 100% of sales and an infinite percentage of capital invested, which capital is zero.

As I've shown, the workers of simple circulation are not wage earners. Because they sell their commodities rather than their labor, they are more correctly described as small businessmen. They are small businessmen without costs and without capital. Simple circulation morphs into capitalistic circulation as and when some of these worker/businessmen begin to save and productively expend a portion of their sales revenues and profits rather than consume them all. These worker/businessmen are now worker/businessmen/capitalists

Their productive expenditure (i.e., their expenditure for the purpose of making subsequent sales) is the first "M" in capitalistic circulation. It buys capital goods and labor and has the following further major consequences: it brings into existence costs of production in the income statements of business and capital with a monetary value on their balance sheets. Thus, it reduces both the percentage of sales revenues that is profit and, doubly, the percentage that profit bears to capital invested.

I say that the rate of profit on capital is doubly reduced because, per dollar of sales revenue, not only is the amount of profit reduced but also the amount of capital on the books is increased. Marx's sequence for capitalistic circulation can be used to provide a simple formula for measuring the economic degree of capitalism, namely, the higher is the ratio of "M" to "M'," the more economically capitalistic is the economic system.

Using this formula, "simple circulation" represents a zero economic degree of capitalism. As the economic degree of capitalism rises, not only do profit margins and the rate of profit fall, but wage payments come into being and then rise both absolutely and relative to profits. Thus, so far are capitalists from stealing wages as the source of their profits, that the truth is the exact opposite. The starting point is not 100% wages and zero profits, but 100% profits and zero wages. Capitalists then raise wages and reduce profits!
 
The higher is the economic degree of capitalism, the more is this the case. The fall in profits does not imply a loss to capitalists. It's far more than offset by the increase in production and consequent rise in buying power that accompanies it (and also raises real wages).
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The Bionic Mosquito On Rothbard and Ethics

07/05/2019David Gordon

In a characteristically excellent post, the Bionic Mosquito calls attention to Murray Rothbard’s ethical “absolutism”. In this view, human beings can grasp what is objectively case in ethics. If, for example, stealing is wrong, its being wrong is not just an expression of individual or group preference. Rothbard held that an adequate defense of libertarianism depends on objective values and that political freedom was not the only such objective value needed for this defense. Moreover, this position does not contradict the subjectivity of preference in Austrian economics.

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