Power & Market
Women’s History Month celebrates many who have made incredible contributions. But I have never seen a woman who “could literally save the world” by how she advanced liberty honored during it. It is time to rectify that omission and recognize Isabel Paterson.
Her most notable contribution came in 1943, when, according to David T. Beito, “Defenders of the free market were under siege and in decline.” But then, the “three furies” of libertarianism, as William F. Buckley Jr. called them, “[e]ach helped to build the foundation for the modern libertarian movement.” Isabel Paterson published The God of the Machine, Ayn Rand published The Fountainhead, and Rose Wilder Lane published The Discovery of Freedom. But “[o]f the three, The God of the Machine was the most explicit and sophisticated discussion of free markets, constitutional structures, and the fallacies of interventionism.” In fact, it was a letter from Ayn Rand that said it “could literally save the world.”
Ron Paul provided an example of Patterson’s influence in End the Fed when he wrote, “Having read Isabel Paterson, I was not only influenced but convinced that a philosophy that embraced personal liberty, private property, and sound money was the only political philosophy worth championing.” So it is not surprising that among her accolades Paul A. Cantor called Paterson “one of the great champions of freedom in the twentieth century” and her biographer, Stephen D. Cox, called her the “earliest progenitor of libertarianism as we know it today.” Jim Powell considers that Paterson’s The God of the Machine “secured her immortality in the annals of liberty.”
All of those endorsements make it clear that The God of the Machine’s wisdom is also important today, because freedom still has far too many defenders, among a host of attackers:
- If everyone were invariably honest, able, wise, and kind, there should be no occasion for government. Everyone would readily understand what is desirable and what is possible in given circumstances, all would concur upon the best means toward their purpose and for equitable participation in the ensuing benefits, and would act without compulsion or default.
- Since human beings will sometimes lie, shirk, break promises, fail to improve their faculties, act imprudently, seize by violence the goods of others, and even kill one another in anger or greed, government might be defined as the police organization. In that case, it must be described as a necessary evil. It would have no existence as a separate entity, and no intrinsic authority; it could not be justly empowered to act excepting as individuals infringed one another’s rights, when it should enforce prescribed penalties. Generally, it would stand in the relation of a witness to contract, holding a forfeit for the parties. As such, the least practicable measure of government must be the best. Anything beyond the minimum must be oppression.
- The power to do things for people is also the power to do things to people.
- Politics consists of the power to prohibit, obstruct, and expropriate … it always tends to encroach on the primary field of freedom, in such manner that the producer may be compelled to obtain permission before he can get to work. Where permission is required, or expropriation possible, a consideration may be extorted.
- Government cannot “restore competition,” or “ensure” it. Government is monopoly; and all it can do is to impose restrictions which may issue in monopoly, when they go so far as to require permission for the individual to engage in production. This is the essence of the Society of Status.
- No law can give power to private persons; every law transfers power from private persons to government.
- Poverty can be brought about by law; it cannot be forbidden by law.
- Now the sole remedy for the abuse of political power is to limit it; but when politics corrupt business, modern reformers invariably demand the enlargement of the political power.
- The least practicable measure of government must be the best. Anything beyond the minimum must be oppression.
- Men are born free … since they begin with no government, they must therefore institute government by voluntary agreement, and thus government must be their agent, not their superior … the individual has the precedent right.
- In reason if one man has no right to command all other men—the expedient of despotism—neither has he any right to command even one other man; nor yet have ten men, or a million, the right to command even one other man, for ten times nothing is nothing, and a million times nothing is nothing.
- Any time when finance is under attack through the political authority, it is an infallible sign that the political authority is already exercising too much power over the economic life of the nation through manipulation of finance, whether by exorbitant taxation, uncontrolled expenditure, unlimited borrowing, or currency depreciation.
- Every politically controlled educational system will inculcate the doctrine of state supremacy sooner or later…. Once that doctrine has been accepted, it becomes an almost superhuman task to break the stranglehold of the political power over the life of the citizen. It has had his body, property and mind in its clutches from infancy. An octopus would sooner release its prey.
- Education under the political power … once it has obtained full control … routes human energy into the dead-end political channels.
- As now the case, [people] will even forget the larger principles they have applied, and on which their well-being depends.
- If it were promised that from the hour of his birth no man should ever again stand in his naked skin, who is to produce the clothes? who is to have such absolute power over every person? The only condition in which no one can experience poverty, want, or fear, is that of rigor mortis.
- If profit is denounced, it must be assumed that running at a loss is admirable. On the contrary, that is what requires justification. Profit is self-justifying.
- If a man were paid to pick up pebbles on the beach and throw them into the ocean, it would be just the same as if he were in a “government job,” or on the dole; the producers have to supply his subsistence with no return.
- In arguing against free enterprise capitalism, the collectivist always adopts the false assumption of a fixed number of jobs in that system. Conversely, in arguing for collectivism, he always assumes that there will be as many jobs as there are workers. The government will make the jobs.
- Why did the humanitarian philosophy of eighteenth-century Europe usher in the Reign of Terror? … it followed from the original premise, objective and means proposed. The objective is to do good to others as a primary justification of existence; the means is the power of the collective; and the premise is that “good” is collective.
- The biggest pests are the people who use altruism as an alibi. What they passionately wish is to make themselves important.
- The humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action.
- Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends.
Isabel Paterson wrote a great many things people did not want to hear. But whether those things involved pipe dreams of imagining scarcity out of existence, of government invokable as a presumed universal panacea, with magical powers over finance, rather than a ubiquitous threat to freedom, or any other delusion, social cooperation possibilities expand by thinking more accurately. As she said, “In human affairs, all that endures is what men think.” And she made a central contribution to our ability to think that can endure if we pay it heed. Perhaps that is why Ayn Rand thought The God of the Machine could “save the world.” But that hope for improvement also highlights the alternative—the risk of continuing to degrade our thinking rather than elevating it. And Isabel Paterson left us an appropriate warning of that, as well:
Whoever is fortunate enough to be an American citizen came into the greatest inheritance man has ever enjoyed. He has had the benefit of every heroic and intellectual effort men have made for many thousands of years, realized at last. If Americans should now turn back, submit again to slavery, it would be a betrayal so base the human race might better perish.
I was sitting in my office at Washington and Jefferson College chatting with my department chairman, Felix Livingston. It was late spring of 1988. When the phone rang, Felix motioned for me to take the call. “Hello, this is Jeff Herbener.” “Jeffrey this is Murray, Murray Rothbard.” “Dr. Rothbard…” As soon as the words left my mouth, Felix stood up, nodded his head approvingly and left me to my conversation. Murray asked me about my background, what I had been reading, and projects I was working on. Then, to my surprise, he invited me to lecture at the upcoming Mises seminar in Advanced Austrian Economics at Stanford. He wanted me to deliver the lectures designed for William Hutt, who had taken ill and regrettably passed away on June 19 six days before the conference began. Although I had been reading into the Austrian literature for a few years, I wasn’t familiar with Hutt’s work yet or his lecture topics, such as labor economics, especially at an advanced level. With just a few weeks to go before the conference, I thought it ill-advised to accept. I figured that when I refused his invitation, our conversation would end. Instead, without missing a beat, he invited me to lecture at the Introduction to Austrian Economics seminar at Dartmouth in August. I was both surprised and delighted to accept his gracious second offer.
The conference opened with a social event the evening before classes began. I met and talked with other faculty members, David Gordon, Hans Hoppe, Roger Garrison and, of course, the founder and president of the Mises Institute, Lew Rockwell. But, I couldn’t get close to Murray, who was continuously surrounded by a flock of students and supporters. Without a doubt, he was the most gregarious person I had ever known. It was amazing to see how effective he was in interacting with everyone. Never a question too basic or advanced, never a student too timid or aggressive, never monologuing, never overbearing, never flagging, Murray was truly remarkable. He left others better than he found them.
Murray gave a spellbinding lecture to open the conference and an inspirational talk to end it. His lectures were bristling with insights and delivered winsomely. Meanwhile, I had prepared a lecture on the wrong topic. I was assigned to talk about the history of thought on capital theory. Mistakenly, I thought my lecture was on the theory of capital, a topic which had been assigned to Roger. He, manfully, saved my bacon by lecturing on my topic instead of the one he had prepared. Later that day, I was walking on the campus with David and Murray and they both graciously complimented me on my lecture never mentioning that I nearly derailed the train. Despite my blunder, Murray invited me back to the next Mises University.
My favorite moment at the conference was during a Q&A session. All students and faculty were convened in a large lecture hall. A student stood up with a question which he prefaced with “my question is for anyone on the faculty panel who is not an anarcho-capitalist.” After a few moments of silence, it was clear that none of us qualified to field his question. Murray broke the silence with a brief cackle. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to detect a sense of satisfaction in his outburst.
Murray’s writings will continue to make a deep impression on generations to come. For those of us who were privileged to know him, he has blessed us further with a gift of personal inspiration.
The money supply is a vital part of the economy, yet seldom understood. Still both nebulous and contentious, the “M2 Money Stock” remains the most popular and broadest measure of money, now standing at $19.3 trillion. It’s understandable for the average person to not know much regarding its importance, but what excuse does the Chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, have?
Before Congress, in the Feb 23 testimony, Senator Kennedy asked:
M2, the money supply is up. I think about $4 trillion over the past year, or $6 trillion. $4 trillion, $6 trillion, what’s a few trillion? It’s up 26%, the highest amounts since 1943. What does that tell you?
What reads like a joke between two bureaucrats, Powell responded:
Well, when you and I studied economics a million years ago, that M2 and monetary aggregates generally seem to have a relationship to economic growth. Right now, I would say the growth of M2, which is quite substantial, doesn’t really have important implications for the economic outlook.
And straight out of “left field,” as declared by one of the most powerful men in the world, M2 Money Stock no longer has an important role to play.
As if to reiterate, Powell followed with:
M2 was removed some years ago from the standard list of leading indicators, and just that classic relationship between monetary aggregates and economic growth in the size of the economy, it just no longer holds. We’ve had big growth of monetary aggregates at various times without inflation, so something we have to unlearn, I guess.
At last, M2 joins the ranks of other useful economic ideas we can “unlearn,” as we’ve seen with the likes of Say’s Law, the original definition of inflation, and the cause of America’s Great Depression, to name a few.
Nonetheless, there were hints, when, on December 17, 2020 the Fed announced “statistical release” changes which altered the definition of money as we know it. To be fair, this happens every few years; however, this revision appears significant as it now includes “savings deposits” and “other checkable deposits” as part of the M1 monetary aggregate. Whereas they were just part of M2 before. The frequency of reporting also went from a weekly to monthly basis, hence the M2 weekly chart has been discontinued.
The Fed even warned us:
This action increases the M1 monetary aggregate significantly while leaving the M2 monetary aggregate unchanged.
In the most Orwellian of twists, the Fed made a retroactive adjustment on May 2020, which explains why M1 Money Stock went from $4.8 trillion on April 2020 to over $16 trillion the following month, as seen below:
Per the latest release, M1 now stands at $18 trillion, just over $1 trillion shy of M2.
As for Chair Powell and the disconnect between money supply and the economy, other than measures of low inflation, his rationale remains unclear. Contrast this to the chart below, using M2 data (blue line/left axis) which began in 1959 vs. USD purchasing power (red line/right axis), indexed to 1960=100, reveals something interesting. Even without running data correlation, a purely visual perspective shows that for the last 60 years, money supply has increased while dollar purchasing power has decreased.
Of course, correlation does not equal causation. But, if money supply and purchasing power (and by extension the economy as a whole) are not inextricably linked there really should be no concern of printing a currency into oblivion, nor economic collapse that follows currency which perpetually decreases in purchasing power.
Often, we hear the importance of inflation, but rarely do we hear about it being the destruction of the US Dollar or increasing unaffordability of life. This becomes more ironic when, despite the low inflation narrative, we find the dollar’s purchasing power declines year after year.
This month marks the anniversary of the pandemic induced stock market crash, inducing government launched emergency credit facilities, aided by the Fed who announced it would purchase:
Treasury securities and agency mortgage-backed securities in the amounts needed to support smooth market functioning and effective transmission of monetary policy...
A year later, the US Debt has surpassed $28 trillion. US 10-Year Treasuries topped 1.6%, mirroring pre-COVID levels. Regardless of how the pandemic is resolved, the Fed will always intervene in our lives. There will always be economic problems which need addressing. Regarding what’s needed to support “smooth market function,” the initial $700 billion of securities has tapered to $120 billion a month… for now.
This brings us to the latest problem: rising interest rates.
Bond investors are getting worried about the potential for inflation.
This time the rise in yields is coming from economic growth, stimulus, and infrastructure. All of that is good for stocks.
Of course, the narrative is problematic. If yields rise due to price inflation, economic growth, and government stimulus (supposedly desirable), you’d think there shouldn’t be significant risk to the economy nor stock market when yields increase.
Luckily, the concern over rising rates can be explained: debt. Ironic, since we use a debt-based currency with the widespread belief spending leads to prosperity which government stimulates through borrowing. Somehow championed by those who claim debt doesn’t matter or deficits are a myth, we can’t deny this is where many of our problems stem.
When rates rise, interest costs increase. Imagine a world where the 10-year treasury is at, say, 4%. The interest expense on the $28 trillion would surpass $1 trillion a year. Mortgage rates would no longer be considered “cheap” and corporate bonds would be much higher. There are additional effects, such as making share buybacks not as attractive as they have been for over decade, but there are many areas of the economy that are affected.
If rising interest rates scare the market and the public now, what happens in the future when US Debt, household, and corporate debt are at greater highs and when asset valuations are even richer than today?
The US Debt will pass $30 trillion this year with no sign of slowing. The Fed would face difficulty if it wanted to raise rates then, or face backlash by not taking action when long dated bonds rise again.
Unfortunately, the Fed is stuck in limbo of sorts; letting rates rise would be economic destruction. But to keep rates low forever leads to a similar fate. The difference being, if rates are raised, the Fed will look like the villain. If they try to suppress rates and fail, they’ll be hailed as fallen heroes, whose earnest efforts to control the markets backfired due to uncontrollable forces, (e.g., blame capitalism).
Last March, Neel Kashkari, President of the Minneapolis Fed, gave a hint on 60 Minutes:
And there's an infinite amount of cash at the Federal Reserve.
His quote was an answer to the question of whether or not our bank deposits are safe. Yet, he captures the ethos at the Fed. Whether they revisit ideas of yield curve control or use alternative approaches, the only way rates stay low for perpetuity is via perpetual money creation.
The Fed has long since committed to buying any bond necessary in times of crisis. But the crisis will never end. Society’s debt level will never shrink and its growth will accelerate year after year. The only way to ensure rates don’t stay too high for too long is to utilize its infinite cash position, seeking to solve the problem with the same method used to create it in the first place.
Rothbard Teaches Us Never to Sacrifice the Ethics of Liberty to Make People Comfortable with the Idea
This week is Murray Rothbard’s birthday. It’s an opportunity to marvel at what a remarkable theorist he was, and in my estimation The Ethics of Liberty was his greatest contribution to the world he left behind and to the countless generations that will follow. Just as most people in the world function in distorted markets, so do they live under a tangled mess of legal codes that obstructs justice, to use the US government’s ironic term, prohibiting retribution and restorative arrangements between trespassers and their victims. Never losing sight of the fact of each individual’s sovereignty and inviolability, so holy that a noncriminal must never be harmed, Rothbard revealed humanity’s most basic legal code clearly and in the context of many different scenarios and kinds of crime. In doing so, he left a peal forever ringing in dissonance against every Leviathan’s assertion that its laws, its paid strongmen, and its kept courts alone know right and wrong. He showed how law is sown in every individual—even one who is dedicated to trying to violate others—unfolding from the instinct and the need to protect his own person and appurtenances from encroachment.
Rooted in the fundamental right of property that emanates from each person, Rothbard’s ethical analysis shows what it is that has been violated (or not) and what must therefore be restored in each major type of conflict, but he never fixes or specifies retribution beyond this. He never sets a fee schedule, so to speak, never writes law himself. The result is an exposition of natural law that is so thoroughly consistent that there is no struggle to think of it as universal. Like them or not, all kinds of cultural and religious prescriptions may be layered on top of this thinnest libertarianism without a moral dilemma so long as no force is used or implied, and it’s very clear where different coercive groups curtail people’s defensive capabilities. And all over the world, in all kinds of situations where they have been forced to assume the posture of declawed cats, natural law stirs within people. They are subjected or compelled in some way, they feel it bearing down, and they finally make their escape, against all strictures, retaliating in some way or simply taking back their sovereignty and acting on decisions that they’ve been forbidden from making over their bodies and their fruit.
In consistently hewing to individual sovereignty, Rothbard came to some conclusions for which he has been heartily criticized. This is particularly true in regard to his views on parents and children—that parents cannot be compelled to raise their children because to do so would constitute slavery and that for the same reason children must never be held against their will once they’ve decided to run away. Although some have convincingly argued that parents can’t quite leave a toddler in a park and walk away forever, likening parenthood to the contract between an air pilot and his passengers (it can’t simply be broken midtrip and the passengers “dropped off” with no parachute), Rothbard’s most important insights here are that it’s immoral to force unwilling parents to raise their offspring, iniquitous to compel people to toil for an indefinite period to feed and shelter another no matter who they are, and that a person’s nonaggressive will cannot righteously be restrained, no matter how young he is, once he becomes aware of its existence and decides to wield it.
But both of these things more or less occur under most regimes. It’s very difficult for parents to freely transfer their trusteeships over their children to someone of their choosing, and of course everywhere illegal to sell those rights to someone. Children who exercise their will to freedom find their faces printed in Have You Seen Me? ads, eerily similar to the ads for runaway slaves and indentured servants. The state forces those under an arbitrary age to live, sometimes against their wishes, with the parent it deems most fit in divorce cases, and those who have been taken from their families are also effectively barred from leaving orphanages and assigned homes until an arbitrary age. Concerned efforts to ensure that early life is danger-free, using force to remove children from homes that do not meet certain standards of comfort or exhibit the affection that a group of lawmakers and state-sponsored academics deems necessary, often simply cement unsatisfactory arrangements and limit the avenues that can be taken toward improvement.
Rothbard, with his deft but light touch, gave two marvelously broad possibilities to the problem of unwilling families from the standpoint of parents: simple abandonment and the free sale of guardianship rights in children. This approach to solutions for the world that could be—the free world—is ideal. He leaves readers with a clear sense of right and wrong, gently points toward possible solutions for those who struggle to imagine an unmediated world, and leaves open all the possibilities that the diversity of individuals and collaboration can engender.
It should go without saying that children are not animals, which don’t have natural rights, but we can come closer to understanding that the array of possibilities that could exist in a free market for guardianship rights is vast if we consider the variety of ways that you can get a pet in the United States (for now). You can buy pets or adopt them for free from individual owners in private marketplaces like Craigslist. You can buy them from breeders, either certified by private groups like the American Kennel Club or uncertified, or just from people who have a litter on their hands. You can foster indefinitely for free, adopt at a low cost, or adopt for free from all kinds of charitable organizations—small, large, secular, with a religious feel, politically active in lobbying for intervention, or just trying to help animals find homes, etc. If you get your pet from a shelter, you often pay very little, but the organization places several conditions on how you may keep the pet—indoor, outdoor but tie-outs and the like prohibited, regular vet visits and vaccines required, must be spayed or neutered (and therefore can’t be bred), can’t be sold or given away, etc. You also often have to talk about your lifestyle, reveal where you live and work and with whom you live, and disclose whether you have experience with pets. If you don’t want to go through that, you can go to a pet store, where you will pay more, but won’t necessarily be interrogated. But there’s freedom on the selling side as well, and some pet stores and breeders also choose to ask about your lifestyle and experience. Once you get the pet, there are all kinds of options for “educating” it, from informal training by friends or part-time trainers to full-fledged training academies that charge a pretty penny. Of course, there are many groups out there that have long been agitating for the state to impose various degrees of regulation in order to limit who can breed and sell pets and to force one vision of pet ownership on all, failing to see that the problem of strays comes in large part from all the public roads and parks where pets can be abandoned without protest.
There’s no predicting the variety of arrangements that could form with a market in guardianship rights for children. They could be infinitely more varied than the many options we’ve seen with pets, since children have natural rights and their own wills. The only certainty is that wrong is wrong—that holding parents and children against their will, making their pursuit of more agreeable arrangements difficult, or outright illegal, is amoral. Full self-determination comes with all kinds of risks, foreseeable and not. A child could run away to a life of abject poverty and worse abuse; parents might sell their trusteeships and regret it for personal reasons or because the buyer wasn’t who he said he was (even if the difference doesn’t breach their contract). But even with the significant risks it entails, every minute of freedom, imperfect though it may be, is as a drop of clear water in a desert. States through time have failed spectacularly to extirpate various kinds of risk; the only thing they have made nearly sure, over and over again, is their own domination, which itself has been broken time and again in the end.
Too many thinkers in the Rothbardian tradition try to paint detailed portraits, complete with steps 1, 2, 3 … for how to live in freedom and how to make it “workable.” There’s constant talk of private insurance companies and private defense agencies, but we must be careful. The reality is that individuals act purposefully. Their actions aren’t mechanical reflexes, and they are not predictable. No one can imagine all the things that matter to different people and therefore the full range of solutions that might come to be offered in various markets. Some truths about natural rights might be uncomfortable to acknowledge for the dangers that they leave people open to, but we must not shy away from them by painting a portrait of a manicured freedom with neat options that assuage the unfaithful. To shy away from all the vicissitudes and possibilities that freedom entails, for better or worse, is to risk tripping at the finish line should people feel uncomfortable with what they might find and repeating the cycle of statism. Rothbard didn’t shy away from hard truths, and in this he continues to offer shining insight.
I met Murray in 1988 and I will never forget the experience. The story begins the previous year, as I was completing my bachelor’s degree in economics at the University of North Carolina and considering pursuing a PhD. I was familiar with Murray’s writings as a semicloseted Austrian in a mainstream economics program. I had seen an advertisement for some strange group called the “Mises Institute” which was offering fellowships for graduate study in economics, and I eagerly applied. Sometime later I received a letter—it was all snail mail back in the day—saying that my application had received a favorable initial review, and that the next step was “to have a telephone interview with our Vice President for Academic Affairs.” You guessed it! A phone call with Murray was arranged. You can imagine how nervous I was the day of that interview! But Rothbard was friendly and engaging, his legendary charisma coming across even over the phone, and he quickly put me at ease. (I also applied for admission to New York University’s graduate program in economics, which got me a phone call from Israel Kirzner. Talk about the proverbial kid in the candy store!) I won the Mises fellowship, and eventually enrolled in the economics PhD program at the University of California, Berkeley, which I started in 1988.
Before my first summer of graduate school, I was privileged to attend the “Mises University,” then called the “Advanced Instructional Program in Austrian Economics,” a week-long program of lectures and discussions held that year at Stanford University and led by Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Roger Garrison, and David Gordon. Meeting Murray and his colleagues was a transformational experience. They were brilliant, energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic. Graduate school was no cake walk—the required core courses in (mathematical) economic theory and statistics drove many students to the brink of despair, and some of them doubtless have nervous twitches to this day—but the knowledge that I was part of a larger movement, a scholarly community devoted to the Austrian approach, kept me going through the darker hours.
That week-long experience in the summer of 1988 was amazing, not just for the instructional content per se, but also for the social and informal aspects. Nearly all reminiscences of Murray note his indefatigable spirit, his incredible energy, and his humor, as well as his penchant for late-night dining, drinking, and discussion. There was plenty of that, and it was a privilege to hang out with Murray and the other faculty (though few could hang in there until the wee hours) and students. In these conversations, while Murray was the center of attention, he didn’t dominate the conversation, but asked questions, listened, and engaged. Along these lines, Murray was what people today call a “lifelong learner.” I remember one session of the conference at which one of the other faculty was presenting. Murray was in the audience and I was sitting right behind him. At one point I leaned forward and was shocked to see that he was taking copious notes. I thought, Doesn’t this guy already know everything? But no, he was paying close attention to the other speakers—themselves younger Rothbardians—hoping to pick up a few nuggets of insight, some new perspective or approach, a new interpretation, or another way of increasing his own understanding. I have tried to model that behavior in my own career.
Libertarians typically favor reducing government to a minimal or night-watchman state, one limited to police, courts, and national defense. (For example, the Libertarian Party platform says that “the protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government.”) Some libertarians argue for this minimal state by appealing to the nonaggression principle. This is a mistake.
The nonaggression principle (NAP) prohibits initiatory force. Adapting a formulation by philosopher Roderick Long, it can be cast as follows:
NAP: Any act of forcible interference (or threat thereof) with another individual’s person or property is a violation of rights, unless the act is a response to forcible interference (or threat thereof) by that person.
I will argue that the NAP has unacceptable consequences. We can modify the principle to avoid those consequences, but this comes at a severe cost: the principle will then no longer do any real work in the argument for the minimal state.
First Problem for NAP: Past Injustices
Suppose I steal a priceless painting from you and then give it to Bob, a friend of mine. Even if Bob knows the painting was stolen, he did not use or threaten force. According to the NAP, this means that forcing Bob to give the painting back would be a violation of his rights. Putting this point more generally: the NAP prevents rectification of past crimes or injustices, so long as the original criminal has transferred the proceeds of his iniquity to someone else.
We could avoid this unpalatable consequence by revising the NAP:
NAP: any act of forcible interference (or threat thereof) with another individual’s person or legitimately acquired property is a violation of rights, unless the act is a response to forcible interference (or threat thereof) by that person.
The libertarian could then claim that Bob did not legitimately acquire the painting, since it was stolen; thus we are allowed to use forcible interference to get it back.
However, adding “legitimately acquired” to the NAP opens up a huge can of worms. Which properties count as legitimately acquired? A stringent, Nozick-inspired answer to that question: my property was legitimately acquired if I got it through a sequence of transfers each of which was free and uncoerced, and where this sequence goes back to an original acquisition of property that was just and fair.
Even if we suppose, rather improbably, that there was a just initial acquisition of property, it beggars belief to claim that the current distribution resulted from a sequence of free and uncoerced transfers through the subsequent centuries. To see this, we need merely point out that the distribution of wealth in the United States was hugely affected by the slavery and blatant oppression of black Americans, not to mention the slaughter of Native Americans and theft of the land they occupied in the early days of the republic.
On the stringent view of legitimate acquisition, even a democratic socialist who wants a big welfare state could simply agree with the NAP: the socialist will just add that, since almost no currently owned property was legitimately acquired, and since the NAP only applies to legitimately acquired property, the NAP imposes no real restrictions.
Perhaps libertarians can come up with a less stringent theory of the legitimate acquisition of property. Perhaps, as suggested by David Gordon in a related context, the notion of convention will play a role. Perhaps this theory, when added to the NAP, will imply that most acts of initiatory force are still forbidden; and, finally, perhaps this can in turn be used to argue that only the minimal night-watchman state is justifiable.
But observe: even with such a theory in place, the dispute between the libertarian and the socialist would then have nothing to do with the revised NAP, which they can both accept. The NAP, which was originally put forward as the basis for the libertarian position, no longer plays any role in the argument. All the real work would be done by the yet-to-be-provided ancillary theory about what counts as legitimately acquired property. (Sandy Ikeda made a related point about the NAP.)
Second Problem for NAP: Taxation
When the government sends me a tax bill, it comes with a threat: they can garnish my wages or even throw me in jail. This threat is not in response to any act of forcible interference on my part; I was just sitting here not paying taxes. But this implies that the tax bill is, according to NAP, a violation of my rights.
However, if taxes themselves are a violation of rights, then even the minimal state is forbidden, insofar as the minimal state funds courts, law enforcement, and national defense by levying taxes.
Some libertarians might accept this and conclude that even the minimal state is too much state. These libertarians, like the 2020 vice presidential candidate Spike Cohen, may become anarchists.
But this goes beyond what most libertarians advocate. The Libertarian Party platform calls for extremely limited government but does not demand the end of compulsory taxation. Similarly, Libertarian presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen advocated eliminating the federal income tax but did not suggest getting rid of all taxes.
Libertarians might try to avoid the anarchist suggestions of NAP by modifying the principle so as to allow just enough taxation to support the minimal state:
NAP: any act of forcible interference (or threat thereof) with another individual’s person or property is a violation of rights, unless either the act is a response to forcible interference (or threat thereof) by that person or the act is an instance of the government collecting taxes for a legitimate purpose.
But the libertarian will now need another ancillary theory explaining which governmental purposes are legitimate and why. After all, the socialist could fully agree with the revised NAP, so long as the socialist also claims that a large welfare state is a legitimate purpose for government taxation.
The libertarian will no doubt dispute the socialist claim and propose instead that anything beyond the minimal state is not legitimate. However, once again, the dispute between the libertarian and the proponent of big government will have nothing to do with the revised NAP, which both sides can accept. The nonaggression principle, which was supposed to ground the claim that only the minimal state is legitimate, now does no work at all.
When faced with the extreme consequences of NAP, one cannot reply by simply saying, “Well, I don’t want to push it that far.” Principles are not like buses that you can take as far as you want and then get off; they imply what they imply. If you don’t accept the implications of the principle, you don’t really accept the principle; you must reject it or at least qualify it. However, the obvious attempts to qualify or hedge the NAP to avoid such consequences would mean that the principle no longer does any real work in supporting the minimal state.
Of course, none of this implies that libertarians are wrong in advocating only the minimal state; it only means that they would need to support this view on other grounds. Libertarians might, for example, follow Mises in saying that “social utility is the only standard of justice.” In other words, instead of the rights-based talk of NAP, one might try to defend the night-watchman state on broadly utilitarian grounds, claiming that such a state will lead to greater happiness and human flourishing.
It’s almost as if Federal Reserve governor Lael Brainard read the February 11 Mises article "The Fed and 'Maximum Employment'" and then rebutted with a class lecture at Harvard two weeks later. Whereas the Mises article starts by cautioning that maximum employment is used to justify the state’s interventions in our lives, the governor starts her class saying:
[What] I hope you remember from today is that economics provides powerful tools to enable you to analyze and affect the issues that matter most to you.
The problem begins here because what matters most to the economic planner is the goal of staying both in control and relevant, thereby ensuring perpetual employment income for oneself. As the Upton Sinclair quote goes:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
Brainard follows with the history of maximum employment and its roots in the Great Depression, leading to the Employment Act of 1946, which allowed government to pursue:
conditions under which there will be afforded useful employment for those able, willing, and seeking work, and to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.
A lofty goal, that the government should find or create jobs for all who want to work. The mechanism as to how this was to be achieved remains unstated, but it was the measurement which was problematic. By 1950 there were discussions of “full employment,” and what this actually meant. Luckily there was an academic at the time, Dr. Palmer, who was able to shed more light on the situation.
Palmer was a professor at Wharton, a fellow of the American Statistical Association, a worldwide expert on manpower and labor mobility, and a consultant with the Office of Statistical Standards.
The Palmer’s contribution argues:
Inherent in the phenomena being measured are so many degrees and kinds of labor force activity that no single definition or classification can adequately summate them.
Thus, when it came to measuring full employment, or maximum employment, no single data point could suffice, instead, it required a wide range of data to “summate” in a manner only the planner can determine is best.
By 1977, the Federal Reserve Act was amended, giving the Fed:
the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates, commonly referred to as the dual mandate.
Another present-day familiarity we see emerging from the 1970s was the notion of “full employment” being useful to minorities, as explained by one congressman:
without genuine full employment it would be impossible to eliminate racial discrimination in the provision of job opportunities.
The importance of full employment, we are told, is as pressing today as it was in 1930, 1946, and 1977, yet has lacked a proper definition for nearly one hundred years.
Ultimately, Brainard settles on the narrative of there being no single indicator of full employment and consulting a “variety of indicators that together provide a holistic picture of where we are relative to full employment.”
Ten different charts and a variety of labor market indicators are utilized to explain how they arrive at a conclusion, though each data point is rife with its own set of problems. For example, the “Labor Force Participation Rate” (LFPR) equation is defined as: (Labor Force / Population). Seems reasonable until we’re told the labor force includes people who are “actively seeking work” and population means “the working-age population.” As for what the LFPR should be or how all of the data is utilized in a way discernible to the planner, that is anyone’s guess.
Even if we don’t agree with the data metrics, it’s not the data which is the problem. The problem occurs when the data is used to justify perpetual expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet and artificially low interest rates. It’s not a question of using “better data,” it’s a question of using data to calculate the incalculable as an excuse for government intervention.
At institutions of higher learning across the country, the economics of liberty and freedom are not offered as a part of the curriculum. And why would it be? The entire apparatus of mainstream economics serves the central planner first and foremost. In a free market, they’d be at the bottom rung of society, but under socialism they continue to stay on top.
On the heels of the covid-19 pandemic, unprecedented socioeconomic challenges have emerged on a global scale, including growing resentment toward: government-enforced lockdowns, government corruption, inequality, and climate change. In the United States alone, the economic costs of the pandemic have been estimated at $16 trillion. With international socioeconomic systems in flux, policy makers, economists, and forecasters are left puzzled on what is going to happen next. In this article, I provide three predictions for 2021.
Over the past decade, there has been more social unrest and political uprisings than ever before. In 2019, there were protests in over 110 countries that were tied to: inequality (through the #metoo and black lives matter (BLM) movements), climate change, and the further encroachment of the state into the lives of citizens, which occurred in Hong Kong. In 2020, mass antigovernment protests have emerged throughout North America and Western Europe involving police brutality against racialized communities and government-enforced lockdowns. However, since the increase in government-enforced lockdowns, these movements of discontent have been suppressed, which is worrisome because as Sigmund Freud famously argued, “unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and they will come forth later in uglier ways.” Indeed, unexpressed emotions fester and as we saw with the storming of Capital Hill, eventually come out, often in more extreme ways.
Prediction #1: 2021 will be the year of the revolution
Heavy-handed covid-19 government-enforced lockdowns will be matched with social unrest of greater magnitude until a G20 government is overthrown. With the greatest fear of any state being social unrest, governments across the globe have strict measures in place to suppress social unrest and protect their authority. In China, for example, the Financial Times reported that the Communist Party of China (CPC) censors the media and polices protests strategically. Similar approaches, to varying degrees, including mass government surveillance, have been and are continuing to be used in other countries. In the United States, the magnitude of the invasion of privacy rights was exemplified by the governmental surveillance that became apparent from the whistle-blowing activities of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst, in 2013. In the Snowden documentation, the instances of mass surveillance being conducted by the US government was not only localized within the US, but also abroad involving foreign nationals and governments. Consistent with these privacy concerns, governments across the globe are releasing digital contact tracing technologies (in the form of mobile apps) to not only monitor the movements of citizens, but also to extract their mobile phone data. The New York Times has reported that several regimes are taking this opportunity to seize new powers that have little to do with the pandemic and without the likelihood of relinquishing them after it is resolved. To address the possibility of oppression, UN human rights experts have warned governments not to exploit emergency pandemic measures to erode the human rights of their citizens. As a result of these issues, trust in the government is at an all-time low and since the pandemic emerged, almost everyone that you speak with has a theory of what they think is "really going on."
Prediction #2: A high-level government official to reveal additional information about the pandemic leading to a formal accusation against a foreign government
To restore trust, it is expected that a high-level whistle-blower from a G20 government, similar to the Snowden case, will be used to provide "evidence" that a foreign state manufactured the virus in an act of biochemical war.1 Biochemical warfare is not a new phenomenon. It has been used by British colonialists when they gave the indigenous people of Canada blankets infected with smallpox. This act caused many deaths in a localized epidemic.
With the international collusion that occurred during the 2016 US presidential election, the US government is sensitive to foreign entities interfering in its affairs. At the end of 2019, two years after the US-China trade war began, covid-19 emerged out of China and spread throughout the globe causing mass socioeconomic devastation. Although there has been anti-China propaganda for nearly twenty years 0151due, in part, to the transference of manufacturing employment from industrialized nations to China and, now, the active trade war—the US president suggested that China manufactured the virus. In August 2020, Forbes published an interview with Dr. Mark Kortepeter, a physician and biodefense expert for the US Army where he concluded that covid-19 “has some "desirable" properties as a bioweapon, but probably not enough to make it a good choice for military purposes.”
This formal accusation will likely trigger an "us versus them" mentality in the United States, centered on stimulating nationalism and reducing social unrest. This approach has been used by the US government for nearly a century. Specifically, the US government has consistently portrayed an "enemy figure" that citizens need to fear and be protected against. In the twentieth century, enemies were the: Germans, Russians, Communists, Japanese, and Middle Easterners. In the early part of the twenty-first century, citizens were programed to fear Islamic terrorists. In these instances, the government is positioned as the only protector of citizens against foreign enemies.
Although it is expected that China will deny these accusations, there are four possible motivations for using covid-19 as a biochemical weapon:
A. Retaliation for the US-China trade war, which caused the Chinese economy to slow to its lowest level in three decades while industrial output fell to a seventeen-year low. This is of strategic significance to the Chinese regime as it has predicted that a significant economic slowdown could be a potential cause of social unrest. Much to the chagrin of Beijing, there was mass social unrest throughout Hong Kong from 2019 to 2020, causing the regime significant domestic and international challenges that persist today.
B. Retaliation for the support given by the US government to the: Hong Kong protest movement, rights of the Tibetan people, and international rights of Taiwan. All three locations are of strategic importance to Beijing.
C. The pandemic has caused economic devastation and mass social unrest in the US. Depending on the magnitude, this has the potential to cause the US government to redeploy portions of their military from key international areas, like the South China Sea, which is of utmost strategic importance to China, to domestic locations. Consistent with this prediction, to counter the Capital Hill riots of 2021, the US government summoned the support of the National Guard.
D. In recent years, Beijing has focused resources on shifting their economy from manufacturing to service based. With the pandemic forcing service-based employees to work remotely, we are seeing a surge in digital nomads and remote workers. This has created an international labor market whereby organizations are able to hire international employees and allow them to work remotely from anywhere in the world. Like the transference of manufacturing employment from North America and Western Europe to China that began 20 years ago, there are significant cost savings available to organizations that begin recruiting their managerial and staff positions from the international labor market and, in particular, China.
Prediction #3: Universal basic income
As we saw with the Hong Kong protests, people who have nothing to lose are more willing to revolt. With this in mind, to appease the population, curb social unrest, and restore trust in government, a universal basic income will be announced this year. By doing this, citizens would become increasingly reliant on the government for monetary support and, as a result of this dependence, less willing to revolt.
- 1. It is important to note that questionable evidence was used by the Bush Administration in their determination that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This evidence was the reasoning behind the decision by the US Government to declare war on Iraq in 2003. It was later determined that these weapons were not in the possession of the Iraqi Government.
I can't recall the last time I heard something on National Public Radio in defense of savings but, there it was, in this morning's Marketplace segment on Karen Petrou's new book Engine of Inequality: The Fed and the Future of Wealth in America. Savings, Petrou asserts, are the "engine of wealth accumulation." Petrou, whose work has been discussed on these pages before, identifies the Fed's massive and unprecedented monetary expansion since 2008 as a prime driver of inequality in the US. As she explains to host David Brancaccio:
[T]he cost of being middle, even upper-middle, class, and lower- or moderate-income, has gone way up. So all but the top 10% of Americans already have more debt than assets. We don’t need more debt, we need more employment and economic growth. And we critically need savings. That’s the engine of wealth accumulation. And right now, if you put your money into your savings account, you lose money because rates are negative in real terms, and they have been pretty much ever since 2008. Saving is a losing game. Investing is a winner’s game, but most Americans aren’t in the stock market. The top 1% of Americans have over half of our stock.
Of course, the Austrians have been arguing—long before 2008!—that the engine of economic progress, not just simply for individuals but for the economy as a whole, is capital accumulation via savings and investment, not "aggregate demand" fueled by monetary and fiscal stimulus. Petrou is interested in individual and household inequality, not economic growth. Because inequality is the topic de jour among the intelligentsia, her book is getting a fair hearing. It is certainly true that the Fed's policies have exacerbated inequality and, while that is not the most important critique of the Fed or of central banking per se, it seems to be gaining popularity. Even Ben Bernanke felt compelled to respond to the criticism, albeit unconvincingly.
Austrians including Zoran Balanc, Karl-Friedrich Israel, and Louis Rouanet have written recently about the effects of central banking on inequality. Petrou's book should help to shine more light on this debate.