Power & Market
Just two days after Trump’s nominee Judy Shelton was approved by the Senate committee, it was Mitt Romney (R), senator of Utah, who said:
I’m not going to be endorsing Judy’s Shelton’s nomination to the Fed.
No reason was provided as to why he intends to vote against her, and CNBC reports that his office declined to comment further. However, they noted:
That Romney would oppose the nomination is not entirely surprising given his contentious relationship with Trump.
It seems strange that a US senator would not offer a reason for something as important as this vote. Without providing anything to defend his position, we are left only with assumptions to make.
If Mitt is making his decision based on the relationship he has with Trump, as CNBC suggests, then it could mean that he's judging Shelton's qualifications based on the opinion he has of the president. He would still be within his right, but his reasoning might be called into question.
And yes, this is the same Mitt Romney who is currently one of America’s wealthiest congressmen, with an estimated net worth around $174 million that he accumulated by founding and operating Bain Capital. Also, yes, this is the same Bain Capital that a quick internet search reveals was involved in many highly publicized leveraged buyouts (LBOs), whereby a company acquires another company primarily with debt backed by the assets of the company being acquired.
There may be nothing inherently wrong with LBOs per se. If a bank is willing to put up the money, then the bank (shareholders/depositors) are taking the risk. But perhaps this is also a reason why he may fear Judy Shelton. In a world where credit is no longer cheap and easily given to the rich and powerful, people like Mitt would not be multimillionaires today. Unfortunately, since he remains silent as to the reason for his decision, we are left with little to make of his rationale besides his dislike for Trump and success with tapping credit markets.
The second Republican is Senator Susan Collins from Maine. She’s not as wealthy as Mitt but still not someone to take lightly, hailing from a fourth-generation political family. Her website proudly boasts:
Senator Collins is recognized as a skillful legislator, which is one reason why ELLE magazine named her one of the most powerful women in Washington.
On Monday, The New York Times quoted her:
Ms. Shelton has openly called for the Federal Reserve to be less independent of the political branches, and has even questioned the need for a central bank.
It remains unclear to the liberty and freedom crowd what the problem is, but the “skillful legislator” continued:
This is not the right signal to send, particularly in the midst of the pandemic, and for that reason, I intend to vote against her nomination if it reaches the floor.
Unlike Romney, Senator Collins offered an explanation. The problem is that it’s not a very good one. According to Collins, because Judy Shelton asks questions, especially during a crisis, she’s not qualified for the job. Sadly, this is not the America the Founding Fathers envisioned. Liberty dies when subservience is considered a virtue and questions are considered a crutch. Having a sound money advocate at the Fed creates much-needed discourse, but without one we may only continue to see the same anticapitalist groupthink. Especially in a time of crisis we should welcome such questions.
Tangled is this political web in which the nation finds itself. One person who has unimaginable wealth and another who is an heiress of a political empire are allowed to make economic decisions, yet little understanding of economics has been on their part. At least when the Fed lies to us it’s done using Fedspeak, supported by impressive degrees and data we cannot see. But the politicians—they can simply cast a no vote!
An Illinois politicians wants the state board of education to get rid of history classes until the curriculum can be made less racist. The local NBC affiliate reports:
Leaders in education, politics and other areas gathered in suburban Evanston Sunday to ask that the Illinois State Board of Education change the history curriculum at schools statewide, and temporarily halt instruction until an alternative is decided upon….
Before the event Sunday, Rep. Ford's office distributed a news release "Rep. Ford Today in Evanston to Call for the Abolishment of History Classes in Illinois Schools," in which Ford asked the ISBOE and school districts to immediately remove history curriculum and books that "unfairly communicate" history "until a suitable alternative is developed."
There are both good ideas and bad ideas here.
First of all, it's unclear in what way exactly history as taught in Illinois—as critics put it—"overlook[s] the contributions of women and minorities"
In practice, history as taught in most schools overlooks the good deeds of a wide variety of good people—not just ones who are women or members of certain ethnic groups. The usual history curriculum focuses overwhelmingly on politicians, military personnel and other government employees, who are supposedly the people who make the most important contributions, and allegedly make life livable for the rest of us. The private sector is generally ignored, including all the entrepreneurs, workers, business owners and managers who actually did the hard work of improving the lives and standards of living of countless human beings. Whenever business owners are mentioned, its usually as some sort of evil "robber baron" or similar caricature. If workers are mentioned, it is only nonspecific workers in a Marxian context.
So, given that the general focus in history courses is on "great men"—most of whom are actually despicable, craven politicians like LBJ or FDR or Woodrow Wilson—then yes, I'm sure women and nonwhites get little mention. There's a bias in whose contributions are mentioned, all right. But that bias tends to be in favor of the government class, regardless of race and gender.
But if the answer is to abolish history class, then I am all for it.
Ever since its conception, history class in public school has never been anything other than lessons in government-approved historical narratives designed to push a certain ideology. As historian Ralph Raico has noted, people's ideological beliefs are largely determined "by what they think they know about history." So as long as people think Americans invented slavery, or that capitalism means children must work until they get black lung disease in coal mines, then people will select their ideologies accordingly. What is taught in history will naturally shape a student's worldview.
That said, there is no "correct" unbiased narrative, of course. All history is written by specific human beings with their own experiences, judgments, and biases. Each historian must make decisions as to which information is important and which is not. Some historical events are mentioned, and other are not. This alone determines what people will learn and conclude about human history. As Ludwig von Mises noted:
Now, a real reproduction of the past would require a duplication not humanly possible. History is not an intellectual reproduction, but a condensed representation of the past in conceptual terms. The historian does not simply let the events speak for themselves. He arranges them from the aspect of the ideas underlying the formation of the general notions he uses in their presentation. He does not report facts as they happened, but only relevant facts.
Historians don't just recreate history. They make judgments about what historical narratives are told. The result is a narrative that is influenced by ideology and the historian's context.
Thus, it would be madness to leave it up to public school bureaucrats to determine which history ought to be taught and to cede to government employees the power to teach to children—for twelve or thirteen years, no less—the "correct" historical narrative.
Early proponents of public schooling were well aware of this, and they made sure history was taught in ways that backed up their own prejudices. In the early years of public schools, in the late nineteenth century, "history" class was designed to communicate anti-Catholic progovernment propaganda as approved by the progressive New England intelligentsia.
By midcentury—helped along by outright progovernment rituals like the socialist-authored Pledge of Allegiance—history class became a hotbed of center-left ideological studies designed to into inculcate American children the idea that men like Theodore Roosevet and Franklin Roosevelt were saintly harbingers of the American "progress" made possible by a strong US state. Also, central to the curriculum was the idea that all wars waged by the American state were virtuous crusades that made the world a better place.
Things have only gotten worse since then.
As a solution, Rep. Ford wants to get rid of history class. I say have at it. Let's just make sure history class is abolished permanently, and not temporarily, as Ford wants. Ford believes a "suitable alternative" can be developed, but I most certainly don't want anyone learning whatever version of history meets Ford's requirements.
I know that some old-fashioned readers will think it's still a good idea to teach children history in public school. These people are still in the thrall of the never true notion that there's some sort of "objective" history out there that everyone can agree on. This notion is wrong of course, and because of this, we'd all be better off if public school history class were replaced by reruns of old Saturday morning cartoons. That would be better than the twelve years of anticapitalist propaganda students are getting now. Moreover, students could concentrate on more ideologically neutral topics like math and reading, and leave the teaching of history up to parents. In truth, though, given that public schooling is for most people little more than government daycare, most parents wouldn't even notice if history class were abolished forever.
The weeks-long coronavirus lockdown is being exposed as, at best, a wild overreaction. Americans are starting to protest the destruction of their economy, the loss of their jobs, and the attacks on their basic constitutional rights. The walls of oppression built by the petty tyrants throughout the country are beginning to crack. It reminds me of the feeling that was in the air in that memorable year 1989, when the world as we knew it was turned upside down.
What was so significant about 1989, and why do I suddenly get that feeling in the air again? For me, it was two things: 1) the Tiananmen demonstrations—I was in Hong Kong during this period (I actually arrived I think a day before the death of Hu Yaobang, which is what started them), and 2) the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events that led up to it.
What it smelled like was this:
All of a sudden, anything at all was possible. All of a sudden, people realized that the chains that bound them weren't as real as they had always believed them to be. Of course, in China, as exhilarating as the demonstrations were, it did not end well. But for Eastern Europe it was very different.
I remember seeing the images of the picnickers (and others) from Hungary hopping the fences into Austria. Just hopping what looked like two-foot-high little wire fences. Like that was the only thing that had ever been holding them in. To me, those were the most moving images of all: people realizing that they were free.
By the time they started hammering away at the Berlin Wall, everything had already happened. It seemed like just the tearing down of a symbol at that point. I had visited Berlin five years earlier, and I remember people telling me it would never come down. Everyone hated it, everyone wanted it down, but nobody knew how to do it, and there seemed to be a widespread acceptance that there was nothing they could do about it.
Until there was.
That's what this feels like now. The governments' over-the-top response has pushed people too far. Which I imagine they anticipated, but I also imagine they believed that would result in riots and violent protest (which it will, once people can't put food on their tables—but we're not there yet.) But instead of rioting in the streets, people are engaged in peaceful protests, and more importantly, they are starting to simply defy the orders. Businesses, churches, and even some schools, are starting to open up again, in blatant disregard for the orders they have been given. They are ignoring the state.
There is more of this coming. And the more people who do it, the more are emboldened to. I don't know what goes on inside the minds of the people who want to rule the world, but I can only imagine that they believe people will always be easily manipulated by fear. It's true that people are far too easily manipulated by fear, but the capacity to do that is not infinite, and I think those who are using it have overplayed their hand this time.
Because what I'm seeing now is not people driven by fear. There was a lot of fear when this first started—but I think a lot of people are coming out of that now. I think a great many are realizing that the costs of the shutdowns are going to be much, much worse than the impact of the virus, and I also see a lot of people recognizing that individuals should decide for themselves what risks they are comfortable with. I'm seeing a lot of pushback against authoritarianism, and it's not coming from fear, but something else. I don't think the people who engineered this anticipated that something else.
Yes, there are still the people buying into the fear, ratting out their neighbors, etc. But I'm seeing a lot more of the opposite: people recognizing who the enemy is here, and that it is not their neighbors. I'm seeing small business owners having the courage to reopen their businesses against government orders, at the risk of losing their licenses and, here in LA, their power and water supply. And I see a huge number of people ready to support them. People are planning more peaceful protests, and more and more businesses are planning to open up. They're saying (here in CA) "They can't arrest all of us." What I see is that people are starting to realize that their chains aren't as real as they thought they were.
That's what 1989 smelled like.
In response to my article last week opposing the use of federal soldiers and federal agents on the streets of American cities, my inbox and the article's comment section filled up with readers claiming that it most certainly is the job of the US federal government to step in and take control of US cities against the will of the state and local governments.
These interventionists have lots of reasons for their federalization of local law enforcement:
- "The author is not realising the seriousness of the communist insurgency under way."
- Federal intervention is unjustified "except in cases where the local elected officials refuse to do what they had taken an oath to do."
- "The people are under the protection of the Constitution, thus during insurrections the president has the duty to mobilize to restore order."
- "Oregon state and Portland city governments either or both can't or don't want to stop violent protests with destruction of public and private properties. Therefore federal government needs to intervene to restore the order, normal functioning of city businesses and government offices."
Many of these readers attempt to make claims about constitutional authority, such as the meaningless claim that "the people are under the protection of the Constitution"—whatever that means—and that therefore the feds can do whatever they want to "restore order." Other claims are just vague legal assertions about how the president can send in troops wherever local officials aren't doing what "we" want them to do.
To this I would only restate that the entire historical and legal context of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the American Revolution is one of preventing distant national powers from sending in their agents, bureaucrats, and troops to carry out federal prerogatives.
But even if the current US Constitution did authorize federal takeovers of local police—which it doesn't—then the Constitution ought to be ignored, because constitutional authority is inferior to the larger moral principle of subsidiary, self-determination, and local control.
As with all things, the Constitution is only useful and worthy of being quoted when it limits federal power. When it doesn't do so, it should be ignored. The Constitution is not some holy writ. It's useful when it attempts to limit federal power, and worthless when it doesn't.
In this case, the Constitution is on the right side: it limits federal intervention in these cases. But if it weren't on our side, then it would be wrong. Stated simply, here is the basic principle at hand: as an American taxpayer who lives many hundreds of miles from Portland, it's not my job to solve Portland's problems.
To business owners and others who live in Oregon and Portland and who are being negatively affected by the riots there, I'm sorry you continue to choose to live in a poorly run state where the political leaders are craven socialists who kowtow to the mob. I highly recommend you consider moving away or expending your own time and energy to do something about it. I'm sorry you didn't see the writing on the wall years ago as the voters put into power—again and again—left-wing demagogues. You decided to stick around. But it's not now the job of Americans in other places to bail you out.
I fully encourage you to organize a local militia, a local political movement, recall effort, or some other strategy to deal with it. But Americans have plenty of their own problems in their own cities. We have our own crime problems and our own problems with corrupt politicians to deal with it. I'm sorry that residents of Portland and Oregon appear to be especially inept in this regard, but neither the Constitution nor common sense dictates that it's our job to swoop in and save Portland from itself, especially when the local majority is apparently fine with the situation.
There are a lot of poorly run cities in America. Like Baltimore, for instance, where the homicide rate is ten times the national rate. It’s not the job of the American taxpayer to solve Baltimore's problems either.
I know that some readers fancy themselves the only ones who truly appreciate the fullness of the "communist insurgency under way." In their minds, the federal government cannot possibly be given too much power, so long as that power is used to crush the commies. Anyone who insists on limiting federal power is thus "naïve." Yet it is these nonnaïve people who want to grant even greater power to a federal establishment that clearly views the American people as the enemy. These federal agencies are the ones who have relentlessly conspired to remove the current democratically elected president because he was not to their liking. These are the bureaucrats who let 9/11 happen, and then got raises afterward. These are the federal hacks who massacred women and children at Waco and at Ruby Ridge. These are the people who wanted the Patriot Act so they could spy on every American.
Back in the 1990s, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre referred to federal agents as "armed terrorists dressed in Ninja black…jack-booted thugs armed to the teeth who break down doors, open fire with automatic weapons and kill law-abiding citizens."
While I’m no particular fan of LaPierre or the NRA, he was right. Wanting to limit the power of these feds is hardly the naïve position.
Fed chair Powell would shock the world if he said something like this:
The Federal Reserve’s response to this crisis has been guided by our mandate to promote maximum employment and stable prices, along with our responsibilities to promote the stability of the financial system. The problem is that these are misguided policies made by my predecessors. Maximum employment is just an arbitrary number made up by economists. There is nothing stable about prices that are expected to increase by 2 percent year over year. A stable financial system cannot happen when a central bank manipulates interest rates and controls the money supply…
Unfortunately, he has never said anything like this, although he would be correct if he did. But we can dream! Would the world not be a better place if he had?
Instead, the chair said little that was honest or interesting in his most recent press conference. He plans on keeping rates low while continually increasing the money supply in order to inflate away the US dollar. The crisis is different, but the response remains the same. Actions taken by the Fed must be swift but also temporary. The takeaway is that there is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.
As far as the trillion-dollar temporary lending facilities are concerned, in the Q&A Powell answered:
So I wouldn’t look for us to be sending signals about cutting back on facilities or anything like that for a very long time. We’re in this until we’re well through it.
This was confirmed by a press release during the week that noted:
The Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday announced an extension through December 31 of its lending facilities that were scheduled to expire on or around September 30.
Not only were the lending facilities extended, but:
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday announced the extensions of its temporary U.S. dollar liquidity swap lines and the temporary repurchase agreement facility for foreign and international monetary authorities (FIMA repo facility) through March 31, 2021.
Between lending facilities, swap lines to foreign central banks, and repurchase agreements for “monetary facilities” outside of the United States, we get a clear understanding about how things truly work at the Fed.
The press conference itself gave more expected fluff. In one breath Powell expressed the usual concern for the disenfranchised:
In particular, the rise in joblessness has been especially severe for lower-wage workers, for women, and for African Americans and Hispanics. This reversal of economic fortune has upended many lives and created great uncertainty about the future.
It’s interesting that he acknowledges a problem exists, but then does everything he can to exacerbate the problem by continuing inflationary wealth-destroying policies. He even went so far as saying in the Q&A that Congress appropriated $454 billion for the Fed’s facilities, pretending to not be aware that this money is borne by the entire nation, especially those “lower-wage workers” and the disenfranchised.
The top economists in the world continue to be dead set on a dual mandate which postulates a tradeoff between “inflation” and “unemployment,” and their beliefs require them to continually lower the interest rate and money supply in hopes of creating economic recovery. Ironically, these policies do the exact opposite of what they are intended to do. But the effects become more pernicious when we realize that the Fed is at a stage where they cannot go back. While they won’t admit it, the balance sheet cannot be reduced any more than these temporary facilities can actually be made temporary. Never have we seen a central bank successfully reverse course, whether it’s interest rates, balance sheet, or asset purchases including bonds and stocks. The Fed is no different.
There is severe confusion about the meaning of economic growth. Many seem to mistakenly think that it has to do with GDP or producing stuff. It does not. Economic growth means that an economy's ability to satisfy people's wants, whatever they are—that is, to produce well-being—increases.
GDP is a rather terrible way of capturing this using (public) statistics and is corrupted by those benefitting from corrupting such figures. GDP is not growth.
Likewise, having more stuff in stores isn't growth. Producing increasing quantities of stuff that nobody is willing to buy is the very opposite of economic growth: it is wasting our limited productive capacity. But note the word “willing.” Well-being is not about (objective) needs, but about being able to escape felt uneasiness. It can turn out to be right or wrong, but that’s beside the point.
Economic growth is the increased ability to satisfy whatever wants people have, for whatever reasons they may have. Examples of economic growth aren't the newest iPhone or plastic toy made in China as much as it’s the availability of quality housing, food and nourishment, and the ability to treat disease. One obvious example of economic growth since the days of Malthus is the enormous increase in our ability to produce food. The quantity and quality have increased immensely. We use less resources to satisfy more wants—that's the meaning of economic growth.
“Economic” means simply economizing or finding the better use of scarce resources (not only natural ones). Economic growth is thus better economizing. It means that we have the ability, which means we can afford, to satisfy more wants than just the basic needs.
The beautiful thing with economic growth is that it applies to society overall as well as to all individuals: increased productive capacity means more ways of satisfying wants but also cheaper ways of doing so. But this does not, of course, imply that the distribution of access and ability to consume is equal and instantaneous. It spreads in stepwise fashion and will reach everyone.
Increased productivity increases the purchasing power of all money, including (and most importantly) low wages, thus making it much more affordable to satisfy one's needs and wants. But the distribution of such prosperity cannot be equal or instantaneous: any new innovation, new good, new service, etc. will be created somewhere, by someone—it cannot be created for 7 billion plus people instantaneously.
So anything new, including new jobs and new productive abilities, has to spread, as ripples, across the economy. As new things are created all the time, this means that we'll never actually get to a point where everyone enjoys exactly the same standard of living. It cannot be any other way, because economic growth, and the well-being it generates through the ability to satisfy wants, is a process.
Perfect equality is possible only by not having growth: to pull the brakes, not increase well-being. In other words, to not increase convenience and living standards, not figure out how to treat diseases that we would otherwise soon be able to cure. Those are our options, not the fairytale of "equal access to the outcome of growth."
This doesn't mean, of course, that we should be satisfied with inequalities. It only means that we should recognize that some inequality is inescapable if we want everyone to enjoy higher living standards. But we should also recognize that much of the inequality we are seeing today is not of this “natural” kind: it's inequality of political rather than economic origin. This comes in two forms: inherited from privileges enjoyed by a few in the past, reinforced by contemporary political and social structures, and privileges created today through policies creating winners (cronyism, favoritism, rent seeking, etc.).
From the point of view of economic growth as an economic phenomenon, policy-originated inequality has effects on both the creation and distribution of prosperity. First, policy creates winners by (a) protecting some from the competition of new entrants and future winners and (b) restricting (monopolizing) the use of new technologies, thereby propping up incumbents. Second, policy creates losers by redistributing value and economic capabilities to those favored politically. This means that policy has two primary effects on economic growth: it limits the creation of value and distorts its distribution.
Needless to say, this inequality is not beneficial for society overall, but only for those who are favored. It is the creation of winners by creating losers. This is not economic growth, which is accomplished by better economizing—increased ability to satisfy wants.
In a sense, political favoritism and the inequality it causes are the opposite of economic growth, since it creates winners (rich) at the expense of others (generally spread out across a larger population). It's just a redistribution of value already created by introducing inefficiencies into the system: productive capabilities are not allocated based on the creation of well-being but based on political clout. Over time, the economy is actually worse off because of this, so the process of economic growth suffers.
It is important to keep these two “sides” of the inequality coin in mind when discussing the problem. Simply pushing the stop button on economic growth will only accomplish politics’ increased influence over economizing. That's hardly beneficial, at least not for those other than the political class and insiders of the corporatist system. Rather, a solution would be to get rid of politically created and reinforced privilege and allow economic processes to readjust to reality: to target production of well-being instead of favors and influence. This will not do away with inequality as such, but will significantly decrease it and will do away with most of its harmful effects. It would mean an economy where entrepreneurs and workers alike would benefit from producing value for others. In other words, economic growth and higher living standards.
The alternatives are rather easy to understand, yet what's commonly on the agenda of pundits and political commentators is made-up alternatives, often ignorant utopias, that distort the meaning of both privilege and economic growth. The alternatives we have are the ones stated above, nothing else. Make your pick. Striving to realize impossible fairy tales is a waste of time, effort, and resources. That's not how we increase well-being and raise the standard of living. To me, the solution is quite obvious. Most people seem to pick the fairy tale.
[This article is an adaptation of a Twitter thread.]
Almost as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of science fiction. I like it for the escapism it allows me, especially when I have some free time on a trip. But sometimes I also find some real nuggets of insight or inspiration there. That probably reflects, in part, how my attraction to liberty affects my book choices. A good example is a passage from a book that I read on the trip I just returned from, during a time when escapism from current reality seems particularly justified, particularly with respect to liberty.
It comes from chapter 29 in Jaxin Reid’s Operation Starfold, the seventh of ten books in his Pirates of the Milky Way series, in a conversation about the nature of government, represented in the series by the League versus the Republic.
It’s not so much the actual League or the Republic, it’s the systems of government they represent.
The worldviews are incompatible with one another…control versus freedom…the underlying fundamental assumptions of both systems are diametrically opposed.
When you have a controlled society like the League, eventually everything has to be controlled to make it work….that leads to totalitarianism. Total control by the government.
This is why communism always fails. It’s why socialism eventually fails, too….More and more control is gathered up by the government and when it hits a tipping point, everything falls apart.
The League still operates from a fundamental assumption regarding control of its citizenry….People are meant to be directed rather than fully allowed to pursue their own self-interests.
The Republic, on the other hand, has a fundamental assumption regarding human liberty. People there are free to do what they want, within reason…so conflict between the two was inevitable.
This conversation, which reflects an important aspect of Reid’s series, reminds me so much of the work of Friedrich Hayek that I might call it The Road Back from Interstellar Serfdom. And Reid’s conclusions also echo Hayek.
Ultimately, the system offering more freedom is the side to be on….Because freedom always burns bright in the human heart, no matter what system of government it lives under at the moment.
I respect the notions of personal liberty more than I ever did before. I see now why people have been willing to die so their children can grow up in a more free society. It’s worth fighting for.
As a professor of economics for the last four decades, it has been painful for me to observe how many have received college degrees, or taught classes to those students, while knowing less (or the opposite) of the central importance of liberty, not only in society, but in everyday life, than they could have acquired from reading insightful “escapist” science fiction such as Jaxon Reid’s. And it is hard to be optimistic about what will qualify one as “educated” in the immediate future. But I find hope for the inspiration to love liberty, which can still be found, even if not very easily at far too many colleges.
At the Libertarian Scholars Conference in 2018, our associated scholar Jo Ann Cavallo (Columbia University) presented new research on the literary figure Malaguerra and how he has been used to express "a critical attitude toward the State" in Italian puppet theater. This research has now been published in the journal Achilles Orlando Quixote Ulysses (AOQU) as “Malaguerra: The Anti-state Super-Hero of Sicilian Puppet Theater,” AOQU 1 (July 2020): 259–94.
The abstract states:
Although this literary figure is little known today, Morbello/Malaguerra was famous in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. This essay focuses on his vicissitudes in print (Storia dei paladini di Francia) and on the puppet theater stage, with some attention to the spread of his name and adaptation of his adventures outside Sicily, both in the epic Maggio tradition of northern Italy and in the scripts of a Catanese puppeteer active in New York City. Because Malaguerra repeatedly contests the injustices perpetrated by those in power, his story reminds us that l’opera dei pupi was not simply a chivalric soap opera for the masses before television, but could be a vehicle to express a critical attitude toward the State under the cover of dramatizing medieval and Renaissance epics. Indeed, it may be that puppet theater’s political undercurrent was a factor in its massive popularity both in southern Italy and among Italian immigrants in urban centers of the New World. More generally, the essay aims to contribute to the discussion of political ideologies in the chivalric epic genre, especially in the context of Italian popular culture.
Some conservatives are now bending over backwards to try to justify their calls for more federal intervention in local law enforcement around the nation. This has been problematic for many because some of these people also have pretended to be in favor of decentralization, local control, and a strict reading of the Constitution when it suits them. But now that the actual respect for the Tenth Amendment and the federalism built into the Constitution for the moment favors left-wing protestors and rioters, the Right is now attempting to come up with reasons why the federal government should be called in to solve our problems after all.
I have dealt with some of the claims elsewhere, such as the claim that the federal government can do whatever it wants when there is an "insurrection"—however loosely defined. And some claim the feds can do whatever they want in order to "guarantee a republican form of government."
But for the more unsophisticated participants in this debate, the memo has apparently gone out stating that federal meddling of this sort is fine because George Washington once did it. While I have seen this stated more than once, an example from the Mises Institute's Facebook page, in response to this article, will serve as an example:
The basic "argument" made by "Jack Jackson" here is that since Washington used federal troops against tax protestors in the 1790, then the president today can obviously do the same, and it must all be both perfectly moral and legal.
Yet Washington's invasion of western Pennsylvania was clearly immoral by the standards of the American Revolution, and thus a betrayal of what countless Americans had died for during the war. Not surprisingly, virtually no taxpayer in the backcountry supported Washington's expedition. After all, internal excise taxes imposed by outsiders had been a major cause of the American secessionist cause in the 1770s—what we now call the American Revolution. In other words, Jackson's interlocutor here, a "Robert Davis" is correct. Washington's grandiose ride to abuse and browbeat Pennsylvania farmers into submission was "the beginning of the end" of what most Americans imagined they were signing on for when they submitted to the US Constitution.
Moreover, contrary to what is simply assumed by those whose view of history extends not far beyond conservative talk radio, Washington's "suppression" of the tax rebellion failed. Murray Rothbard explains in detail how the Whiskey "rebels" were the good guys, and how Washington was a bumbling big-government wannabe who later—helped by the ever atrocious Alexander Hamilton—covered up his failure to get his way.
The Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion is that four counties of western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on whiskey that had been levied by proposal of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton in the spring of 1791, as part of his excise tax proposal for federal assumption of the public debts of the several states.
Western Pennsylvanians failed to pay the tax, this view says, until protests, demonstrations, and some roughing up of tax collectors in western Pennsylvania caused President Washington to call up a 13,000-man army in the summer and fall of 1794 to suppress the insurrection. A localized but dramatic challenge to federal tax-levying authority had been met and defeated. The forces of federal law and order were safe.
This Official View turns out to be dead wrong. In the first place, we must realize the depth of hatred of Americans for what was called “internal taxation” (in contrast to an “external tax” such as a tariff). Internal taxes meant that the hated tax man would be in your face and on your property, searching, examining your records and your life, and looting and destroying.
The most hated tax imposed by the British had been the Stamp Tax of 1765, on all internal documents and transactions; if the British had kept this detested tax, the American Revolution would have occurred a decade earlier, and enjoyed far greater support than it eventually received.
Americans, furthermore, had inherited hatred of the excise tax from the British opposition; for two centuries, excise taxes in Britain, in particular the hated tax on cider, had provoked riots and demonstrations upholding the slogan, “liberty, property, and no excise!” To the average American, the federal government’s assumption of the power to impose excise taxes did not look very different from the levies of the British crown.
The main distortion of the Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion was its alleged confinement to four counties of western Pennsylvania. From recent research, we now know that no one paid the tax on whiskey throughout the American “back-country”; that is, the frontier areas of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and the entire state of Kentucky.
President Washington and Secretary Hamilton chose to make a fuss about Western Pennsylvania precisely because in that region there was a cadre of wealthy officials who were willing to collect taxes. Such a cadre did not even exist in the other areas of the American frontier; there was no fuss or violence against tax collectors in Kentucky and the rest of the back-country because there was no one willing to be a tax collector.
The whiskey tax was particularly hated in the back-country because whiskey production and distilling were widespread; whiskey was not only a home product for most farmers, it was often used as a money, as a medium of exchange for transactions. Furthermore, in keeping with Hamilton’s program, the tax bore more heavily on the smaller distilleries. As a result, many large distilleries supported the tax as a means of crippling their smaller and more numerous competitors.
Western Pennsylvania, then, was only the tip of the iceberg. The point is that, in all the other back-country areas, the whiskey tax was never paid. Opposition to the federal excise tax program was one of the causes of the emerging Democrat-Republican Party, and of the Jeffersonian “Revolution” of 1800. Indeed, one of the accomplishments of the first Jefferson term as president was to repeal the entire Federalist excise tax program. In Kentucky, whiskey tax delinquents only paid up when it was clear that the tax itself was going to be repealed.
Rather than the whiskey tax rebellion being localized and swiftly put down, the true story turns out to be very different. The entire American back-country was gripped by a non-violent, civil disobedient refusal to pay the hated tax on whiskey. No local juries could be found to convict tax delinquents. The Whiskey Rebellion was actually widespread and successful, for it eventually forced the federal government to repeal the excise tax.
Except during the War of 1812, the federal government never again dared to impose an internal excise tax, until the North transformed the American Constitution by centralizing the nation during the War Between the States. One of the evil fruits of this war was the permanent federal “sin” tax on liquor and tobacco, to say nothing of the federal income tax, an abomination and a tyranny even more oppressive than an excise.
Why didn’t previous historians know about this widespread non-violent rebellion? Because both sides engaged in an “open conspiracy” to cover up the facts. Obviously, the rebels didn’t want to call a lot of attention to their being in a state of illegality.
Washington, Hamilton, and the Cabinet covered up the extent of the revolution because they didn’t want to advertise the extent of their failure. They knew very well that if they tried to enforce, or send an army into, the rest of the back-country, they would have failed. Kentucky and perhaps the other areas would have seceded from the Union then and there. Both contemporary sides were happy to cover up the truth, and historians fell for the deception.
The Whiskey Rebellion, then, considered properly, was a victory for liberty and property rather than for federal taxation. Perhaps this lesson will inspire a later generation of American taxpayers who are so harried and downtrodden as to make the whiskey or stamp taxes of old seem like Paradise.
Listen to the Audio Mises Wire version of this article.
The violence and the utter disregard for basic human rights displayed by the Left in recent years—combined with its support for war crimes when a Democrat is president—have made me inclined to play nice with conservatives these days. At least conservatives aren't planning to torch my neighborhood any time soon, and at the moment they're no worse than the Left on foreign policy.
On the other hand, sometimes even the relatively less bad guys (for now) come to some very dangerous conclusions.
Specifically, some authors at conservative publications are now demanding that the president send in federal agents and troops to make arrests and intervene in local law enforcement to pacify rioters in Portland and other American cities. These pundits are claiming that since local officials allegedly aren't responding with sufficient alacrity to rioters, it's time to send in federal troops.
It is questionable that the president has the legal authority to do this. But even if he does have this power—legally speaking—basic commonsense principles of subsidiarity and decentralization inveigh against federal intervention. In other words, a basic respect for the principles behind the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence ought to cause one to reject the notion that it's a good idea to send in federal troops to "solve" the crime problems experienced in American cities.
Here's one example: in an article titled "It's Time to Crush the New Rebellion against Constitution" at Real Clear Politics, author Frank Miele claims "the president is designated as the commander in chief" and therefore "shall be expected to act during a crisis of 'rebellion or invasion' to restore public safety."
Miele addresses two legal questions. The first is whether or not federal troops or agents can act independently when protecting federal property—such as a federal courthouse. The second question is whether or not federal troops can intervene even when no federal property is under threat.
Arguably, in the former case federal agents would be well within their prerogatives to protect federal property as a security guard might do. This, however, does not necessarily empower them to make arrests or assault citizens outside the federal property itself, on the streets of a city well outside the federal compound. The so-called constitutional sheriffs movement—which the Left hates—has it right on this. Local law enforcement ought to be the final authority when it comes to making arrests.
Clearly, however, Miele will not brook such limitations, and he supports the idea that federal troops can intervene "where no federal property is involved."
And what are the limitations on this federal power? Basically, there are none, in Miele's view. So long as we define our adversaries as people fomenting a "rebellion" nothing is off the table. Not surprisingly, Miele strikes a worshipful pose toward Abraham Lincoln's scorched-earth campaign against the Southern states of the US in the 1860s. Those people were "rebels," you see, so the president was right to "tak[e] bold action" even if it meant "skirting the Constitution." Because "there was never any doubt where [Lincoln's] allegiance lay," it was perfectly fine when he abolished the basic legal rights of Americans, such as the right of habeas corpus.
The use of the word "rebellion" is central to understanding the profederal position here. Authors like Miele (and Andrew McCarthy at National Review) have routinely used words like "insurrection" or "rebellion" in order to support their claim the current unrest requires a Lincoln-like response, including a Lincolnesque abolition of half the Bill of Rights.
The Moral Case for Local Control, Made by American Revolutionaries
As a legal matter, of course, I have no doubt that federal judges and supporters of federal meddling could find a way to slice and dice the Constitution so as to make it say whatever they want. As a moral and historical question, however, it is clear that sending in federal troops without an invitation from local leaders is blatantly contrary to the provisions of the Declaration of Independence and is contrary to the Tenth Amendment.
As I explained here, the Declaration lists that the misuse of the executive's (i.e., the king's) troops was a reason for the American rebellion of 1776. These troops must receive the permission of local lawmakers:
The American revolutionaries and those who ratified the US constitution…thought they were creating a political system in which the bulk of land-based military power would rest in the hands of the state governments. Standing armies were to be strenuously opposed, and the Declaration of Independence specifically condemned the king's use of military deployments to enforce English law in the colonies and "to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power." These principles go back at least as far as the English Civil War (1642–51), when opposition to standing armies became widespread.
Thus, any attempt to send in British troops without the approval of the colonial legislatures was an abuse. This same principle was later applied to the state legislatures in relation to federal power.
Sending in federal troops to override local officials is in direct opposition to the moral underpinnings of the American Revolution. But this doesn't stop Miele, who then insists that Article IV of the Constitution authorizes federal invasions because the text says "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government." According to Miele, the "republican form of government" here "means government of the people, by the people and for the people—not the mob."
This definition of a republic is something Miele apparently just made up. This is hardly a standard definition of "republic," especially in the eighteenth century—the context most relevant for our purposes here. In those days, "republic" mostly meant "not a monarchy" and something like a decentralized state ruled by a commercial elite.
The idea that the president can send in troops anywhere whenever we decide that a local government is not guaranteeing a "republic"—based on whatever idiosyncratic definition of "republic" we might choose—is dangerous indeed.
In another example, we find authors "Because state and local Democrat officials refuse to restore order, the federal government must….Enough is enough. Those responsible for this new wave of insurrection must face the full force of federal law. "
Note the language about "insurrection"—as if a minuscule clash between some left-wing and right-wing demonstrators in Denver—an example the authors use to justify their position—requires a federal invasion.
Presumably governments are expected to intervene to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
But which government shall do that? It's a safe bet that the authors of the Declaration of Independence would say that a scuffle in Denver clearly lies within the authority of the government in Colorado. After all, the American patriots fought a war—and many died in it—to ensure local control outside the hands of a powerful executive in command of a standing army thousands of miles away.
It is indeed true that the rights of those who wished to see Malkin speak were violated. But here's the thing: the rights of Americans are violated every single day in every city of America. Murders, rapes, thefts, and even gang warfare are not unheard of across this nation, year in and year out. Moreover, the data is clear that police agencies are really quite bad at bringing these criminals to justice.
So, should we call in the feds to solve these problems? There were more than fifty homicides just in the city of Denver last year. There were many more assaults and attempted murders. Doesn't this level of bloodshed constitute a sort of "insurrection" against the decent people of the city? Certainly if we're going to be free and loose with terms like these, as is now apparently the MO of advocates for federal intervention, our conclusion could easily be yes. We might conclude the local police are unwilling to do what it takes to "establish order" and do something about these terrorists and thugs. Will sending in the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security solve this problem?
Fortunately, cooler heads have somehow prevailed, and "sending in the feds" is not a run-of-the-mill policy option. This makes even more sense when we remember that there is zero reason to assume federal cops are better at bringing peace to a city than the state or local officials. These feds are the same people and organizations that have been running a failed and disastrous war on drugs for decades. These are the people who daily spy on law-abiding Americans, in blatant violation of the Bill of Rights. These are the people who were blindsided by 9/11 in spite of decades of receiving fat paychecks to "keep us safe." These are the people (i.e., especially the FBI) who have conspired against Americans in order to unseat a democratically elected president.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard and the myth prevails on both the left and the right that if we're not getting the result we want from politicians, then the answer lies in calling in other politicians from somewhere else to "solve" the problem. But just as it would be contrary to basic notions of self-government and self-determination to call in the UN or the Chinese government to "protect rights" in the United States, the same is true of calling in federal bureaucrats to "fix" the shortcomings and incompetence of state and local bureaucrats. The American revolutionaries created a decentralized, locally controlled polity for a reason. Abolishing federalism to achieve short-term political ends is a reckless way to go.