Power & Market
The Mises Institute is notable for publishing articles supporting a number of radical views, including, among other positions:
- Abolition of the central bank.
- Radical reductions in military spending and military action overseas.
- Radical decentralization of political power through secession, nullification, or robust federalism.
- Adoption of untrammeled free trade.
These positions all reflect positions held by liberal schools of though in the past, whether the Manchester School, the American Anti-Federalists, or the French Liberal School . In various times and places, these views have even met with varying degrees of success.
Nevertheless, to the modern ear, these views sound incredibly radical, and the end goals generally sound exceedingly unlikely to be realized in the near future.
And yet, this is where advocates for freedom and free markets usually take a wrong turn.
For some reason, many non-leftists, whether libertarians, conservatives, or milquetoast centrists, embrace the notion that a position on public policy ought not be expressed unless there is chance that it can be realized in the very near future.
I hear this often from critics, and see it often in the comments section on mises.org, or in social media. The routine is usually the same:
- The author expresses support for a change in public policy that would significantly change the status quo.
- A reader expresses agreement with the sentiment.
- The same reader than contends that achieving this goal is unlikely in the short term.
- The same reader then asserts one shouldn't even bother expressing support for this position because it's unlikely to be realized in the short term.
The final sentiment usually looks something like this: "That's a fine idea, but it's not gonna happen, so just forget it!" Another variation is "people don't agree with you right now, and it's hopeless to try to convince people otherwise, so just give up."
Rothbard: What We Can Learn from the Abolitionists
Note that in this way of thinking, the attitude is to immediately declare defeat and to abandon the goal because achieving this goal looks to be difficult. As far as I can tell, this is a very common attitude.
This sort of knee-jerk defeatism helps offer a clue as to why enemies of the left tend to adopt a pessimistic and paranoid point of view. They have trouble even imagining success, let alone attempting to achieve it.
This attitude, of course, is the opposite of that used by a variety of successful political movements — including that of the abolitionists.
In an article for the Libertarian Review in 1968, Murray Rothbard looked at the methods of the abolitionists for insights on how to pursue policy goals that appear seemingly impossible at first.
Rothbard noted that from the early days of the abolition movement, the end goal appeared far-fetched and extremely unlikely. Thus, the only immediate victories to be hard were small and piecemeal.
A gradualist method was forced on the abolitionists. But, as Rothbard noted, the goal was never gradualist. It was always for immediate and total abolition:
William Lloyd Garrison was not being “unrealistic” when, in the 1830s, he raised the glorious standard of immediate emancipation of the slaves. His goal was the proper one, and his strategic realism came in the fact that he did not expect his goal to be quickly reached. Or, as Garrison himself distinguished,
Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend. (The Liberator, August 13, 1831)
Similarly, for those who want a radical reduction in state power today, they must adopt a similar posture: always maintain the explicit and public goal of radical change, while accepting small and gradual victories.
Rothbard quotes Aileen Kraditor who writes:
It follows, from the abolitionist’s conception of his role in society, that the goal for which he agitated was not likely to be immediately realizable. Its realization must follow conversion of an enormous number of people, and the struggle must take place in the face of the hostility that inevitably met the agitator for an unpopular cause. ... The abolitionists knew as well as their later scholarly critics that immediate and unconditional emancipation could not occur for a long time. But unlike those critics they were sure it would never come unless it were agitated for during the long period in which it was impracticable. ...
To have dropped the demand for immediate emancipation because it was unrealizable at the time would have been to alter the nature of the change for which the abolitionists were agitating. That is, even those who would have gladly accepted gradual and conditional emancipation had to agitate for immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery because that demand was required by their goal of demonstrating to white Americans that Negroes were their brothers. Once the nation had been converted on that point, conditions and plans might have been made. ...
Their refusal to water down their “visionary” slogan was, in their eyes, eminently practical, much more so than the course of the antislavery senators and congressmen who often wrote letters to abolitionist leaders justifying their adaptation of antislavery demands to what was attainable. ...
This position then has the added benefit of — as small gradual victories are achieved — constantly pressuring the "moderates" and pushing their "middle" ever more in the desired direction. Rothbard continues:
From a strictly strategic point of view, it is also true that if the adherents of the “pure” goal do not state that goal and hold it aloft, no one will do so, and the goal therefore will never be attained. Furthermore, since most people and most politicians will hold to the “middle” of whatever “road” may be offered them, the “extremist,” by constantly raising the ante, and by holding the pure or “extreme” goal aloft, will move the extremes further over, and will therefore pull the “middle” further over in his extreme direction. Hence, raising the ante by pulling the middle further in his direction will, in the ordinary pulling and hauling of the political process, accomplish more for that goal, even in the day-by-day short run, than any opportunistic surrender of the ultimate principle.
It is important to accept partial victories, however, without sending the message that a partial victory is sufficient:
In our view, the proper solution to this problem is a “centrist” or “movement-building” solution: namely, that it is legitimate and proper to advocate transition demands as way stations along the road to victory, provided that the ultimate goal of victory is always kept in mind and held aloft. In this way, the ultimate goal is clear and not lost sight of, and the pressure is kept on so that transitional or partial victories will feed on themselves rather than appease or weaken the ultimate drive of the movement.
Thus, suppose that the libertarian movement adopts, as a transitional demand, an across-the-board 50 percent cut in taxation. This must be done in such a way as not to imply that a 51 percent cut would somehow be immoral or improper. In that way, the 50 percent cut would simply be an initial demand rather than an ultimate goal in itself, which would only undercut the libertarian goal of total abolition of taxation.
Note also that the abolitionists recognized the importance of "demonstrating" the rightness of their position, and in that the public needed to be "converted." Unlike modern conservatives and a great many libertarians, the abolitionists did not assume that those who disagreed with them would always disagree with them. It is not uncommon to hear, however, the assumption among many conservatives and libertarians that trying to explain to people the rightness of the pro-freedom position is a lost cause. For people who think like this, the only hope is to preserve the status quo for as long as possible — although this is obviously a losing battle. The mere thought of expanding the popularity and prominence of their position is assumed to be outlandish. Needless to say, an ideological group that thinks like this will always be a group of losers.
Unfortunately, many on the side of freedom and free markets have completely lost sight of the value of the abolitionist way of doing things. This leads to any number of self-defeating views. Some maintain that one must remain totally agnostic about all policy changes unless that change brings about total and immediate victory in all respects. Thus we hear about some libertarians who refuse to support any tax cut, so long as the tax cut is not a 100% tax cut. Another unfortunate result might be quietism in which some assert it's pointless to say anything at all because short term victory appears unlikely — so better to just give up now. Still others won't bother with any sort of activistm if victory will require more than a few months of effort.
Note, of course, that the modern left doesn't think this way.
Consider the matter of health care, for example. For years, leftists advocated for ever-greater government intervention in healthcare. Indeed, Obamacare had originally been put forward in the form of Hillarycare back in the early 1990s. This itself came after many years of activism in favor of government-controlled healthcare.
Hillarycare was defeated, but the left continued to agitate endlessly for "universal healthcare" of one type or another. Nor did this effort even stop when Obamacare was adopted. For many on the left, Obamacare wasn't universal enough. So, five minutes after Obamacare was signed into law, the next step for the left was devised: "Obamacare is a step in the right direction," they said, "but the next step is now single-payer healthcare!"
Advocates for ever-greater government control of the healthcare system didn't even skip a beat. Immediately after achieving a partial victory, the drive toward the next goal continued unabated.
It's not hard to see why the left is regarded my many of optimistic and visionary while the right as seen as adrift and lacking any discernable goals whatsoever. Meanwhile, many conservatives and libertarians search constantly for a reason to give up and quit — and to encourage others to do the same.
One of the most obnoxious stories in America the past year has been the controversy over players protesting during the national anthem. While I personally sympathize with both concerns from athletes about police brutality in minority communities, as well as the desire of most football fans to simply not have any sort of political advocacy mixed into their sports, the resulting media coverage - from both political and sports outlets - has been largely nauseating. While the NFL offseason obviously brought discussion of the topic down to a simmer (with the exception being the occasional update on Colin Kaepernick - and now Eric Reid's - lawsuit against the league), the NFL's decision this week to change its anthem-policy has it once again at a raging boil.
Unfortunately most of these articles try to make this issue more complicated than it really is: it's all about money.
While it's natural to try to fit this story into some of the larger culture wars going on in the country, this is really just a simple business calculation. At the end of the day the NFL is not in the business of promoting patriotism, or providing a venue for social causes, or even really about the athletes who play in the league. It's all about getting the attention of fans, and the NFL clearly thinks most of them don't want protests during the national anthem. This also means that one key point has been ignored in this whole debate, it isn't only in the interests of league owners to not offend fans - it's in obvious long-term interest of players too.
After all, if the same athletes were making the same plays in front of the same sized audience that watches the NHL, the value of each individual player would be significantly less than it is today. Being a great athlete is not an inherently profitable skill, there are plenty of athletic marvels who can't make a million dollars a year taking advantage of their specific abilities. It's the mass appeal of specific sports that allows individuals like LeBron James, Bryce Harper, and Antonio Brown become very wealthy individuals. In the case of the NFL, polling showed that over 60% of fans watched fewer NFL games due to the player protests. If declining NFL ratings remain a constant, and it impacts revenue, then players in 2028 may be worse off than players in 2018.
As I explained last year when I defended the obvious league-wide blacklisting of Kaepernick, whether or not his cause was righteous or intentional disrespectful means little when the consumers of his product decide they don't like it. As Ludwig von Mises frequently noted in his works, consumers are empowered by the market economy to guide the decisions of businesses based on their willingness to consumer their product or a competitors. As he wrote in Bureaucracy:
The capitalists, the enterprisers, and the farmers are instrumental in the conduct of economic affairs. They are at the helm and steer the ship. But they are not free to shape its course. They are not supreme, they are steersmen only, bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer.
While this understanding of the NFL's decision should be pretty common sense, pundits who are offended by the fact so many NFL fans were offended by the protests have tried to take the NFL's decision to absurd ends.
For example, I recently read Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk ask whether the NFL's new respect for the national anthem would lead the league to crack down on Kansas City Chiefs fan who traditionally substitute "CHIEFS!" for "brave" at the song's conclusion. Florio may think he is being clever, but the answer is obviously not, because Chiefs fans clearly don't see that behavior as disrespectful. People can judge that to be hypocritical, but at the end of the day the masses that consume Chief tickets don't care. So long as consumer values are inconsistent and conflicting, so will certain business policies.
It's also worth noting that it's possible the NFL's judgment in this matter may end up being wrong. After all, the league was able to ink a new Thursday night package with Fox this offseason that was worth $15 million more a game than previous deals with NBC and CBS, in spite of declining ratings. Last year's troubles also didn't stop Pizza Hut from being willing pay big to take over the spot of "Official Pizza of the NFL" from Papa John's. Businesses make mistakes all the time, and perhaps the NFL's new rules will end up alienating a different block of fans, without regaining those who agreed with Donald Trump. Only time will tell.
What we can be certain though is that discussing this decision isn't about anything more than the NFL looking out for its bottom line. At the end of the day, the players should be as interested in that as the owners.
In a talk at the Second Amendment Town Hall in Batavia, New York, James Ostrowski discusses how the long-used efforts to preserve gun rights are doomed to failure. Shouting "the second amendment is enough for me!" is a failed tactic:
We are losing the fight for the Second Amendment. We are losing it in the courts. We are losing it in the legislatures. We are losing it in the media, in the schools and with young people. The approach we have been using to protect the Second Amendment for many years has failed, is failing and will continue to fail. That approach has basically focused on lobbying, elections, voting and using the litigation process without any serious attempt to change the philosophical or ideological bent of the country or to change the ideological trajectory of the country to the left which in the last five years has been accelerating, and without any attempt to change the basic progressive mindset which has dominated American politics for many decades. The tactics we have used are archaic, dated, spent, don’t work and there has been no attempt to use bold new innovative tactics and unless that changes, we are going to lose this fight.
We are close to losing a right that has been recognized in the West for many, many centuries. It’s an ancient right that great minds had to first do the philosophical work to identify, then define, then do the hard political work to have this right recognized by governments and by government law. We are on the verge of losing this ancient right in these times and perhaps very soon because of our own failure to properly defend it with good arguments and good strategy and tactics and the efficient execution of those strategies and tactics.
In every field, there are many unexplored or partially explored issues that may turn out to be important. But, in all likelihood, they are dead ends.
I compare this pursuit to an inventor who has an idea that a particular line of inquiry will lead to a major discovery. He may be correct, but he probably is incorrect. Most inventors are part-time inventors. They don't do it for a living. They may do it for the sheer joy of the pursuit. They may hope to make a lot of money. They may hope to change people's lives. There are many motivations. But the reality is this: most people who begin the pursuit of some great breakthrough fail. We read about the ones who did not fail, but there are plenty of stories of people who made the breakthrough, and who never made any money off of it. The man who got to the patent office two hours after Alexander Graham Bell did is long forgotten. He did not make any money.
I think it is generally futile to become a full-time historian. There are too few jobs. You have to spend your life teaching not very bright students. They take the course probably because you have a reputation of giving easy grades. I was recently told this about Ralph Raico, who was an extraordinary historian, but who, unfortunately (for me, anyway), wrote very little. He described his career as follows: "I would begin teaching a group of students who could not find Portugal on a map. At the end of my course, they had never heard of Portugal."
I encourage people to become part-time historians. There are tens of thousands of Americans who are part-time historians of the Civil War. They are remarkably well-informed. Unfortunately, they rarely write. But, with free website software, there is now no legitimate reason why they should not publish book reviews, reviews of articles, and specialize in some area of the Civil War. This is equally true of regional or local historical investigations. There is lots of work to be done.
In the field of historical studies, part-time explorers and translators of petroglyphs often find very useful items. These items point to the fact that conventional historiography of pre-Columbus America is incorrect. But these studies virtually never get accepted by academic historians. What they find is never reported in any textbook. One such organization is the Epigraphic Society. It publishes a regular journal. The journal is never quoted in academic circles. These people have been doing this for decades.
Are these amateur explorers wasting their lives? I don't think so. They are making legitimate discoveries. But as far as influencing the academic guild, their efforts really are wasted. They have to decide whether it is worth it to them personally to make a unique discovery, even though the discovery will never be incorporated into the narrative of pre-Columbus America.
Yes, there's always the possibility that there will be a breakthrough that somehow does get picked up by academic historians, but the odds against this are astronomical.
I would tell somebody who is interested in petroglyphs that it's a good hobby, but it is only a hobby. To have any hope beyond this is psychologically self-defeating. The person is going to be disappointed, and this may lead to the person abandoning his hobby. But his hobby is good for him, and it is good for a handful of people who want to make sense of pre-Columbus America.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. It's a lesson I produced for the Ron Paul Curriculum.
Then there are the conspiracy historians. Here, there are real psychological pitfalls. Conspiracy historians really do think that there's a possibility that they will be able to penetrate the thinking of the masses of Americans. They think they're going to do an end-run around the academic guild. They also imagine that the masses of Americans are interested in history, which except for Civil War history and perhaps some other military histories, is a delusion. There is always room for another book on Lincoln, as long as the book is not critical of Lincoln. Of the thousands of books on Lincoln, only a handful are critical, and their arguments rarely make it into the textbooks. When an idea does make it into a textbook, such as Lincoln's obvious infringements on due process of law regarding the publication of antiwar opinions, the historians shrug it off or apologize for it.
The same is true for Woodrow Wilson in his efforts to get the nation into World War I, and Franklin Roosevelt's similar machinations to get the nation into World War II. Initially, all such arguments regarding Roosevelt were dismissed as being Republican crackpot theories. Then, in the 1970's, a handful of historians began to conclude that the original critics of Roosevelt were correct. But then the authors said that Roosevelt was justified. The obvious example here is Robert Stinnett, who has written the most effective book on Pearl Harbor, Day of Deceit (2000), who apologizes for Roosevelt's deliberate deceptions at the beginning of the book. On the first page of the Preface, he speaks sympathetically. "I understood the agonizing dilemma faced by President Roosevelt. He was forced to find circuitous means to persuade an isolationist America to join in the fight for freedom. He knew this would cost lives. How many, he could not have known." This apology did Stinnett no good in academia. The academic guild dismissed his book as one more apology for isolationism, circa 1941. The book gained no traction. Its thesis is presented in no college or high school textbook on American history.
Then there are the part-time conspiracy historians. These people will read one or two books on conspiratorial movements in American history. They may read a few books on conspiracies in Europe, beginning with the French Revolution. Such conspiracies existed. The great book on this is James Billington's magnificent Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith. You cannot understand European history of the 19th century if you are not familiar with the book, and more than familiar: you have read it two or three times, and you remember many of the details. The book is literally indispensable. It was published in 1981. That was the last we heard from Billington. He took Reagan's offer to appoint him the Librarian of Congress in 1987, and he kept the job for the next 28 years. He never wrote another book. He got sidetracked. We are worse off for it.
Venezuela continues to be one of the great humanitarian crises of our times. Every day brings new horrific headlines of starvation, violence, and chaos. Not only should this tragedy serve as a reminder of the true evils of socialism, but is vivid illustration of what hyperinflation looks like in the modern world.
While the Venezuelan government has tried it hands with modern gimmicks - like the largest cryptocurrency scam since Prodeum - the citizens continue to struggle with the realities of a currency so worthless that thieves don’t even bother picking it up off the floor.
The question now is simply how long this horror story continues.
Elections in the country are set for May, but of course no one expects politics to offer much hope for the Venezuelan people. What’s interesting here is that it provides another fascinating example of how dangerous the United Nations truly is.
Stalin is credited to have said, “It's not the people who vote that count, it's the people who count the votes.” Understandably his ideological heir, Nicolás Maduro, feels pretty good about his re-election chances in Venezuela. His opponents have no delusions to think elections will be handled fairly, and are calling boycotting elections.
In enters the UN, who is considering sending in observers to ensure the integrity of the election process. Of course this is precisely what the Maduro government desires. After all the Venezuela people, beaten and starved, are unlikely to take the presence of a few foreign bureaucrats as the protection they need to stand up to their oppressive leaders. The UN’s presence will only serve to prop up Maduro, at least until complete economic collapses leads to military intervention – which some analysts think could be in the next 12 months.
Still, the fact that the UN would ever consider serving the desires of Venezuela’s socialist government is simply another reminder that the UN is worse than useless.
Of course, at the end of the day, any inevitable change in leadership in the country will not solve the plight of the country without a revolution in ideology. As Jose Nino has noted in several great articles for us, socialist ideology was a Venezuelan problem before Hugo Chavez, and risks outliving the rein of Maduro.
Following the Parkland school shooting we're again hearing about the "epidemic" of "gun violence" and how to stop it. I wrote a piece in 2016 about how this is exactly the wrong metaphor for school shootings or any other kind of violent action. I dislike the term "gun violence" because it depersonalizes a shooting. If person A robs person B, we don't say that B "succumbed to the theft epidemic," like catching the flu. Rather, we focus on the perpetrator A and the causal effect of A's action on B's person or property.
In general, epidemiological models of crime, terrorism, or other social problems are misleading because they treat the acts in question as things that just "happen" to some people, rather than being the conscious, deliberate, and often systematic acts of particular perpetrators against particular victims.
In a follow-up piece I pointed to Edith Penrose's trenchant critique of the use of biological analogies in social science. She wrote: “The chief danger of carrying sweeping analogies very far is that the problems they are designed to illuminate become framed in such a special way that significant matters are frequently inadvertently obscured. Biological analogies contribute little either to the theory of price or to the theory of growth and development of firms and in general tend to confuse the nature of the important issues.” More generally, if we want to understand school shootings, or terrorism, or other forms of harmful human action, we need to treat them like actions, not diseases whose "growth" we need to stop.