Power & Market

Eric Mack on Libertarianism

04/22/2019David Gordon

Libertarianism. By Eric Mack. Polity Press, 2018.  Vi + 167 pages. + online bonus chapter http://politybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Mack-Libertarian-FINAL-Online-Chapter-pdf.pdf

Eric Mack, for many years a philosophy professor at Tulane University, has a well-deserved reputation as a critic of philosophical arguments, and that talent is on abundant display in Libertarianism. In what follows, I shall comment on only a very few of Mack’s penetrating discussions.

The book is intended as an introductory guide to libertarianism, which Mack characterizes as “advocacy of individual liberty as the fundamental political norm. An individual’s liberty is understood as that individual not being subject to interference by other agents in her doing as she deems fit with her own person and legitimate holdings.” (p.1) The position may be defended with varying degrees of strictness, ranging from hardcore libertarians, who confine coercion to the protection of individual liberty, to soft-core libertarians, who allow coercion for a few additional reasons, such as aid when people are in “dire straits.” As the extent of permissible coercion grows, libertarianism shades into classical liberalism.

What is the justification for libertarianism? Mack distinguishes three principal answers, though noting that libertarianism can be defended in other ways as well. “There is the natural rights theme, according to which certain deep truths about human beings and their prospective interaction allow us to infer that each person has certain basic (‘natural’) moral rights that must be respected by all other persons, groups, and institutions.” (p.40)

Here I wonder whether one should make a distinction. Sometimes people use the term “natural rights” to mean basic rights, but sometimes people have in mind a narrower usage. In this understanding, it follows from human nature that human beings have certain rights. For example, in the Objectivist philosophy, because you need freedom in order to survive as a rational being, you have a right to freedom. There is no “is-ought” gap.  Philosophers like Nozick, who accept the is-ought gap, would in this usage count as supporters of basic rights but not of natural rights.

The second justification for libertarianism “is the cooperation to mutual advantage theme, according to which general compliance with certain principles of justice engenders a cooperative social and economic order that is advantageous to all its members.”(pp.4-5) These two justifications vie in popularity among libertarians, but there is a third justification as well, though this has been less influential. “A third possible approach. . .is a form of utilitarianism that maintains that the greatest happiness must be pursued indirectly through steadfast compliance with certain constraining moral norms—as it turns out, pretty much the same constraining norms that are celebrated by the natural rights and mutual advantage approaches.” (p.5)

Mack takes Locke to be an example of the first approach, Hume of the second, and John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer of the third. Among twentieth-century figures, he concentrates on Robert Nozick as a representative of the natural rights approach and Friedrich Hayek as a representative of the mutual advantage approach. Mack devotes most of the book to a close analysis of these two great thinkers. He mentions Murray Rothbard, who exerted a profound influence on Nozick, several times, but I wish he had devoted more space to him. Mack in the bonus online chapter subjects to critical scrutiny a number of contemporary libertarians: Hillel Steiner, Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, Loren Lomasky, and David Schmidtz.

In what follows, I shall comment on only a few points. These concern Robert Nozick though some of the issues are relevant to others as well. This makes for an idiosyncratic review, but Nozick’s thought has fascinated me since I first encountered it some forty-five years ago, and that is why I have chosen this path.  Despite the narrow scope of my review, I hope that readers will gain some idea of Mack’s concerns and his style of argument.

Mack gives an excellent account of the argument, given by both John Rawls and Nozick, that utilitarianism does not take seriously the separateness of persons. The greatest happiness principle may require that you sacrifice yourself for the benefit of society. But, so the objection goes, this wrongly assimilates an individual’s sacrifice of part of himself for his overall good to the sacrifice of a person for the good of society. You may need to have your leg amputated to save your life, but there is no social entity having persons as its parts.

Mack considers a utilitarian response to the point raised by Rawls and Nozick, which does not rely “on the conflation of persons into a social entity.” (p.45) This response is that “what makes it rational for an individual to incur a lesser cost within her own life in order to attain a greater benefit within her own life is simply that the benefit is greater than the cost. The fact that the cost and the benefits are hers---that they both occur with her life---plays no role in making rational the production of the greater benefit at the lesser cost. Therefore, no contentious inference is needed to get from the so-called principle of individual choice to the principle of social choice.” (p.45, emphasis in original)

Mack responds on behalf of Rawls and Nozick to this rejoinder. They might reply that the rationality of prudential sacrifices within the life of one individual is “far less contentious” than the utilitarian’s balancing of costs and benefits across lives. (p.46) Can one show that utilitarian balancing is rational, without assuming the existence of a social entity with persons as parts? It seems doubtful that one can.

Mack’s response is excellent, but another answer is also worth considering. James Buchanan maintains that if one takes adequate account of the subjectivity of costs and benefits, a cost or benefit exists only relative to a single person. Your cost or benefit may be a cost or benefit to me, but only if I view it as one. I do not say that this view is correct, but it is at least worth considering. (Amartya Sen, like Buchanan a Nobel laureate in economics, thought there was a great deal to be said in favor of Buchanan’s view) If it is correct, benefits and costs cannot be added up across persons.

After a careful discussion of Nozick’s condemnation of using others as means, Mack says, “Nozick is concerned that his unqualified condemnation of using others as means will support anti-libertarian prohibitions, , for example, taking pleasure in another person’s appearance or trading with another person to one’s advantage. He then rules out such implications by declaring that, for the purposes of political philosophy, we need only be concerned ‘with certain ways that persons may not use others: primarily, physically aggressing against them. [quoting Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia]However, this restriction is ad hoc because no reason is given for why political philosophy should only be concerned with this subset of usings.” (p.49, emphasis in original)

I do not think this objection altogether fair to Nozick, though it would be no doubt desirable to show how this view of political philosophy can be deduced from moral theory, as Nozick acknowledges. Confining political philosophy to the topic of when force is permissible (or obligatory) is not idiosyncratic to Nozick but a commonly used approach, especially among libertarians. He might respond to Mack, applying a strategy he often used on critics, ---much to their frustration, I might add---- that the problem of why political philosophy is thus confined is no more a problem for him than for anyone else. As such, it should not be taken as a decisive criticism of him.

Mack makes an excellent criticism of Nozick’s argument that if one starts with a network of competing protective agencies, as free market anarchists like Rothbard wish, “one of the protective agencies or the cooperative network as a whole seems to attain a natural ( non-coerced) monopoly in the provision of protective services.” (p.117), Nozick contends that if an agency or group of agencies attracts more clients than its rival agencies, there will be a cascade of new clients to it, because people will find it less costly to settle disputes if they are in the same agency. This will enable the largest agency to become a de facto monopoly. Mack is skeptical: “The fact that it may be less complicated and costly to resolve automobile collision claims when both parties are customers of the same insurance company has not led to one company having a virtual monopoly within the automobile insurance business. In addition, Nozick’s argument seems to overestimate the homogeneity of the services that competing protective agencies would offer.” (p.117)

There is an additional point here that seems worth making. Suppose that the process Nozick describes results in everyone’s joining the same agency. In that case, we would not have a state as Nozick characterizes it, because one of his requirements for a state is that it offers free or low-cost protective services to disadvantaged independents who are not its clients.  Thus, Nozick requires for his argument to the minimal state to succeed that the very process by which the derivation starts will come to an end before it completes itself, but he offers no reason for this.

Mack raises against Nozick the specter of public goods. “For our purposes here, we can think of a public good as a good which, if it is produced and enjoyed by some members of a given public, cannot readily be withheld from other members of that public. . .The standard and useful example of a public good is national-scale defense. . . The conventional economic wisdom. . .is that the total value of the orders that the state or firm [ that offers defense services]will receive will be markedly less than it naively expects.”(p.122) People will prefer to free ride, hoping that others will pay for the good; but if everyone reasons this way, the good will not be purchased.

Mack is certainly right that if anarchist protective agencies or a Nozickian minimal state, lacking the power of taxation, proved unable to supply effective defense, that would be a serious objection indeed. But I think his argument has moved too fast. According to the customary neoclassical analysis, public goods will not be supplied efficiently. It does not follow from that, though, that the good will not be supplied at all, or in a quantity insufficient to “do the job.” The extent of the supply is an empirical matter. It is not a requirement for a theory of libertarian rights that it never requires efficiency losses, as neoclassical theory defines these.[1] (The same difficulty also applies to Mack’s argument for a “dire straits fund” on pp.39-40 of the online bonus chapter.)

Suppose, though, that the free market turns out to be unable to supply defense. Would Mack then be correct when he says that a taxation minimal state may be justifiable on Nozickian grounds? He says, “Persons’ rights indicate what must not be done to them---or more specifically, what must not be done to them without their consent. But what about cases in which consent is not feasible?. . .A person’s right over her own body entails that she has a right not to be cut open without her consent even by an expert surgeon seeking to save her life. However, what if the person who needs that surgery to save her life is already unconscious and, hence, unable to give consent? If it is permissible for the surgeon to proceed with the needed surgery on the already unconscious individual, this seems to be true  because the requirement that the subject consent to the physical intervention is really a requirement that she consent if and only if consent is feasible.” (pp.123-124)

If this is right, then, “the libertarian advocate of the TMS may argue that, precisely because of the non-feasibility of attaining consent from individuals to make payments in exchange for the public good of rights-protection, it is permissible to impose those payments without actual consent.” (p.124, emphasis in original)

I do not think this argument succeeds. In the first case, it is permissible to proceed with the life-saving operation because there is reason to believe that is what the patient would want. Most people would. Had she given instructions beforehand not to operate, then the operation would not be permissible. In the taxation case, the reason consent is not feasible is that people refuse to consent. It is hardly plausible to say that I may force you to pay me for my services, because, owing to your refusal of my services, getting your consent is not feasible.

Mack himself raises an important problem for the argument for the taxation minimal state. ”Recall. . . . .that this defense of the TMS turns on a striking assumption about information. It assumes that the state’s tax assessors would know, for each assessed party, what magnitude of taxation would leave that party net better off in light of the value for that party of her receipt of the tax-funded public good of protective services.” (p.124)

In Libertarianism, Mack does not, for the most part, discuss his own views but confines himself to the exposition and criticism of others. An exception is his brilliant presentation of Mises’s calculation argument against socialism (pp.58 ff.), one of the best known to me, where it is clear that he endorses the argument. Readers should be aware though, that Mack has written a large number of papers setting forward his own views in great depth and detail. Readers of Mack’s work will encounter a very fine philosophical intelligence. Few can approach his power of critical analysis. Libertarianism is must reading for anyone interested in libertarian theory.


[1] For challenges to the neoclassical analysis of public goods, see Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter 23, pp.650 ff; and Anthony de Jasay, Social Contract, Free Ride. See also the discussion in David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Europe's Latest Attack on Free Speech

03/11/2019Ryan McMaken

p> A European court has ruled that people can be fined and prosecuted in criminal court for saying things about religious figures. Specifically, saying things about the Muslim prophet Mohammad is verboten, and state punishment is appropriate:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled a woman convicted by an Austrian court of calling the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile did not have her freedom of speech rights infringed.

The woman, named only as Mrs. S, 47, from Vienna, was said to have held two seminars in which she discussed the marriage between the Prophet Mohammad and a six-year old girl, Aisha....Mrs S. was later convicted in February 2011 by the Vienna Regional Criminal Court for disparaging religious doctrines and ordered her to pay a fine of 480 euros plus legal fees.

The court's primary reasoning, it appears, is that the woman's comments ought to condemned because they might "stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace..." Notably, however, Mrs. S is not accused of saying anything that encourages violence either generally or in any specific way.

In other words, human rights go right out the window if the exercise of those rights might cause other people to feel bad.

This sort of thing is shocking to Americans, of course, but it's old hat by now in Europe (and Canada) where one can face large fines , and even imprisonment for saying unpopular things.

Moreover, it reflects a larger disdain for private property that is so widespread in Europe. Consider, that the comments made by the woman in question were apparently made at "two seminars." Presumably, no one who didn't wish to listen to the ideas of Mrs. S was forced to do so. And there is no claim that Mrs.S trespassed on anyone's property to express these ideas.

As noted by Murray Rothbard, the right to free speech is not a special right, but is intimately connected to property rights. If Mrs. S was expressing her ideas in a place and in a way that did not violate anyone else's property rights, then she was acting peacefully and in a way that respects the rights of others.

In other words, it appears that there was no coercion or violence of any sort involved in Mrs S's expression of her ideas.

The Court, however, has decided that the proper response to her peaceful activities is to use violence — by imposing fines.

Moreover, the court appears to be unconcerned as to whether the facts relayed by Mrs S, relating to Mohammad's marriage to a young girl, are accurate or not. This would appear to be important, but presuming that Mrs S comments about Muhammad's child bride are accurate — which they appear to be — the court is basically taking the position that stating well-known historical facts constitutes some sort of hate speech.

The larger goal, it appears is to pander to certain interest groups at the expense of basic freedoms. One is left wondering, however, if the Court would react with equal enthusiasm to equally disparaging remarks about Christianity or Christians.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Economic Total Warfare: How Many Iranians Will Die from New Trump Sanctions?

11/02/2018Tho Bishop

The Trump Administration is preparing to restore sanctions on Iran that his predecessor lifted as part of a nuclear disarmament agreement. This week John Bolton also indicated that they were considering new sanctions on Nicaragua during a speech that lumped the Central American country with Cuba and Venezuela as the “troika of tyranny” — a new tropical-flavored version of the Axis of Evil.

The moves come the same week as Secretaries James Mattis and Mike Pompeo called for Saudi Arabia to end its military action in Yemen. This follows growing pressure from a bipartisan coalition of senators calling for reexamining America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. While much of this is a direct byproduct of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, many in Washington seem to have finally awakened to the horrors of famine and other human rights abuses in Yemen, a direct byproduct of Saudi Arabia’s actions.

Unfortunately America’s escalation of sanctions to other countries once again highlights the superficial nature of Washington’s lip service to human rights. It’s fitting that Trump boasted about escalating economic sanction with Iran with a Game of Thrones-inspired tweet, the devastation these policies will bring to Iranians brings to mind the callousness of Cersei Lannister.

We know this because this is precisely what happened in the past.

While any government will defend the use of sanctions as an attack on some rouge nation, the reality is that the much of the pain is inflicted directly on the people themselves. Removing Iran from the international financial system devastated Iranian merchants, resulting in scarcity for vital necessities. In particular, sanctions have a significant impact on the availability of even basic medicine. As an Iranian doctor explain to The Guardian:

It’s no more only about shortages in drugs for cancer or special diseases such as haemophilia or thalassemia, but also normal drugs that were abundant in Iran previously. A normal drug like Warfarin, which stops blood clotting, is becoming difficult to find, which means patients’ lives are at risk if we as doctors can’t get these medicines. Another example is Amlodipine, which is for treatment of blood pressure. Amlodipine is produced internally but companies have problems with importing its ingredients due to banking restrictions or other sanctions.

The actions of the Trump Administration will assuredly lead to the deaths of innocent Iranians who have no connection to the regime.

Unfortunately this willingness to punish civilians for the actions of their government is an economic extension of the total war views of the 20th century. Mises wrote about this escalation of warfare in Omnipotent Government:

Modern war is not a war of royal armies. It is a war of the peoples, a total war. It is a war of states which do not leave to their subjects any private sphere; they consider the whole population a part of the armed forces.

Even worse, the Iranians that suffer most from these actions are the very same ones who are the most opposed to their regime. This isn’t simply economic collateral damage, it’s economic friendly fire.

There is one development that may offer some degree of assistance to the Iranian people during this round of sanctions: international pushback to the dominance of the dollar.

As the Trump Administration has doubled down of the same failed policies of the past, we’re seeing an economic version of blowback emerge as well. With the other members of the Obama Iran Deal opposing the Trump Administration re-enacting tariffs, Europe, China, Russia, and others have been working up parallel financial channels to work around the US sanctions. Gold has also become a popular means of avoiding the dollar, with the Trump administration taking new measures to target Venezuela’s gold trade. 

At its best, money is a foundation of civilization and human flourishing, allowing for the division of labor and the benefits of trade. The more the US turns this tool of peace into a weapon of war, the more other countries will look to protect themselves from it. Just as competing currencies is the best way to protect Americans from the hubris of the Fed, it’s the best way to shield the globe from malice of Washington.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Europe's War on Free Speech Continues

10/26/2018Ryan McMaken

A European court has ruled that people can be fined and prosecuted in criminal court for saying things about religious figures. Specifically, saying things about the Muslim prophet Mohammad is verboten, and state punishment is appropriate:

The European Court of Human Rights has ruled a woman convicted by an Austrian court of calling the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile did not have her freedom of speech rights infringed.

The woman, named only as Mrs. S, 47, from Vienna, was said to have held two seminars in which she discussed the marriage between the Prophet Mohammad and a six-year old girl, Aisha....Mrs S. was later convicted in February 2011 by the Vienna Regional Criminal Court for disparaging religious doctrines and ordered her to pay a fine of 480 euros plus legal fees.

The court's primary reasoning, it appears, is that the woman's comments ought to condemned because they might "stir up prejudice and threaten religious peace..." Notably, however, Mrs. S is not accused of saying anything that encourages violence either generally or in any specific way.

In other words, human rights go right out the window if the exercise of those rights might cause other people to feel bad.

This sort of thing is shocking to Americans, of course, but it's old hat by now in Europe (and Canada) where one can face large fines , and even imprisonment for saying unpopular things.

Just some examples include:

  • A candidate in the European elections was arrested in Britain for quoting a passage from Winston Churchill about Islam.
  • Gert Wilders, a politician in the Netherlands, was tried on five counts including “criminally insulting Muslims because of their religion.”
  • Both Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant were dragged in front of the Canadian Human Rights Commission on charges of being “Islamophobic.”

Moreover, it reflects a larger disdain for private property that is so widespread in Europe. Consider, that the comments made by the woman in question were apparently made at "two seminars." Presumably, no one who didn't wish to listen to the ideas of Mrs. S was forced to do so. And there is no claim that Mrs.S trespassed on anyone's property to express these ideas.

As noted by Murray Rothbard, the right to free speech is not a special right, but is intimately connected to property rights. If Mrs. S was expressing her ideas in a place and in a way that did not violate anyone else's property rights, then she was acting peacefully and in a way that respects the rights of others.

In other words, it appears that there was no coercion or violence of any sort involved in Mrs S's expression of her ideas.

The Court, however, has decided that the proper response to her peaceful activities is to use violence — by imposing fines.

Moreover, the court appears to be unconcerned as to whether the facts relayed by Mrs S, relating to Mohammad's marriage to a young girl, are accurate or not. This would appear to be important to most reasonable people, but presuming that Mrs S comments about Muhammad's child bride are accurate — which they appear to be — the court is basically taking the position that stating well-known historical facts constitutes some sort of hate speech.

The larger goal, it appears is to pander to certain interest groups at the expense of basic freedoms. One is left wondering, however, if the Court would react with equal enthusiasm to equally disparaging remarks about Christianity or Christians.

State-directed punishments of this sort, of course, ought not be confused with non-governmental efforts at silencing critics. While Americans certainly are fond of launching campaigns to get people fired or ostracized when they say unpopular things, these actions are nonetheless qualitatively different from being hauled into civil or criminal court by government officials, and then threatening the accused with thousands of dollars in fines, or even a jail term.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Elizabeth Warren's Other Cherokee Scandal: Her Fight Against Tribal Sovereignty

10/18/2018Tho Bishop

Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential aspirations may have ended before they began this week thanks to her team’s bizarre decision to proudly broadcast the results of a DNA test that shows she may have had a relative 10 generations removed that was of indigenous American heritage. As Senator Warren was once promoted as “Harvard Law School's...first woman of color,” the results seem to only confirm that she misrepresented her ancestry in her past career as a law professor.

Not only has the decision been met with a blistering condemnation from the Cherokee Nation, but it has once again made her the butt of President Trump’s jokes.

Lost in the laughing at Warren’s expense however, is a larger issue exists over how American politicians continue to treat tribal sovereignty.

After all, if Warren had used her position as senator to serve as an advocate for the Cherokee Nation’s right to self-determination, her history of misrepresenting her genetic connection to the tribe would perhaps be more excusable. Say what you will about Rachel Dolezal, she at least cared enough to be an advocate for the African American community. Instead, Warren’s political record is one that has regularly promoted the continued imperial rule of Washington on land that is tribal in name only.

Though never officially serving as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren has been widely credited as being the guiding force behind the creation of the agency. The CFPB was created as part of the Obama Administration’s response to the financial crisis, a powerful financial regulator that lacks the traditional checks of other executive agencies. Under the lead of former director Richard Cordray, the CFPB went to work becoming a heavy handed regulator in its fight against "unfair, deceptive and abusive” practices.

Soon, various tribal financial services businesses found themselves in the cross hairs of the enthusiastic CFPB. The result is that the agency has been described by Dr. Gavin Clarkson, a tribal finance expert, as “the most hostile federal agency towards Indian tribes since Indian Affairs was in the War Department.”

One example is a variety of short-term lending operations that various tribes started up to try to capitalize on the growth of e-commerce. In theory, tribal sovereignty should have given these ventures a competitive advantage over other US lenders who had to deal with the Washington red tape. Unfortunately Obama’s Justice Department decided these operations represented a “national security risk” and worked with the CFPB to shut them down as part of Operation Choke Point – in spite of pleas from tribal advocates that doing so would be economically devastating.

While it would be unfair to blame Elizabeth Warren for any and all actions taken by the CFPB and DOJ, she served as a primary defender of Operation Choke Point when legislative pressure mounted to end it.

Similarly, she has been the chief voice in the Senate attacking the pay day lending industry, which became a point of particular emphasis under the Cordray CFPB. This has put the Warren-Cordray camp into ongoing legal conflict with various tribes over whether federal financial regulation should apply to tribal land, leading the CFPB to sue various tribal lenders.

While the Supreme Court refused to take up the case, which could have provided a legal precedent in favor of tribal sovereignty, the suit was eventually dropped earlier this year after Mick Mulvaney took over as the CFPB’s acting head. Warren wrote a letter to Mulvaney criticizing the decision.

Warren’s indifference to the cause of tribal sovereignty appeared again this year with a vote on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act.  

The issue here was whether tribal-owned businesses should be forced to follow federal labor laws on collective bargaining. The issue has been a major one for a number of American tribes, upset that tribal governments are subjected to labor laws that state and federal governments are exempt from.

As Jefferson Keel, the President of the National Congress of American Indians, wrote in The Hill:

Sovereignty means tribes should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own workforce policies. The truth is that many tribal nations openly welcome labor unions into the businesses that they own; others choose not to. And a growing number have designed and enforce their own labor regulations. But the NLRB ignores all of this and, instead, forces tribal governments to adhere to the NLRA. Just us. No one else. This is a plain violation of our inherent rights as sovereign nations and governments.

Unfortunately Senator Warren’s loyalty lay with labor unions over tribal sovereignty, and she joined with 41 other Senators to successfully kill a vote on the bill.

While Warren has made it easy to laugh at about “fauxocahontas” and 1/1024th memes, her political contempt for tribal self-sovereignty is what should make her false claims to Cherokee heritage truly insulting.

Elizabeth Warren and her fellow progressives believe Native Americans are better off following her rules, rather than granting tribes the political self-determination to make such decisions for themselves. It’s a form of ideological imperialism, driven by their own belief in their moral superiority and the belief on “the right side of history.” The progressive person's burden is to use to the power of the state to impose social justice, regulate “fairness” in the market, and impose egalitarian social norms

This is precisely why it’s important for those who recognize the dangers of federal overreach and political centralization should take the issue of tribal sovereignty so seriously. The goal for a more civil and free society should not be the aim of some grand universal political order, but a respect for political self-determination. To that end, a respect for tribal rights is just as important as any other fight in favor of political decentralization.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Even Cows Understand the Problem with the Commons

09/05/2018Jim Cox

A popular poster depicts four cows standing in the corners of their respective fields at the intersection of two barbed wire fences. Each of the four cows has stretched her neck through the wires to reach the grass in another cow’s field. The poster invokes a humorous reaction from most observers. To most it would illustrate the phrase that “the grass is always greener on the other side,” or maybe how silly we all are pursuing distant pleasures when there is an abundance available to us where we are.

But the poster actually illustrates rational behavior and the importance of property rights in preserving resources! The rational behavior of the cows is that each is attempting to maximize its access to grass. The remaining non-fence line grass in each cow’s field is readily available to her since she is in that field and the other cows are fenced out.

But the grass on the perimeter of her field along the fence line is within reach of the adjoining cows. Therefore, each cow is faced with first eating the grass along the fence line or missing out on the same if the other cows get there first. The grass along the fence line is therefore effectively common property and such resulting behavior is often referred to as the tragedy of the commons.1

Unowned or collectively owned resources tend to be consumed and not conserved because no one has the right to the long-term value of that good—that is, no one has a property right in that good. It is in the self-interest of each cow (or person) to get what they can before it is gone. The cows are merely responding to the institutional setting in which they find themselves. If we want people or cows to do X we would be well advised to make it in their self-interest to do X. If the fences were so constructed to protect each cow from the incursion of the other there would be no rush to consume grass along the fence line. Under this alternate arrangement resources could be conserved since ownership is secured—that is, each would enjoy a property right in the good.

  • 1. Garret Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons,Science , December 13, 1968
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Elderly Homeowner Calls 911: Police Then Kill Him

08/06/2018Ryan McMaken

When a naked intruder broke into the Aurora, Colorado home of Richard Black in the middle of the night , the intruder began violently attacking Black's 11-year-old grandson.

Black quickly armed himself with a gun, and shot the intruder dead, possibly saving the life of his grandson, who was hospitalized after the attack.

And then the Aurora Police Department showed up and shot Black dead.

The police claim they told Black — a Purple-Heart recipient and war veteran who apparently has suffered hearing loss — to drop his gun. This, they tell us, justified the shooting.

The City of Aurora has so far refused to release any audio or video associated with the shooting, but if the Police Department's story is to believed, Black was shot dead by a police officer who was already under investigation for another shooting. The officer, of course, remained on duty with pay.

In a situation like this — which admittedly likely involved a truly chaotic scene — defenders of government police will claim that it's was all just a misunderstanding and ask "what should have been done differently?"

The police and their defenders only ask this question rhetorically, though. They already know the answer. The answer, for them, is that nothing could be done differently. Everything's fine.

It's the usual defense: it was a stressful situation and the police had to make "split second decisions."

For people who actually care about the rights of taxpayers to not be shot by police in their own homes, though, this answer isn't good enough. The answer is not "nothing." The answer is "how can police be made to face real costs when they fail to act competently."

But what incentive to police have to answer this question? There is very little incentive, since the police are unlikely to bear any cost for what was, at best, a poorly executed response to a call about a home invasion. Instead, one department of the city (i.e., the District Attorney's office) will investigate another department. The city will likely determine that "procedures were followed" and that will be the end of it.

There will be no true incentive to take a hard look at procedures or at the sort of personnel the Department hires. After all, as a government-monopoly agency, the Police Department doesn't have to worry about losing customers or being subject to prosecution by a third party. Moreover, even if the city is eventually found guilty of some impropriety in a civil suit, it will be the taxpayers who will foot the bill for any compensatory damages. The police officers involved are unlikely to face any sort of penalty. No Police personnel will face any threat to their generous pensions or their secure and well-salaried jobs.

A Big Double Standard

Even worse is the fact that there is no penalty for accidental shootings when committed by police. But accidents can lead to hard prison time for private citizens when the situation is reversed.

Consider for example, the case of Tyler Harrell. As Tho Bishop reports, when police broke into Harrell's house in the middle of the night — with no evidence of wrongdoing by Harrell other than a social media post and an anonymous complaint — Harrell defended himself from the unidentified invaders by non-fatally shooting one of the SWAT team members in the leg.

But when a police officer is shot accidentally, things are very different. Harrell has been sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Harrell, of course, also had to make a "split-second decision" when people were breaking into his home in the middle of the night. When police officers make mistakes, though, it's all just unavoidable. "'Heroes' make mistakes, after all, and there's no reason to change anything. That's just the way things are." If a private citizens makes a similar mistake? Well, then a lengthy prison sentence is in order.

And why should the police change anything? Thanks to various immunity laws, and the fact they enjoy a taxpayer funded monopoly, they have no reason to be responsive to the taxpayers' needs or wants. Indeed, should the taxpayers question anything, they're told to be quiet and defer to "the experts."

RELATED: "Police: We're the Experts — Don't You Dare Criticize Us" by Ryan McMaken

But if calling 911 to report a home intruder leads to being gunned down by police, we can simply hold up this case as just the latest example of how the public's so-called "social contract" with the state and its police agents isn't working.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

EU Trade Hypocrisy, in Two Charts

06/20/2018Daniel Lacalle

The hypocrisy of the EU in two images.

“EU to impose duties on U.S. imports Friday after Trump tariffs”...

Really?

eutarrif1_0.png
EUtariff2.png
From Daniel Lacalle's Twitter @dlacalle_IA

Related: 

Global Reaction to Trump’s Tariffs Highlights the Myth of the “Era of Free Trade” by Tho Bishop

Must Free Trade Be Reciprocal? by Frédéric Bastiat

Free Trade versus "Free Trade" by Peter Klein

 

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Eric Holder's Gross Hypocrisy on Police Shootings

06/19/2018James Bovard

Attorney General Eric Holder arrives today in Ferguson, Missouri, in response to the unrest after a local policeman shot 18-year-old Mike Brown. Holder assured the people of Missouri: "Our investigation into this matter will be full, it will be fair, and it will be independent."

But Holder's own record belies his lofty promise. As the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia from 1993 to 1997, Holder was in charge of policing the local police. When police violence spiraled out of control, he did little to protect Washington residents from rampaging lawmen.

The number of killings by Washington police doubled between 1988 and 1995, the year 16 civilians died due to police gunfire. Washington police shot and killed people at a higher rate than any other major city police department, as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigation revealed in late 1998. The Post reported that "Holder said he did not detect a pattern of problematic police shootings and could not recall the specifics of cases he personally reviewed." Holder declared: "I can't honestly say I saw anything that was excessive."

There was such a dearth of oversight from Holder's office that Washington police failed to count almost a third of the people killed by their officers between 1994 and 1997. Even when police review boards ruled that shootings were unjustified or found contradictions in officers' testimony, police were not prosecuted. In one case, a police officer shot a suspect four times in the back when he was unarmed and lying on the ground. But Holder's office never bothered interviewing the shooter.

Some of the most abusive cases involved police shooting into cars - a practice which is severely discouraged because of the high risk of collateral damage. Holder told the Post: "I do kind of remember more than a few in cars. I don't know if that's typical of what you find in police shootings outside Washington" Actually, "more than 50 officers over five years had shot at unarmed drivers in cars," the Post noted, and Washington police were more than 20 times as likely to shoot at cars than were New York City police. Reports about some of the shootings were tainted by police perjury.

Shortly after Holder became U.S. attorney, a local judge slammed the Washington government for its "deliberate indifference" to police brutality complaints.

Read the full article at the USA Today

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Explaining the Economic Calculation Problem in a Principles Class

03/14/2018Jim Cox

A microeconomics principles class presents professors with the opportunity to at least briefly explain the economic calculation problem. Almost every text spends a page or two on the production function — the relationship between inputs and outputs by a firm.

Here is the relevant data and graphs from one such text.

ox_image.PNG

The professor can ask the students, “at what output should the firm produce?”— which is a central issue in microeconomics. Looking at the figures and the graphs the students will likely answer, “at the peak of Total Product”, or “at the highest Marginal Product”, or “at the highest Average Product”.

None of these responses is correct, as there is no rational way to answer based on the limited information given. There is no rational way to answer because the data only include quantities of inputs and quantities of outputs. There is no value in the form of prices attached to either the inputs or the outputs. Until the prices of these are included there is no answer.

Here’s an example to illustrate this point:

If the outputs are valued by consumers in the market at a price of $1.00 while each input costs the firm $100.00 it is obvious that to produce any of these outputs would be a financial disaster for the firm in the way of major losses (and thus the firm will be destroying value in the world). Conversely, if the consumers in the market value the outputs at a price of $50 each and the input costs are $2 for each, the firm can make major profits (and thus the firm can be adding value in the world).

Socialists had proposed abolishing both money and prices leaving them in the same position as our students in trying to determine which output quantity would be best. Pointing this out allows the professor to recount Ludwig von Mises’s highlighting this problem in his 1920 article, "Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth" and the resulting debate over the issue in the 1920s through the 1930s.

While Mises — and Hayek who also participated in this debate — maintained their views, the socialist critics retired from the debate self-satisfied that they had answered the challenge by claiming that the socialist authorities could direct the managers to adjust production by simulating markets, that is non-existent markets! They would just be “playing market”.

As Mises pointed out, even the best intentioned socialist manager would be lost in trying to discover just what the best output would be.

I also like to make the point in my classes that playing market with assets one does not own is far removed from risking personal assets one does own! When one owns the assets, such decisions will have a major impact on the owner’s personal financial well-being.

(By the way, I have never in my many years of teaching principles classes seen a text that raises the economic calculation issue at all.)

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here
Shield icon power-market-v2