Liberty.me LIVE: Writer’s Corner: The Hook

Writers-Corner-LIVE
Mike Reid and I will be chatting on Thursday, May 21, on how to write magazine articles that hook the reader.

Join the conversation on Liberty.me LIVE.

Does Michael Moore support the 2nd Amendment?

bowlingforcolumbine-michaelmoore2In the wake of the Baltimore riots and the latest charges of police violence against unarmed suspects, Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore has called for disarming American cops, saying in his Twitter feed, “We have a 1/4 billion 2nd amendment guns in our homes 4 protection. We’ll survive til the right cops r hired.”

Is that an implicit endorsement of private individuals’ right to armed self-defense?

Probably not.

Moore, who became the darling of the gun-control movement in 2002 for the movie Bowling for Columbine, is an outspoken critic of the 2nd Amendment, saying that the Founders themselves would have excluded gun rights from the Constitution if they had known what firearms would become over the next two centuries:

If the Founding Fathers could have looked into a crystal ball and seen AK-47s and Glock semiautomatic pistols … I think they’d want to leave a little note behind and probably tell us, you know, that’s not really what we mean when we say “bear arms.”

It’s tempting, therefore, to dismiss Moore’s April 30th tweets as conscious hyperbole — perhaps confronting law-and-order types with the logic of their own support for gun ownership.

But if you look at the full set of Moore’s tweets on the subject, a consistent libertarian logic is evident:

  1. Government agents currently do more to endanger private citizens than they do to protect us.

  2. That oppression can only continue while the government holds a monopoly on armed violence.

  3. We need to shift the balance of power away from the state and back to the people.

Is that too much to read into one angry Twitter rant?

If Moore’s goal was to outrage the American public, he has certainly succeeded. Pro-police conservatives are jerking their knees at the far-left filmmaker’s provocations. But advocates of liberty can find at least a sliver of common cause with those who see the visible fist of government power in Baltimore and too many other American cities in recent months.

Many libertarians consider the police to be among the few legitimate roles for a night-watchman government; defense and security are necessary to protect the rights of individuals. But there is no question that the government’s most heavily armed agencies have grown well beyond the role of night watchmen, if that was ever really their function. And then there is the proliferation of armed agents to organizations like the Fisheries Office, NASA, the EPA, and the Department of Education.

As the sharing economy chips away at other cartels in our over-regulated economy, we need to accept that the police, too, need competition — and we have the opportunity right now to ally with many on the American left who are beginning to suspect the same thing.

When government agents hold a monopoly on the tools of violence, is it any wonder when they behave like a cartel? Privately owned firearms are part of the decentralized solution to both looting and the police violence that triggers the protests.

By allowing individuals to defend themselves, their homes, their businesses, and their communities from crime and rioting, they need not rely exclusively on police forces that may be ineffective or corrupt. (The famous defense of Koreatown by armed shop owners during the LA riots shows this principle at work.)

If you don’t recognize the right to armed self-defense in principle, you are either dogmatically opposed to private guns, or you think the question is pragmatic and that there is a calculus of trade-offs: which is more dangerous at the moment, armed citizens or a police monopoly?

Michael-Moore-and-the-2nd-AmendmentThere isn’t much say to dogmatists on the matter. But the question of practical trade-offs may resonate with those on the left who currently see the police less as protectors and more as a danger.

Would such an alliance evaporate as soon as our allies perceive themselves to be in power again? Probably. Moore doesn’t see the problem as permanent: “We’ll survive til the right cops r hired.”

But we have the opportunity right now to drive home the point that the government needs more than checks and balances within itself. The people must have the ability to defend themselves independently of the state, and that’s harder to do when the government has all the guns.


This article originally ran on FEE.org’s Anything Peaceful.

keeping American Indians in the dark

AmericanIndianDarkYou know those satellite photos of North Korea at night, where all the surrounding countries are lit up, but the communist country is pitch black — except for a sprinkling of tiny lights in the government capital?

That black patch in the photos represents grinding poverty and near starvation for millions of people, suffering under the most market-hostile government in the world, but the bright area to the south shows that there is an alternative, a way out of the darkness.

The two Koreas are just one of history’s “natural experiments” in comparative economics. We can draw similar contrasts between East and West Germany or between Hong Kong and Mainland China.

“Such grand experiments of political economy would be magnificent,” writes economic historian Robert E. Wright, “were they not the root cause of untold human suffering.”

Unfortunately, Wright informs us, there’s a similar experiment taking place in America’s Great Plains — between the mostly white population of South Dakota and the American Indians still living on government-run reservations.

More than two Dakotas

South Dakota is, “by many measures,” says Wright, “the economically freest polity in North America, including all US and Mexican states and Canadian provinces.”

In 2013, CNBC’s annual survey America’s Top States for Business ranked South Dakota number one, adding,

South Dakota’s economy, while often overshadowed by its oil-booming neighbor to the north, finishes a solid sixth. State finances are strong, the housing market is recovering, and the unemployment rate is among the nation’s lowest.

But the Indians on South Dakota’s reservations aren’t experiencing anything like the economic progress of their non-native neighbors. They are “among the poorest of the nation’s poor.”

Cultural obstacles

Unlike history’s experiments in Asia and Europe, the two populations of South Dakota aren’t as geographically isolated from each other (Wright describes the geography as “‘checkerboarded,’ meaning that plots owned by natives and subject to tribal law intermingle with lands owned by non-natives”). Neither are they as culturally similar as are East and West Germans or North and South Koreans.

But while Wright acknowledges that some of the Indians’ economic obstacles may be cultural — “Like other poor people throughout the globe, many Lakota are perhaps too eager to help others and face tremendous social pressure to aid their ne’er-do-well relatives” — nevertheless, “cultural obstacles pale compared to the restrictions the Federal government imposes upon reservation Indians.”

Federal aid

NativeAmericanNetRoots.net, which describes itself as “a forum for the discussion of political, social and economic issues affecting the indigenous peoples of the United States,” blames the Reagan administration for its “drastic reduction in federal assistance to Indian tribes,” arguing that the cuts seemed “intended to hinder their ability for economic development on the reservations.”

But Wright contends, citing economists William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, “giving aid to poor peoples has never sparked economic development.”

“What does get economies moving,” he adds, “is freedom, something the Lakota haven’t enjoyed since well before the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890.”

Natural resources

The contrast between the natives and non-native populations of North Dakota may be even starker, but Wright focuses on South Dakota in order to avoid the common misconception that economic development is driven by abundant natural resources.

In 2013, North Dakota’s economy was growing five times faster than the rest of the nation, but much of that growth can be attributed to the energy boom from fracking. South Dakota, on the other hand, “has none of North Dakota’s fossil fuels, so it has to get by on the wits of its entrepreneurs.”

In fact, North Dakota’s abundant natural wealth may end up hurting that state’s economy in the long term, if history is a guide. Fareed Zakaria writes in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad,

Wealth in natural resources hinders both political modernization and economic growth. Two Harvard economists, Jeffrey D. Sachs and Andrew M. Warner, looked at ninety-seven developing countries over two decades (1971– 89) and found that natural endowments were strongly correlated with economic failure. On average the richer a country was in mineral, agricultural, and fuel deposits, the slower its economy grew — think of Saudi Arabia or Nigeria. Countries with almost no resources — such as those in East Asia — grew the fastest.

Federal obstacles

If South Dakota’s economy doesn’t offer us as dramatic an example as West Germany, South Korea, or Hong Kong, that may be because the state government can only remove so many obstacles to entrepreneurship. More and more of the economic hurdles come from the federal government.

But despite Washington DC’s growing “regulations and red tape that increase the cost of doing business in our state and beyond,” as South Dakota’s Senator John Thune wrote in 2012, federal authority in most of the state isn’t nearly as great as it is on the reservations, and it’s the federal government that Wright ultimately blames for the plight of South Dakota’s Indians:

Lamentably, few Indians in the Dakotas hold clear title to any real estate. Due to past Federal policies, most own only small fractions of land in partnership with hundreds of others. … Traditional lenders understandably want nothing to do with such complexities and until recently natives have found starting their own financial institutions daunting if not impossible. . . .

More importantly, no Native American can trust the Federal government or its self-serving Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indian entrepreneurs, who are increasingly numerous, keep their operations small because they believe, rightly, that the government may not respect their property rights should they prove too successful. Reservation land remains subject to seizure and exclusive economic privileges, like casino gambling rights, have already been eroded in some states.

NKlightsThe natural course

If Native Americans are ever to emerge from systemic poverty, it will not be from federal aid, from “five-year plans,” from striking oil, or even from casinos. They will find prosperity on the path already taken by South Korea, West Germany, and Hong Kong — a path charted already in 1755 by Adam Smith:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

And no person or group will need their “affairs” managed by a federal bureau to follow it.


This article originally appeared as “Keeping Native Americans in the Dark” at FEE.org’s Anything Peaceful.

Is the “Austrian School” a lie?

austrian-school-of-economicsDo those of us who use the word Austrian in its modern libertarian context misrepresent an intellectual tradition?

We trace our roots back through the 20th century's F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises (both served as advisors to FEE) to Carl Menger in late 19th-century Vienna, and even further back to such "proto-Austrians" as Frédéric Bastiat and Jean-Baptiste Say in the earlier 19th century and Richard Cantillon in the 18th. Sometimes we trace our heritage all the way back to the late-Scholastic School of Salamanca.

Nonsense, says Janek Wasserman in his article "Austrian Economics: Made in the USA":

"Austrian Economics, as it is commonly understood today," Wasserman claims, "was born seventy years ago this month."

As his title implies, Wasserman is not talking about the publication of Principles of Economics by Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian school. That occurred 144 years ago in Vienna. What happened 70 years ago in the United States was the publication of F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom.

What about everything that took place — most of it in Austria — in the 74 years before Hayek's most famous book? According to Wasserman, the Austrian period of "Austrian Economics" produced a "robust intellectual heritage," but the largely American period that followed was merely a "dogmatic political program," one that "does a disservice to the eclectic intellectual history" of the true Austrian school.

Where modern Austrianism is "associated with laissez-faire economics and libertarianism," the real representatives of the more politically diverse tradition — economists from the University of Vienna, such as Fritz Machlup, Joseph Schumpeter, and Oskar Morgenstern — were embarrassed by their association with Hayek's bestseller and its capitalistic supporters.

These "native-born Austrians ceased to be 'Austrian,'" writes Wasserman, "when Mises and a simplified Hayek captured the imagination of a small group of businessmen and radicals in the US."

Wasserman describes the popular reception of the as "the birth of a movement — and the reduction of a tradition."

Are we guilty of Wasserman's charges? Do modern Austrians misunderstand our own tradition, or worse yet, misrepresent our history?

In fact, Wasserman himself is guilty of a profound misunderstanding of the Austrian label, as well as the tradition it refers to.

The "Austrian school" is not a name our school of thought took for itself. Rather it was an insult hurled against Carl Menger and his followers by the adherents of the dominant German Historical School.

The Methodenstreit was a more-than-decade-long debate in the late 19th century among German-speaking social scientists about the status of economic laws. The Germans advocated methodological collectivism, espoused the efficacy of government intervention to improve the economy, and, according Jörg Guido Hülsmann, "rejected economic 'theory' altogether."

The Mengerians, in contrast, argued for methodological individualism and the scientific validity of economic law. The collectivist Germans labeled their opponents the "Austrian school" as a put-down. It was like calling Menger and company the "backwater school" of economic thought.

"Austrian," in our context, is a reclaimed word.

But more important, modern Austrian economics is not the dogmatic ideology that Wasserman describes. In his blog post, he provides no actual information about the work being done by the dozens of active Austrian economists in academia, with tenured positions at colleges and universities whose names are recognizable.

He tells his readers nothing about the books they have produced that have been published by top university presses. He does not mention that they have published in top peer-reviewed journals in the economics discipline, as well as in philosophy and political science, or that the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics consistently packs meeting rooms at the Southern Economic Association meetings.

Have all of these university presses, top journals, and long-standing professional societies, not to mention tenure committees at dozens of universities, simply lost their collective minds and allowed themselves to be snookered by an ideological sleeper cell?

Or perhaps in his zeal to score ideological points of his own, Wasserman chose to take his understanding of Austrian economics from those who consume it on the Internet and elsewhere rather than doing the hard work of finding out what professional economists associated with the school are producing. Full of confirmation bias, he found what he “knew” was out there, and he ends up offering a caricature of the robust intellectual movement that is the contemporary version of the school.

The modern Austrian school, which has now returned to the Continent and spread across the globe after decades in America, is not the dogmatic monolith Wasserman contends. The school is alive with both internal debates about its methodology and theoretical propositions and debates about its relationship to the rest of the economics discipline, not to mention the size of the state.

Modern Austrian economists are constantly finding new ideas to mix in with the work of Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, and Hayek. The most interesting work done by Austrians right now is bringing in insights from Nobelists like James Buchanan, Elinor Ostrom, and Vernon Smith, and letting those marinate with their long-standing intellectual tradition. That is hardly the behavior of a "dogmatic political program," but is rather a sign of precisely the robust intellectual tradition that has been at the core of Austrian economics from Menger onward.

That said, Wasserman is right to suggest that economic science is not the same thing as political philosophy — and it's true that many self-described Austrians aren't always careful to communicate the distinction. Again, Wasserman could have seen this point made by more thoughtful Austrians if he had gone to a basic academic source like the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics and read the entry on the Austrian school of economics.

Even a little bit of actual research motivated by actual curiosity about what contemporary professional economists working in the Austrian tradition are doing would have given Wasserman a very different picture of modern Austrian economics. That more accurate picture is one very much consistent with our Viennese predecessors.

To suggest that we do a disservice to our tradition — or worse, that we have appropriated a history that doesn't belong to us — is to malign not just modern Austrians but also the Austrian-born antecedents within our tradition.


This article is coauthored with Steven Horwitz and originally appeared on FEE.org’s Anything Peaceful.

bullets, ballots, and the Bard

LincolnMemorialWhen most of us hear "John Wilkes," the next thing we think is "Booth." But Lincoln's infamous assassin was named for the once-famous English radical liberal John Wilkes, who was also a distant relative of the Booths. The earlier Wilkes has, unfortunately, been relegated a footnote in Western history.

JWB’s grandfather was a London lawyer who avidly supported the new American republic — and one of the ways grandpa Booth announced his classical-liberal values to the world was by naming his son (JWB’s father) Junius Brutus Booth, after one of Julius Caesar’s republican assassins.

As historian Barry Strauss writes at History News Network,

Booth was all but fated to compare himself to Brutus. Both his father and a brother were named Junius Brutus Booth; Booth himself played Brutus on stage and called it his favorite Shakespearean role. Just a few months before the assassination, in 1864, Booth and his two brothers played in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City. Booth played the part of Mark Antony, but another stage beckoned.

That other stage was not, according to Strauss, for the particular dramatic role Booth thought he’d be playing, because history does not work according to the rules of drama, at least not as the angry young actor understood such things.

Everything that Booth thought about Brutus, Caesar and political assassination was wrong. Yet if Booth was a lousy historian he was a faithful student of Shakespeare. The Bard makes Brutus into a noble Roman and downplays the conspirators’ squalid calculations of power and privilege. Nor did Booth consider that Brutus unleashed the dogs of war – against himself. . . .

Few of those who hear Shakespeare’s stirring lines in Julius Caesar consider how different historical events were from the play. The real tragedy is not the death of Brutus or Caesar but society’s failure to settle differences peacefully, by ballots rather than bullets – or daggers. Poetry inspires us to good deeds and bad. History teaches us the sober and complex truths that we ought to live by.

But Booth was not the only one who got history wrong:

If Booth misread the lessons of history so did Lincoln. Lincoln thought he was a peacemaker. In his Second Inaugural Address five weeks earlier he called for “charity towards all,” “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” and achieving “a just and lasting peace.” But civil war lights fires that do not die out when the battles end.

Strauss believes America's 16th president was "the best hope for racial harmony and reconciliation," and says that Lincoln thought of himself as a peacemaker — assessments that many libertarians may question —  and he also implies that ballots are the only alternative to bullets, while some of us consider voting to be a lesser evil when there are positive goods available.

But as his post emphasizes, knowing the history that people carry around in their heads is essential to making sense of their motives, and a great work of historical literature, even one of the Bard's masterworks, may not be the best guide to cause and effect in matters of war and peace. History may not be a Manichean narrative, but the belief that it is has altered its course in many strange and tragic ways. And that fault, at least, is in ourselves.


This article originally appeared at Anything Peaceful as “Did Lincoln Understand History?”

Robin Hood redux

ProgressiveRobinhood
I’m very pleased to have “Class War in the Time of Robin Hood” selected for the Clichés of Progressivism collection:

Cliché #49
“People Love the Robin Hood Story Because He Took from the Rich to Give to the Poor”

Look for the book later this year.

This week in the Freeman: the black tradition of armed self-defense

TheFreemanArmedAndBlack

Armed and Black

The history of African-American self-defense

FEBRUARY 03, 2015 by B.K. MARCUS

A lot of people believe that blacks march in lockstep behind calls for gun control. But while the civil rights movement was largely about nonviolent resistance, many blacks exercised a legitimate right of self-defense. Many still do today.

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