by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, November 12, 2006 - December 15, 2011.

Link: http://www.quebecoislibre.org/0illiberal_beliefs.htm

Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whoever will listen how freedom is really in everyone's best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.

33. Assigning Blame Is Simple
32. Libertarians are Scrooges
31. We are all children
30. It's wrong to profit from the misery of others
29. States must set standards
28. Governments Can Create Jobs
27. Guilty until proven innocent
26. Life is a zero-sum game
25. Immigration must be restricted
24. The world is a scary place
23. We are all sinners

22. Persuasion is force
21. Bankruptcy Is Bad for the Economy
20. War is good for the economy
19. We don't care enough
18. Capitalism caused the Great Depression
17. Democracy is a cure-all
16. Self-sacrifice is good
15. Everyone is selfish—and that's bad
14. Free markets are utopian
13. Change is bad
12. You're either with us or against us

11. The environment is steadily deteriorating
10. Resources are limited
09. It's a small world
08. Morality must be enforced
07. The truth is obvious
06. Good intentions are enough
05. Charity must be enforced
04. We are our brothers' keepers
03. Theft can be justified
02. Order comes from above
01. Government is good


34) Assigning Blame Is Simple (December 15, 2011)

Some of the things that happen to a person are truly not that person’s fault. Children who are abused, for example, bear not even a share of the blame for the harm that befalls them. Nor do they deserve any praise for eating a nutritious diet, say, at least not when they are very young. As we grow into preteens, adolescents, and young adults, however, we humans gradually begin to appreciate the existence of other minds, to understand that actions have consequences, and to develop the power to control our own behaviour and make our own decisions. In step with this cognitive and psychological development, we gradually deserve more and more of the praise and blame for the things we do and for the things that happen to us.

Yet even a healthy, mature adult is not entirely responsible for every aspect of his or her life. As a general rule, events often have complex causes, and so praise or blame must be parcelled out accordingly. A simple illustration of this is the bicycle accident, of which I have had three since moving to Montreal as a young man.

When Bicycles and Cars Meet

The first bicycle accident I had occurred during my very first year in the big city. I was riding along Sherbrooke Street in NDG when a car just ahead of me suddenly made a right turn onto a side street without signalling and, presumably, without checking his rear-view or side mirrors. I was unable to stop in time, and my left elbow shattered his back-seat passenger-side window. To this day, I still have a small scar on my upper arm, but I escaped relatively unscathed, as did my bicycle.

Sounds like a clear case of simple blame, doesn’t it? Checking mirrors and blind spots for cyclists before making a turn is City Driving 101, not to mention signalling one’s intention to turn. Clearly, the driver was to blame. But did I mention that my brakes were shot? Even with fully functioning brakes, I would not have had time to stop, but I doubt my arm would have gone through his window.

My second and third bicycle accidents occurred a few years later while I was working as a bicycle courier one summer during my university studies. In the first of the two, I was zipping along Ontario Street in the Latin Quarter when a car door opened up before me. A second later, I was flying through the air, and I landed some fifteen feet away in the middle of the road. Incredibly, but thanks in no small part to the fact that I was wearing a helmet, I was not badly hurt at all.

Opening your car door after parallel parking without checking for cyclists is extremely negligent and dangerous, and any driver who does this is blameworthy. But did I mention that I was riding along with one hand on my handlebars and the other hand steadying a second bike that rolled along beside me? Also dangerous and stupid, although again, I still would have hit that door had I been riding normally. (Ironically, I was bringing the second bicycle to the bike shop to have its brake pads replaced.)

Just a few weeks later, I was riding west toward downtown along René-Lévesque Boulevard after having delivered a package to the Molson Brewery. I was on the bike path when a taxi driver exiting the parking lot of the CBC Radio-Canada Building failed to look to his right and plowed into me, sending me, once again, into the middle of the road. Thankfully, since he had looked to his left, there was no traffic coming.

This taxi driver certainly deserves practically all of the blame for this accident, though I could have slowed down as a precautionary measure when I saw him, even though he wasn’t moving and I clearly had the right of way. Also, I’d forgotten my helmet that morning, and had I been badly hurt with a head injury, I could have shared some of the blame for that, but thankfully once again, I escaped serious harm.

On to Bigger Things

All of which to illustrate that it is not always a simple matter to determine blame, and that often, blame is shared. You may be wondering, though, what exactly is illiberal about the belief that assigning blame is simple. Though admittedly, determining responsibility for bicycle accidents may not have any obvious implications for liberty, the same cannot be said when it comes to determining the causes of such things as financial crises. And if the causal chain explaining a simple bicycle accident is often not even that simple, it would be very surprising if the global financial crisis did not have a complex and convoluted explanation.

Some people—including some members of the various Occupy movements and their sympathizers—blame the global financial crisis and its ongoing fallout on greedy bankers. For the sake of enormous profits, these Wall Street wizards took inadvisable risks with our money, the story goes. When the whole house of cards came tumbling down, they used their influence to extort bailouts from governments, which is to say, from taxpayers.

While this story is true enough as far as it goes, it is far from a complete account of the causes of the financial crisis. For one thing, greed is a constant of human nature, and blaming a constant for an unusual event is clearly insufficient. Exceptional occurrences require exceptional explanations. The danger to liberty in not endeavouring to understand the whole story and instead assigning blame solely or even primarily to greedy bankers is that it all too naturally leads to calls for greater regulation of the financial system. But in point of fact, many other causes contributed to the crisis. In his article “A Perfect Storm of Ignorance,” Jeffrey Friedman discusses the “welter of regulations that have grown up across different parts of the economy in such immense profusion that nobody can possibly predict how they will interact with each other.”

A Perfect Storm of Causes

Just to get a sense of the scope of the issues involved, here is a list of the causal links Friedman identifies in his article:
  • the Federal Reserve stoked inflation, stimulating the housing boom;
  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac encouraged low-equity mortgages;
  • the Community Reinvestment Act mandated “subprime” loans to poor credit risks;
  • the Recourse Rule amended the Basel Accords in the United States and lowered the capital cushion requirement for asset-backed securities to a mere 2 percent;
  • federally mandated mark-to-market accounting translated market fears into actual numbers on banks’ balance sheets, leading to the bankruptcy, on paper, of Lehman Brothers and to commercial banks’ lending freeze;

  • Basel II spread the Recourse Rule outside the US;

  • ‘no-recourse’ laws in many US states relieved mortgaged homeowners of liability if they just walked away from their homes;
  • the US tax code discourages partnerships in banking, instead favouring publicly held corporations that are in turn encouraged by certain aspects of tax and securities law to pursue short-term profits;
  • the tax code makes equity capital unnecessarily expensive;
  • a 1975 amendment to the SEC’s Net Capital Rule turned the three rating companies (S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch) into a legally protected oligopoly, robbing them of the market discipline that had kept them honest up until then.
Friedman elaborates on the effects of each of these, and on how they interacted (along with short-sighted behaviour on the part of bankers and home buyers alike) to cause the crisis. He then goes even further: the Basel Accords and prior bank capital regulations were enacted to deal with the moral hazard of federal deposit insurance, which would otherwise lead bankers to make excessively risky investments. Deposit insurance, in turn, was put in place in America in 1933 to deal with the problem of bank runs, which were common in the US in the 19th century and had spread like wildfire at the start of the Great Depression.

But bank runs were themselves caused by prior regulations that impeded branch banking. Canada, which had no such impediments, experienced exactly zero bank runs during the Great Depression (and didn’t get deposit insurance until 1967). Writes Friedman, “Thus, deposit insurance, hence capital minima, hence the Basel rules, might all have been a mistake founded on the New Deal legislators’ and regulators’ ignorance of the fact that panics like the ones that had just gripped America were the unintended effects of previous regulations.”

Friedman could have gone further still. As Chris Leithner describes in detail in his book The Evil Princes of Martin Place (which I reviewed earlier this year), fractional reserve banking and legal tender laws are what allow central banks like the Fed to print money out of thin air, which is what gets the whole boom-and-bust cycle going in the first place. Stop protecting the fraud of fractional reserve banking, or at least eliminate legal tender laws and force banks to compete with each other in a free banking system, and you stop inflation dead in its tracks. No inflation, no boom-and-bust cycles—of which the global financial crisis is just an extreme example.

Do irresponsible bankers deserve some of the blame for the mess we’re in? Sure they do. But even bicycle accidents are usually not that simple, and the financial crisis is a whole lot messier than a bike accident. Irresponsible home buyers deserve some of the blame too, of course, but without the morass of regulations that have accumulated over the years, irresponsible bankers and home buyers would be the ones to suffer the consequences of their own actions. As a result, such overly risky behaviour would be discouraged instead of being aided and abetted as it is today.

Part of growing up is taking on more and more personal responsibility for our lives in step with our cognitive and psychological development. But it sure doesn’t help when the system of rules and regulations that should encourage and support such adult behaviour instead incentivizes recklessness.
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33) Corporations have too much power (October 15, 2011)

As the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement enters its fifth week and spreads to cities around the world this weekend, it is worth examining one of the central beliefs animating the disparate group of protestors, namely that corporations have too much power. While this belief is not exactly mistaken, it fails to get at the real root of the problem, which is that governments have too much power.

It is true that certain large corporations enjoy unjustifiable benefits like protection from foreign competition, unnaturally high barriers to entry for local competitors, outright monopoly privileges, preferential tax treatment, taxpayer subsidies, and so on. Banks in particular have the ability to manufacture profits practically out of thin air thanks to fiat money, fractional reserve banking, and legal tender laws. (See my review of Chris Leithner’s recent book, The Evil Princes of Martin Place, for a fuller discussion of some of the ways in which modern banking is broken.)

But where does this power come from? It comes from governments. It is governments that enjoy a monopoly on the use of force. Government actors use this power legitimately when they protect individuals from such dangers as theft, fraud, assault, murder, and foreign invasion. They use it illegitimately when they grant special privileges to influential businesses.

The problem with focusing on corporate power instead of the more fundamental problem of government power is that it can too easily lead to the promotion of unproductive or even counterproductive solutions. Trying to regulate banks to prevent them from gambling away our wealth will never work when governments use their monopoly on force to maintain the current fraudulent banking system and to bail them out with our taxes. Trying to regulate corporations is pointless when corporations themselves inevitably grab hold of the reins of regulating bodies. Campaign finance laws are worse than worthless when it comes to trying to “get the money out of politics.” When governments have goodies and privileges to hand out, the wealthiest, most connected, most entrenched elites will inevitably get their hands on most of those goodies and privileges.

The only feasible solution to the collusion of corporations and government (known as “corporatism” or “crony capitalism”) is for governments not to have goodies and privileges to hand out. They must be restricted to using their power to protect individuals from the dangers enumerated above. In a scenario in which the only thing governments do is enforce simple rules against things like theft, fraud, and murder, corporations would be stripped of all of their power. They could only succeed in such a scenario through voluntary exchange, by offering goods and services that people want at a price they are willing and able to pay, a price that would reflect all the competitive pressures of the free market.

As Steven Horwitz wrote this week on The Freeman’s website, “in freed markets the power would rest with the 99 percent of us who buy the products, not the 1 percent who sell them. In freed markets the power really would be with the people—ours to grant or withdraw as we see fit. It’s bailouts, subsidies, and monopolies that give the 1 percent power over the rest of us.”

Crony capitalism need not continue forever. We can have a system in which power really does reside with the people. But this will only happen if enough of us understand the real root of the problem and demand a real solution: a drastic reduction in government power.
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32) Libertarians are Scrooges (December 15, 2010)

With the Christmas season upon us, bringing peace and goodwill to every decent heart, the free-market enthusiast has an even better than normal chance of being asked why he or she does not care about the wellbeing of others. Supporters of the welfare state imagine that they are the compassionate ones, and that we who favour economic liberty are heartless Scrooges. How else could we oppose state-run and taxpayer-funded healthcare, education, housing, pensions, or unemployment insurance? We all deserve coal in our stockings for daring to speak ill of government safety nets.

Writing in the 1840s, Charles Dickens can perhaps be forgiven for his caricature of the rich businessman as heartless. Life was hard in those days, and the widespread advances in prosperity brought about by the Industrial Revolution had yet to make themselves truly felt. But in this day and age, the continuing slander of libertarians as lacking in compassion is less forgivable, and needs to be challenged in no uncertain terms.

Who You Calling “Rich”?

Clearly, not all rich businessmen resemble Ebenezer Scrooge. In our own time, for instance, two of the world’s wealthiest men, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are giving away large portions of their fortunes to help the needy, as others did in earlier generations.

More importantly for my thesis, though, is the fact that not all libertarians are rich businessmen, or rich at all, for that matter. As Roderick T. Long writes in a 1994 essay, “Who’s the Scrooge? Libertarians and Compassion,” libertarians are often portrayed as saying, “I should not be forced to help you.” Of course, they could just as easily say, “You should not be forced to help me,” or, “She should not be forced to help him.”

Indeed, as Long points out, the equation of the moneyed, capitalist class with libertarians is doubly misleading. Not only are libertarians found in every economic stratum, but businessmen by no means make up a solidly libertarian block. Rather, they “are more likely to be lobbying [government] for special favors, protectionist legislation, and grants of monopoly privilege while their libertarian neighbors struggle to make ends meet.”

At the Point of a Gun

Libertarians, of course, are staunchly opposed to political favours, protectionist legislation, and monopoly privileges—and for the same basic reason that we are opposed to the welfare state: we are against all initiation of force. Politicians and bureaucrats initiate force just as surely when they outlaw private health insurance or tax people to pay for public housing as they do when they bestow monopoly power or tax people to subsidize a connected corporation. In all of these cases, force is used against one group of people in order to benefit another group.

Supporters of the welfare state may counter that it is obscene for a society as rich as ours to allow people to starve in the streets or go without medical care. We simply should help those who cannot help themselves, they might say. It’s just the right thing to do.

But is it really compassionate to force people to help others? Personally, I think helping others is a wonderful thing to do. I don’t think it warrants sacrificing one’s own wellbeing, and I don’t think it is a moral duty per se, but I do think it is a positive thing that should be encouraged. In a libertarian society, I would be free to try to persuade others of my point of view, as would those who believe that helping is a moral duty even to the point of self-sacrifice. What neither of us would be allowed to do is impose our own moral vision on others who see things differently.

Compassionate but Wrong

I believe that many people who support the welfare state are compassionate. They may not think of taxation as force, or they may try to elude the knowledge that it is force, or they may simply believe that the good of welfare statism outweighs the bad of enforced taxation. They intend to see that others are helped, and they think that the end justifies the means.

Not only are they wrong about the end justifying the means; they are also wrong about their chosen means being the best path to their stated end. If you want to help others, free-market capitalism is a better means of doing so than the welfare state. The welfare state takes from some and gives to others, but many practical considerations make this transfer anything but frictionless. The disincentives to both productive taxpayers and recipients of state largesse, the inefficiencies of bureaucratic control, the suppression of innovative competition, and the corruptible nature of the humans who must manage the whole house of cards all chip away at economic growth and hence future prosperity for all.

On the other hand, capitalism unleashes human beings’ natural propensity to improve their own lot and channels it into pursuits that others find valuable and are therefore willing to purchase on the open market. To the extent that this invisible hand has been allowed to function, it really has lifted all boats. Almost everyone living in a developed country today lives better than kings of yore in a multitude of ways. Much of the rest of the world is catching up, too. (If you don’t believe me, check out this stunning demonstration by Hans Rosling.)

And to be clear, rich businessmen don’t just help humanity when they give their money away. They help humanity primarily by making money in the first place, i.e., by creating wealth. In the 1998 John Stossel Special “Greed,” the founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, T. J. Rodgers sums up this point nicely:

Our company was worth zero in 1982. It had one employee—me—and it was in debt. Today it has 2500 employees. Our company today is worth 1.4 billion dollars. All of that money has been created. That is a positive thing that impacts favorably the lives of a lot of people. They buy cars with it, they go to school with it, they retire on it… The world is better off when I make a dollar, not worse off.

This holiday season, let’s give thanks to all of those mean old Scrooges who helped humanity by helping themselves—and the system of relatively free-market capitalism that allowed them to do it.

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31) We are all children (October 15, 2010)

While defending drug legalization to a friend of mine the other day, I questioned why governments should decide what adults get to put into their own bodies. To be clear, beyond coffee in the morning and wine with dinner, I do not necessarily recommend recreational drug use. Drugs obviously have their costs and risks, along with their seductive benefits, so cost-benefit analyses are in order.

Importantly, though, people evaluate costs and benefits differently, so analyses of this kind will vary from person to person. People can be mistaken in their expectations of future costs and benefits, to be sure, but each individual is generally in the best position to judge such things, and to adjust his or her behaviour based on feedback from reality.

It therefore makes little sense to have some group of people impose their own cost-benefit analyses on others, under threat of fine or imprisonment. If I initiate force against others, by all means, somebody stop me. But if I, an adult, engage in peaceful activities whose costs are borne (and benefits enjoyed) by me alone, how can anyone claim the right to forbid those activities? As an adult, I should be responsible for my own life.

The Peter Pan Syndrome

My friend responded by wondering if any of us is really an adult. Doesn’t everyone have some psychological problem, some neurosis or character flaw that keeps him or her from behaving responsibly? And isn’t human nature, with all its imperfections, really better suited to paternalism than to pie-in-the-sky, looks-good-on-paper libertarianism?

There are indeed many individuals of legal age who do not act like responsible adults all (or even most) of the time. They may abuse illegal drugs—or legal drugs, for that matter. They may become addicted to gambling and squander their resources at casinos and video lottery terminals. They may spend money they don’t have, or pay too little attention to their health, or just generally fail to live up to their potential. Couldn’t we all use a little help from time to time?

Of course we could. But does this mean we’re not really adults? And does it really support paternalism?

For one thing, if we are all effectively children, why do some of us children get to tell the others what to do? What makes the children who get elected any wiser than the rest of us? What endows the pack of children with the astounding ability to see who among them should rule? Clearly, paternalism requires that at least some of us humans be not only responsible enough to run our own lives, but responsible enough (and omniscient enough) to run everyone else’s, too. And it requires that somehow, these paragons of virtue will be the ones who end up holding the reins of power. But do concepts like “maturity” and “responsibility” spring to mind when thinking about the politicians you know?

Acting One’s Age

More fundamentally, the idea that we are only responsible for our actions if we act like responsible adults gets it backwards. It makes a mockery of the very notion of personal responsibility. Being an adult who is responsible for his or her actions does not mean you will always act rationally. It means you have the ability to act rationally if you choose to.

This is not invalidated by psychological problems and character flaws. If, for instance, I discover that I have a weakness for alcohol that threatens my health, my employability, and my personal relationships, I am not doomed to lose my liver, my job, or my friends. As an adult, I can choose to steer clear of bars and not keep booze in the house. I can choose to seek help from loved ones and therapists. In this day and age, I can also choose to take Antabuse, a drug that produces an extreme hangover within minutes if mixed with alcohol. In short, I can choose, in my more sober moments, to redefine the parameters of my life in order to help myself act more like a responsible adult.

Actual children do not have this degree of control over their own lives. Neither do people with certain severe mental health issues. But why should those of us who are fully functioning adults—those of us who are capable of acting rationally—be subject to laws designed to restrict the choices of bona fide children and mental patients?

There is a practical issue involved here as well as the moral issue of not initiating force against other human beings. If, as I maintain, adults who are not severely mentally handicapped have the ability to take responsibility for their own lives, what is the effect of preventing them from doing so? Making choices for the overgrown children in our society, and shielding them from the consequences of their actions, does not encourage them to grow up. Rather, it infantilizes them. If we are not allowed to fall down once in a while, we will never learn to pick ourselves up again. That doesn’t mean we lack the ability to do so. It means the “muscles” that give us the ability to do so have been allowed—some would say encouraged—to atrophy.

Paternalists get a lot of money and power if they convince the rest of us that we cannot take care of ourselves, or that our neighbours cannot take care of themselves. The truth of the matter, however, is that most of us do have the ability to take care of ourselves. Far from being incompatible with imperfect human nature, liberty encourages us, through positive and negative feedback, to grow up and make the most of our lives.

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30) It's wrong to profit from the misery of others (August 15, 2010)

When US Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs lost his temper this past week, railing against his boss’s left-leaning critics and saying, among other things, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare,” it was a burn felt across the nation. Those same critics fired back and suggested Gibbs take a permanent vacation. This prompted the Press Secretary to apologize and promise to play nice from now on.

What I did not notice in the backlash were very many of those critics saying, “Hell yes, we want Canadian healthcare!” A few probably did, and if I tried harder I could probably find them, but that wasn’t the message percolating to the top of the news cycle. My guess is that our problems (waiting times, doctor shortages) are as well known to them as their problems (soaring costs, the uninsured) are to us. Large segments of the populations on both sides of the border seem perfectly happy to play up this false dichotomy, when in fact, there exists an option that would trump both systems handily: an actual free market in health care.

Of course, many people fail to realize that the American healthcare “market” has been hamstrung by an ever-growing tangle of regulations for three quarters of a century now. But beyond this, there is a widespread notion that must be combated, especially here in Canada, before a truly free market in health care could ever again become palatable to anything more than the libertarian fringe: the notion that it is wrong to profit from the misery of others.

This idea was on display in reactions to the CMA’s latest policy document, released in anticipation of the group’s annual meeting next week. While very tame by libertarian standards, the document’s recommendations nonetheless elicited strong opposition. Len Rose, Executive Councillor of the B.C. Nurses’ Union, argues in a letter to The Vancouver Sun that “Canadians know that profit-driven health care vacuums up huge sums of money from taxpayers and deposits these in the vaults of corporate executives and shareholders,” and worries that “amputating more of our public system and turning it over to profiteers will give Canadians fewer services at a higher cost.” Drs. Danielle Martin and Irfan Dhalla of the group Canadian Doctors for Medicare, while applauding the CMA’s shift away from privatization, nonetheless find fault in some proposals that will “result in a massive transfer of wealth away from individuals and governments toward insurance companies.” They worry that due to such remaining vestiges of formerly more aggressive privatization proposals, “we will end up paying more for the same services.”

What Is Profit?

While couched in practical terms of cost and efficiency, quotations like these are dripping with condemnation of corporate executives, shareholders, insurance companies, and other “profiteers.” In order to defuse some of this antagonism toward profit in medicine, it is necessary to examine what, exactly, profit is. Without getting too technical, profit can be understood as total revenues minus total costs. This represents the return successful business owners receive for running a business. Unsuccessful business owners receive losses (or in a mixed economy, subsidies). Alternately, profit can refer to the return to investors who lend money to a business, but then, these investors are not so different from shareholders, who are another kind of owner. (And if loans are not repaid, investors can become actual owners, too.)

The antagonism toward business owners making a profit is grounded, I am convinced, in the notion that businessmen and businesswomen don’t really do anything. They are not the ones assembling parts on the factory floor, or manning the phones in the call centre, or cooking for and waiting on rowdy customers in a bar. They just sit back and rake in the surplus value created by their exploited employees, to put it in Marxist terms.

The reality, though, is a far cry from this caricature. Business owners are the ones who organize all of the different factors of production according to their best judgement of the demand for their products or services and the supplies of sundry inputs. And it is their accumulated wealth on the line if they misjudge any of these elements. If this is truly worth nothing, then workers are free to organize themselves and stop getting ripped off!

The situation is a little different with large corporations where shareholders and investors delegate their organizing duties to professional managers. They are being paid solely for the risk they take with their accumulated wealth. Anyone who objects to this in principal, though, is basically objecting to the idea of earning interest. But why should someone who delays his own enjoyment of his wealth and risks losing it altogether not be compensated? And just on a practical level, how much saving and investment would occur if, in accordance with the ancient law of Moses, it were forbidden to collect interest in return for delaying one’s gratification and risking its loss?

Misery Loves Companies

There are people, though, who understand all of the above—who think that it is both right and practical to reward owners, managers, and investors for their work and trouble and risk—and yet still feel funny about the idea of profiting from the misery of others. Normal profit is okay with them, but profiting from other people’s misery just feels wrong.

There is a sense, of course, in which doctors and nurses profit from the misery of others. They do so by receiving payment for their services, and none but the most diehard socialist begrudges them this. But if it is acceptable for doctors and nurses to benefit from the misery of others through the earning of wages, why would it be unacceptable for the owners of hospitals, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies to benefit through the earning of profits, or for investors and shareholders to benefit through the earning of interest? For someone who understands the general rationale behind profit and interest outlined in the previous section, what reason is there to conclude that in this case, they’re bad?

Perhaps the very phrase “profiting from the misery of others” is to blame. It makes it sound as if someone is gaining while someone else is losing. But of course, this is not the case. Doctor and patient both gain when patients get treated and doctors get paid. It’s a win-win situation just as clearly as when I get milk from my grocer and he gets paid. The owner of a hospital, then, benefits its patients in the same way as the owner of a grocery store does.

We have another, different phrase to describe the situation of someone gaining and someone losing: it’s called profiting at the expense of others. That is something worth condemning—and workers, owners, and investors in such activities as grand larceny, for instance, deserve our contempt. But alleviating suffering is a valuable service. Not only those who provide the service, but also those who organize the factors of production involved in its delivery as well as those who lend their wealth to finance it, deserve all the rewards they can earn from voluntary participants in a free, competitive market.

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29) States must set standards (February 15, 2010)

Those who mistrust economic freedom seem to see market failure lurking around every corner. It is commonly assumed, for instance, that if left to their own devices, markets will do a poor job of setting standards. States must therefore step in and impose, say, the metric system, or a single voltage for electrical devices, or one specific design for attaching infant car seats.

This is admittedly a large and complex topic, but to take just one striking counter-example, the history of time zones in the United States and Canada belies the belief that governments must set standards. In a 2005 paper entitled "The Economics of Time Zones," National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Faculty Research Fellow Matthew W. White demonstrates that contrary to the popular misconception, time zones in North America were not set up by political, legal means. Rather, they were established by private agents coordinating their actions voluntarily for their own—and society's—benefit.

The Land Before Time Zones

A mere one hundred and fifty years ago, each American and Canadian town or city had its own local time, displayed by a central clock tower set to noon when the sun was directly overhead. An 1857 Comparative Time-Table reproduced by White illustrates the local time standards in dozens of cities. When it was noon in Washington, D.C., it was 11:18 in Chicago, 11:51 in Toronto, 12:12 in New York, N.Y., and 12:23 in Quebec City.

This system, with literally thousands of different time standards across the continent, functioned adequately when people, goods, and news travelled at the speed of horse and boat. But it became increasingly problematic as technological progress accelerated, with trains and telegraphs literally transforming the world. Adopting a simpler system of broad time zones would greatly reduce coordination problems for freight transfers in inter-regional commerce. It would reduce confusion and inconvenience for the average train traveller as well.

Though the need was clear, many city residents were wedded to the custom of true local time, and so were opposed to change. The federal government was aware of the issue, and certainly not against imposing a solution "for the greater good," but there was conflict there, as well. Two different federal agencies, the Signal Service Bureau and the Naval Observatory, had different visions of what kind of standard to establish. As White puts it, "their protracted dispute set the stage for the unilateral action of the railroads, who determined the time zone system that ultimately prevailed."

All Aboard

With rate wars raging in the late 1800s, the managers of the various railroad companies were not exactly in the mood to cooperate on standardization issues, but their strong mutual interest persuaded them to override their reciprocal antagonism. They came up with a plan that stipulated five time zones, not equally spaced but rather modified to take into account then-current divisions between independent railway lines.

But agreeing among themselves was only the beginning of the coordination problem. The railroad managers still needed to sell their plan to a whole lot of town and city officials responsible for setting the local clock towers every day. The problem, as White points out, is that the cost of changing to the new system "would be incurred by a city's residents and businesses, but the benefit would arise only if other locales changed as well." (Emphasis in original.) In fact, even many railroad managers agreed to adopt the new plan only if the cities they served could be expected to follow it.

The solution they hit upon was to elicit public announcements from city officials detailing their intention to adopt the plan and their rationale for doing so. Though non-binding, these announcements were far from meaningless. A city that announced it was going to switch to a regional time zone and then did not follow through would experience confusion and disarray. The announcements also had the effect of making it more likely for other cities to jump onboard the bandwagon.

The Day of Two Noons

Unlikely as it may seem, the plan worked, and on Sunday, November 18, 1883, towns and cities across the continent smoothly transitioned to Standard Railway Time. Crowds gathered in New York City to witness the marking of noon twice, "once at the local time noon, then again four minutes later on the new Eastern Standard Time" on what became known as "the day of two noons."

Why did the first cities to publicize their intentions agree to make their costly announcements and get the bandwagon going in the first place? White says that "the historical record is suggestive but incomplete." He points out that some cities clearly viewed the plan as being advantageous, especially those served by several railways that then used conflicting time standards.

He also notes, however, that the railroads appear to have lobbied other key cities by using personal connections and influence, "and the occasional strong-arm tactic." Does this latter method condemn the whole private alternative to public standard setting? Hardly. We would do well to remember that everything governments do is a strong-arm tactic backed by the threat of force. The history of time zones is one more example of just how much good can be accomplished through largely voluntary means.

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28) Governments Can Create Jobs (November 15, 2009)

When U.S. President Barack Obama celebrated the one-year anniversary of his election with a speech to a Wisconsin middle school earlier this month, he began by congratulating himself for a job well done in addressing the financial crisis. If he meant that it was his plan for the U.S. dollar to tank and gold to keep hitting new record highs, then he is indeed well on his way to being able to raise his very own "Mission Accomplished" banner.

Most painful for many, though, is the administration's apparent plan to drive up the unemployment rate. Whereas it hovered below five percent two years ago, the U.S. jobless rate hit a whopping 10.2% in October, a 26-year high and only the second time in sixty years that it has topped the ten-percent mark. By another measure, which includes those no longer actively searching for a job and those unable to find full-time work and settling for part-time work, the numbers are even worse, hitting 17.5% in October.

Of course, Obama and his crew cannot accept all of the blame for the mile high unemployment. This mess was created under Bush Jr.'s watch, and long before that, even. With central banks like the Federal Reserve free to pursue inflationary policies unrestrained by a gold standard, major boom and bust cycles are inevitable. What goes up with the help of easy money will come crashing down at some point. The only questions are when, where, and how hard—and how long it will take for the malinvestments of the boom to be liquidated.

That Which Is Deliberately Hidden

It is on this last point that Obama and company can shoulder a lot of the blame. In pushing for and signing a near-trillion-dollar stimulus bill in February, the President explicitly accepted the notion that governments can create jobs. But every dollar government officials spend on stimulating the economy is a dollar taken away from taxpayers—more, actually, thanks to the fraction skimmed off the top to pay tax collectors, tax accountants, and the legislators and bureaucrats who decide exactly how to spend it all. This is what Bastiat explained all those years ago in That Which Is Not Seen. Left in the hands of taxpayers, those dollars would be spent on things they actually want, or saved and invested by someone else on things the public actually wants. The stimulus effect would be even stronger, as more real work would actually get done, and malinvestment would be liquidated and redirected.

Bloomberg News columnist Caroline Baum dissected the folly of all this talk of government job creation just a few weeks ago, before the latest numbers came out. In addition to making the link to Bastiat, Baum mocks the idea of "jobs created or saved," which she calls "a made-up metric if there ever was one." She also rightly points out that for the country's small businesses, "the government's increased and changing role in the economy isn't a confidence builder. Businessmen have no idea what health-care reform will mean for their cost structure or what whimsical tax policies the government might impose when it realizes those short-term deficits are running into long-term unfunded liabilities." Uncertainty is not a recipe for renewed hiring.

But the President is committed to trying to micromanage the economy, just as his predecessors Hoover and FDR did in the 1930s, delaying recovery and causing unemployment rates to skyrocket. In response to the October numbers, Obama signed an extension of jobless benefits, which will have the effect of further reducing the incentive for the unemployed to get back to work, especially if they can expect lower wages than they enjoyed before the current crisis. This more generous cushion interferes with the necessary adjustment process, just as the Fed's easy money policy encourages yet another round of malinvestment.

Teasing Out the Truth

Of course, some spending on infrastructure may be long overdue, and therefore not entirely squandered—although private actors on a free market would be far more efficient at keeping infrastructure maintained in the first place. The President also said he was considering tax cuts for businesses in order to encourage employment, a step that would mitigate the negative effects of his other policies at least somewhat.

Indeed, with so many factors at play, it is difficult to predict whether or not the unemployment rate will peak early next year, as many are hoping. And regardless of when things really do turn around, Obama's defenders will doubtless say that it would have been even worse without the stimulus, just as we free market folks will say that the adjustment would have been quicker with less interference. Such is the difficulty with counterfactuals, which plague economics and all of the social sciences in which actual laboratory experiments cannot easily be carried out.

All the more important, then, to get the theory right, to make sure that it is internally coherent and externally helpful in explaining real world events. Austrian business cycle theory does a better job than other models of explaining booms and busts. The booms of malinvestment are caused by loose money, and the painful busts that sometimes drag on so long are caused by interference with the adjustment process, of which spurious job "creation" efforts are one example. This was the real story behind the Great Depression, and it is the real story now. If more members of Congress understood this, they would have had a better chance of saving their own jobs come next November's midterm elections.

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27) Guilty until proven innocent (October 15, 2009)

It is a commonly understood mark of an illiberal regime that it metes out punishment without trial, or with a show trial to rubber stamp a predetermined verdict of guilt. We expect this kind of behaviour only from the tinpot dictators of backward nations. When a modern power like the United States holds people without conclusive evidence for years in a prison on foreign soil in the name of fighting terrorism, we rightly decry it as behaviour unbecoming a constitutional republic.

Yes, "innocent until proven guilty" is a well-established maxim of justice—except, it seems, when it comes to large corporations. For some people, calling a multinational "evil" is redundant. Often, the very same people who are most vocal in demanding impartial justice for suspected terrorists held in Guantanamo Bay are the first to pronounce large corporations guilty based on unproven allegations or mere hearsay. But to argue that a corporation has the means, and perhaps the short-term motive, to commit a criminal offense is like arguing that someone who fits a certain ethnic and religious profile has the means and potential motive to commit an act of terror. In both cases, justice requires proof before a determination of guilt.

What is not in question, though, is that many large corporations are in bed with governments. It is a matter of public record that many of them receive subsidies or quasi-monopoly privileges, or hold seats on the very regulatory committees intended to monitor their activities. Still, corporations should be judged on a case by case basis, just like individuals. It would be suicidal under current conditions for a large company not to employ lobbyists for self-defence, at least.

Some might maintain that it is only far-left radicals and far-right militarists who are too quick to assume guilt. I think the general tenor of political discourse in this day and age belies such an assessment. In the great health care debate, for example, those who want a universal insurance scheme think their opponents don't care about the uninsured, while those who want less government involvement think their opponents are power-hungry thieves. Those of us who believe the other side at least has good intentions seem to be in the minority. Or maybe we just can't be heard above the din.

Philosopher David Kelley of The Atlas Society (for whom I also write) addresses the issue of moral judgment in The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, a work that is both personal statement and philosophical treatise. In the first chapter, he enumerates all of the steps we must go through, and all of the evidence we must accumulate, before we can rightly condemn a person as evil. Even merely condemning an action requires evidence and context that are often not readily accessible; condemning the motive behind an action requires even more proof, and often some serious hypothesizing; condemning an entire character trait requires that we judge the motives underlying what a person repeatedly does, and so takes even more knowledge about a person's background and circumstances; and finally, condemning a person requires judging actions and motivations in all sorts of different situations.

It is not just a question of basic civility to assume innocence and require proof before determining guilt. There is a deeper reason, grounded in basic logical principle, why it does not work the other way around: quite simply, guilt can be proven, while innocence cannot. Proof of a single criminal offense is enough to assign at least some measure of guilt. It is impossible, however, to prove one's complete innocence conclusively, since this would require that one prove the absence of any crime at any point in time. An assertion of guilt is what logicians call an existential statement, which can be proven by the existence of a single case. An assertion of innocence is a universal statement, equivalent to the total absence of any cases of guilt. To require proof of innocence would place an infinite burden on defendants, at least in theory. In practice, it would give the politically powerful a blank check to harass and silence whoever displeases them.

If it is both illogical and uncivil, then why are many people so quick to judge? Maybe it's because people are uncomfortable with uncertainty. It's easier to fling angry accusations than confront one's own half-buried doubts. We prefer to profess that we know rather than admit we might not, even though we might learn something if we did. Maybe we all had a lot of bad teachers who led us to imagine that knowing things is more important than knowing how to know things. In fact, only the person who can be comfortable with uncertainty is able to approach the world with an open mind. As Barbara Branden has written, "We must wear our uncertainties as a badge of honor, for it is only through uncertainty that we will find the path to knowledge." If we don't even listen to one another, we have no reason to have any confidence whatsoever in our professed beliefs.

Presumed innocence is both logical and civil. It is also indispensable to the proper functioning of a free society. It is a bulwark against the abuse of political power, and any nasty habit of thought that undercuts the presumption of innocence undermines our freedom in the long run. Instead of feeling compelled to pronounce judgment based on suspicion alone, we might consider just admitting what we don't know.

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26) Life is a zero-sum game (September 15, 2009)

One underlying belief I encounter quite often in one form or another is the notion that life is a zero-sum game-more specifically, that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world, and for one person to gain, another must necessarily lose. This sounds plausible at first hearing since, barring the odd hunk of rock from outer space, there is indeed a fixed amount of stuff on planet Earth. We can move it around and recombine it in different ways, but we can't create any more of it ex nihilo. Even the amount of energy coming in from the sun is largely balanced out by the amount of energy being radiated back into space. Of course, we worry that this balance has been compromised by human activity, and that catastrophic warming will be our punishment, but that's a different story.

The primary response to the belief that life is a zero-sum game is to emphasize that there is not a fixed quantity of wealth in the world—that wealth is, in fact, created. We may only be moving stuff around and recombining it, but that in itself constitutes wealth creation. The black gunk that is buried beneath ground or sea is worth nothing to us until it has been excavated and refined, and until we have learned how to release its high energy content. Iron ore is much more valuable once it has been melted down, mixed with other metals, and shaped into girders, rails, trains, coils, hammers, nails, pistons, internal combustion engines, and a thousand other tools. Trees get transformed into houses and books, and we are better off than we were before. And the sun's energy, from the time it enters our atmosphere to the time it leaves, actually does a lot of work, driving the hydrologic cycle and turning carbon dioxide and water into sugar. With a little added human ingenuity—the ultimate resource, according to the late Julian Simon—we can harness the sun's energy to do a whole lot more, too.

In its crudest form, the notion that life is a zero-sum game is a literal superstition. We all know someone who actually believes that if something good happens to him, something bad will follow to balance it out. For one reason or another, some people don't believe they deserve to be happy, and so actually feel uncomfortable when something good happens to them. They may therefore sabotage themselves in order to restore what they see as the proper balance, undermining their chances at a promotion or hobbling a new and promising relationship. Some people simply fear the unknown, and take steps, consciously and not-so-consciously, to keep everything just so.

It is hardly much more realistic, however, to look at a voluntary market exchange and think that one party is profiting while the other is being duped. It does happen from time to time, sure, but swindlers are typically done in by their own bad reputations and lose out to more scrupulous competitors. If both parties do not expect to gain from a transaction, why would they voluntarily take part in it? If their expectations were not met most of the time, why would they keep voluntarily transacting? And yet, many continue to believe that in a (relatively) free and open marketplace, if a company gets rich, it is surely because it has ripped off its customers. The grain of truth that makes this flawed interpretation seem plausible is that some companies curry favour with governments, hence circumventing the need to compete fairly for consumers' dollars.

Along a similar vein, some people imagine that today's rich nations got rich at the expense of those nations that remain poor to this day. Again, there is a grain of truth that gives this argument its force. Rich and powerful nations have exploited and continue to exploit poorer, weaker nations, and in the past, this was indeed the way nations got rich. Still, it doesn't take a libertarian to see the flaw in this line of thinking. No less an advocate of redistribution on a planetary scale than Jeffrey Sachs skewers the notion that today's rich got rich by stealing from the poor. In The End of Poverty, he writes, "This interpretation of events would be plausible if gross world product had remained roughly constant, with a rising share going to the powerful regions and a declining share going to the poorer regions. However, this is not at all what happened." Instead, Sachs tells us, in the last two hundred years, "Gross world product rose nearly fiftyfold." If it were only, or even primarily, a matter of exploitation, where would all of that extra wealth have come from? Sachs concludes, "The key fact of modern times is not the transfer of income from one region to another, by force or otherwise, but rather the overall increase in world income, but at a different rate in different regions." (Emphasis in original.)

On a cosmic level, our sun will eventually burn itself out, but in the intervening four or five billion years, clearly, life on Earth is not a zero-sum game. Some aspects of life, it is true, are zero- or even negative-sum games. War, for instance, produces very few winners, and total losses typically far outweigh total gains. But other aspects of life, for example voluntary exchanges, are positive-sum games, in which both parties benefit. The fact that there are some cheaters out there should not be allowed to obscure this important fact.

Come to think of it, maybe the fear of catastrophic global warming is not so different a story after all. Maybe it bears some relation to that crudest form of zero-sum thinking: that if something good happens, something bad is sure to follow. We will be punished, think the doom mongers, not for our failures, but for our successes, because they reveal our arrogance in thinking that we can control nature—or should I say, Nature. Maybe global warming is a real and serious problem. I personally think the jury is still out on that one. But the idea that we are destroying Gaia and that she will take her revenge on us is a primitivist, superstitious, zero-sum fear that we would do well to jettison to the junk pile of history where such intellectual landfill belongs.

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25) Immigration must be restricted (June 15, 2009)

Those of us who believe in the rightness and the benefits of free markets spend a good deal of time defending free trade between countries. But aside from the free movement of goods and services across international borders, augmenting the free movement of people across those borders would, I believe, greatly increase the peace and prosperity of people the world over. Opening up our borders to increased immigration is in fact demanded both by considerations of economics and of justice.

Unfortunately, immigration is not very popular. The Economist reported last year on a November 2007 poll of Europeans showing that only 55% of Spaniards and 50% of Italians considered migrants a boon to their economies—and that’s the good news. The number for Brits and Germans was only 42%, and for the French it was a dismal 30%.

One reason we fail to appreciate the economic benefits of immigration is that we are predisposed to see the world in zero-sum terms. We assume, for instance, that there are a limited number of jobs available. Immigrants, we worry, will steal “our” jobs and depress the wages of those who manage to hang on to theirs. This worry is especially prevalent with regard to the poorest, least-skilled workers. In fact, there is little evidence to support this worry. Even the least-skilled migrants do not just suck up jobs; they also help create jobs, since as consumers they raise demand which itself gets translated into more jobs. They can also free up skilled workers to re-enter the workforce by providing childcare, for instance. According to The Economist, the numbers tell a similar story: “Studies comparing wages in American cities with and without lots of foreigners suggest that they make little difference to the income of the poorest.”

Fear of Foreigners

We humans also seem predisposed to fear those who are different from us, and events in recent years have not exactly been reassuring. From riots in France to devastating terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere causing massive damage and loss of life, we see people from different cultures causing various levels of mayhem, and our natural xenophobia is reinforced.

But the unrest in France is not so much evidence of a deep cultural divide between Western hosts and Eastern immigrants. There do exist important cultural differences, but it is also the case that France’s sclerotic employment regulations deserve much of the blame for recent unrest. By making it extremely difficult to fire employees, those regulations discourage the hiring of employees—especially the hiring of foreigners of whom one might already be suspicious. Sky-high rates of unemployment in an immigrant population, while not excusing violent demonstration, surely help to explain it.

As for terrorism, it is clearly just a fanatical fringe of Islamists who are so fervent in their beliefs that they would commit suicide and murder hundreds or thousands of innocents for their cause. There is no reason for a free society to fear the average Muslim immigrant. Nevertheless, the War on Terror will continue to be used to justify such projects as the building of fences along the Mexican border, despite the lack of Hispanic suicide bombers and fact that the September 11 terrorists did not sneak across the Rio Grande. And while fences will not keep many out, they might keep many in. As The Economist points out, “After all, the more costly and dangerous it is to cross, the less people will feel like leaving. Migrants quite often return home for a while—but only if they know it will be relatively easy to get back in. The tougher the border, the more incentive migrants have to stay and perhaps to get their families to join them instead.”

Be Our Guest

If there is little chance that developed countries will just throw their borders open anytime soon, guest worker plans seem like a practical compromise. For one thing, our Ponzi-style welfare schemes, to which we are still very much attached, cannot support the whole world. Temporary migration, in which foreign workers come for a limited time just to work without drawing on government benefits, would still be appealing to those workers while alleviating concerns about breaking the welfare bank. So why are they not more popular?

Well, there is the concern that some guests might overstay their welcome. As The Economist Report reminds us, “The old joke that there is nothing so permanent as a temporary migrant has more than a grain of truth in it.” The historical record is mixed, with some countries running guest worker programs that function smoothly, and others failing to enforce the temporary nature of their arrangements.

The more serious problem is that even supporters of more open immigration, especially those to be found among well-intentioned elites, as often as not oppose guest worker programs. These critics lament the creation of a second-class of citizens. It is not right, they argue, to withhold welfare benefits from guest workers. They worry also about the possibility of those second-class citizens being taken advantage of and abused by unscrupulous employers. But is the answer to keep people out altogether, holding out for true open borders some day?

Harvard economist Lant Pritchett is the author of Let Their People Come. In an interview with Kerry Howley in the February 2008 issue of Reason magazine, he addresses concerns about second-class citizens: “The world now is divided into first-class citizens of the world and fifth-class citizens of the world.” He adds that, ironically, in places like the Middle East where people are not so concerned about denying migrant workers all the benefits of citizenship, immigration is high but far less controversial. “One of the awkward paradoxes of the world is that Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and Nepalis are enormously better off precisely because the Persian Gulf states don’t endow them with political rights.” [Emphasis in original.]

Internal Dissent

There are in fact some libertarians, most notably Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who argue against opening the borders to greater immigration. Hoppe has a case to make, but I don't think it gets him nearly as far as he thinks it does. First, he points out that a truly free society would have no single, national immigration policy. Rather, the many private owners of land along the "border" would decide who to allow onto their land, resulting in a patchwork system in which some areas would tend to restrict entry and others would throw their gates wide open. Under current conditions, though, Hoppe sees immigration as "forced integration" because, given existing anti-discrimination laws, people are forced to associate with others they might not wish to associate with. In a truly free society, people would be free to choose with whom they wanted to associate.

Until they are, however, governments should come up with second-best, least-bad national immigration policies. Hoppe argues that in order to minimize the harm to the rightful owners of the land in America (i.e., the current American population) the American government should follow a policy "of strict discrimination." Immigrants should have "an existing employment contract with a resident citizen" and demonstrate "not only (English) language proficiency, but all-around superior (above-average) intellectual performance and character structure as well as a compatible system of values—with the predictable result of a systematic pro-European immigration bias."

Of course, we all have an interest in keeping out hardened criminals and terrorists. The main problem I see with Hoppe's logic, though, is that if America (or Canada) were a truly free society, many hard-working foreigners (and not necessarily Europeans or those of above-average intellect, either) would have bought into ownership of some of the land in North America. A system that tries to minimize harm to the rightful owners of the land should also minimize harm to these multitudes who would have been owners if the society were truly free. This suggests to me far more immigration than Hoppe envisions, and far more than is currently allowed into sparsely-populated North America.

Slow But Sure

Lant Pritchett asserts that holding out for more sweeping change is the wrong way to go. “I think we’re going to move ahead on migration; people are going to become more and more exposed to the fact that people from other places in the world are, in very deep ways, human beings exactly like us; and eventually, in an unpredictable way, the attitude toward this will shift.” Small changes will beget more changes—with the added benefit of slower change being less disruptive for host countries.

Removing immigration restrictions, even if only a little at a time, is an excellent way to help the world’s poor. Immigrants themselves benefit, of course, but so do their families back home, through remittances. Says The Economist, “For most poor countries remittances are more valuable than aid. For many they provide more than aid and foreign direct investment combined.” And because money is remitted directly to families, it neatly sidesteps the problem of corrupt government officials siphoning off aid money to enrich themselves.

In the end, those who oppose more open borders must ask themselves by what right they would deny the freedom of movement of others? Put differently, by what right would they deny the freedom of association of those of us who want more open borders? Increased immigration would help the world's hard-working poor, and without entailing the negative consequences we fear. But most of all, it's just the right thing to do.

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24) The world is a scary place (April 15, 2009)

Will the world end with a bang or with a whimper? Will terrorists shake the very foundations of civilization by setting off suitcase nukes in major world cities, or will the continuing contamination of the environment with toxic man-made chemicals give everyone on the planet terminal cancer? One way or another, the apocalypse, it seems, is just around the corner. Or is it?

In fact, neither of these fears is anywhere near as threatening as many people believe them to be. Dan Gardner, columnist and senior writer for the Ottawa Citizen, has written a book called Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, published last year and newly available in paperback, in which he tries to put such fears in perspective. According to Gardner, even factoring in the 3000 deaths from the unprecedented destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, Americans are more likely in any given year to be unintentionally electrocuted than to be killed in a terrorist attack. Of course, the real fear is that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons. But while this risk does exist, there are also very substantial obstacles that make such a scenario extremely unlikely. Even if, against all odds, a terrorist organization managed to detonate a nuclear bomb in a major American city, killing on the order of 100,000 people, this would be roughly equivalent to the number of Americans killed each year by diabetes, or by accidents, or by infections contracted in hospitals.

As for the fear that toxic man-made chemicals are responsible for increasing incidences of cancer, it hides several misconceptions. For one, it implies that the natural is good and that the man-made is bad. In fact, most pesticides, for instance, are not man-made but occur naturally in the foods we eat. Our fear of toxic chemicals also tends to ignore any consideration of dose, since we tend to panic over insignificant parts per billion that are far below the thresholds found to kill lab rats. As toxicologists are fond of repeating, even water is poisonous in large enough quantities. The fear of environmental chemicals, natural or man-made, is also misplaced in that the American Cancer Society estimates they are responsible for only 2 percent of all cancers, as compared to lifestyle factors (smoking, drinking, diet, obesity, and exercise) that account for a whopping 65 percent. Finally, when adjusted for age and improved screening procedures, incidence rates for all cancers except lung cancer are actually declining, not increasing.

The Great Riddle

Why are we so much more afraid of terrorism than diabetes? Why do we pay so much attention to minuscule environmental hazards while essentially ignoring much larger lifestyle risks? Contrasting Europeans’ blasé smoking habits with their outsized fear of genetically modified organisms, Gardner writes, “Surely one of the great riddles to be answered by science is how the same person who doesn’t think twice about lighting a Gauloise will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion.” To take just one more example, we fear statistically non-existent threats like child abduction and therefore keep our kids indoors, depriving them of exercise and contributing to sedentary lifestyles that have a very real chance of cutting years off of their lives.

The answers to this “great riddle” are partly to be found in human nature. We have gut reactions to dangers that are more dramatic, like terrorist attacks and plane crashes. These rare events also are more likely to make the news, both because of their drama and because of their rarity. Another thousand people died today from heart disease? Ho-hum. Fifty people died in a plane crash? That hasn’t happened in months or years, and the visuals are exciting, so that’s news!

Be Afraid… Be Very Afraid

Irrational fears not only lead us to make bad choices, like driving instead of flying, which place us in greater danger. They also allow government officials to manipulate us more effectively and insinuate themselves more deeply into more and more areas of our lives. The disproportionate fear of terrorism has been nurtured and used to justify a protocol of time-consuming security checks at airports, the warrantless wiretapping of phone calls, the tightening of international borders, and of course, two ongoing wars with huge costs both in terms of lives and money. The exaggerated fear of environmental dangers, for its part, has led to increased taxation and regulation of production, empowering bureaucrats and lobbyists while acting as a drag on innovations and economic growth that could be of even greater benefit to human life and flourishing. (See Gennady Stolyarov II’s “Eden Is an Illusion” elsewhere in this issue of Le Québécois Libre.)

We are prone to fear all kinds of things we really shouldn’t, fears that can be and are reinforced by the media out to tell an entertaining story; by companies out to sell us an alarm system or a new drug; by activists or non-governmental organizations out to elicit donations and support; and by politicians out to win elections and accumulate power. The only way to counteract this is to inform ourselves about relative risks and becoming comfortable dealing with numbers and statistics in general.

There is no such thing as a risk-free world, but despite the real dangers that exist, we in the developed world in the twenty-first century are better off than any other people who have ever lived. We have our human ingenuity to thank for the startling advances in fighting diseases and increasing lifespans that characterize our time. We shouldn’t let our equally human irrational fears get the better of us and push us into giving up our freedom in exchange for ersatz safety.

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23) We are all sinners (March 15, 2009)

Christianity, the religion with which I am most familiar, preaches that we are all born sinners. It really doesn’t seem fair, but we purportedly inherit guilt, or at least a sinful nature, from our first forefather, Adam. Adam disobeyed God and ate from the tree of knowledge. As punishment for this sin, God expelled Adam and Eve from paradise.

Christian theologians eventually compiled a list of the worst transgressions, and called them the Seven Deadly Sins. If you are wealthy and go out for a nice expensive dinner and later head home for a little hanky-panky, you are guilty of three of the seven right there (greed, gluttony, and lust). If you’re hung over the next day and you sit around watching television, wishing you had soap-opera good looks and cursing your satellite provider when the signal kicks out, you’ve committed three more (sloth, envy, and wrath). I hope you’re proud of yourself. (Oops, that’s all seven.)

Modernity has brought with it new sins. Last year, a Vatican Bishop made headlines by listing another set of seven. Among these is causing poverty through social injustice. “Social justice” is, of course, code for egalitarian results. If this is a sin, you should not merely feel compassion and a desire to help the poor; you should feel guilty as well. In some vague way, it is your fault that the squeegee punk is living in squalor. Society made him that way, and you are a part of society. It is your fault, too, that the multitudes in Zimbabwe are starving. You inherited that guilt, you see, from your colonialist ancestors. You also perpetuate it by exploiting them through the evil of globalization.

Environmental degradation also made the Bishop’s new list. This is no surprise, as environmentalism is replete with religious symbolism. It imagines an idealized natural world in which humanity resided before industrialization, or even before agriculture. Humankind is seen as fallen, and the source of this fall is our audacious quest for control of our surroundings through the accumulation of knowledge. Pollution and resource depletion are seen not as problems to be solved but as wicked behaviour for which we should feel shame. There is a deity, Mother Earth, who punishes us for our sins. There are even warnings of apocalypse.

Let There Be Light

All of these religious myths distort certain basic truths. Christianity ignores the fact that pleasure is a biological signal that you are doing something right. The things at which the Seven Deadlies aim—money, food, sex, leisure, and perhaps less obviously, competition, justice, and self-esteem—are by and large good things, if pursued rationally, with a sense of proportion. Colonialism was unjust and wrongheaded, sure, but it is a myth to pretend that developed nations are wealthy primarily because of conquest. In reality, we have our (relatively) liberal institutions and cultures to thank—and poor countries that embrace globalization do far better than those that reject it. Radical environmentalism, for its part, confounds a healthy desire for conservation with an all-encompassing creed that trumps all other considerations.

In the old list, pride, which in one sense is a virtue (see “Ayn Rand, Human Flourishing, and Virtue Ethics” elsewhere in this issue of QL), is supposedly the worst of the sins. This is because it is the mother of all sins. In order to commit any of the other sins, and thus disobey God, one must first be proud enough to disobey.

This gets at the heart of the matter, the purpose of all this talk of sin: obedience. People who feel guilty are more easily controlled. Who am I to question authority when I have lust in my heart? Who am I to stand up for myself when there are some people in the world who are too weak from malnutrition to stand? Who am I to rise up against an encroaching government when I use (gasp!) plastic bags?

Abandon All Guilt, Ye Who Enter Here

Let me make it clear, if it isn’t already, that I am not advocating disregard for the world’s poor, or dumping toxic waste in playgrounds, or letting your anger run roughshod over every passerby who looks at you funny. I am saying rather that needless, unearned guilt only helps those in power manipulate you more effectively. You should feel guilt (and try to make amends) only if you personally have used force, fraud, or coercion against another human being. Otherwise, you should get over it.

Indulging in unearned guilt will not help you figure out the best ways to help others escape poverty. (Declaring war on modernity, as radical environmentalists do, is certainly not the way.) Feeling guilty will not help you carry out a rational cost-benefit analysis of the trade-offs between pollution and production. And it will not help you incorporate pleasure into the best, most meaningful, most fulfilling life you can imagine. Feeling duty-bound to devote all of your energies to others will only breed resentment in the end.

In contrast, if you are a happy, rational, productive person, you will contribute more to the world than any number of misguided bleeding hearts. You will work for your livelihood, providing society with products or services it requires. Secure in your ability to provide for your own, you will naturally feel generous toward others. You will challenge irrational beliefs, at least among your friends and family in the regular course of your days. A builder of cities, a destroyer of myths, you will also infect others with your contagious happiness, inspiring them to be happy, rational, and productive in turn. And, unwilling to accept unearned guilt, you will be a bulwark for the liberty of all.

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22) Persuasion is force (February 15, 2009)

I must admit, I love a good television commercial. The creativity that goes into the best TV ad is as impressive and enjoyable to me as a quality drama, comedy, or documentary. "You feel sad for the Moo Cow Milker? That is because you are crazy. Tacky items can easily be replaced with better IKEA." But damn those clever Swedes! They have, through the alchemy of advertising, forced me into outfitting my entire apartment with their stylish yet affordable household items.

I kid, of course; but there is a certain line of thought out there that cannot abide advertising, and that credits it with all manner of evil. Advertising, they say, makes us fat by brainwashing us into wanting fast food and sugary cereal. It makes men want to buy beer, fancy cars, or anything else associated with hot women. (A current TV commercial makes fun of the "scantily-clad women washing car" cliché by having a group of sumo wrestlers wash a new Subaru.) Advertising makes women dissatisfied with their appearance and hence creates a need for fashion and beauty products that would not otherwise exist. Yes, because as we all know, humans do not naturally enjoy fatty, sugary foods, men would not drink beer or drive fancy cars in the absence of advertising, and women need corporations to teach them to care about their looks. Puh-lease.

Think of the Children

Advertising is about the transmission of information, and it is also about convincing people to buy something. In other words, it is a form of persuasion, but this use of persuasion is implicitly equated with the use of force by its detractors. Sometimes, as in the case of the French website RAP ("Résistance à l'Agression Publicitaire" or "Resistance to Advertising Aggression"), the equating of persuasion and force is explicit. The site features an illustration of a police officer brandishing a billy club accompanied by the slogan, "Ne vous laissez pas matraquer par la pub," which translates, "Don't let yourself be bludgeoned by advertising."

Usually, though, the message is less overt, as it is on Commercial Alert's website, whose slogan is "Protecting communities from commercialism." The site complains about the psychology profession "helping corporations influence children for the purpose of selling products to them." Here, the word "influence" seems none too menacing, but its effect is quickly bolstered by the words "crisis," "epidemic," "complicity," and "onslaught." Force may not be explicitly mentioned, but these words bring to mind infectious disease, crime, and violent conquest. Without coming right out and saying it, the implication is clear―although one could argue, ironically enough, that this effect was meant to be subliminal.

Now, are children more vulnerable than adults to the persuasive nature of advertizing? Of course they are, especially when very young. But it is part of the job of parents (and later, teachers) to equip children with the tools necessary to judge competing claims and see through manipulative techniques. I'll be the first to admit that there is room for improvement in this area―and a free market in education would go a long way toward providing that improvement―but as far as advertising goes, most kids are savvy to the more outlandish claims well before they even reach adolescence. As people grow up, they learn through experience that beer doesn't bring babes (though a little may beneficially lower one's own inhibitions) and that makeup will only get you so far. At any rate, treating all adults like children is hardly a fair way to deal with the fact that some minority of people will remain gullible their entire lives.

Of Words and Bullets

Many of those who really hate advertising share a worldview that involves rich, powerful corporations controlling everything. In fact, there is a sense in which this view has some merit, for it is true that large corporations often gain unfair advantage over their competitors, suppliers, and customers. When this happens, though, it happens through the gaining of political influence, which means the use of actual, legally sanctioned force to hogtie the competition, restrict consumers' choices, or extract taxpayers' hard-earned income. In a truly free market, the government would not have the authority to dole out special privileges, as it does in our mixed economies. Without any goodies to fight over, corporations would have no legal means of squashing competitors and could only succeed by being as efficient as possible and persuading customers to buy their products (and if their products do not satisfy, they will not get many repeat customers). To target this persuasion as a serious problem when actual, legal force is being used surely reveals an inverted sense of priorities, or at least a serious misunderstanding about the sources of society's woes.

Another example of the implicit equating of persuasion with force is the thinking behind legislated limits on the amounts individuals can spend expressing their political views during an election―in essence, limits on political advertising. Here, as in commercial advertising, the purpose is clear: if persuasion is force, then the government is perfectly justified in countering that initiation of force with retaliatory force. If words are bullets, then words can be met with bullets. But it is clear what happens to free speech in such a scenario. Instead of competing voices clamouring for your attention, one monolithic government propaganda machine decides what can and cannot be said. In the political realm, this works against new or historically small parties trying to break through since they have a disproportionately hard time attracting many small contributions in order to pay for ads to get their message out. This leads to a situation in which a couple of largely indistinguishable parties become more and more firmly entrenched.

In fact, the notion that persuasion is force brings to mind nothing so much as George Orwell's novel, 1984, in which the government has destroyed the precision of words by continually reinforcing its contradictory slogans: war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power, and love is hate. It is shocking to observe the smug self-righteousness of those who hold forth on the enormous manipulative power of advertising and who are so sure that they, of all people, have not been brainwashed. But in fact, it is they who have been, if not brainwashed, then at least misled about the relative power of advertising versus the average Joe's ability to think and judge for himself. They have bought, hook, line, and sinker, the most superficial critique of capitalism, when our mixed form of capitalism has plenty of real abuses crying out for correction.

The Power of Persuasion

The point is not that persuasion is powerless. I am engaged in trying to persuade you of something right now, and if I didn't think I had a chance of succeeding, I wouldn't waste my time. The point, rather, is that persuasion must be met with persuasion, words and rhetorical techniques must be answered with more words and more rhetoric. If free competition is allowed in the marketplace of ideas, no one's victory is assured, and we needn't fret too much over the use of psychological tricks, because the trickster's competitors can use them too, or overtly challenge them instead. (See Gennady Stolyarov II's article, "The Victory of Truth Is Never Assured!," elsewhere in this issue of Le Québécois Libre for a related call to action.)

If we are still worried, though, it is undeniable that better education―freer education―would produce a less pliant population, especially important for the issue of political persuasion. The other thing that would help is fighting for full freedom of competition, in both commerce (no special government privileges) and politics (no limits on political speech). In other words, we need to eliminate the government's use of force in the realms of education, commerce, and political campaigning. Agitating for the government to solve our problems for us with the use of more force will only make matters worse, and further infantilize us in the process.

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21) Bankruptcy Is Bad for the Economy (January 15, 2009)

Is it bad for the economy if inefficient, badly run businesses go under? That seems to be the thinking behind fears that the Big Three American automakers, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, might go bankrupt if governments do not bail them out. Millions of jobs would be lost, it is argued, including some half a million here in Canada. The effects would ripple through the economy and depress spending all around. Like the major financial institutions before them, interested parties argue that the Big Three are simply "too big to fail." It would be closer to the truth to say that these dinosaurs are too big and clumsy to survive.

In a free market, if a business goes bankrupt, it is because it was badly run, and competitors were able to be more efficient - that is to say, those competitors were able to produce the same product or service and offer it at a lower price by keeping their costs in check. Alternately, they were able to offer a better product or service for the same price, or again, some combination of a better product or service and a lower price. When in the worst case scenario, a poorly run business is allowed to go bankrupt and liquidate, the capital and labour that were trapped in the inefficient enterprise are freed up to be reallocated to more efficient uses. More successful competitors can expand, purchasing plants and equipment and also hiring laid off workers.

The transition is never painless, of course. Stockholders take a hit as assets are sold off at a discount. Some assets may be of no real use, representing excess capacity or being out of date or run down, leading to further loss. Not all employees will be able to find work in the same fields, as they may have been superfluous; or they will have to take a pay cut, as their wages may have been inflated by decades of legally-sanctioned union extortion. The thing to notice is that, painful as it is, bankruptcy is just the market's way of correcting itself. Economic players have been acting in disregard of reality, and this has consequences. Bankruptcy is a serious form of market correction, but like all market corrections, when it is necessary, it is necessary.

Bailing out an enterprise that should by all rights be allowed to fail is just an attempt to deny reality. It punishes hardworking taxpayers and efficiently-run businesses for the sins of overpaid union members and inefficiently-run businesses. It also sets up an unhealthy spiral, in which those who act recklessly are not held to account, encouraging them to continue to act recklessly in the future. It is corporate welfare at its worst, even though some of the benefits redound to privileged union members at the expense of all other workers.

What about foreign competitors who bail out and subsidize their industries? Wouldn't a free society need to subsidize too, just to compete? Absolutely not. If we cannot compete in a particular, heavily subsidized industry, like the automotive one, we should be happy to allow foreign governments to subsidize our car purchases. We'll just make something else, and pocket the difference, thank you very much.

In most cases, when modern companies declare bankruptcy, they are not even liquidated, but merely get the opportunity to restructure their businesses in more drastic ways than they are normally able to do so. For instance, they can renegotiate their debt repayments and labour contracts, and effect layoffs of superfluous workers and incompetent managers. Creditors get to have some input into how this is accomplished. There is still some pain all around, but not as much as with outright liquidation.

All indications are that the Big Three will be back at the taxpayer trough within months, but this does not mean they should be accommodated. If any companies ever deserved to go into bankruptcy restructuring, it is these three, and one or more of them may even need to be liquidated. Does anyone doubt that a Toyota or a Honda could do a better job of running Chrysler than Chrysler does? One thing is clear: if we keep saving economic actors from the consequences of their actions, we can count on them to continue their profligate, imprudent practices indefinitely.

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20) War is good for the economy (December 15, 2008)

Will President Elect Barack Obama bring the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to an end following his inauguration as many of his enthusiastic supporters hope? Early indicators are not exactly encouraging. Justin Raimondo, editorial director of Antiwar.com, writes, "Hillary the hawk at State, Bush's warlord Robert Gates at Defense, and Gen. Jim Jones […] as national security adviser to the president. Yes, antiwar voters took a chance on Obama, reasoning that anything would be better than four more years of Bushian belligerence, yet now they discover to their chagrin that the dice are loaded." Peter Beinart, writing for Time, has a different take: "It's precisely because Obama intends to pursue a genuinely progressive foreign policy that he's surrounding himself with people who can guard his right flank at home. […] To give himself cover for a withdrawal from Iraq and a diplomatic push with Iran, he's surrounding himself with people like Gates, Clinton and Jones, who can't be lampooned as doves."

With the economy tanking, however, even if pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan is indeed what Obama intends, it will be harder for him to do so, and not only because he will be distracted by ostensibly more pressing problems. It will also be harder for him to bring the troops home because of a perennially popular misconception: that war is good for the economy.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

It is undeniable that war provides employment for officers and enlisted men, for Pentagon scientists and weapons manufacturers, and for housing contractors and civil engineers who must rebuild whatever is destroyed. The contention that war is good for the economy as a whole, however, simply does not hold water. Whether used as a cynical justification by hawks or a cynical denunciation by doves, the notion that war is good for business in general is one of the more bizarre illiberal beliefs out there, so thoroughly is it demolished by a closer consideration of the facts. It is not for nothing that actual businesspeople overwhelmingly favour peace.

The first thing to notice is that money spent by government is money that is not spent or invested by consumers themselves. This applies to anything the government spends money on, and it gives lie to the notion that increased government spending of any kind can "stimulate" the economy. Money spent to build bridges to nowhere is money that is not spent by homeowners, say, to repair their roofs; or, alternately, invested to earn interest and thus spent by some other economic actor. Not only does government spending not stimulate the economy; it can be counted upon to be a drag on the economy, as government officials make their spending decisions in disregard of market constraints, and so tend to redirect capital and labour from more efficient to less efficient uses. Some spending, for instance to maintain or repair infrastructure (over which governments retain monopoly control, but that's another story), may be justified by the simple fact that said infrastructure is in need of maintenance. But the added incentive of stimulating the economy is a canard that should in no way influence the decision to spend or not to spend.

What is true for spending on infrastructure is equally true for military expenditures. Money spent to build fighter jets and aircraft carriers is money not spent by taxpayers themselves, on education or entertainment or any number of other goods or services, or again, invested and thus spent by someone else. As with infrastructure spending, some amount of defence spending may be justified by the actual need to defend against foreign aggression, but the supposed need to stimulate the economy is a ruse meant to fleece taxpayers of a greater percentage of their earnings and a greater share of their freedoms.

The Damage of War

Unnecessary war spending is actually worse for the economy than other kinds of government spending, however. For one thing, war disrupts trade. All of the benefits that normally accrue from countries specializing based on comparative advantages are diminished or lost when shipping and trade are threatened by the vagaries of war. Exporting industries are especially hard hit, but so are industries that import production inputs, and so are consumers as a whole who must pay higher prices or go entirely without.

In addition, war is characterized by the deadweight loss of widespread destruction. Buildings and bridges bombed during a war represent a pure loss to the economy. Yes, rebuilding them in the aftermath of war provides employment for labour and profits for capital, but this employment and these profits are not created out of thin air; they are merely diverted from other uses. Human needs and wants are limitless, so there will always be something for labour and capital to do as long as markets are allowed to function freely. In the absence of war, labour and capital would have been used for other purposes, and economic actors would have benefited from other goods and services in addition to the still-intact buildings and bridges that did not have to be rebuilt. In the aftermath of war and reconstruction, on the other hand, we must all forsake those other things in favour of rebuilding those buildings and bridges. The notion that war is good for the economy because of the rebuilding it requires is thus merely Frédéric Bastiat's famous Broken Window fallacy writ large.

In spite of the above line of reasoning, many continue to believe that war is good for the economy because of the alleged fact that World War II pulled the United States out of The Great Depression. In reality, WWII did no such thing. David R. Henderson, research fellow with the Hoover Institution and associate professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, addresses this issue in his article "The Myth of US Prosperity During World War II." Henderson writes that US unemployment did indeed fall dramatically throughout the war, from 9.9% in 1941 to a low of 1.2% by 1944. This reduction, however, of around 7 million (given a labour force of approximately 55 million) was achieved entirely through conscription. In fact, "Of the 16 million people who were in uniform at some time during World War II, fully 10 million were conscripted." As Henderson points out, "One can hardly judge people to be better off, based on their having jobs, if they were forced into these jobs." In addition, "Despite various policies of Franklin Roosevelt that extended the Great Depression, the economy was coming out of the Depression in the prewar years." When you factor in the reality that all of the increased "production" of the war years was actually used for purposes of destruction, it is easy to understand how hard times continued right on through to the end of the war. As Henderson concludes, "Whatever the value of U. S. participation in the war, for Americans' standard of living, World War II was a bust."

And what of the human casualties of war, the dead and wounded? Those killed in battle clearly do not benefit from war-and neither does the general economy benefit from the overall shrinkage of the population of workers and consumers. Wounded war veterans, for their part, require medical attention, which does provide work for doctors and nurses, yes, but again, work paid for with dollars that would have bought other things and thereby provided work for other workers in the absence of war. (Maybe we could call this the Broken Leg Fallacy?) The wounded themselves, in addition, may be unable to work for the rest of their lives, consigned to lives of dependence as reward for their service. The psychological suffering of soldiers and the pain shared by their families only further strengthens the case against seeking employment through war.

The Fallacy Lives On

And still, even people who should know better continue to embrace the fallacy that war is good for the economy. As Martin Masse pointed out in Le Blogue du QL this past February, one of those people is Paul Krugman, who has since been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Krugman wrote, in a blog of his own in January, 2008, "The fact is that war is, in general, expansionary for the economy, at least in the short run. World War II, remember, ended the Great Depression."

As Mr. Masse noted in his blog, Lew Rockwell, president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in an excellent interview with Scott Horton at Antiwar.com Radio, put Krugman's statements in the proper perspective: "Paul Krugman is a Keynesian who believes in all the Keynesian myths, one of which is that mass murder and destruction of property and transfer of wealth from working people to the merchants of death in the military industrial complex is good for 'the economy.' Well, of course, it's not good for the economy; it's good for the government, it's good for the special interests that are getting the dough, but it's tremendously destructive. Destruction is not economically helpful." As for the notion that WWII got us out of the Depression, Rockwell says, "We did not get out of the Depression until after the war, until the magnificent year of 1946 when the Federal budget fell by two thirds and Keynesians warned at the time that there was going to be a much deeper depression because all of the soldiers would be coming back into the economy and there were no jobs for them." But the US economy boomed, growing by 30% in the year 1946 alone. "That was because of the shrinking of the government."

Recounting a comment by 1982 New York gubernatorial candidate Lew Lehrman, who must have been channelling Bastiat himself at the time, Rockwell says that if war is good for the economy, we could get the same good results by having peacetime agreements with, say, the Japanese to meet at regular intervals in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, each with a fleet of the most modern battleships, and carefully evacuate those ships before sinking them all to the bottom of the sea. "Therefore we can have the economic benefits of war without hurting anybody. Well it only takes a minute to realize, 'Wait a minute… This is not… How can this be helpful economically?'"

A final argument for the economic benefit of war is the scientific advances encouraged by the urgency of warfare, advances which often have peacetime applications. It cannot be denied that this does happen-the development of air travel and nuclear power are two examples that spring to mind-but the same qualification must be reiterated here too: money spent by the government in research and development is money not spent by someone else on some other research or purchase or investment. What might have been developed instead of, or in addition to, air travel and nuclear power if private economic actors had kept all of that money? A cure for cancer? The eradication of malaria? It is simply impossible to say.

Despite what some will continue to argue, while war may on rare occasions be necessary to repel foreign invasion, it is always on the whole bad for the economy. A few well-connected businesses may thrive in the short term, but in the long term, war produces no winners and many losers. If we could consign this fallacy to a watery grave, we would do humanity a great service.

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19) We don't care enough (November 15, 2008)

We all like to think we are good, caring people. Of course, we all want to be happy ourselves, but I think most of us genuinely want others to be happy, too. We want to help others rather than harm them. We want to make the world a better, not a worse, place. But the question we really need to ask ourselves as a society is, "Do we care enough?" With U.S. President-elect Barack Obama set to require (he has since expunged this word) community service from secondary and post-secondary students, clearly he feels we need to care more.

In fact, though, the evidence is mixed, for we do care quite a lot. We care enough to help people who are suffering, often without requiring anything of them in return. We are compassionate enough to take a small fraction of our great wealth (say, one half?) to provide a safety net for people in their times of need. We care enough to save people from the consequences of their own foolish actions, even if it means they (and others) will learn no lessons and be even more foolish in the future.

Actually, "we" are so compassionate that we often make other people's decisions for them, saving them from being foolish in the first place. We are "compassionate" enough to force our more reluctant fellows to help each other, and moreover, to force them to help our way, according to our plan, regardless of the fact that our way and our plan have been shown to destroy wealth and create misery time and time again. Yes, we are generous enough of spirit to impose our plan through force of law when we prove unable to convince everyone to adopt it voluntarily.

Do we care enough to provide education for every child (even if that education is substandard and infected with thinly-veiled government propaganda)? Yes, we do. Are we compassionate enough to make sure every child attends school (even when teachers' unions prevent focusing on quality and innovation as revenge for having to educate the unwilling and disruptive)? Yes, we are. Can we find it in our hearts to draft our fellow men and women into paying for the educational system (even when they don't want to use it because it values socialization more than learning and doesn't teach kids how to think)? Yes, we can.

We, as a society, care so much that we are willing to force taxpayers to foot the bill for certain people to do work that is not required, and to do it inefficiently, instead of letting them find useful work at a price the market will bear. We, as a society, are so compassionate that we guarantee some people a minimum wage, or a rent-controlled apartment, even though it means others will not find work and the supply of apartments will dry up.

We "care enough" to take profits from successful businesses to give it to the less successful as a reward for their failures. We are generous enough to take from the less-entrenched to give to the firmly-established and well-connected. We have the kindness of heart to support our farmers, paying them not to grow food and taxing their foreign competitors out of the market, even if this means we all pay more for food and those foreign competitors starve or become dependent on foreign aid or switch to cultivating poppies and coca leaves.

Clearly, we are at least concerned enough to siphon off the profits of those big, bad pharmaceutical companies, even if it means hampering their ability to innovate. But do we care enough to regulate and litigate against them to such an extent that it is no longer worth their while to produce vaccines in sufficient quantities? Are we compassionate enough to tell them what they can charge for the products of their efforts, even to the point where we destroy their incentives to take on the risk of researching and developing new drugs and the whole industry grinds to a halt? Are we concerned enough to militate for a complete government takeover of the industry, given that governments have such stellar track records when it comes to choosing which new technologies to invest in? Only time will tell.

Do we care enough about the fate of every single species and subspecies of plant and animal to exchange growth for habitat protection—and force everyone else to make the same choice, regardless of how poor they remain? Do we feel enough concern for our children and our children's children to want them to live in a world containing every subspecies of insect that exists today, even if it means children somewhere else will die in childhood from diseases the wealthy needn't worry about? This will be a real test of our compassion in the 21st century.

Truly, we all like to think we are good, caring people—which is why the rhetoric of caring is so powerful. But "we don't care enough" is too often merely a tool for clouding thought on important issues. People are twisted into knots by the requirements of altruism, which are never fulfilled. When you believe in your heart that you belong to everyone but yourself, no amount of caring is ever enough.

And the cold, hard fact about caring is that if it is not accompanied by thinking, it can easily do more harm than good. Anybody can have good intentions, but good intentions lead just as surely to hell as to heaven. The wealth we all want to spread around so magnanimously must first be produced before it can be shared, which makes of productiveness a more important virtue than charity. It is long-term, enlightened self-interest, operating within the context of a free market where property rights are strictly enforced, that has lifted huge swaths of mankind up from abject poverty, and that continues to do so insofar as it is allowed to function. To be effective in promoting the happiness and wellbeing of others, one must not merely profess to want to help them; one must care enough to find out how they might truly be helped.

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18) Capitalism caused the Great Depression (October 15, 2008)

It is becoming increasingly common for commentators to allude to the Great Depression when writing about the current economic crisis in the United States and around the world. For all of our sakes, I sincerely hope that the allusion is hyperbolic, but there is a sense in which it could not be more apt: Then, as now, the failures of intrusive government policies were blamed on allegedly free, unregulated markets; and then, as now, those government failures were used to argue for ever more intrusive policies. While it is true that some deregulation has taken place in recent decades, critics of capitalism exaggerate these salutary changes. In truth, the market today is in many ways more heavily regulated than ever before.

It remains imperative for current defenders of liberty to challenge the all too common misconception that unfettered, free-market capitalism caused the Great Depression. The first step in debunking this myth is to shine a light on the role of the Federal Reserve in inflating the money supply in the 1920's, fuelling the creation of the bubble that finally burst when the stock market collapsed in 1929. It was (and still is) argued that government control of the money supply is a way to ease the severity of business cycles, but the Federal Reserve did just the opposite in the 1920s, exacerbating first the boom and then the bust. No depression in the entire history of capitalism prior to the Fed's creation in 1913 had been anywhere near as severe, prolonged, and widespread as the Great Depression.

Another step in eradicating this myth is to re-examine the role of Herbert Hoover, President of the United States from 1929 to 1933. The common misconception has it that Hoover's hands-off, laissez-faire response made the Depression worse than it had to be. There is no question Hoover did make the Depression worse, but was it really by keeping his hands off of the economy? As Lawrence W. Reed writes in "Great Myths of the Great Depression," FDR sure didn't think so: "During the [1932] campaign, Roosevelt blasted Hoover for spending and taxing too much, boosting the national debt, choking off trade, and putting millions on the dole."

And Roosevelt was right. The Hoover administration's Smoot Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, which Reed calls "the most protectionist legislation in U.S. history," sharply raised tariffs on just about everything, leading foreign governments to retaliate with tariffs of their own. With governments around the world clamouring to shoot themselves in the foot, imports and exports plummeted, making everyone worse off. According to Reed, "The shrinkage in world trade brought on by the tariff wars helped set the stage for World War II a few years later."

Hoover also pressured business leaders into keeping wages high despite falling profits and prices, which predictably resulted in high unemployment; he dramatically boosted federal government spending; and he doubled the federal income tax. With friends like these, the free market doesn't need any enemies.

But it got one anyway, in the person of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who succeeded Hoover as President in 1933. After having campaigned against Hoover's big-spending, big-taxing, protectionist ways, FDR did a complete about-face. His New Deal policies represented not a change in direction, as is commonly believed, but a continuation and an extension of Hoover's failed strategy. After promising to reduce federal government spending by 25 percent, FDR oversaw an 83 percent increase from 1933 to 1936. Comprehensive minimum wage laws pleased some workers, but at the cost of making unemployment worse. Meanwhile, the government raised taxes on agriculture and then "used the revenue to supervise the wholesale destruction of valuable crops and cattle," hurting millions of consumers in the name of raising prices to help farmers. Under FDR, top income tax rates hit 90 percent and business was hogtied six ways till Sunday.

Predictably, the Depression dragged on. In fact, it is hard to imagine how FDR, Hoover, and the Fed could have screwed up the economy any worse than they did. As Reed writes, "Those who can survey the events of the 1920s and 1930s and blame free-market capitalism for the economic calamity have their eyes, ears, and minds firmly closed to the facts." Defenders of liberty must teach others the facts many have never learned. The Great Depression was not caused by the free market; it was caused by "political bungling on a grand scale." The sad part is that if not enough of us learn our lesson properly, we will surely all be held back and made to repeat it.

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17) Democracy is a cure-all (September 15, 2008)

I know it is sacrilege, but that is all the more reason to say it, and say it loud: Democracy is not the be-all, end-all, Holy Grail of politics that many imagine it to be. It is one, but only one, of the ingredients that make for good societies, and it is far from the most important one. Why point this out? If democracy is a good thing, why stir controversy by questioning just how good? Because the widespread, quasi-religious devotion to democracy in evidence today has some very nasty consequences.

Democracy means "rule by the people." The people usually rule by electing representatives, a process which is called, simply enough, representative democracy. Sometimes, as in the case of a referendum on a specific question, the people rule more directly, and this is known as direct democracy. Actually, though, "rule by the people" is a bit misleading, since "the people" are never unanimous on any given question, and neither are their chosen representatives. In practice, democracy is rule by majority (i.e., 50% + 1), or even mere plurality (i.e., more than any one other candidate but less than half) when three or more candidates compete.

Long before any nation had experienced anything even approaching universal suffrage, people concerned with human liberty—thinkers like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill—expressed concerns that the fading tyranny of kings might merely be replaced by a "tyranny of the majority." They worried that majorities might vote away minorities' hard-won rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. Majorities with a hate on for certain minorities might even vote away their very right to life.

History has given these worries ample justification. Democracy by itself is no guarantee of peace and freedom. Adolf Hitler's victory in democratic 1930s Germany is only the most glaring example of popular support for an illiberal, anti-human regime. The people of Latin America have a long and hallowed tradition of rallying behind populist strongmen who repay their fealty by grinding them (or sometimes their neighbours) beneath their boot heels, all the while running their economies into the ground. Their counterparts in post-colonial Africa and certain parts of Asia have shown similarly stellar political acumen.

As writers like Fareed Zakaria (The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad) point out, in those parts of the world that have successfully achieved a respectable degree of freedom and prosperity (basically Europe, the Anglosphere, and Japan and the Asian Tigers), sheer democracy has been supplemented—and preceded—by institutions like the rule of law, including an independent judiciary; secure property rights; the separation of church and state; freedom of the press; and an educated middle class. Indeed, instead of supplementing democracy, it is more accurate to say that these institutions limit the things over which the people can rule. It is enshrined in law and tradition that neither the people nor their representatives shall be above the law, violate the lives or property of others, impose their religious beliefs on others, or censor the freedom of the press. These checks on the power of the people have created, in the most successful parts of the world, not just democracies but liberal democracies.

According to Zakaria, societies that democratize before having built up these liberal institutions and the prosperity they engender are practically doomed to see their situations deteriorate instead of improve, often to the detriment of neighbouring countries, too. Liberty is simply more important than democracy, and must come first. We who are fortunate enough to live in liberal democracies would do well to remember this when judging other nations, like China, and urging them to democratize faster.

We would do well to remember it when thinking about our own societies, too. Thinkers like economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, argue that even in the most liberal countries, democracy often works against liberty. Economists have been saying for a few decades now that political ignorance is an intractable problem that undermines the beneficial effects of democracy. The argument is that since a single vote has practically no chance of affecting the outcome of an election (or a referendum), the average voter has no incentive to become informed. Defenders of democracy have replied that ignorance doesn't matter, since the ignorant essentially vote randomly, and random ignorant votes in one direction will be cancelled out by random ignorant votes in the opposite direction, leaving the well-informed in the driver's seat.

Caplan agrees that if average voters were merely ignorant, their votes would cancel each other out, and the well-informed would be in charge and make good decisions. His central insight, though, is that voters are not merely ignorant, but irrational to boot. Voters have systematically biased beliefs, to which they are deeply attached, and those biases do not cancel each other out. Specifically, the average voter underestimates how well markets work; underestimates the benefits of dealing with foreigners; focuses on the short-term pain of job losses instead of the long-term gain of productivity increases; and tends at any given time to be overly pessimistic about the economy. These biases lead voters to support candidates and policies that undermine their own best interests.

The alternative to democracy, Caplan emphasizes, is not dictatorship, but markets. The market is not perfect, but it works a lot better than politics, because in my daily life as a producer and a consumer, I have an obvious incentive to be rational: my pocketbook. This incentive is lacking when it comes time to go to the polls, because of the aforementioned near impossibility that my vote will determine the outcome. Given this asymmetry, we should favour markets over politics whenever possible. For those things that must be decided collectively, democracy may be the best we can do, but we should strive to decide as many things as possible privately, resorting to politics only when no other option is feasible. In other words, we should recapture the wisdom of the American Founding Fathers, rediscover the genius of constitutionally limited democracy, and reclaim some of the liberty previous generations fought so valiantly to secure. If we don't, it might not be too much longer, in the grand scheme of things, before the Western world ceases to be a model worth emulating.

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16) Self-sacrifice is good (August 15, 2008)

In advocating rational self-interest (see Illiberal Belief #15, below), I certainly do not mean to imply that helping others is a bad thing. There are many good, rationally selfish reasons to help others, from fostering good will to making the world a better place. In addition, it actually feels good to help others. We quite naturally feel connected to others, especially to our close friends and family, but also to a lesser degree to all human beings and even to all living things. Other people can be of great value to us on many levels, and at least until they prove otherwise—for instance by cheating, robbing, or aggressing us or other innocents—it makes perfect sense to treat them with respect, benevolence, and generosity.

Most religions and many moralists go one step further, however, and promote self-sacrifice as the ultimate good. They argue, in effect, that while helping others is commendable, it is only really good when the helper does not benefit, or when the overall cost to the helper outweighs his overall benefit. Only then is the moralist assured that the good deed is done for the sake of the other person. This other-directedness is seen as the very criterion of moral goodness.

In sharp contrast with traditional morality, an ethics of rational self-interest implies that helping others, while commendable in many cases, actually becomes a bad thing when it becomes self-sacrificial. Strictly speaking, to sacrifice is to give up a higher value for a lower value. Giving up something I value less for something I value more hardly qualifies as a sacrifice; it is more properly called an investment if the benefit is projected into the future, and otherwise it is simply a common sense trade-off. However, when my overall cost in helping someone, all things considered, is greater than my overall benefit, then doing so will decrease my overall happiness. It is in such cases that the right thing to do, from a rationally selfish point of view, is to exercise one's right to say no.

At first glance, this may seem like a strange conclusion to those of us steeped in a religious tradition. In fact, though, many of us act this way a lot of the time; we just feel vaguely guilty about it when we do, and we try not to think about it too much. From a rationally self-interested point of view, it is clear that we should be more consistent in pursuing our own happiness, and jettison those feelings of guilt.

A simple thought experiment should help ease the apparent strangeness of fully embracing the moral rightness of rational self-interest. Imagine a close, beloved friend faced with an important decision: Should she pursue a career that would provide obvious service to others, or pursue the career she really wants? Should he marry the girl who will please his parents, or marry the one he truly loves? Should she donate her limited funds to a charity for the homeless, or travel the world as she has always longed to do?

How would you advise your friend or loved one? Would you tell someone you care about to sacrifice his or her own happiness in order to serve others? I think many people would advise a loved one to act in a way that furthers his or her long term happiness. Simply put, we want our loved ones to be happy. That is a big part of what it means to love them.

In light of this, why, then, do we feel that we ourselves must serve others, and that we are somehow morally deficient if we do not? Why do we feel we must put others' needs before our own? Why do we not accord ourselves the same consideration we accord our loved ones? In short: why do we not love ourselves better?

The answer is that we have been taught that such self-love is evil—the root of all evil, even. But do we really believe this? It is easy to extend the thought experiment and ask: do we not want our friends to love themselves? Does their happiness not depend on a healthy self-regard? Then why, again, are we not better friends to ourselves? Only religious indoctrination can explain this unhealthy state of affairs, which remains pervasive despite growing secularism. Old habits die hard, but this is one habit that really deserves to be broken, for all our sakes.

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15) Everyone is selfish—and that's bad (June 15, 2008)

Is it true, as cynics believe, with some backup from certain schools of economics, that everybody is selfish? Well, no. But even if it were true, is being selfish really such a bad thing anyway? The answer to this question depends on what you mean by "selfish."

The traditional view of selfishness, promoted by religion but maintained by many secular thinkers as well, is that it is bad. According to this view, a selfish person thinks only of his own interests, disregarding the interests of others. Such a person might steal from, lie to, betray, or at the extreme even go so far as to murder others in order to get his way.

But is this really a selfish way of acting? It's a petty, criminal, malevolent way of acting, to be sure—but does a person really serve his own interests by stealing, lying, betraying, or murdering? It might serve one's immediate interests to have more money, avoid responsibility for something, or do away with someone who stands in one's way, but what about the longer term consequences? Embracing a life of crime, aside from eating away at your soul, for lack of a better word, will very likely come back to bite you in the ass, landing you in jail or in an early grave. It's not a great way to make friends, either.

A person who is selfish and rational takes the longer term consequences of his actions into account when deciding how to act, what kind of life to lead, what kind of person to be. A rationally selfish person doesn't cheat or steal, but instead works hard, learns about the world, respects the rights of others, and builds lasting, fulfilling relationships—the kinds of things that are actually in a person's best long-term interests. This is the kind of view taken by philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who titled one of her collections of essays The Virtue of Selfishness. This kind of rational self-interest is not something to be lamented, but something to be celebrated, leading to greater wealth and happiness for all.

Those who moan that everyone is selfish have the first kind of selfishness in mind, the bad kind, but clearly not everyone is a thug or a cheat. True criminals are a tiny minority in any civilization. Most people follow some kind of moral code, however mixed up and unexamined it may be. They feel the need, not only to enjoy lives full of rewards, but also to deserve those rewards. They want not merely to have good lives, but to be good people. This simple, basic truth flies in the face of what the cynics out there would have us believe.

The economists who inadvertently lend some support to the cynics have the other kind of selfishness in mind, the good kind. Economists since at least Adam Smith have been unable to deny the beneficial side-effects of lawful self-interested action—though they have not, as a rule, been as unapologetically enthusiastic about it as Rand.

In an article entitled "The Denial of Virtue" published in the January/February edition of Society, sociology professor Amitai Etzioni takes on economists and other social scientists who are quick to explain away charitable behaviour as a way to get tax deductions, volunteer work as a way to meet other singles, or heroic acts as the result of "hard-wiring." Etzioni tells us about experiments suggesting that many people do not "free ride" even when they think they can get away with it. He also points out that many people vote, even though they know the chances that their vote will make a difference are close to nil. In these and other cases, people plausibly report that their actions are motivated not by self-interest but by what they think is right, by what they think they ought to do.

I think Etzioni is correct, as far as this goes. The claims of economists and social scientists that all actions are self-interested—that whatever people choose to do necessarily reflects their calculations of costs and benefits for themselves—is belied by clear cases of people acting out of a sense of duty, either to god or society or their parents.

Where I part company with Etzioni is in believing that this sense of duty is a good thing. Etzioni can point to people doing good out of a sense of duty, but I can point to people disowning their natural desires for pleasure out of a sense of religious duty; sacrificing their rights out of a sense of national duty; abandoning a career or a mate out of a sense of duty to their parents. I do believe in virtue, but I believe that duty is its enemy. Duty ethics ask you to adhere to a set of rules, whereas virtue ethics ask you to live up to an ideal, which is a very different focus.

It is a good thing people are not all selfish in the narrow, petty way the cynics imagine them to be, but it is actually unfortunate that people are not all rationally self-interested in the way social scientists suppose. This kind of rational self-interest not only has beneficial spill-over effects, but is in fact a virtue—it leads people to act virtuously, to live fulfilling lives, and to be good people. As Dr. Nathaniel Branden wrote in "Isn't Everyone Selfish?" published in the Rand book mentioned above, this rhetorical question, though intended as a cynical jab, actually "pays mankind a compliment it does not deserve." Hopefully, more and more of mankind will deserve it as they increasingly embrace the virtue of rational self-interest and reject not only petty, narrow selfishness but also the heavy hand of duty.

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14) Free markets are utopian (May 15, 2008)

In defending the ideal of a free society with a minimal state, free market enthusiasts are sometimes accused of being utopian, of presenting an impossibly perfect vision of what such a society would be like. We are accused of having blind faith that the market will somehow magically solve all of our problems. In fact, while economic and personal liberty is an ideal—and one that deserves to be depicted in all its glory—a free market society is emphatically not utopian for two important reasons. First, free markets are not perfect; they are merely better than any of the alternatives. Second, free markets do not need to wish away all human weaknesses in order to function.

The 16th century book by Sir Thomas More whose title gave us the word "Utopia" is actually two very different books. In the first book, we are treated to a lively dialogue brilliantly ridiculing all the power-grubbing machinations of government officials and arguing about the best way to effect positive change. It wisely warns that societies will never be perfect because human beings are not perfect, but recommends that we should still try our best to resist negative changes and promote positive ones. In the second book, however, we are shown a vision of a radical, socialist society. On the island of Utopia, money does not exist, and a whole slew of positive effects (and no negative ones) is simply assumed to follow from this: everyone happily works for the good of all, there is plenty to go around, and government officials perform their duties with integrity and intelligence.

One is left to wonder what happened to the wise counsel of the first book, which cautioned that human beings would not work without the incentive of personal gain. One also wonders how this Utopia would deal with coordination problems in the absence of market prices, and what happened to government corruption, which is not primarily about money but about power. In stark contrast to the warning of the first book, human beings in the state of Utopia are angelic: they are willing to work hard without proper incentives; they are able to produce everything that is needed without proper information; and they are able to resist the lure of power far better than the members of any society in the real world ever has. There is no plausible explanation of how human beings are supposed to act in ways so contrary to their nature, or of how, in the absence of price signals, producers are to know what and how much to produce given unavoidably limited inputs.

As was made devastatingly clear from the tragic socialist experiments of the 20th century, socialists were wrong to assume that money and property are the sources of conflict, and that by doing away with these, conflict would disappear. They were wrong to assume that it is possible for humans to strive without the incentive of personal reward. They were wrong to imagine that production could be efficiently organized from the top down without market price information. And they were wrong to think that government corruption would disappear with the removal of money from the equation. In practice, societies that have tried to impose egalitarian visions have displayed more, not less, corruption, as power was the only thing left to compete for; they have had insurmountable knowledge problems in the absence of market prices; and, having ruled out the use of "carrots" to motivate people, they have had to resort to the most brutal of "sticks," imprisoning, enslaving, and murdering millions of their own citizens. The solution to the problems that beset humanity is clearly not just to share everything—especially when that sharing takes place at the point of a bayonet.

Societies cannot be perfect because human beings are not perfect. Far from denying this, free market enthusiasts accept this and argue that the best kind of society for us imperfect humans is a free one, precisely because it allows for the easiest and least painful course corrections. Competition allows for and in fact encourages the discovery of better ways of doing things. Free societies harness the personal reward incentive and channel it toward the good of all. The only way to get ahead in a free market is to serve others, to provide them with goods and services they actually want to buy.

Free markets are not perfect, but no one is claiming that they are. We enthusiasts simply believe that the so-called "failures" of markets are in fact just the shortcomings of imperfect human action itself, and hence are not unique to free markets at all, but something that all systems must deal with. The difference is in how well free markets deal with problems compared to all other systems. The closest approximations of egalitarian, socialist societies have brought increased misery through the use of brutal "sticks" and inefficient production. The closest approximations of free market societies have brought decreases in suffering through the use of "carrots" and ever greater, smarter productivity.

A free market society supported by a minimal government that only uses force in retaliation against thieves and thugs is not a utopian fantasy; it is the best realistic way to organize a society for the good of all. But is it perhaps unrealistic to hope that bloated, corrupt governments can be pared down to more reasonable proportions? How do we rein in the undue influence of certain unscrupulous large corporations that extract special privileges for themselves at the expense of their competitors, thereby undermining the benefits of true competition? The solution is simple to state, though admittedly more difficult to implement: if governments have fewer goodies to dispense, large corporations will have less reason to corrupt the political process. What is needed for this to happen is a sea change in the way people perceive governments, and the abandonment of the notion that we should try to address our problems with coercive, top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions that solve nothing. Changing people's ideas is not easy, but it is possible, whereas trying to eliminate the competitive, self-improving nature of human beings as egalitarians would have us do—if such a thing were even desirable—really is utopian.

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13) Change is bad (April 15, 2008)

Sometimes it seems like just about everybody thinks change is a bad thing. Not only conservatives, but modern liberals and environmentalists also want to slow, stop, and reverse many of the technological and cultural changes sweeping our lives. Dealing with these reactionary forces is an ongoing challenge for friends of liberty.

Of course, we expect conservatives to, in the words of the recently departed William F. Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling Stop.” At its most basic level, being "conservative" means being resistant to change. But at their best, what conservatives resist is the encroachment of the State into our economic lives, fighting the over-regulation of the market and the nationalization of industries. In one sense, this is not really "conservative" at all, since free markets are rife with change. At their worst, though, conservatives only pay lip service to free market capitalism, instead doling out special favours and bailing out companies that should be allowed to fail. In this way, they tarnish the image of those of us who honestly believe in the enormous benefits of free markets.

Conservatives also often resist and attempt to stop cultural changes. As the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey points out in his recent book, The Age of Abundance (see my review in QL), the cultural changes of the past several decades are the result of capitalism’s unprecedented success in creating material wealth, and thus liberating us to pursue a wider variety of experiences. Conservatives, though, tend to see these kinds of changes (evolving gender roles, sexual freedom, the normalization of homosexuality, drug experimentation, etc.) as threatening the stability of family, community, and even the capitalist system itself. Now, over-indulging in sex and drugs might make one less productive—even less satisfied with life overall—but as long as people bear the brunt of their own experiments in living, it is wrong to remove their freedom to choose. Concerned about wider cultural changes, conservatives tend to oppose such things as “day after” contraceptives, stem cell research, gay marriage, and ending the Drug War—opposition that causes far more harm than it prevents.

Modern liberals do not necessarily fare any better—they just have a different focus. Whereas conservatives fear cultural change, modern liberals fear economic change. Like ersatz conservatives, they fear the upheaval entailed by layoffs, bankruptcies, and economic downturns. They short-sightedly attempt to prevent unemployment through business subsidies, when lowering the taxes that paid for those subsidies would be a more efficient solution. In bailing out poorly-managed businesses instead of allowing the better-managed to win in an open marketplace, they hamper the spread of innovation in products, services, and management techniques. In manipulating the money supply to ease economic downturns, they only forestall the inevitable correction and make it far more damaging than it would otherwise have been.

There are some issues, like immigration, that confuse conservatives and modern liberals equally, with some people in both camps in favour of more open borders and some against. The only real difference is that once again, liberals are more likely to fear the economic impact of new arrivals, while conservatives are more likely to fear their impact on culture.

But radical environmentalists are really the most "conservative" people of all. They resist development; they resist the use of natural resources; they oppose technologies like GMOs and DDT, which are enormously beneficial to humanity; and they fear manmade changes to the climate. They do not want us to adapt to climate change; they want to stop and reverse it. Radical greens are far more ambitious than conservatives. The latter hark back to a time a mere hundred years ago, when markets were freer and families were more stable. Enviros, on the other hand, look back longingly to a time many thousands of years ago. In their mythical version of the past, we lived in harmony with nature and all its creatures—and in their equally mythical vision of the future, we are on our way to destroying it all.

In fact, human nature has always been about change, and about changing our environment. We harnessed fire, invented the wheel, tilled the land, discovered the benefits of trade and money, founded cities, invented the printing press, discovered how to harness the power of fossil fuels and electricity, learned how to fly, created computers and the Internet—all along improving our lot. Sure, we also fought wars and polluted the environment; but then we also made peace and fixed environmental problems, and we will continue to do so. In the real past, as opposed to the mythical one, human life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” to quote Thomas Hobbes. We have accomplished much in 10,000 years. In wanting to wish it all away, the misanthropes who have hijacked much of the environmentalist movement dishonour our heritage and discredit our ingenuity.

In working for positive change, we need to reaffirm that human beings are not evil for wanting to create wealth, or for wanting to decide how to enjoy that wealth. And we need to reaffirm that using the resources we find in nature is not synonymous with despoiling nature. Nature is not some delicate, unchanging, perfectly balanced, pristine bauble. It is wild and robust and constantly changing—and it is in our nature to shape it as best we can.

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12) You're either with us or against us (March 15, 2008)

Falsehoods and politicians, sadly, often go hand in hand. Whereas Bush senior gave us "Read my lips: no new taxes," and Bill Clinton gave us "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," we have current US President George W. Bush to thank for, "You're either with us or against us in the fight against terror." The nature of these falsehoods varies from one to the next. Bush the father's statement is a promise about the future that was not kept. Clinton's statement is a declaration about the past that depended for its truthiness on a very unorthodox definition. Dubya's statement is false because it illegitimately excludes the middle.

The law of excluded middle is a foundation of logic. If Bush had said, "You're either with us or you're not with us," his statement would have been logical. This, of course, is a far weaker statement than the one he made, because contained in the "not with us" camp are both antagonists and neutrals. In a hockey match, for instance, the statement "Everyone is either on my team or not on my team" makes perfect sense. It excludes no one, for everyone really must fall into one of those two categories. On the other hand, the statement "Everyone is either on my team or on the other team" is absurd. It leaves out the fans, the referees, the taxi driver who drove you to the game, your great aunt Doris who could not care less about hockey, the starving multitudes of Africa, and George W. Bush himself.

The purpose of Bush's illogical declaration was clear: he wanted to intimidate his political opponents, and the American people as a whole, and bully as many other nations as possible into committing their armies to his war. Lest we misunderstand him to mean "with us in spirit," he also said, "Over time it's going to be important for nations to know they will be held accountable for inactivity." Inaction will not be tolerated. You must choose sides. If you think your interests legitimately lie elsewhere, or that other problems are more pressing, or that there are better ways of meeting the threat of terrorism, you must sacrifice your interests (and your judgment) to Bush's crusade.

Other politicians have, of course, promoted sacrifice as a noble duty. Perhaps most famously, JFK chided his countrymen for being self-interested and told them they should start doing more for their country. GWB was merely continuing a long tradition when he told everyone to start doing more for the world. Or else. From each according to his ability, to the State according to its voracious warfare/welfare needs.

Bush was also not the first political figure to try this particular trick with regard to the War on Terrorism. On September 13, 2001, in an interview with Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, Senator Hillary Clinton said "Every nation has to either be with us, or against us." In her defense, maybe she did mean "in spirit." Or maybe she didn't. And historically, this trick dates back at least to Biblical times, when none other than The Son of God himself is said to have said, "He who is not with me is against me." Politicians never change. Five years into the Iraq War, maybe it's time we did.

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11) The environment is steadily deteriorating (Jan. 28, 2007)

There are plenty of potential sources of concern when it comes to the environment. We are polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink; we are depleting the oceans of fish; we are punching holes in the ozone layer; we are warming the climate to dangerous levels—and all of these problems, we are given to believe, are only getting worse.

Taken together, these worries, along with the ones discussed in more detail above, make up what Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg referred to as The Litany in his controversial(1) 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg plumbs the available data and the environmentalists’ arguments on each of these issues and discovers, to his surprise, that things are not as bad as they are made out to be. Like forest cover, air and water quality are generally improving in the developed world, and have been for decades. The ozone problem had a fairly simple and affordable solution which has been implemented. As for the climate issue, even setting aside the serious uncertainties contained in computer models, it will be much easier for us to adapt to future warming than to try, largely in vain, to prevent it. Our trillions of dollars, Lomborg emphasizes, would be far better spent dealing with more pressing problems like poverty in the developing world—and, he adds, helping the world’s poor climb out of poverty would have the additional benefit of allowing them the relative luxury of caring about and improving the state of their forests and the quality of their air.

We need not choose between improving the environment and alleviating world poverty, for the two categories of problems stem from the same kinds of causes. It is inadequately secure property rights and protectionist trade policies that keep the world’s poor from improving their lot; it is the absence of adequate property rights that threatens the ocean’s fisheries; it is irrational government policies that give polluters the right to pollute and forbid those whose property is polluted from seeking damages; it is government subsidies that lead to the wasteful use of water and other resources. We don’t often hear it in the media, but the solution to global poverty and to the environmental problems that do exist is one and the same: greater economic freedom.

1. Readers who are curious about this controversy are invited to visit www.greenspirit.com to see the debate between Lomborg and Scientific American, and decide for themselves which party is trying to clarify the issues and which is trying to muddy the waters.

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10) Resources are limited (Jan. 28, 2007)

Are we in imminent danger of running out of precious resources? We all know of places where clean drinking water is in short supply and others where forests are being cleared to make way for cattle. Hitting closer to home, the surge in oil prices in recent years seems to signal that our supply of black gold is no longer sufficient to meet demand. Should we be worried?

Of these three resources—water, trees, and oil—that often top the lists of concerned conservationists, running out of water would be the most disastrous for humanity. Fortunately, we will never even come close to doing so. Not only is water a renewable resource, we have way more of it than we could ever use. Now, most of it is in the world’s oceans, and this water is not drinkable, but we have the technology to make it so: it’s called desalination. The main reason we do not desalinate more of the ocean’s water is because we don’t need to; by and large, supplies of fresh water are sufficient. It’s true that some people do not have enough clean drinking water, but this is either due to wasteful water use (subsidized by irrational government policies) or to the fact that they are too poor to desalinate or import water. Poverty itself also being largely a direct effect of irrational government policies, the solution to any local water woes is better government—and as a wise man once observed, “that government is best which governs least.”(1)

Trees are also a renewable resource, and contrary to popular belief, we are not running out of forest cover. It is decreasing in some developing countries, which may be cause for some concern, but it is also increasing in the developed world. Overall, if we were starting to run out of trees, the market (to the extent that it is allowed to function freely) would signal us to start planting more by making wood more expensive, and therefore more profitable to grow.

Much the same is true for oil, even though this resource is not renewable—at least not in a human time frame. Price signals nonetheless have the effect of encouraging (or not) the further exploration and development of oil fields. We still have decades of proven resources, and whenever our supplies tighten, for whatever reason, we go out and find more. There is obviously a limit to how long we can do this, but will we hit that limit in 30 years or 30 decades? We won’t know until we do, but even if we begin to approach that limit sooner rather than later, or if current political instability in oil-producing countries persists for too long, the sustained rise in prices will make other forms of energy relatively more affordable, and will also spur technological development that will make them more affordable still. We have more energy than we could ever possibly use, in the form of other fossil fuels like coal and ultimately in the form of sunlight. As with sea water, the main reason we don’t use more of it is because we don’t yet need to.

1. Versions of this quotation are variously attributed to Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.

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9) It’s a small world (Jan. 28, 2007)

We have only one planet, it’s true, and there are ever more of us crowding onto its surface. With six billion humans and counting, surely we must be running out of land—if not on which to live, then on which to grow the enormous amounts of food required to feed us all. As evidence, we are reminded of the large swaths of the planet mired in poverty, a tragedy that is used to justify any number of illiberal policies, from Maoist one-child population control laws to Stalinist food rationing meant to stretch out our meagre and dwindling resources.

Thankfully, these fears are unjustified. The advent and improvement of air travel and modern communications technologies have certainly made the planet seem smaller—we can zip to the Far East in a matter of hours, or send electronic documents anywhere in the world in a matter of seconds—but it’s still the same gigantic ball of rock it has always been. The Earth is really staggeringly large; too large, in fact, to grasp intuitively. Of course, six billion is also too large a number to grasp intuitively. Only mathematics can help us understand if we are truly running out of space.

Our planet has a surface area of approximately 510 million square kilometres, of which just under 30% (149 million sq. km) is land area. How many people can the Earth support? According to Scientific American, “With current farming techniques, a little less than half an acre can grow enough food to feed one person.” One square kilometre contains roughly 247 acres, and so can feed approximately 500 people. If all of the land on Earth were suitable for food production, our planet could therefore support a population of some 73.5 billion people (149 million times 500). Of course, not all land is suitable for agriculture, but thankfully we don’t need it to be. Our current population of six billion could be fed on just 12 million square kilometres of agricultural land, an area slightly larger than the United States. Even at nine billion people (the downwardly-revised population peak we are set to hit by 2050)(1), we would only need 18 million square kilometres, representing just 12% of the land on Earth, or an area about the size of Russia. Furthermore, this figure assumes unrealistically that no further improvements in farming techniques will be invented over the next five decades.

1. Although it is true that there are more of us than ever, the 2004 UN projections show that population growth is slowing and total population is on course to top out at around nine billion by mid-century, far fewer than previously thought.

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8) Morality must be enforced (Dec. 3, 2006)

Between social conservatives on the right and tobacco prohibitionists on the left, it sometimes seems as if everyone wants to impose his or her version of morality on everyone else. After all, if it makes sense to protect us from things like murder, assault, and theft, why shouldn't our representatives in government also protect us from other sinful or harmful activities like pornography and smoking? These self-righteous souls have a clear vision of the good life, and they want you and me to share that life, whether we like it or not. I don't know whether they have good intentions or not—whether they are motivated by a desire to help others or merely by a desire to control them, or by some combination of these and other impulses—and I don't much care. What matters is whether what they are saying makes sense, and whether the results of their actions are actually good. It doesn't, and they aren't.

Why doesn't it make sense to treat pornography and smoking the same way we treat murder, assault, and theft? Because these latter acts are clear instances of aggression by one party causing real, unquestionable harm to another's person or property. As actual crimes, they merit retaliation in kind, and the use of defensive force against the aggressor is justified. Pornography and smoking, however, are just as clearly not instances of one party initiating the use of force against another. As long as those who participate in these activities do so voluntarily, no retaliation by the government or anyone else is justified, period. (Of course, to the extent that it happens, forcing someone to participate in the production of pornography is a crime, just as it would be a crime to force someone to work in the tobacco fields.)

The worst that can be said of things like porn and cigarettes is that they are vices. Vices can harm those who partake of them, but they must also be pleasurable or else no one would ever freely choose them. Those who would impose their version of the good life on others think they know for certain that the harms outweigh the benefits, not just for them but for everyone else as well. They also assume that those harms and benefits will net out the same for everyone, ignoring the simple fact that people are different. (At the extreme, anti-vice crusaders may believe that pleasure itself is actually bad, but I must admit I am stumped about how to address such a twisted notion! It's probably best just to reason with those who are less damaged.) What are the negative results of prohibiting vices? It a) empowers actual criminals by allowing them to profit from the black market in prohibited wares, b) exposes non-criminals to added risks, and c) wastes resources that could be used to fight actual crimes, or for some other purpose entirely. In trying to convince those who worry about vice to allow other individuals to weigh personal harms and benefits for themselves, we should try to redirect their attention to these very real harms stemming from prohibition itself.

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7) The truth is obvious (Dec. 3, 2006)

Reality, especially social reality, is complex. Some people think the truth is obvious or self-evident, but it is no easy task to judge whether or not what someone is saying makes sense, and whether or not the results of their actions are actually good. Indeed, it can be difficult even to know what the results of a particular action are.

In challenging the belief that the truth is obvious, it is useful to leave the charged world of political philosophy for a moment and begin by enumerating some of the many ways in which physical reality is counter-intuitively complex. We all share the expectation, for instance, that a heavier object will fall faster than a lighter one, and we are all shocked when we learn, as children, that this is not the case. The reality is not as simple as it appears, because complicating factors like air resistance vary according to an object's shape and density.

Well, no less an authority than Einstein said that "Politics is more difficult than physics."(1) Social reality has its share of complicating factors too, perhaps even more so than physical reality. In addition, social reality cannot be experimented upon as readily as physical reality. The social world does not fit as easily into a laboratory, and ethical concerns prevent social scientists from manipulating people the way physical scientists manipulate inanimate matter. Given the added difficulties of examining and trying to understand social reality, is it any wonder, for instance, that many people fail to appreciate (or refuse to accept) that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment? When people come to realize that the truth is not so easy, they will be more willing to keep an open mind, to listen to what others have to say, and to check their premises against reality as best they can.

Let us not be fooled into thinking that this belief is any less prevalent within the freedom movement than it is among other people. Believing that our ideas are self-evidently true will prevent us from discovering our own errors, just as it can prevent others from discovering theirs. Furthermore, it will prevent us from communicating our ideas effectively if we cannot understand or appreciate what leads others to their different beliefs. We may end up going so far as to ascribe evil motives to those with whom we disagree if we are unable even to imagine that someone could in good faith fail to see what is so obvious. Needless to say, calling people evil is not the best way to foster fruitful debate, or to convince others of the soundness of our ideas. We must remember that the negative consequences of illiberal policies, which may seem obvious to us, are not in fact self-evident.

1. Quoted on p. ix of Jeffrey Friedman's article, "Popper, Weber and Hayek: The Epistemology and Politics of Ignorance," in which that author discusses at length some of the implications of the general public's ignorance of social reality and its complexity. Item #7 in my list owes much to insights gleaned while reading Friedman's article, as well as from a recorded lecture by Barbara Branden entitled "Objectivism and Rage."

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6) Good intentions are enough (Dec. 3, 2006)

There is a tendency among some people to focus almost exclusively on intentions. They may not explicitly believe that motives are all that matter, but they speak and argue as though that were the case. They spend a lot of time praising people they think have good intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to others, while condemning those they think have bad intentions, who they imagine will act in ways that are beneficial to themselves (either disregarding others or knowingly injuring them).

There are several reasons why being overly concerned with people's intentions in this way is misguided. First, it is simply not possible to be sure what another person's motives are in any given instance. We are not mind readers, so when we infer someone's intentions from his or her actions and declarations, we do so with a greater or lesser amount of uncertainty. To claim to have knowledge of another person's mind is simply arrogant. It is sometimes not even possible in certain cases to be sure about our own motivations, much less someone else's. This is because intentions are complex. We likely have several reasons motivating any given action, some of which even push us in opposite directions.

A second problem with obsessing about intentions is that actions which benefit oneself often benefit others as well. If I work in order to make money, those who voluntarily purchase the product of my labour also benefit, and this is equally true of any voluntary market transaction. This kind of self-interest should be praised as the motor that drives the world to become ever more prosperous, with condemnation reserved for that sub-category of self-interested actions which actually do harm the interests of others.

Finally, it has been said before, but it bears repeating: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Good intentions alone—even redefined to include benign self-interested intentions, and even setting aside the very real knowledge problems involved—are simply not enough. What's the use in wanting to help the poor, for instance, if the manner in which I choose to do so succeeds only in perpetuating their plight? If one wants to do good, one must actually learn how to do good, or one may very well inadvertently end up making things worse. Instead of wasting time judging people based on what we imagine their intentions to be, we should focus on whether what they are saying makes sense, and on whether the results of their actions are actually good.

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5) Charity must be enforced (Nov. 12, 2006)

Some people feel that charity must be enforced and administered through government welfare programs because private charity would not suffice to meet the needs of the destitute and desperate. If people are not forced to give up half of their salaries to ensure a caring society, then they won't do it and we will be left with a dog-eat-dog world in which the needy are left to suffer and die in the streets.

It is undoubtedly true that very few people would give up anywhere in the neighbourhood of half of their earnings if they were not forced to do so. What is not true is that society as we know it would crumble as a result. Instead, it would flourish. Allowing people to keep more (dare we dream: all?) of their earnings would be a great incentive for people to work harder, because the extra effort would be fully rewarded. On the flipside, knowing that they will not be automatically taken care of is a great incentive for the unemployed who are able but unwilling to work to get off their butts already. As for those recipients of welfare programs who are truly unable to care for themselves, they would be able to rely on the voluntary charity of a society that will be even wealthier than the one we have right now and whose productive members will not feel that they "already gave at the office" to the tune of half of their earnings. There is simply no grounds for believing that the bulk of humanity is so uncaring as to let the truly needy suffer and die when helping them is readily within their reach.

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4) We are our brothers' keepers (Nov. 12, 2006)

There is a widespread belief that we have a duty to help others, and more, a duty to place the interests of others before our own interests. This is not to be confused with the idea that it is good to help others in times of need, when we are able to do so. It is the notion that we should do absolutely everything in our power to help others, that we should renounce our own selfish interests and devote our very lives to helping others, and that it is morally wrong to do otherwise. This kind of thinking leads to the now widely accepted idea that we should be forced to help others, through the expedient of involuntary taxation (see above).

As Ayn Rand pointed out over and over again, if we have a duty to help others, then they have a claim on our lives. This makes us all either masters or slaves, with those of us who are most able to "master" our own lives enslaved to help those who cannot or will not take the trouble to master theirs. Those who believe this kind of talk to be hyperbolic should not be allowed to lose sight of how conditional our freedom really is. The demonstration of this is that steadfastly refusing to pay one's taxes will result in armed representatives of the government showing up at one's door, followed by a lengthy stint in prison. Benevolence and generosity do have an important place in human affairs, but involuntary servitude is a perversion of that, and an affront to the dignity of those thrust into the roles of masters and slaves.

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3) Theft can be justified (Nov. 12, 2006)

Many—okay, most—people believe that governments have the moral right to steal from their citizens. They believe this theft, which they disguise by the name "taxation," can be justified in any number of ways. It can be justified because it is for a good cause, like healthcare for all, or the support of higher culture, or the financing of a new football stadium. It can be justified by simple appeal to the will of the majority, as though democratic polling itself could make a thing right or wrong. It can be justified as a way of correcting for negative externalities or market failures in which some are harmed or merely poorly served by certain players in the market. Or again, it can be justified on the basis that since "property is theft," redistributing the spoils can hardly be a crime.

Thankfully, in their private lives most people do not behave like hooligans. Most people recognize the simple truth that theft is an act of aggression, and as such must be banned from civilized human relations. This basic decency is the thin edge of the wedge upon which lovers of freedom must capitalize. It is only through the sleight of hand of government taxation that people are able to convince themselves that theft is justified. We must challenge these justifications by pointing out that people would not accept it if a petty burglar stole from them even if they were told it was for a good cause (with which they might or might not agree) or that the rest of the burglars voted on it first. We must also show that externalities are usually the results of earlier government interventions, and that market failures can be seen as entrepreneurial opportunities rather than as problems to be dealt with by the blunt instruments of heavy-handed dictates. As for the idea that property is theft, this definition is circular: property cannot be theft since theft is the forced removal of property. That some property is acquired by theft is indisputable, but justice demands that these cases be investigated and prosecuted separately, and that the vast majority of us not be treated like criminals.

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2) Order comes from above (Nov. 12, 2006)

Many people do not fully appreciate how order can arise spontaneously. This same basic error explains both why the religious right believes the orderly universe had to be consciously designed by some entity (God) and also why the "progressive" left believes the orderly market has to be consciously designed and maintained by some group of entities (the Government). It seems humanity is predisposed to worship some idol or other, whether we have to make Him up out of whole cloth or merely endow Them with preternatural wisdom and benevolence.

It doesn't have to be this way. Explaining how spontaneous order arises and describing examples of it is the way to go here. Wikipedia, Linux, and the internet itself are good examples of the complex order that can arise with only a few simple rules in place. Of course, two of the best examples are evolutionary theory, which shows how life arose spontaneously from the primordial soup, and economic theory, which shows how human beings can spontaneously order their lives with only the most basic rules in place and virtually no guidance from above.

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1) Government is good (Nov. 12, 2006)

Many people are under the mistaken assumption that government is good: good at what it does and morally good. Although they might think that a particular government is either inefficient or unethical, they still believe at least that government can be good, if only the right people would grab hold of the reins. Indeed, while they may hold a quite low opinion of people in general, they are likely to believe that the people in power are a cut above, or at least that those people who are a cut above could, in theory, grab hold of the reins and make everything better.

In reality, the people in power are no better and no worse (well, maybe a little worse) than the populace at large. Pointing out all of the historical and ongoing examples of inefficiency and unethical behaviour in governments of every stripe is a necessary part of spreading the ethos of freedom to an expanding section of society. It is an inevitable structural problem that whatever human activity the government controls is invariably beset by shortages, shoddy quality, high prices, or some combination of these failings.

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* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.