Does Liberalism Destroy Liberty?

That’s the title question of an essay by Arnold Kling, a sensible economist with whom I usually agree. Not this time, however.

Kling begins with Patrick Dineen’s Why Liberalism Failed. In Kling’s account of Dineen’s argument, modern liberalism (state-interventionism) is an outgrowth of classical liberalism (individualism). Evidently, Dineen takes that view because classical liberralism doesn’t account for civic virtue, and it is a lack of civic virtue (i.e., community) that invites statism.Near the end of the essay, Kling says that

I would not concede that liberalism has failed. But it certainly seems to be going through a rough patch, and we can still wonder why this is the case.

Kling is wrong — the “rough patch” is nothing less than the death of liberalism at the hands of its natural enemies: statists. But liberalism bore the seeds of its own destruction, as Dineen evidently believes, and as I will argue in what follows.

Civic virtue, to my way of thinking, is really just an aspect virtue: general adherence to widely accepted social norms (including religious ones). Adherence to those norms, among other things, binds a community in mutual trust, respect, and beneficial cooperation. That, by the way, is liberty, which isn’t a free-floating essence that can be attained by putting words on paper but a modus vivendi that can only be attained by continued adherence to social norms.

Anyway, here is Kling, commenting on and quoting Dineen:

According to Deneen, classical philosophers focused on the importance of virtue. Individuals must have the virtue of self-restraint to function well in personal realms. They must have civic virtue to have thriving communities.

Liberalism, Deneen argues, disregards this need for virtue.

The classical and Christian emphasis upon virtue and the cultivation of self-limitation and self-rule relied upon reinforcing norms and social structures arrayed extensively throughout political, social, religious, economic, and familial life. What were viewed as the essential supports for a training in virtue—and hence, preconditions for liberty from tyranny—came to be viewed as sources of oppression, arbitrariness, and limitation. (page 25)

Instead, he says,

A succession of thinkers in subsequent decades and centuries [have been] redefining liberty as the liberation of humans from established authority, emancipation from arbitrary culture and tradition, and the expansion of human power and dominion over nature through advancing scientific inquiry and economic prosperity. (page 27)

Deneen says that liberalism departed from classical and Christian values.

What was new is that the default basis for evaluating institutions, society, affiliations, memberships and even personal relationships became dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God. (pages 33-34)

In Deneen’s view, liberalism’s faith in the free market, constitutional government, and science led us to tolerate and even to encourage purely self-interested behavior on the part of individuals. We trust that economic cohesiveness will come from the incentives that operate in the free market. Political cohesiveness we believe will be ensured by checks and balances embedded in an electoral process that functions under a constitution. Challenges posed by our natural environment we think will be met by scientific discovery and technology. But Deneen thinks we’re wrong.

And you (liberals) are wrong because markets, constitutions, and science are amoral formalisms. What’s “good” is what works, or seems to work. The shallowness of that conceit can be seen in the contrast between prostitution (a market transaction) and marriage (a non-market commitment for the vast majority of Westerners). If prostitution were to become a substitute for marriage, what would happen to the emotional bonds and moral commitments that (for the most part) typify marriages and families? What would the loss of those bonds commitments mean for economic and social relations between people generally?

Well, we are seeing the answer unfold before our eyes, as marriage becomes rarer and the bearing of children becomes an inconvenience to be prevented murderous means.

The shallowness of the conceit that what is “good is what works can be seen more generally in a correct understanding of liberalism as it was defined by one of its leading proponents, John Stuart Mill. I have written about Mill’s philosophical folly many times. (There is a list of links at the end of this post.) The following is based from my first essay about Mill, “On Liberty“.

Mill, in On Liberty (1869), offers a definition of liberty which has nothing to do with the real thing (see above):

It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.[1]

That description, strangely, follows Mill’s prescription for the realization of liberty, which is his “harm principle” beloved of both libertarians and modern liberals. It is as if Mill began with the harm principle in mind, then concocted a description of liberty to justify it.

In any event, the source of liberalism’s failure can be found in the harm principle:

That principle is [according to Mill], that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Given the individualistic thrust of this passage and the surrounding text, the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.

Libertarians and liberals, even those who claim to reject license and anarchy, embrace the harm principle, for all of its simple-mindedness.

Enter Theodore Dalrymple, writing in his In Praise of Prejudice:
The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas:

It has long been an objection to Mill that, except for the anchorite in the Syrian desert who subsists on honey and locusts, no man is an island (and even an anchorite may have a mother who is disappointed by her son’s choice of career); and therefore that the smallest of his acts may have some impact or consequences for others. If one amends the [harm] principle to take that part of a man’s conduct that concerns principally himself, rather than only himself, one will be left with endless and insoluble disputes as to which part of his conduct that is….

But, as the great historian Lord Acton said, “Ideas have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Who can doubt that many people have forgotten, for very obvious reasons, Mill’s qualifications of personal sovereignty, namely that it applies to conduct that “merely concerns himself”?

The main appeal of On Liberty to libertarians and modern liberals is Mill’s defense of conduct that (in his view) only offends social norms:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,” by either the state or “society.” Lest anyone mistake Mill’s position, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

In Mill’s usage, “calculated” means “intended.” By that logic, which is implicit throughout On Liberty, an individual is (except in “a few of the most obvious cases”) a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others.

Mill’s bias against the enforcement of social norms, in all but a few “obvious cases” (murder? theft? rape?), ignores the civilizing influence of those norms. That influence is of no account to Mill, as Dalrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was not possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.[9]

There is a high price to be paid for the blind rejection of long-standing social norms, whether by individuals, organized groups, legislatures, or courts wishing to “do their own thing”, exact “social justice”, make life “fair”, or just “shake things up” for the sake of doing so. The price is liberty; that is, the destruction of social norms that make it possible for people to live in mutual trust, respect, and beneficial cooperation.

So, yes, liberalism — even of the antique kind that was preached by Mill and his ilk, and more or less supported by Western governments until statist “isms” began to hold sway — does destroy liberty. It does so by undermining social norms, which then requires an ever-enlarged state to do what strong communities could do for themselves. States inevitable fail, but statists are clever arguers for the proposition that failure requires more state action. And so it goes until true community — and thus true liberty — has been ground under the heel of the state.

Old News Incites a Rant

A correspondent sent me a link to a video about Greenland ice core records. He called the video an eye opener, which is rather surprising to me because the man is a trained scientist and an experienced analyst of quantitative data. The video wasn’t at all an eye-opener for me. Here is my reply to the correspondent:

I began to look seriously at global warming ~2005, and used to write extensively about it. The info provided in the video is consistent with other observations, including icc-core measurements taken at Vostok, Antarctica. Here’s a related post, which includes the Vostok readings and much more: Some of the other evidence that I have accrued is summarized here:

Findings like those presented in the video seem to have no effect on the politics of “climate change”. It is a chimera, concocted by “scientists” who manipulate complex models (which have almost no predictive power) and, on the basis of those models, constantly adjust historical temperature readings to comport with what should have happened according to the models. (Thus “proving” the correctness of the models.) This kind of manipulation is widely known and well documented, as is the predictive failure of the models. But there is a “climate change” industry — a government-academic-media complex if you will — that has a life of its own, and it has transformed what should be a scientific issue into a secular religion. Due in no small part to the leftist leanings of public-school and university educators, tens of millions of American children and young adults have been brainwashed into believing that Earth is headed for a fiery denouement if “evil” things like fossil fuels aren’t banned. Being impressionable — not to mention scientifically and economically illiterate — they don’t question the pseudo-science that underlies “climate change” or the consider the economic consequences of drastic anti-warming measures, which would yield (at best) a lowering of Earth’s average temperature by ~0.1 degree by 2100 in exchange for a return to the horse-and-buggy age.

Here’s what I left unsaid:

The only possible way to defeat the “climate change” industry is to elect politicians who firmly reject its “intellectual” foundations and its draconian prescriptions. There was one such politician who managed to claw his way to the top in the U.S., but he was turned out of office, due in large part to the efforts a powerful cabal ( which is heavily invested in an all-powerful central government that can shape the U.S. to its liking. It didn’t help that the politician was rude and crude, which turned off fastidious voters (like you) who didn’t think about or care about the consequences of a Democrat return to power.

End of rant.

The Minimum Wage Revisited

A post by Arnold Kling (askblog) reminds me of a post of mine from 2009. Kling begins noting the Nobel prize that was awarded to David Card and two others. It was Card and his late collaborator, Alan Krueger, who “proved” that the minimum wage doesn’t cause unemployment.

Kling notes that

Noah Smith goes way overboard in praise of the new laureates. He makes it sound as though the results that David Card and Alan Krueger claimed about the minimum wage were only controversial because they were surprising. But they were also controversial because they were wrong.

Here is the abstract of the paper to which the second link in the block quotation leads:

We re-evaluate the evidence from Card and Krueger’s (1994) New Jersey-Pennsylvania minimum wage experiment, using new data based on actual payroll records from 230 Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s, and Roy Rogers restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We compare results using these payroll data to those using CK’s data, which were collected by telephone surveys. We have two findings to report. First, the data collected by CK appear to indicate greater employment variation over the eight-month period between their surveys than do the payroll data. For example, in the full sample the standard deviation of employment change in CK’s data is three times as large as that in the payroll data. Second, estimates of the employment effect of the New Jersey minimum wage increase from the payroll data lead to the opposite conclusion from that reached by CK. For comparable sets of restaurants, differences-in-differences estimates using CK’s data imply that the New Jersey minimum wage increase (of 18.8 percent) resulted in an employment increase of 17.6 percent relative to the Pennsylvania control group, an elasticity of 0.93. In contrast, estimates based on the payroll data suggest that the New Jersey minimum wage increase led to a 4.6 percent decrease in employment in New Jersey relative to the Pennsylvania control group. This decrease is statistically significant at the five-percent level and implies an elasticity of employment with respect to the minimum wage of -0.24.

That’s far from the only time that Card and Krueger’s “proof” has been demolished.

I joined the bandwagon in 2009, with an analysis documented in this post, which ends thus:

On the basis of the robust results [derived from data for 1959 – 2009,] I draw the following conclusions:

  • The baseline unemployment rate for 16-19 YO [year-olds] is about 9 percent.
  • Unemployment around the baseline changes by about 1.5 percentage points for every percentage-point change in the unemployment rate for 20+ YO.
  • The minimum wage, when effective, raises the unemployment rate for 16-19 YO by 0.6 percentage points.

Therefore, given the current number of 16 to 19 year old males in the labor force (about 3.3 million), some 20,000 will lose or fail to find jobs because of yesterday’s boost in the minimum wage. Yes, 20,000 is a small fraction of 3.3 million (0.6 percent), but it is a real, heartbreaking number — 20,000 young men for whom almost any hourly wage would be a blessing.

But the “bleeding hearts” who insist on setting a minimum wage, and raising it periodically, don’t care about those 20,000 young men — they only care about their cheaply won reputation for “compassion.”

The minimum wage is just another blow to liberty and prosperity from the left, which holds that Americans must be impoverished to battle the chimera of anthropogenic global warming, that police (who protect the poor as well as the rich) must be defunded, that people should be paid not to work, that the expression of views contrary to leftist dogma is criminal, and that human life may be disposed of like garbage.

Recommended Reading

I knew only the bare bones of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s life and accomplishments until I read Francis P. Sempa’s “Why MacArthur Was America’s Greatest General of the 20th Century” (The American Spectator, October 10, 2021). Brief as it is, Sempa’s piece adds greatly to my knowledge of MacArthur.

The article piqued my interest in MacArthur, so I acquired a copy of William Manchester’s American Caesar, purportedly the definitive biography of MacArthur. A review of that book — and an assessment of Sempa’s praise for MacArthur — might appear here someday.

In any case, I fully agree with these passages in Sempa’s article:

There is serious talk of war in the South China Sea, as Chinese air incursions into Taiwan’s air defense space increase and the rhetoric of war becomes all too commonplace. What political scientist Graham Allison called the “Thucydides Trap” (war produced by a rising power’s challenge to the current leading power) may have been tripped. It may once again be a time when America needs great generals and admirals….

When war broke out … on the Korean peninsula, MacArthur was chosen to lead U.S. and UN forces against the communists…. He conceived the brilliantly successful Inchon landing of September 15, 1950, once again overcoming the doubts and opposition of the military hierarchy in Washington. When China massively intervened in the war in October-November 1950, MacArthur urged political leaders in Washington to allow him to achieve victory over Chinese forces. “In war,” MacArthur wrote, “there is no substitute for victory.” The Truman administration, which had basked in the general’s victory at Inchon and had authorized him to liberate all of North Korea from communist rule, now decided that Korea was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they blamed MacArthur for trying to start World War III. When MacArthur publicly noted his disagreement with a policy that sought stalemate instead of victory, he was relieved of command by President Truman. Liberal historians universally side with Truman in this dispute, but settling for stalemate meant continued misery and tyranny in North Korea, emboldened the Chinese Communist Party that today is our greatest geopolitical challenger, and set a precedent that helped lead to our subsequent defeat in Vietnam [emphasis added]….

Today, as we face a possible war with China over Taiwan, we may need more generals like MacArthur because “there is no substitute for victory.”


Related post: The Way Ahead?

Irrational Exuberance

It’s everywhere, but most notably in the stock market and in election returns.

In the stock market, as exemplified by the S&P 500 index, there have been wild swings in the price-earnings ratio:

Derived from Robert Shiller’s data set. CAPE-10 is the cyclically adjusted price/earnings ratio, where the cyclical adjustment amounts to a 10 year average of the ratio.

In a world where stock buyers weren’t driven by irrational exuberance — and irrational pessimism — the PE ratio would follow something like a straight line. It might be a rising straight line because, as some analysts have noted, stock buyers have acquired an increasingly greater tolerance for risk-taking. But it would be close to a straight line.

The zigs and zags of the stock market are echoed in the outcomes of presidential elections:

Derived from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

To put it bluntly, almost every American who values his liberty and prosperity would in most elections have preferred the Republican candidate as the lesser of two evils. The success of Democrats testifies to the gullibility of many voters, who are swayed by — among other things — asymmetrical ideological warfare:

Leftists have the advantage of saying the kinds of things that people like to hear, especially when it comes to promising “free” stuff and visions of social perfection….

[L]eftists have another advantage: they’re ruthless. Unlike true conservatives (not Trumpsters) and most libertarians, leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Why the difference between leftists and true conservatives? Leftists want to rearrange the world to fit their idea of perfection. They have it all figured out, and dissent from the master plan will not be tolerated. (This is very Hitleresque and Stalinesque.) Conservatives and libertarians want people to figure out for themselves how to arrange the world within the roomy confines of simple morality (don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder, etc.).

The left’s ruthlessness was in full spate last year, when the election was bought and probably stolen as well.

In the same post (published on July 23, 2016), my prescience was on display:

If Trump wins in November — a very big “if” — it should be an object lesson to true conservatives and libertarians. Take the gloves off and don brass knuckles. This isn’t a contest for hockey’s Lady Byng Trophy. To change the sports metaphor, we’re in the late rounds of a brutal fight, and well behind on points. It’s time to go for the knockout.

The good news is that recent elections reflect the effects of political polarization. The swings have become less pronounced because the electorate’s “squishy center” has shrunk. The challenge before the GOP is to convince what remains of the “squishy center” that it is in their best interest to reject the anti-libertarian and anti-prosperity policies of the Democrat Party, which has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for an (anti) American brand of Hitlerism and Stalinism.

How Two Wrongs (Do Not) Make a Right

The essential aim of Black Lives Matter and its many allies in the woke-o-sphere is to serve a hot, heaping dish of revenge to whites who meet certain specifications (non-woke, straight, white, male, conservatives of European descent) and to anyone else who doesn’t grovel at the altar of wokeism.

Why revenge? Because, in the world of wokeism, two wrongs do make a right. The wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow weren’t wrongs because they denied fundamental rights to persons of a certain class (i.e., most blacks in the South). If that were the case, wokesters would believe that it’s wrong to deny fundamental rights (e.g., freedom of speech) to certain whites just because of their whiteness or the views that they hold about wokeism.

But wokesters evidently don’t believe that its wrong to deny fundamental rights to persons. Their actions demonstrate this belief: It’s wrong to deny fundamental rights to blacks, but the rest of the world can go to hell.

That this belief exemplifies racism, tribalism, and other isms decried by wokesters is evident to non-wokesters. Thus the backlash against wokeism and its various manifestations — critical race theory being the most obvious and pernicious of the lot.

A Parable of Sheep and Wolves

Sheep are of two kinds. There are those (dumb sheep) who wish for peace but are unwilling to do what it takes to attain and maintain it. And there are those (smart sheep) who understand what follows.

Wolves are of two kinds. There are those (dumb wolves) who don’t care about peace, and whose natural inclination is to dominate and savage others; sheep are their natural prey. There are those (smart wolves) who understand that they can lead better lives if they cooperate with sheep.

Smart sheep understand that they can keep dumb wolves at bay if they retain the services of smart wolves. This is possible because, as peaceable creatures, sheep are good at cooperating for their mutual benefit and therefore enriching themselves. Smart sheep are discerning enough to hire smart wolves who understand that what harms the sheep harms them (through loss of lucrative employment). Thus a bargain may be struck that keeps the bad wolves at bay, while the smart sheep and their smart wolf hirelings enjoy the fruits of mutually beneficial cooperation.

There are, however, a lot of dumb sheep who don’t understand that their peace and prosperity depends on (a) keeping bad wolves at bay and (b) hiring smart wolves for that purpose. Some dumb sheep, despite the hard lessons of experience, cannot believe that there are bad wolves, or that the bad wolves will harm them. Other dumb sheep, despite the lessons of history, cannot bring themselves to hire smart wolves because they are wolves. (Those dumb sheep are the kind who believe that a drawing of a gun is somehow an act of violence, that a man can bear children, etc., etc.).

When dumb sheep dominate, all sheep suffer. When smart sheep dominate, dumb sheep call them “nazis” for hiring wolves and keeping the peace.

He Said What?

From National Review:

“At a Pentagon briefing Wednesday [August 18], when Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked about the U.S. military’s capability to get its citizens out of Afghanistan, his answer was jaw-dropping: “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people. You have to watch Austin deliver this line to grasp its full air of defeatism about a place where our military has moved about with some impunity for two decades….

The best Austin could offer was a promise to try, at least for a while: “We’re gonna get everyone that we can possibly evacuate evacuated, and I’ll do that as long as we possibly can, until the clock runs out, or we run out of capability. . . . I don’t have the capability to go out and extend operations currently into Kabul.”

Of course he has the capability. He has the whole frigging military might of the U.S. to call upon. If he can’t call upon it, it’s because he doesn’t want to or because his “commander-in-chief” won’t let him.

If it’s the former, he should be keelhauled. If it’s the latter, he (and every general and flag officer) should resign in protest. And Biden should be impeached, convicted, drawn, and quartered.

This is right up there with the worst foreign policy/defense failures that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime of 80 years, which is saying a lot because there have been plenty of them. It may not be on the scale of the surrenders in Korea and Vietnam, but — beyond the abandonment of Americans (and Afghans who aided the U.S.) — the debacle in Afghanistan gives aid and comfort to every enemy and potential enemy of the U.S. And it does so at a crucial moment, when those enemies are building their own forces while ours are shrinking — though not as fast as the cojones of U.S. “leaders”.

The Way Ahead?

Afghanistan is the latest is a string of American military failures since World War II: Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq I (Saddam could have been removed but wasn’t), Somalia, 9/11 (a failure in itself), Iraq II, and Afghanistan. (Have I missed any?)

Why the failures? A combination of impetuousness and lack of resolve. Both go with the U.S. system of governance, which (except for World War II) results in frequent shifts of direction and is unduly beholden to “popular” (i.e., media-driven) opinion.

This will not change. It will only get worse. Unless there arises an immediate, existential threat (as in 1941). It must be a threat that is clearly dangerous enough to stiffen the resolve of U.S. (and Western) leaders and to overcome the anti-war, anti-defense bias of the media. But, even then, a sudden burst of resolve by U.S. (and Western) leaders may not be enough. Given technological advances since 1941, an enemy could probably cripple the West (e.g., see EMP) before U.S. and NATO forces and countermeasures can be mobilized.

In sum, monolithic regimes (e.g., China) can play the long game. The West cannot because of its “democratic” politics. Even a Churchill, if one were to arise, probably couldn’t salvage “democracy”.

But by the time that China (or an alliance of convenience led by China) is ready to bring the West to its knees, an outright attack of some kind won’t be necessary. The cultural and political rot will have burrowed so deeply into the the West’s psyche that World War III will be a walkover. A sniveling, hand-wringing affair presaged by Biden’s performance in withdrawing from Afghanistan and blaming others for his own failure.

And it won’t be a walkover for the West.

The Coronavirus: A Case Study in the Destructiveness of Government Action?

There is a long list of things that government does to make life worse for people, even in nominally free countries. Leading that list is the strongly negative economic effect of government spending and regulation.

But government, by and large, gets a pass because it is assumed to be acting in the best interest of the citizenry, and with the consent of the citizenry. That assumption is wrong because government acts in its own interest — or, rather, in the interests of its principal actors and agents. (There’s a massive literature about this, called public-choice economics.)

Even when politician and bureaucrats believe that they are serving the interests of the citizenry, they must do so by penalizing many for the benefit of some. The benefits bestowed on favored citizens (and, increasingly, non-citizens) are paid for not only by the disfavored but also by many of favored. (There’s no such thing as a free lunch.)

In fact, politicians and bureaucrats advance those interests which are congruent with their own. And they do so in order to retain power, which is arguably their overarching interest.

To seem to be effective, and thus to retain power, it is the instinct of most politicians (and bureaucrats) to do something. And doing something, as noted above, can have worse consequences than doing nothing and letting free people strive together in the service of their own interests.

Which brings me to the coronavirus, or the string of coronaviruses that has developed through mutation and survival of the fittest (i.e., strains that are increasingly resistant to vaccines). It has been assumed that the citizenry would be best served through governmental edicts such as mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, and, ultimately, involuntary vaccinations.

But there is an alternative hypothesis: Such measures have merely delayed the inevitable and made it worse by creating the conditions for the evolution of more contagious and perhaps deadlier strains of the coronavirus. Under that hypothesis, if the first stage of the coronavirus had been allowed to run rampant, herd immunity would have been achieved. The most vulnerable among us would have died or suffered at length before recovering (and then, perhaps, only partially). But that would have happened in any case.

Widespread exposure to the disease would have meant the natural immunization of most of the populace through exposure to the coronavirus and the development of antibodies through that exposure — which, for most of the populace, isn’t lethal or debilitating.

Natural immunization (and thus herd immunity) didn’t happen because of mask-wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, and forced vaccinations (governmentally encouraged, even if nominally private). And so, the coronavirus is becoming deadlier instead of dying out on its own.

In the end, millions of people will have suffered and died needlessly because politicians and bureaucrats couldn’t (and can’t) resist the urge to do something — and because they have the power to make something happen.

Related reading: Brian McGlinchey, “Lockdowns, Masks and The Illusion of Government Control Over Covid“, Stark Realities, August 13, 2021

Why Should I Worry about Inflation?

What inflation? The spike on the right in this graph:

There are many reasons why inflation (except in moderation) is a bad thing. You can find those reasons by consulting Wikipedia or doing a web search. But there’s one reason that isn’t getting much press right now: Inflation hinders economic growth. Again, I won’t spell out the reasons, but you will find them if you research the ill effects of inflation.

You should be worried about the effect of inflation on economic growth because the effect is negative. Therefore, persistently high inflation means slower economic growth, which means less employment, less lucrative employment, less real output of products and services and — of course — a standard of living that’s lower than it would otherwise be. The top 10 percent won’t have anything to worry about because (a) they probably won’t be affected and (b) even if they are, the effects will be trivial (for them). The other 90 percent will suffer, and the suffering will hit the middle class (hard), the working class (harder), and the truly poor (hardest of all).

How do I know that inflation has an adverse effect on economic growth. Well, it’s among several things that, taken together, have an adverse effect on economic growth: an increase in the fraction of GDP that is commanded by government spending; a decrease in the rate of private, nonresidential investment spending; an increase in regulatory activity (as measured by Federal Register pages), and an increase in the rate of inflation as measured by the CPI-U. (See this for details.) As a result, there has been a steady down-trend in the rate of GDP growth since the end of World War II. (See Figure 2 here; it is slightly out of date but the trend has continued its decline in the two years that have passed.)

The equation presented at the first link above indicates that a persistent rise the rate of inflation by 1 percentage point will cause the rate of real GDP growth to decline by about 0.13 percentage point. That may not seem like much, but it becomes a lot over time because of compounding. Thus, for example, an increase in the rate of inflation from 3 to 4 percent, if sustained over 10 years, will result in a rate of growth that is 88 percent of what it would have the rate of inflation not increased.

But that estimate may be too low. GDP growth, as discussed, has been falling steadily for several decades, with occasional reversals during periods when onerous government policies have been relaxed. Abstracting from the downward trend, I obtained a statistically significant relationship between the year-over-year change in CPI-U and the year-over-year change in the de-trended rate of real GDP growth — with a four-quarter lag between the change in CPI-U and the change in the rate of GDP growth. What this amounts to is a rough estimate of the effect of the change in the rate of inflation on the rate of GDP growth when trend-related factors (government spending and Federal Register pages) are held constant.

Here’s the relationship:

The r-squared may not seem impressive, but it is statistically significant at  the 0.01 level (for those of you who care about such things).

What does the equation mean? It means that an annual rate of inflation above 2 percent generally drives the rate of GDP growth into negative territory. It means, specifically, that a 1 percentage point increase in the rate of inflation will cause the rate of growth to decline by 0.23 percentage point in a year — almost double the effect that I had derived earlier. Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the accuracy of the estimate, but the negative relationship between inflation and GDP growth isn’t in doubt.

A little bit of inflation is a necessary thing in a growing economy because increases in outlays on investments must precede the resulting increases in quantity and quality of economic goods. But a sudden and persistent increase in the price of goods, fueled by government money-printing, is a bad thing. It creates uncertainty, and uncertainty is an enemy of sound economic decision-making.

What we are now experiencing may prove to be a very bad thing.

More Thoughts about the “Marketplace of Ideas”

In “The ‘Marketplace’ of Ideas” I observe that

[u]nlike true markets, where competition usually eliminates sellers whose products and services are found wanting, the competition of ideas often leads to the broad acceptance of superstitions, crackpot notions, and plausible but mistaken theories. These often find their way into government policy, where they are imposed on citizens and taxpayers for the psychic benefit of politicians and bureaucrats and the monetary benefit of their cronies.

The “marketplace” of ideas is replete with vendors who are crackpots, charlatans, and petty tyrants. They run rampant in the media, academia, and government.

Caveat emptor.

I have more to say in “Revisiting the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’“.
Now comes Tom Smith of The Right Coast:
Think [about] Nazism, Communism, various religions, Rastafarianism, and other -isms without number. Millions of people actually believe these things, often without reservation. The marketplace of ideas at best works only, ah, imperfectly, you might say. You also might say it’s always just a half-step away from disaster.
I would say that it often leads to disaster. Bringing the U.S. economy to its knees in the name of combating climate change is today’s Exhibit A. (Though it has stiff competition from Critical Race Theory, the transgender fad, abortion-on-demand, and a bunch of other things.
Equilibrium in the “marketplace of ideas”, were it ever to be realized, would be a consensus about “truth” of some kind or other. The problem is that even if such an equilibrium could be attained, a lot of damage (often irredeemable) would occur before nirvana arrives.
There are many historical parallels he tortuous and often futile search for “truth”, and to the damage that is wrought during that search.. One parallel that springs to mind — and which ought to horrify you — 100,000,000 human beings in the years between Hitler’s rise to power and the defeat of his regime.

Liberty vs. Security

An esteemed correspondent makes some good points in the following message (which I have edited lightly):

Our country is in more dire straits than it has been at any time in my lifetime [he is 85]. Maybe not as bad as when a Vice-President shot and killed a former Secretary of the Treasury or when there was an armed insurrection and each faction tried to take the other’s seat-of-government by force. I think our current divisions and divisiveness are detrimental to the continuation of the “greatest nation the world has ever known”; and I don’t think they can be fixed.

Liberty and security pull in opposite directions. More of one, less of the other. History and common-sense tells us that is so.

I’d like to start with Benjamin Franklin’s saying that is often misinterpreted. He said that our form of government is a republic, if you can keep it. That has been misinterpreted, repeatedly and emphatically by the current speaker-of-the-house to mean that Franklin was warning against a strong executive emulating a monarch. I think he was warning against the opposite, which he had witnessed in France. He also was fearful of our becoming a pure democracy with a people’s parliament becoming a law unto itself. This is similar to the tradeoffs between liberty and security. Either extreme is undesirable.

The geniuses who designed our government provided a number of checks and balances to try to keep things sort of in the middle. We are a federated democratic republic, not a democracy as is so often misstated. The Framers of the Constitution designed a government, but they neglected to explain the relationship of the government to those that were being governed. It took the first ten amendments to the Constitution to make that explicit. Those ten amendments delineate the limits that the federal government has over individuals. The 14th amendment essentially extends that to state governments. I especially like the tenth amendment. It is simply worded and says in plain English, any rights and authorities not specifically given to the federal government in this document belong to the people and/or the states.

Two constitutional issues were settled by the Civil War: slavery was no longer legal anywhere; and secondly, it was not permissible for states to secede from the union. It took later amendments to confirm that Blacks were not property; they are human beings with all rights of other human beings. Unfortunately that didn’t sit well with many Americans and we are still trying to sort out that issue in practice.

I don’t think that our current problems can be solved by appealing to the consent of the governed to be governed, namely by voting. Nor do I think secession (breakup) is feasible.

Voting: A significant fraction of those that voted in the November 2020 election think the the “results” are not honest. You can dismiss that view, but it is necessary to have a buy-in to the results of an election to have an election that conveys the consent of the governed. To me it is beside the point whether there is any evidence of “stealing an election” or not. There were enough irregularities that a demagogue can and did stir up doubts. Elections need to appear incorruptible, and today they are not. Could that be fixed? Not in our polarized society.

Furthermore, and this is more important, there isn’t balanced news coverage leading up to our elections or in analyzing the results. When there is overwhelming bias in the media, or there is no fair representation of both sides of the coin, we don’t have an environment for fair elections. Today one political party and the media are indistinguishable. The “media” is totally biased and deceitful in reporting “facts”. Remember Hamilton and Jefferson, who were arch political enemies. Each funded media that parroted his version of “truth”. But there were two sides. Add to the mix today’s “social media”, controlled by those favoring security over liberty. So the voices of liberty over security are relegated to fringe “nuts”. [The last bit is a gross error on the writer’s part, unless the millions who take my position on the matter are all on the fringe.]

Maybe even more importantly and indicative of a long-term fundamental change in America is the influence of “educators”. Uniformly, from those teaching young minds to the teachers of those teachers, in the formulators of “correct” history they favor security at the expense of liberty and are militant about spreading the “gospel”. They are children of the 1970s. Many grew up at a college their parents paid for and they didn’t have to work when they got out of college. They didn’t have any useful skills and of course the remedy for that is the old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach”.

So I don’t think there is any chance of “voting” to obtain the consent of the governed for their government is achievable. The influences wielded by the media and the educational system can’t be alleviated. There is only one perspective instead of a balance between liberty and security. I have avoided using the words liberal or conservative, or republican or democrat. I think that liberty and security are the two concepts that should be discussed more often as the heart of the country’s differences.

Secession: The possibility of secession, peaceful of not, was foreclosed by the Civil War. Since then the entanglements between the federal entity, the state entities, and the states themselves rule out out any practical solution those bindings.

Bottom Line: We’ll muck around for quite some time until it is realized that our system with all its faults is better than any feasible alternative. If and when it happens, I’ll be long gone.

I responded at length, in two epistles. Here’s the first one:

Your analysis of the present situation in the U.S. is spot-on. And, as you say, it’s not going to get any better on its own. There really are two Americas and they are irreconcilable. There are a lot of Americans — me included — who will not stand for “mucking around” that legitimates the present state of affairs or its ultimate destination: an imperial central government that is beholden to and effectively run by ultra-rich oligarchs and their lackeys and enablers in the bureaucracies, public schools, universities, information-technology companies, and media.

As for secession, the Civil War settled nothing — Justice Scalia to the contrary notwithstanding — except to underscore the fact that the North was able to muster superior forces thanks to its larger (free) population and industrial strength. If you have the time, read my analysis of the Court’s infamous ruling in Texas v. White, on which Scalia founded his baseless dictum: Scroll down to Section VI.F. for the bottom line about the legality of secession.

I also discuss in another section the practicality of secession or, rather, its impracticality. But there is another way to skin the cat. It is the nullification of federal edicts by the States. I refer to a new kind of nullification, which — unlike the kind attempted by South Carolina in the early 1830s — doesn’t involve formal declarations by State legislatures and governors. Rather, it involves non-compliance, acts of defiance, and foot-dragging. We saw some of that during Trump’s years, as States and cities declared themselves “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants and refused to cooperate with ICE. We are beginning to see it from the other side as GOP-controlled States bring suit after suit against various federal actions (e.g., Keystone pipeline, Biden’s immigration fiasco), and GOP-controlled cities and counties declare themselves pro-life and gun-rights “sanctuaries”. This could be the wave of the future, with effective diminution of the central government through non-compliance with federal edicts. Federal courts have no power to enforce the edicts, and must rely on the federal government for enforcement. How many brushfires can the federal government put out? Would it resort to force against a state? I don’t know the answers, but it’s not clear that the federal government will come out on top, especially if it tries to enforce things that are wildly unpopular in some States and regions, such as abortion, strict gun-control measures, vaccine passports, or (the coming big thing) climate lockdowns.

So, unlike the earlier secession and its violent conclusion, there could be a non-violent kind of secession. It wouldn’t involve the formal breakup of the U.S., just a new modus vivendi between the States and the central government. Or, rather, a return to the modus vivendi that was intended by the Framers, enshrined in the 10th amendment, and then frittered away by the central government’s “mission creep”.

There is another, complementary, possibility. It is that Americans in the center turn their backs on the radical direction the country seems to be taking. (Resistance to CRT is a good case in point.) If enough of them do it, the GOP will retake Congress. And if in 2024 the GOP were to nominate someone more like Reagan than Trump, the Democrats could be kept out of power for a while — at least until they come to their senses. In the meantime, the Supreme Court could, without fear of being packed, make some libertarian rulings. A key one would be to find that Big Tech is s state actor (because of its immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act), and therefore acts illegally when it censors views on the pretext that they are “hate speech” or “anti-science”, etc. In the way of the world, such an electoral and judicial turn of events could trigger a “cascade” in the direction opposite the one in which the country has been heading. And so, the “mucking around” might come to a better end than the one foreseen by you.

Here’s the second one:

A further thought about the tension between liberty and security.

It is really a tension between left and right, which is a deep psychological divide, as I discuss here: (The missing figure, which I will have to reconstruct, is derived from polling results that support the point made in the text.)

A point that I don’t make explicitly, but which should be obvious, is that compromise invites further compromise, to the detriment of liberty. The ransomware attacks, for instance, wouldn’t be happening if the U.S. hadn’t long ago abandoned the principle of unconditional surrender by the enemy. The track record of the U.S. government since the Korean War invites aggression. China and Russia know that and are playing the long game while Biden is tilting at global-warming windmills and (overtly and tacitly) endorsing a leftist agenda that will drive the U.S. economy to its knees while ensuring that the U.S. remains irreconcilably divided.

The end result of “mucking around” may well be not the kind of “social democracy” that keeps Eurpeoans fat, dumb, and happy. It may well be something far worse than that. You have been warned.

And I have been among the warning voices for many years.

Related reading on polarization: John Sexton, “The CRT Backlash and Progressives’ Big Lie about the Culture War“, Hot Air, July 8, 2021

Images from the Past

I mentioned the hardier Americans of more than a century ago in the preceding post. I had in mind my own grandparents and the members of their generation and socioeconomic class. They grew up in hard-scrabble times and never rose far above them. But they were a tough lot who would be appalled by the whiny Boomers and later generations who are ashamed of their own race and cringe in fear at the sight of a maskless person.

Here are my maternal grandparents in 1935, as the Great Depression dragged on. He was a caretaker at a resort in Michigan; she raised 10 children and lived to the age of 96. His body gave out at age 64, and he was buried on the day of my birth.

They were 59 and 55 when the photograph was taken. I inherited his hairline and nose and their hair pigmentation. (At the age of 80, my hair still isn’t completely gray.)

Here is my maternal grandfather with six of his seven sons, also in 1935. (All seven served in the armed forces, six of them during World War II.) All of his and my grandmother’s children lived to adulthood, with an aunt making it to 96 and my mother to 99.

Below is my paternal grandfather in 1917, with my father in his arms. My grandfather was a laborer all of his life and died at the age of 57 in a construction accident. His two wives bore him 13 children, of whom 12 survived to adulthood and three are still living. The house is typical of what he could afford on a laborer’s wages. The front door is probably open to provide “air conditioning” because the photo was taken in late August — a hot and humid time in the part of Michigan where he lived.

Despite my grandfather’s meager income and the cost of supporting a large family, thrift and hard work enabled him to buy farm property on which his second wife (and mother of 10 of his children) lived to the age of 97. The property is still in the family, and some of his children and their descendants have homes there.

Below is my paternal grandmother (left) with her younger sister, about 1919. The unpainted house in the background is probably the same shabby one glimpsed in the preceding photo. Grandmother died at the age of 25, leaving my grandfather with two surviving children; their youngest child having died at the age of 13 months. (Her grave went unmarked for 90 years until my sister and I had a headstone erected in 2015.)

I didn’t know my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother, both of whom died before I was born. But I remember well my paternal grandfather, and especially well my maternal grandmother who lived until I was 36 years old. It is her house that is the centerpiece of one of my earliest posts: “Reveries“.

“Tough” doesn’t begin to describe the generation of my grandparents or that of their children, who became known as the “greatest generation”.

For the departed:

Time, you old gipsy man,
Will you not stay,
Put up your caravan
Just for one day?….

Last week in Babylon,
Last night in Rome,
Morning and in the crush
Under Paul’s dome;
Under Paul’s dial
You tighten your rein —
Only a moment, and off once again;
Off to some city
Now blind in the womb,
Off to another
Ere that’s in the tomb.

From Time, You Old Gipsy Man, by Ralph Hodgson (1871-1962)

Are the Vaccines Making a Difference?

Maybe, but they’re not game changers. It’s more likely that (a) the most vulnerable citizens were picked off in the first three waves of the pandemic, and (b) herd immunity has been mainly responsible for the recent declines in the rates of new cases and deaths.

In graph below I have plotted 7-day moving averages of the daily numbers of new COVID-19 cases and deaths. (The plot of deaths is moved to the right by 24 days because the highest correlation between cases and deaths occurs with a 24-day lag from cases to deaths.) Although the case rate began to decline in mid-January 2021, the death rate held steady through mid-March, and then began to drop only after about 10 percent of the populace had been fully vaccinated. It seems unlikely that 10 percent would have been a game-changer.

In any event, the COVID pandemic is not nearly as lethal as the Spanish flu, which the hardier Americans of more than a century ago managed to survive without the benefit of vaccines:

With deaths at less than 0.2 percent of the population, it is unsurprising that most Americans don’t know (or know of) anyone who died from COVID. How is it that such an inconsequential disease brought a country to its knees and enabled petty tyrants to deprive Americans of their liberty?

The answer: Decade upon decade of indoctrination by the media and public-school “educators” in the belief that the nanny state knows best.

Related reading: “PA”, “‘No Substantial Outbreaks’ From Large Events Pilot Scheme, Says Report“, The Epoch Times, June 25, 2021

Where It All Went Wrong

When the usual suspects were rioting, looting, and destroying their own habitat last summer (and many previous summers), did you wonder what happened to the Riot Act? Said act, in its original (British) form, provides that

if any persons to the number of twelve or more, being unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the publick peace, at any time after the last day of July in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and fifteen, and being required or commanded by any one or more justice or justices of the peace, or by the sheriff of the county, or his under-sheriff, or by the mayor, bailiff or bailiffs, or other head-officer, or justice of the peace of any city or town corporate, where such assembly shall be, by proclamation to be made in the King’s name, in the form herin after directed, to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, shall, to the number of twelve or more (notwithstanding such proclamation made) unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously remain or continue together by the space of one hour after such command or request made by proclamation, that then such continuing together to the number of twelve or more, after such command or request made by proclamation, shall be adjudged felony without benefit of clergy, and the offenders therein shall be adjudged felons, and shall suffer death as in a case of felony without benefit of clergy.

Would that it were so in these times.

But it isn’t so because the sob-sisters, bleeding-hearts and weeping-willies — who have always been with us — have for centuries (if not millennia) chipped away at the protections that keep the bad guys more or less in line. They have likewise chipped away at standards of performance.

The effective abolition of the death penalty in this country is just the tip of the melting iceberg of punishment.

Awards for showing up are symptomatic of the erosion of standards.

The two phenomena have been conjoined in the left’s treatment of law-enforcement. There are too many felons running loose because pre-felonious crimes aren’t punished harshly enough (a failure that is often justified by the demographic characteristics of offenders); felonies aren’t punished harshly enough; paroles are too easily granted; police (those who are still on the force) are increasingly edgy about “mistreating” suspects who resist arrest; and affirmative action has ensured that law-enforcers are no longer as strong or quick-witted as they were in the past.

What did happen to the Riot Act (British version)? This:

The death penalty created by sections one, four and five of the act was reduced to transportation for life by section one of the Punishment of Offences Act 1837.

The Riot Act eventually drifted into disuse. The last time it was definitely read in England was in Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 3 August 1919, during the second police strike, when large numbers of police officers from Birkenhead, Liverpool and Bootle joined the strike. Troops were called in to deal with the rioting and looting that had begun, and a magistrate read out the Riot Act. None of the rioters subsequently faced the charge of a statutory felony. Earlier in the same year, at the battle of George Square on 31 January, in Glasgow, the city’s sheriff was in the process of reading the Riot Act to a crowd of 20-25,000 – when the sheet of paper he was reading from was ripped out of his hands by one of the rioters.

The last time it was read in the Scotland was by the deputy town clerk James Gildea in Airdrie in 1971

The act was repealed on 18 July 1973 for the United Kingdom by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1973, by which time riot was no longer punishable by death.

There is still a riot act in the United States, and it is sometimes used. Its use by President Trump during the Antifa-BLM riots of 2020 provoked the usual reactions: “Trump is a racist.” “Trump is Hitler.” And the left’s allies in the media simply refused to acknowledge the riots or, when they couldn’t be tossed down the memory hole, insisted on referring to them as “protests” (“mostly peaceful”, of course).

But the history of the Riot Act in Britain, which died from disuse long before it died officially, tells the sad tale of how sob-sisters, bleeding-hearts, and weeping-willies — and leftists — have undermined the rule of law and made the world a less-civilized and less-safe place for the vast majority of its denizens.

None of this would have happened if God had smitten Adam and Eve for their transgression. Perhaps that’s where it all went wrong.

Seriously, though, it all went wrong in the way that most good things go bad. Just a little tweak here to make someone happier and a little tweak there to make someone else happier, and the next thing you know: the think is all tweaked out of shape. It’s like making a mountain out of a molehill: a shovelful at a time over a long period of time will do the trick.

Related posts: Most of the posts listed here.

The Poison of Ideology

Ideology, which drives political and social discourse these days, is

a set of doctrines or beliefs shared by the members of a social group or that form the basis of a political, economic, or other system.

Get that? An ideology comprises doctrines or beliefs, not hard-won knowledge or social and economic norms that have been tested in the acid of use. An ideology leads its believers down the primrose path of a “system” — a way of viewing and organizing the world that flows from a priori reasoning.

An ideology, because of its basis in doctrines or beliefs, puts something at its center — a kind of golden calf that is the ideology’s raison d’être. The something may be the dominance of an Aryan Third Reich; the dictatorship of the proletariat; the destruction of infidels; big government as the solution to social and economic ills; free markets at all costs regardless of the immorality that they may spawn; “social democracy” in which all matters of social and economic importance are to be decided by a majority of the elected representatives of an electorate that has been enfranchised for the purpose of arriving at the “right” decisions; stateless societies that (contrary to human nature) would be livable because disputes would be settled through contractual arrangements and private defense agencies; etc., etc., etc.

You might expect that the bankruptcy of ideological thinking would be obvious, given that there are so many mutually contradictory ideologies (see above). But that isn’t the way of the world. Human beings seem to be wired to want to believe in something. And even to suffer and die for that something.

That can be a good thing if the something is personal and benign; for example, the satisfaction of raising a child to be mannerly and conscientious; sustaining one’s marriage through trials and tribulations for the love, companionship, and contentment it affords; getting through personal suffering and sorrow without resort to behavior that is destructive of self or relations with others; believing in God and the tenets of a religion for one’s own sake and not for their use as weapons of judgement or vengeance; taking pride in work that is “real” and of direct and obvious benefit to others, however humdrum it may seem and how little skill it may require. In other words, living life as if it has meaning and isn’t just an existential morass to be tolerated until one dies or an occasion for wreaking vengeance on the world because of one’s own anxieties and failings.

What I have just sketched are the yearnings and tensions that modern man has acquired, bit by bit, as old certainties and norms have been undermined. Is it any wonder that so many people since the dawn of the Enlightenment — where modernity really began — have wanted to quit the “rat race” for a meaningful life? Not creating an empire, leading a conquering army, or founding a dynasty. Just doing something self-satisfying, like farming, owning a small business in a small town, or teaching children to play the piano.

Ironically, Voltaire, an icon of the Enlightenment, sums it up:

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the[Pg 168] linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

That is to say,

the main virtue of Candide’s garden is that it forces the characters to do hard, simple labor. In the world outside the garden, people suffer and are rewarded for no discernible cause. In the garden, however, cause and effect are easy to determine—careful planting and cultivation yield good produce. Finally, the garden represents the cultivation and propagation of life, which, despite all their misery, the characters choose to embrace.

And so should we all.

Related posts:

Another Angle on Alienation
An Antidote to Alienation

The False Promise of the Fiscal Multiplier

With a bit of trickery that is hard to spot, it is possible to “prove” that 1 + 1 = 3. (Watch this video and look carefully at the fourth and fifth lines of the “proof”, neither of which follows from the preceding line.)

Building on the logical and empirical analyses of some notable economists, I (and many others) have found the trickery in the “proof” that there is a fiscal multiplier: an additional dollar of government spending, not financed by borrowing or taxes) generates more than a dollar’s worth of additional GDP. The multiplier is both logically unsound and empirically invalid.

I urge you to read my page, “Keynesian Multiplier: Fiction vs. Fact“, for the details of my disproof. (For a recent discussion of the empirical invalidity of the multiplier, see this post by Veronique de Rugy.) I won’t repeat the details here, but I will focus on a particular aspect of the disproof. It exposes the logical trickery that underlies belief in the multiplier.

It used to be (and perhaps still is) the case that courses in the principles of macroeconomics began with a circular-flow model of a static economy. If everyone did the same thing, year after year, the same economic units would produce the same things. Each economic unit’s output would be valued in the marketplace, and that value would give the economic unit a claim on a slice of the total production of goods and services. The division of output between consumption (goods and services enjoyed here and now) and investment (replacement of the stock of capital as it deteriorates) would be determined by the willingness of producers (earners of income) to forgo consumption in favor of saving. (It is saving, non-consumption, that allows the diversion of resources to the production of capital goods.) The rate of investment would be just enough to sustain the output of goods and services at constant rates.

The circular flow could be perturbed for many reasons (e.g., population growth, a natural disaster, technological innovation). But what would happen to the circular flow in the event of such a perturbation? The output of goods and services would be increased or decreased by the immediate effect of the perturbation and by its secondary effects on the economy.

Take a simple two-producer economy, for example, where Joan makes guns and Ralph makes butter. Joan and Ralph exchange some of their output of guns and butter, so that during the year each of them earns a combination of guns and butter. If Ralph dies, and Joan is unable to make guns, the only output will be butter. And if Joan doesn’t need as much butter as she used to produce (some of which she traded to Ralph for guns), she will produce less butter — just enough for her own consumption. So there is the immediate effect of Ralph’s death (no guns) and the secondary effect of Ralph’s death (Joan produces less butter but consumes the same amount as before).

The multiplier doesn’t work that way. According to the multiplier, the reduction in Ralph’s spending on butter would affect Joan’s spending according to her marginal propensity to consume (the rate at which each increment of her income is translated into more or less spending on consumption goods). But it doesn’t. Joan, quite sensibly, simply consumes as much butter as before, though she produces less of it. There is no multiplier effect. There is just a reduction in the economy’s total output: no guns, and just enough butter for Joan’s needs.

A defender of the multiplier would respond that my economy doesn’t represent an advanced economy like that of the United States, in which most transactions don’t take place at arms length (through barter) but, rather, through a medium of exchange (U.S. dollars). In such an economy, the defenders would argue, an exogenous reduction or increase in the demand for goods and services would cascade through the economy. Less demand for A would reduce the income of the producer of A, who would spend less on B through Z; the producer of B would spend less on A and C through Z; etc. In the end, the economy would shrink by the sum of each producer’s reduced spending — the multiplier effect. Here is the standard derivation of that effect, which I explain here:

Derivation of investment-govt spending multiplier

Y is GDP, C is consumption spending, I is investment spending, G is government spending (all in “real” terms), and b (as stated) is the marginal propensity to consume.)

Because b is less than 1, the expression 1/(1-b) must be greater than 1 — thus the “multiplier” on an exogenous change in spending. And despite the heading, the multiplier effect, in theory, applies to any exogenous change in the amount or rate of spending or saving. It could be a consumption or saving multiplier, for example. That is one of the tricks of the multiplier: If it exists, it isn’t just a government-spending multiplier, much as the proponents of bigger government would like you to believe.

Another trick is the mysterious mechanism by which an exogenous change in the rate of spending results in even more spending. It’s time to expose the mechanism.

What is Y but the sum of the dollar values (adjusted for inflation) of the output of all “final” goods and services (including changes in inventory) during a given period? What does Y therefore represent? As long as we’re using the terminology of macroeconomics, in which everything is implicitly homogeneous, Y represents the familiar (to some) equation of exchange:

MV = PQ, where, for a given period,

M is the total nominal amount of money supply in circulation on average in an economy.

V is the velocity of money, that is the average frequency with which a unit of money is spent.

P is the price level.

Q is an index of real expenditures (on newly produced goods and services).

The multiplier implies that, everything else being the same, a change in Q will result in proportional changes in PQ and MV. If there are unemployed resources and an exogenous increase in government spending employs them (and does nothing to prices), an increase in M (deficit spending) is exactly matched by an increase in Q (real output), so that the equation MV = PQ isn’t violated.

But how does an increase in Q (the initial burst of additional output) result in further additions to Q, as the multiplier implies? If P doesn’t increase (and it shouldn’t if the multiplier is “real”), then MV must rise. There is an increase in M — the jolt of exogenous government spending. But there is no further increase in M. So MV must rise because V increases as a result of the initial jolt of government spending. The multiplier, however, says nothing about V, unless increases in spending that result from the initial jolt in Q can be construed as increases in V and Q.

Let’s step back from this conundrum and consider the situation of a static economy with unemployed resources. An increase in M (deficit spending), of targeted perfectly, resulting in a proportional increase in Q. The persons who earn income from that increase spend some of it (that is, their rate of spending rises temporarily). There is no new M, but V rises (that is, the rate of spending rises) in proportion to the rise Q. So, temporarily, MV’ = PQ’.

This is the only sensible way of explaining the multiplier. But look at how many things must happen if an exogenous increase in government spending is to result in an actual increase real output:

The additional spending must be targeted so that it elicits additional production from unemployed resources.

The addition production must, somehow, be delivered to persons who actually benefit from it.

The recipients of additional spending must at least some of their new income into spending that results in the employment of hitherto unemployed resources, and the result must be the production of additional things that are delivered to persons who benefit from the production.

And so on and so forth.

What happens in practice, of course, is that deficit spending results in the production of things that politicians and bureaucrats favor (e.g., economically useless bullet trains and bridges to nowhere). but which have little or no economic value. And the spending often crowds out the production of other things because many (most?) of the resources involved are already in use (e.g., engineers and trained mechanics, not unemployed high-school dropouts from inner cities). Those are among that many things that are skipped over in the “proof” that the multiplier is real and positive. (See my page about the multiplier for much more.)

The bottom line is that the multiplier might well be positive, in nominal terms. That is, GDP might seem to rise, at least temporarily, but real GDP — the actual output of things valued by consumers — is another matter entirely. As I suggest here — and as is pointed out in my page about the multiplier and the article by Veronique de Rugy — the actual output of things valued by consumers may not rise at all, and probably will be crowded out by additional government spending.

Things valued by consumers certainly will be crowded out by additional government spending, because — in the long run — temporary additions usually become permanent ones. Which is just what the proponents of the multiplier want to happen. The multiplier isn’t just phony, it’s an excuse to boost government spending, that is, the share of the economy that is directly controlled by government.

Have you noticed lately what a great job government is doing for the citizenry, especially in Blue States and cities?

The Four Americas

Arnold Kling’s latest post is somewhat related to the one on which I commented yesterday. The new post recaps and assesses George Packer’s thesis that there are four American mindsets:

Free America, Smart America, Real America, and Just America. Free America means the libertarians who favor limited government. Smart America means the management elites who favor economic and technological progress. Real America means the blue-collar Americans who favor dignity and patriotism. Just America means the progressive “woke” who favor economic equality and moral rectitude.

Kling, toward the end of his post, writes: “Real America takes distrust of elites too far. It resists hard truths (about the pandemic, for example). It puts too much faith in Donald Trump.”

I object. The distrust of elites and faith in Trump are reactions to the egregious overstepping by the elites who populate the other three Americas. The overstepping dates back to the anti-war (anti-American) antics of collegians, academics, media types, and politicians in the 1960s (and since). If the elites were somehow tamed or made irrelevant, the passions stirred in Real Americans would subside and they would revert to the kind of moderate behavior that they exhibited in the 1950s.

A reversion to the 1950s would be a welcome relief. The main accomplishment of the libertarians who later came on the scene has been to encourage and abet the breakdown of civilizing moral codes (think abortion-on-demand and homosexual “marriage”). The main accomplishment of Smart America has been to pursue economic growth for its own sake, regardless of the effect on Real America (think off-shoring and globalization). And the main accomplishment of Just America has been to foment discord and discontent for the sake of virtue-signaling. A pox on their houses (think urban riots, the encouragement of homelessness by subsidizing in, and the demonization of straight white males of European descent).

Related post: 1963: The Year Zero

Is Optimism Possible?

I have been, for many years, pessimistic about the future of liberty and prosperity in America (e.g., here). I am not alone, of course. The estimable Arnold Kling isn’t as openly pessimistic, but it isn’t hard to read between the lines of his many posts about the present state of affairs. Take this one, for example, in which he writes about

some possible outcomes for the future:

1. The “good left” ([Jonathan] Rauch and others) overpowers the illiberal Woke left. p = .05

2. The illiberal Woke left suffers a catastrophic electoral defeat at the hands of a non-populist right. p = .05

3. The illiberal Woke left and the populist right continue to dominate political dynamics, with today’s level of discomfort or more. p = .40

4. The U.S. experiences an era of Woke totalitarianism that lasts for a couple of decades, but which eventually collapses into something else (not necessarily good) p = .25

5. Academia, journalism, traditional media, and government become empty battlegrounds, as technological change results in very different forms of social organization (call this the Balaji scenario, if you will). p = .25

There is a sixth possibility, or perhaps it’s a combination of Kling’s #1, #2, and #5, with a higher probability that Kling assigns to them.

People, except for a small but loud minority, will simply quit caring about ideology and just get on with living their lives and engaging personally with people who matter to them. This turn of events won’t be obvious at first, but it will begin to show in such ways as the declining use of social media. Astute politicians who have been too quick to embrace “wokeness” will sense the turning tide and begin to moderate their positions in the hope of appealing to a broader electoral base. As things go in politics, this new moderation will catch on. The illiberal left won’t shrink in numbers or volume, but the moderate (i.e., more liberal) left will grow in influence. And there will be much more common ground for the empowered moderate left to share with the sane liberal right (i.e., actual conservatives as opposed to attitudinal zealots). A new center will form around deeply shared values (defense of life, liberty, and property) as opposed to fatuous slogans (defund the police, all whites are racist, etc.). The media, in turn, will embrace this new zeitgeist and quit antagonizing viewers with daily injections of wokeness. And so it will go, until something line the zeitgeist of the 1950s has been restored.

A lot of history would have to be overcome, including (but far from limited to) decades of leftist indoctrination in public schools and universities, massive dependency on big government, political and bureaucratic inertia, and the degree to which key institutions (e.g., schools and media) have become locked in to wokeness. But if history teaches us anything, it is that the tides of human affairs do turn.

I don’t expect to see the tide turn (by very much) in what remains of my lifetime. But I still hold out hope that it will, for the sake of my children and grandchildren and on down the line.