Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Friday, September 23, 2016

TGIF: Neither Democracy nor Elitism

Whenever we libertarians point out democracy's perverse incentives (as I do here) we risk being accused of elitism. However, those who assume that the only alternative to rule by the people is rule by an aristocracy reveal a tragically incomplete awareness of the choices before us.

Rather than choose among rulers, we should ask why anyone at all must rule. But even if we don't go quite that far, we could entertain the idea that radically reducing the scale and scope of government, which essentially is the threat of violence, would also drastically reduce the harm produced by those perverse incentives. Elitism isn’t the only available alternative to democracy -- and it certainly is not the most desirable one.

Unfortunately, some libertarian critiques of democracy encourage nonlibertarians to believe some form of elitism is the only alternative. Take Georgetown University professor Jason Brennan's recent op-ed, "Can epistocracy, or knowledge-based voting, fix democracy?" in the Los Angeles Times, which is drawn from his book Against Democracy.

Brennan begins by citing democracy's systemic flaw:

"The median voter wields great power over what politicians ultimately do. But — and here’s the problem — the median voter would fail economics or Political Science 101.

"For 60 years, political scientists have studied what voters actually know. The results are depressing. Hundreds of different surveys, such as the American National Election Studies, find that the median voter is ignorant or misinformed not only about the social sciences needed to evaluate candidates’ policy proposals, but even of basic facts and trends, such as what the unemployment rate is and whether it’s going up or down.

"This isn’t because public schools fail us. It’s not because Fox News or MSNBC (take your pick) bamboozles poor voters with well-crafted lies. It’s not because people are inherently stupid or unable to think for themselves. It’s because democracy gives us the wrong incentives.

"How we vote matters, but how any one of us votes does not. The chance an individual vote will make a difference is vanishingly small. Thus, we have little incentive to gather relevant information so that we can cast our votes in careful, thoughtful ways....

"While not everything governments do is decided by voters — bureaucracies, parties and officials have significant independence — what voters want makes a difference. And since voters are generally uninformed, we get worse policies that we would with a better-informed electorate."

I'll leave for another time Brennan's debatable contention that this "better-informed electorate" is really better informed where it counts. (When this electorate says it favors "free trade," does it actually mean neoliberal managed trade through government agreements, which may be what some of the supposedly lesser informed electorate fears?)

Instead, I'll focus on Brennan's "alternative to democracy called epistocracy." He explains: "In a democracy, every citizen gets an equal right to vote. In an epistocracy, voting power is widespread, but votes are weighted: More knowledgeable citizens’ votes count more."

Brennan lays out several ways to implement epistocracy, insisting that "epistocracies should keep some things — like our basic rights — off the bargaining table. They should make power widespread because concentrating power among the few invites abuse. Epistocracies should have constitutional limits on power, judicial review, checks and balances and a bill of rights — just like representative democracies." That's a relief, but can we really trust the informed elite to understand basic rights? (Did the framers of the Constitution get it right? I argue otherwise in America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.)

Even with his caveat, Brennan's proposal leaves him open to the charge of elitism. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative writes,

"Restricting the vote to the cognitive elite is no solution. I would rather be ruled by the first thousand people through the gates at the Daytona 500 than the people in that room Friday night with Hillary Clinton and Barbra Streisand. Guess who holds more power already in our society? That’s right: the cognitive elite. That’s how it works in a meritocracy. Prof. Brennan’s epistocracy would only give them more — for our own good."

Brennan certainly does not blunt the elitism charge when he writes:

"Some would object that epistocracy is essentially inegalitarian. In an epistocracy, not everyone has the same voting power. But what’s so wrong with that? Only some people have plumbing or hairdressing licenses because we accept that only some people are qualified to fix pipes or cut hair. Perhaps only some people, rather than everyone 18 and over, are truly qualified to decide who will lead the most powerful country on earth."

Need I point out that it is astonishing for a libertarian to cite licensing in defense of his plan for an unequal distribution of voting power? Formally, licensing is the state's way of determining who may and may not engage in occupations supposedly in the interest of consumers. Actually, licensing is how incumbent practitioners of occupations exclude competition and hamper innovation in order to support the monopolistic incomes to which they have become accustomed. It's a system of privilege. Why hitch political reform to it?

The public-choice problems with any form of epistocracy have long been noted, and Brennan is familiar with them. For example, who would compose the test to determine who gets extra votes? Even if we assume that Brennan has good ideas about making any test fair, public-choice analysis gives us reason to doubt that his ideas would be adopted.

Another problem with testing relates to Gilbert Ryle's distinction between "knowing how" and "knowing that." Someone could be ignorant of the facts asked for on a test -- what's the unemployment rate? what party controls Congress? Etc. --  but have perfectly libertarian instincts about what the government ought not to be able to do to him. Why should that person have fewer votes than, say, Paul Krugman or George Will?

The shame here is the Brennan needn't have gone down this road. He needed only to spell out the flaws in democracy, contrast stupid "public" action with reasonably intelligent private action, and call for a substantial shrinking of government -- if not its abolition. Why invite the elitist charge with a call for an epistocracy?

Albert Jay Nock had it right in the opening of his classic book, Our Enemy the State:

"If we look beneath the surface of our public affairs, we can discern one fundamental fact, namely, a great redistribution of power between society and the State. This is the fact that interests the student of civilization. He has only a secondary or derived interest in matters like price fixing, wage fixing, inflation, political banking, 'agricultural adjustment,' and similar items of State policy that fill the pages of newspapers and the mouths of publicists and politicians. All these can be run up under one head. They have an immediate and temporary importance, and for this reason they monopolize public attention, but they all come to the same thing; which is, an increase of State power and a corresponding decrease of social power.

"It is unfortunately none too well understood that, just as the State has no money of its own, so it has no power of its own. All the power it has is what society gives it, plus what it confiscates from time to time on one pretext or another; there is no other source from which State power can be drawn. Therefore every assumption of State power, whether by gift or seizure, leaves society with so much less power. There is never, nor can there be, any strengthening of State power without a corresponding and roughly equivalent depletion of social power." (Emphasis added.)

Social power is Nock's term for the web of peaceful consensual relations -- market and otherwise -- among free individuals. Thus the people's best political framework is neither democracy nor epistocracy but original liberalism, or what we today call libertarianism.

TGIF (The Goal Is Freedom) appears on Fridays. Sheldon Richman, author of America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. Become a Free Association patron today!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Trump's Stop-and-Frisk Policy

I suppose Trump intends stop-and-frisk for the nation of Chicago only.

Update: Trump now says that under his stop-and-frisk policy, the police would take people's guns. According to The Hill, Trump said during an interview on Fox:
Basically, they will, if they see — you know, they are proactive and if they see a person possibly with a gun or they think may have a gun, they will see the person, and they will look, and they will take the gun away.

US Rewards Israel's Bad Behavior

Benjamin Netanyahu has been perhaps the most anti-Palestinian Israeli prime minister in a large rogue's gallery dedicated to driving the aggrieved Palestinians out of the land they and their ancestors have lived in and worked for millennia. This oppression -- which has included ethnic cleansing, savage war on the people of the Gaza Strip, routine brutality and humiliation, and expanding illegal Jewish settlements on land conquered through aggressive war -- has been underwritten and encouraged by the U.S. government since 1948. It has been rare indeed for an American president to express opposition or even irritation with an official Israeli act of brutality -- and even then the consequences have varied between the symbolic (and short-lived) and nonexistent. The lip-service calls for Israel finally to leave occupied Palestinian land (the two-state solution), like President Barack Obama's latest, count for nothing because no one believes the U.S. government is an honest broker that cares about injustices against the Palestinians. (Obama did not mention the Palestinians in a meeting with Netanyahu this week.)

It is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. government rewards Netanyahu for his regime's bad behavior. For example, as Zaid Jilali reports at The Intercept, "Shortly before Netanyahu took office, 474,000 Israeli settlers were living in these territories. By the end of 2014, the last time the Israeli government released comprehensive statistics on the matter, that number had grown to around 570,000." Yet U.S. military aid to Israel not only continues; it increases.

Israel's rulers have no intention of recognizing the rights of Palestinians to their lives, liberty, and property. Past efforts that appeared conciliatory, such a Yitzhak Rabin's Oslo Accords, were actually aimed at thwarting proposals to have the Palestinians in the occupied territories become citizens of the self-declared state of the Jewish People (the one-state solution). The other alternative to the two states, formal apartheid, is deemed as politically inexpedient.

Today the U.S. government continues to stand firmly in Israel's corner, regardless of what the right wing says. The U.S. government has given Israel more than $3 billion a year in military aid for decades, though this basic assistance was often exceeded for alleged special reasons. Now the Obama administration has agreed to pay Israel a record $38 billion over 10 years. Much of this money, unsurprisingly, benefits the American military-industrial complex, and soon all of it will go to American firms.

Ironically Israel probably has never been so secure (which is not to say it ever faced an offensive existential threat). The Palestine Liberation Organization, Arab League, Iran, and arguably Hamas long ago offered to recognize Israel. (Netanyahu moved the goalpost by demanding that they recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish People.) The chaos in the Levant serves the Israeli state's interests, which is why Netanyahu has long been receptive to American neoconservative proposals to undermine secular Arab governments with the anticipation that jihadists would prosper in the resulting instability. Top Israeli officials have not been shy about expressing their preference for violent Sunni sectarians (yes, al-Qaeda) over Shiite Iran and its secular Syrian ally Bashar al-Assad. (Until recently, Obama has shared that preference to an extent.) This is telling in light of the incontrovertible fact that Iran, which has an old Jewish community that freely practices its religion, is no threat to Israel whatever. Iran has had no nuclear-weapons ambitions and has signed a strict anti-nuclear-weapons agreement with the West in order to have decades-old sanctions lifted. Israel, meanwhile, is the Middle East's monopoly nuclear-weapons state, which (unlike Iran) refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and thus (again unlike Iran) is subject to no international inspections. Moreover, recently leaked emails from former Secretary of State Colin Powell reveal that Israel's 200 nuclear warheads are targeted at Iran. It is Israel that threatens Iran, not vice versa. (See my writings on Iran here.)

The upshot is that no good grounds exist for U.S. military aid to Israel, much less a significant increase. Nevertheless, instability and the invention of an Iranian threat are useful to the powers that be because the more dangerous the Middle East appears, the more forgiving Americans are likely to be about Israel's daily dehumanization of the Palestinians.

Israel of course remains an American political football, with Democrats and Republican trying to outdo each other in their slavish allegiance to the (so-called) Jewish State. (Zionism is nationalism masquerading as Judaism.) Republicans, with Donald Trump leading the way (his AIPAC speech rivals that of the most fanatical Zionist), brand Obama the most anti-Israel president ever -- which one can see is an absurd lie. So it's no surprise that Republican Senators pledge to increase aid to Israel over its record level. (For the typical complaints about the new aid package, see this.) Meanwhile, a big group of Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton's running mate, Tim Kaine, joined Republicans (88 senators in all) in signing a letter published by AIPAC, the chief Israel lobby, urging Obama to veto any "one-sided" UN Security Council resolutions regarding "settlements or other final status issues." The letter said such resolutions would "make it more difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the conflict," but that concern is phony since Israel has repeatedly scuttled negotiations by insisting that it has a right to keep taking the very Palestinian land that is supposedly the subject of negotiations. According to Haaretz, the senators' letter was "initiated and sponsored" by AIPAC, "apparently spurred by the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem and Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer." Israel and its American lobby fear that after the U.S. election Obama might move for a Security Council resolution on Israel-Palestine.

The American ruling elite's support for Israel is driven by imperial political and economic interests, as well as electoral financial considerations. But it aligns neither with the freedom and security of the American people (a growing number of American Jews do not identify with Israel) nor with the cause world peace and justice.

Recommended reading:
Jeremy R. Hammond, Obstacle to Peace: The US Role in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Jeremy R. Hammond, The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination
Jeremy R. Hammond, The Myth of the U.N. Creation of Israel
David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East
Ilan Pappe, Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine
Sheldon Richman, "On Israel's 'Right to Exist'"
Sheldon Richman, "'Ancient History': U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention"
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland
For an attempt at a libertarian justification for the founding of the state of Israel (failed in my view), see Walter Block, Alan G. Futerman, and Rafi Farber, "The Legal Status of the State of Israel: A Libertarian Approach"
For critiques of this paper, see Jeremy R. Hammond, "Top Ten Things That Piss Me Off About Anti-Palestinian Libertarians"; "On Libertarianism and the Jews’ 2,000 Year Old Claim to Palestine"; and "On Libertarianism and Land Ownership in Historic Palestine"
Hammond debated Farber on the Tom Woods Show. Listen here.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Nothing to See There. Move Along

Shall we have heightened government monitoring of Americans who visit countries bombed by the United States?

Cable Noise Network

You could watch CNN all day (and the others, I surmise) and never see domestic terrorism associated with US wars in the Muslim world.


Have You Seen This Man?

An American-born man, Barack Hussein Obama, is wanted for questioning in connection with the continuing destruction of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, and Somalia, and genocide in Yemen. He's regarded as extremely dangerous and is at all times accompanied by heavily armed men. He may be wearing a Nobel Peace Prize medal.

If you see him, exercise caution.

Do not call the authorities.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Regarding the Presidential Debates

I want to make sure I understand this: The nonpartisan commission created and run by the Republican and Democratic parties won't include anyone but the Republican and Democratic candidates in the debate because the other contenders, who theoretically could win 270 electoral votes, did not meet its arbitrary polling threshold, a gauge that is almost entirely in the hands of the corporate news media. Is that it?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Right and Wrong

Trump is right in thinking the system is rigged. He's wrong in thinking it's rigged against him.

Happy Constitution Day!

It's a good day to read America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.

TGIF: Trade Is a Labor-Saving "Device"

Updated Sept. 22, 2016
Democratic politics makes savvy people stupid, at least when they act politically. This has long been demonstrated, and it applies both to voters and policymakers. Several things account for it: the impotence of one vote, the consequent futility and hence wastefulness of acquiring information, the dispersal of the costs of government, and the resulting theatrical mood-setting farces called election campaigns.

Sunday, September 11, 2016


15 Years

Today is the 15th anniversary of the day that thousands of American noncombatants paid the domestic butcher's bill for US foreign policy. Shame on every interventionist.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

NATO and Its Problems

I recently discussed NATO with Adam Camac on his Wake Up Call Podcast.