Modi Demystified


It has been a year since Narendra Modi was inaugurated as prime minister of India. During that year, he has spent a lot of time traveling around the world, including the US, Australia, France, and Canada. I was hoping against hope that one of these Western nations, seemingly so conscious of human rights, would arrest him for the role he is alleged to have played in the massacre of Muslims in 2002 and ship him off to the international court. They didn't.

Until early last year, several Western countries, including the US, had imposed travel restrictions on Modi for his alleged crimes. But Modi's sins have now been washed in the holy water of democracy. So much for those Western countries’ fervently declared position never to compromise on morals.

It is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to take India to a prosperous future.

During Modi’s visits abroad, local Indians gave him a hero's welcome. The Indian flag and anthem and a deep sense of togetherness, joy, and warmth dominated the proceedings. He attracted an historically unprecedented 18,000 people when he appeared at Madison Square Garden in New York. Meanwhile, Indians living in India are said to have found a new sense of confidence, vision, and hope. Investors, economists, journalists, intellectuals, and politicians around the world appear to be in awe of Modi, looking up to him to make India the next China. The Indian stock market has done very well. The IMF believes that India will soon exceed China in growth rate.

One out of every six human beings living in India, so a real change in India would be path-breaking for humanity.

Modi is the first prime minister in almost three decades who has come to power with a full majority, gaining the ability to institute legislative changes. He had already created an impression of competence by supposedly demonstrating his capabilities in Gujarat, the province he had headed before.

So, why am I so stuck on Modi’s alleged crimes of the past? Should we not let bygones be bygones? Why not worry about the larger good and let the hope that Modi has instilled in everyone carry us forward?

Let me explain.

Hysteria among Indians is a routine phenomenon. They latch on to some new hope or disaster, their feelings completely unsupported by facts or reason. It pays to remember that Indian society is not driven by or even understands the concepts of the sanctity of individuality or reason. It is a society based on a hodgepodge of beliefs, traditions, religions, and superstitions. Given this, it is not possible for many Indians to imagine a future achieved by constructive, rational steps. As a result, they look for a magic wand to do the job, to take India to a prosperous future. The result is that they forever look for a new deity to lead them.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous.

It is not the backwardness of the poor people that worries me the most, but the utter failure of the middle class to unhinge itself from irrational thinking and provide intellectual leadership.

The last prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was rightly assumed to be a puppet of Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic head of the Congress Party, which has run India for most of its so-called post-independence, democratic days. Singh was universally seen as indecisive and his ministers were considered corrupt. He was regarded as incapable of changing the course of India. Alas, this was the general perception when he left. In earlier days, however, he had been the hero of India. He was the person believed to have started the process of liberalization in India. In those early days he was seen as a genius technocrat.

People who operate only through emotions and feelings do not have to reflect on their past beliefs, to reason and dissect why their hopes proved erroneous. Almost every inauguration of a new prime minister within my lifetime has been met with massive euphoria, with everyone, particularly the so-called educated class, looking up to him as a magic wand. By the end of each term the memory of whatever they were so euphoric about at the beginning has been forgotten.

While it is true that Modi has the majority in Parliament, the first majority since 1984, the irony that the major media has declined to discuss is that his party got only 31% of the total votes, a result of the votes being split among too many parties. Modi derives most of his power from the middle-class, the so-called educated.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people, they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment.

He has also given a new sense of identity to the confidence-lacking Indian diaspora. Its members have found new pride in Hinduism, so much so that fanatic elements are increasingly influencing curricula related to Hinduism in the US. They cannot stop talking about how great India is. My question for them is why they left India or why they don’t return if they really think India is such a great country. Why should they crave American passports or show off their American residency when on visits to India? Alas, in the absence of reason, not having done any introspection, they fail to realize that behind the facade of pride in India and Hinduism is a narcissistic craving for a sense of identity and a desperate plea for respect.

If they truly loved India or cared for its poor people — or if, again, they could reason, instead of supporting or rationalizing lies that look good about India — they would have seen India’s continual wallowing in irrationality, superstitions, and lack of enlightenment. The middle class in India is no different from other classes. Using WhatsApp, they send out religious hymns with Modi’s name in place of a god’s.

In practice there is not much change at the ground level, except for a palpable increase in religious intolerance and Hindu fanaticism, which some elements in Modi’s party share or support. Rumors about “love jihad” have recently been the talk of the town; the assumption is that Muslim youth have been systemically trained to seduce Hindu girls. There has also been an increased movement against the consumption of beef. Recently a relative of mine got a visit from one of the Hindu fanatic groups for supposedly insulting Hindu gods. The police prefer to be bystanders on such occasions.

One piece of legislation that Modi is after is called a land acquisition bill. A very large proportion of middle-class Indians have no problem with forcibly acquiring the land of poor farmers to enable India’s industrial development, helping corporations get cheap and easy access. This, in essence, is what the bill is about. The act might even speed up the process of infrastructural development, but at the price of individual rights. India's middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — are among the most heartless and apathetic people I have known. They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people for the larger good, where the larger good, in their imagination, is what helps the middle class.

Religious intolerance and fascist policies carry real risks of blowing up and becoming uncontrollable. Modi is a simpleton — and, like his middle-class supporters, he is prone to designing a society according to his own image, from the top down. He does not understand the concepts of “unintended consequences,” “uncertainty,” and “non-linearity.”

They claim to be for the free market, but what that means to them is actually seizing land from poor people to help the middle class.

Reason, justice, and respect for the individual must come to the forefront if India is to change. But the time for that hasn’t come. I never had any hope from Modi or his fanaticism. But, at the root, the Indian middle class — those who live in India and those who live abroad — have failed India. They have failed to educate themselves in critical thinking about India’s problems. What skills in argumentation they possess have been used for rationalizing the country’s backwardness. They have been a failure at leading India’s largely poor and superstitious society.

Indeed, for now, in the world arena, Indians have won respect. They have an increased sense of identity. They are a proud bunch. They have hopes. But this is all shallow; nothing real underpins it. Modi will most likely fade into oblivion in a few years. Eventually, as in the past, most people will forget the euphoria and will be looking for the next deity.

I await the day when the Indian will look for the hero inside himself.

But for now, India is not the next China, not even remotely.

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The Moonwalk & The Fish That Got Away


I just watched an aquatic episode of Monster Quest on the History Channel. It reminded me of how I, like 600 or 700 million Chinese, missed the first walk on the moon. Yes, “Monster Quest.” Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone! And, yes, I know, that show has painted itself into a corner. It will pretty much have to produce a live sasquatch, or at least the carcass of one soon, or go off the air. But, don't worry, eventually this, my story, is going to turn into a fishing story, and also into a sex story.

The documentary examined a possible giant grouper attack on a child in Florida. It included good underwater footage of several Goliath groupers at close range. In the old days, some Goliath groupers were weighed in at over 500 pounds. Big fish! No need to lie if you hooked one of those.

I was about 26 and I was spending a whole summer on a small Mexican island off the Caribbean coast. I had only one purpose: to enact repeatedly a typical, recurrent fantasy of my French youth. I was there to spear sea creatures during the day and to cook and eat them during the warm tropical night. That was it. France is far to the north of most of North America, if you look at a map attentively. Paris, where I was raised, is even north of Montreal. It's also far from the ocean, but city people in France have deeply-anchored thalassotropism, an unreasoned attraction to the sea. Many spend summer at the seaside, where they learn to swim well. Even way back then, some people, like me, learned in their early teens to be comfortable underwater and to spear fish. French boys especially fantasized about tropical seas in the days when travel was expensive and it seemed there was little chance you would ever go there. Their dreams were purposeful and competent. They wanted to do something about them if the occasion arose, by some miracle. Well, the miracle happened for me. I emigrated to California, next door to Mexico.

In Mexico, I spent most daylight hours in the clear, clear sea, free-diving. That means up and down and up and down, holding your breath — no effeminate breathing apparatus (no scuba). With good training, under favorable conditions, if you are in shape, you can do that for hours on end. I never got bored, because I wasn't there for the sights; I was spearing fish right and left and I was also catching rock lobsters. (That's the red lobster with small claws, also called “spiny lobster.”) I don't wish to explain how I was catching the lobsters; I have a persistent fear of the Mexican constabulary, and I don't know what's the statute of limitation. The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the English Channel, where I had learned, that it was almost like moving to another planet.

For French spear-fishermen of that era, one kind of fish had legendary and mythical status: groupers. There were none in the Channel, and none in the Atlantic at those latitudes. There were only a few in the Mediterranean. Groupers were said to be elusive, secretive, and almost impossible to spear. Diving magazines reproduced endlessly the same photograph of the same champion of France posing with the same two foot-long grouper. I could not imagine, then, any change in my life's circumstances that would bring me within distance of such a trophy. To complete the picture, groupers were said to be excellent eating fish — not a small detail for the French, then or now.

The water was so much more transparent and so much warmer than the Channel that it was almost like moving to another planet.

Fast-forwarding my life story: that summer, I was right there on prime grouper territory. Once I had caught my three rock lobsters or my small barracuda for dinner, I would explore the reef cavities slowly, deliberately. I discovered that there were many groupers around but that they hid inside deep holes in the daytime. I devised a method to draw some of them out (the stupid ones, no doubt) where I could take a clear shot at them with my modest-sized rubber band spear gun. (I am sorry but I will not reveal the method until I am on my deathbed; it's like my secret chanterelles patch.)

Well, fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it. So I caught groupers worth catching several times and early on in my stay. And yes, the flesh was delicious, surprisingly refined in flavor and with a firm texture.

Meanwhile, the forthcoming American expedition to the moon had been the subject of a barrage of news, quasi-news, and speculations even in that remote part of Mexico. The night before the event, the locals were buying beer, and the few gringo tourists were right behind them. Some old women were even preparing Christmas tamales, way out of season. It was obvious there was not going to be any work done the next day, the planned date for the moonwalk.

We did not have access to a TV but my American girlfriend and I were going to join the festivities around a transistor radio with several other Americans. We were going to listen to commentators give the blow-by-blow. Incidentally, Mexican commentators of anything are better, more lively, more animated than their American counterparts. But grouper was on my mind. So, earlier than usual on the morning of the landing, I went into the water, close to town, with the modest objective of just doing a little exploration for later. Almost right away, I spotted a flat reef of old, smooth coral, shaped like a table, with many good-size perforations on its top.

Fishing is a lot like sex: If you try it four or five times a day and if you enjoy it, plus you have stamina, you can only become better at it.

Soon, the sun was at such an angle that I could see inside each hole right from the surface. I noticed something moving inside a hole and thought it might be a darting lobster. I dived down to investigate and immediately realized I was looking at the marbled skin of a large grouper with its head right under the opening. The atavistic assassin's reflex took over. Coolly, I told myself I would never have a better chance to shoot a large grouper in the head, where it counts, and at close range. One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

I shot as planned, right in the skull, and pulled on the line connecting the gun to the shaft in the fish, to bring it to the surface. There was resistance. I went down to investigate and found that the grouper was not dead, that it had inflated its body and braced itself inside the hole with its spiny dorsal fin. I dived about 15 or 20 times, and I was unable to budge it at all. Finally, I located a horizontal hole under the flat surface of the reef from which I could gain access to the struggling fish from a different angle.

I wrestled with the grouper for more than two hours, becoming prey to what economists know as the “sunk cost fallacy.” I had already invested so much time in that fish, I couldn't really let it go. In addition, one of my precious few shafts was embedded in its head and I would have to abandon it too.

Finally, the fish gave up or expired; it stopped resisting. I reached into the hole and grabbed it by the eye cavities, thumb in one eye, index finger in the other. I floated the fish up to the surface with no trouble and walked to town in the hot sun carrying on my shoulder a grouper the size of which I would not have even dared imagine ten years earlier, when I was still only a French spear-fisherman. I cannot tell you exactly how big that fish was, because there was no opportunity to weigh it, or even to measure it. Besides, fishermen are routinely accused of lying about measurements — because so many do, in fact, lie. I can say, however, that the next day, it fed eight young adults easily.

One fatal shot, drag it to the surface, hang it on a string, and bring it home in plenty of time for the moon landing.

By the time I arrived, the lunar show was over, the two guys had taken their little walk on the moon, everyone assured me, and the celebration was well under way. My girlfriend was miffed, but when she saw the grouper, she kind of understood my glee, although she was not a diver, and not even a woman of the sea. (She was just intelligent, and very hot!) At any rate, the moonwalk has always had a slight sense of unreality for me, because I did not watch it or even hear a description of the event in real time. As I mentioned, I am a little like the red Chinese who found out for sure only many years later. You might say, I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

There is a sequel to this story. The brain learns things it does not even know it knows. Every good fisherman will tell you he does not understand all his successes. So, the moonwalk fish subtly encouraged me to keep looking for grouper.

I explored a big pile of boulders, in shallow water, right across the narrow beach from the concrete cubicle where I lived. The top boulders almost broke the surface at low tide; the white sand on which they rested may have been 25 feet down, not much for an experienced free-diver with good, recent local training. Soon, I found a narrow space at the base of the boulders. With lots of air in my lungs, I did not hesitate to crawl inside. I ended up underneath the pile of rocks with just the tips of my flippers emerging.

I wasn't worried about wounding myself against the rocks, because I was wearing a light wetsuit. (I always wear a wetsuit when diving, even and especially in warm water. Warm water has coral. Any contact with most corals will inflict a thousand small cuts that will not heal if you submerge yourself in the salty sea repeatedly. And if you perspire even a little in the tropical night, the cuts hurt like hell.) I let my eyes become accustomed to the darkness and discovered a black, glistening surface a couple of feet away from my face that did not look like rock.

I was absent from an important instance of the 20th century because I was following my underwater bliss.

I came up for air and went down again to the same spot, through the narrow passage, which gave me exactly the same orientation to the light. The mysterious surface had changed color. After a dozen times going up and down and into the hole, my face suddenly confronted another face, right at the bottom. The other face had big thick lips and globular eyes. In spite of that striking description, it took my brain a few seconds to register what I was seeing, because of its sheer size. The face was several times larger than mine. The hole was nearly filled by a giant grouper.

That the fish did not scoot at my approach was not surprising. First, the narrow passage in which I had crawled may have been the only exit route. Second, large groupers have few predators. They are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

When I understood what was so close to me, my heart did not beat faster. I felt very calm and collected. I dived repeatedly to reassure myself that I was not dreaming. Several times I saw the characteristic lips and the round eyes; I observed that the dark skin was shiny; I saw parts of fins bigger than my legs.

Grouper are well known to hole up when in doubt, so much so that shooting them is sometimes akin to murder.

Remember that I had my little spear gun with me. Spearing the giant point-blank would have been child's play. Yet, I did not press the trigger. I wasn't afraid just then but something in my unconscious mind stopped me. I can't begin to say how big the grouper was because I never saw the whole thing. It was bigger than me. It might have been the biggest grouper anyone had ever speared. Certainly, it would have been the biggest grouper a French-born person had ever caught free-diving — or at any rate, any Parisian.

I went up and down for an hour, thinking, calculating from what angle to shoot, and then how to retrieve it out of its hole. As I was in shallow water, it seemed feasible. There was a very good chance I would be able to drag the fish out swimming backward in the narrow passage, if it were dead.

Soon, it became like solving an engineering problem. I got out of the water and walked back to my place to have lunch and do some more thinking. I was confident the giant would be there when I returned. I thought the boulders were its permanent dwelling.

But back at the grouper's cave, after 45 minutes or so, my disposition had changed slightly. I took yet another look at the fish. It dawned on me then that there was some real danger in attacking at close quarters, from a narrow space where I could not turn around, an animal bigger than myself, with sharp teeth, that could breathe in water. Then, another part of my brain began to feel that something was wrong about eating such a magnificent and, no doubt, old creature. Then, I told myself that having spent so much time in such close proximity with such a big grouper was enough of a trophy for a Paris boy. Besides, my hot girlfriend had been waiting for me with her imagination running on high rpm. She had, torrid, unspeakable plans for the rest of my afternoon. I abandoned the endeavor and went home with a light heart.

Many years later, the giant grouper that I spared, not speared, visits me in my dreams, but only when I am in a good mood, or when I am subconsciously plotting a small vacation to an exotic place. Fishermen will want to know if I ever felt fisherman's regrets over that huge catch I did not catch. The answer is that I do feel regrets, but I am sure I would have felt fisherman's remorse if I had taken the giant grouper and butchered it in the sun. There is a subtle issue of choice between two unequal ills here. Remorse will follow you forever although you can pretend you have forgotten its cause or causes. Regrets are, in principle, temporary. The goal you did not reach, the apple you did not pick may fall in your lap at any time before you check out for good; you never know. Even the one with whom you were pointlessly in lust when you were a junior in high school might go for you at the 20-year reunion. It's not what it could have been but still!

Postscript: Yes, I was diving alone. It's supposed to be dangerous. I am not recommending that divers who use scuba do the same. I am not even recommending the practice to other free-divers. It was just the right thing for me, at that time. The safe alternative is to have a diving companion who is a short fat woman who thrashes noisily in the water and swims too clumsily to escape anything.

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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge


Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.

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Fakers and Enablers


Last month, a UCLA graduate student in political science named Michael LaCour was caught faking reports of his research — research that in December 2014 had been published, with much fanfare, in Science, one of the two most prestigious venues for “hard” (experimental and quantifiable) scientific work. Because of his ostensible research, he had been offered, again with much fanfare, a teaching position at prestigious Princeton University. I don’t want to overuse the word “prestigious,” but LaCour’s senior collaborator, a professor at prestigious Columbia University, a person whom he had enlisted to enhance the prestige of his purported findings, is considered one of the most prestigious number-crunchers in all of poli sci. LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA is also believed by some people to be prestigious. LaCour’s work was critiqued by presumably prestigious (though anonymous) peer reviewers for Science, and recommended for publication by them. What went wrong with all this prestigiousness?

Initial comments about the LaCour scandal often emphasized the idea that there’s nothing really wrong with the peer review system. The New Republic was especially touchy on this point. The rush to defend peer review is somewhat difficult to explain, except as the product of fears that many other scientific articles (about, for instance, global warming?) might be suspected of being more pseudo than science; despite reviewers’ heavy stamps of approval, they may not be “settled science.” The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it. More recently, suspicions that Mt. Trashmore may be as high as Mt. Rushmore have appeared even in the New York Times, which on scientific matters is usually more establishment than the establishment.

I am an academic who shares those suspicions. LaCour’s offense was remarkably flagrant and stupid, so stupid that it was discovered at the first serious attempt to replicate his results. But the conditions that put LaCour on the road to great, though temporary, success must operate, with similar effect, in many other situations. If the results are not so flagrantly wrong, they may not be detected for a long time, if ever. They will remain in place in the (pseudo-) scientific literature — permanent impediments to human knowledge. This is a problem.

But what conditions create the problem? Here are five.

1. A politically correct, or at least fashionably sympathetic, topic of research. The LaCour episode is a perfect example. He was purportedly investigating gay activists’ ability to garner support for gay marriage. And his conclusion was one that politically correct people, especially donors to activist organizations, would like to see: he “found” that person-to-person activism works amazingly well. It is noteworthy that Science published his article about how to garner support for gay marriage without objecting to the politically loaded title: “When contact changes minds: An experiment on transmission of support for gay equality.” You may think that recognition of gay marriage is equivalent to recognition of gay equality, and I may agree, but anyone with even a whiff of the scientific mentality should notice that “equality” is a term with many definitions, and that the equation of “equality” with “gay marriage” is an end-run around any kind of debate, scientific or otherwise. Who stands up and says, “I do not support equality”?

The idea in these defenses was that we must see l’affaire LaCour as a “singular” episode, not as the tin can that’s poking through the grass because there’s a ton of garbage underneath it.

2. The habit of reasoning from academic authority. LaCour’s chosen collaborator, Donald Green, is highly respected in his field. That may be what made Science and its peer reviewers pay especially serious attention to LaCour’s research, despite its many curious features, some of which were obvious. A leading academic researcher had the following reaction when an interviewer asked him about the LaCour-Green contribution to the world’s wisdom:

“Gee,” he replied, “that's very surprising and doesn't fit with a huge literature of evidence. It doesn't sound plausible to me.” A few clicks later, [he] had pulled up the paper on his computer. “Ah,” he [said], “I see Don Green is an author. I trust him completely, so I'm no longer doubtful.”

3. The prevalence of the kind of academic courtesy that is indistinguishable from laziness or lack of curiosity. LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding (which turned out to be bogus) was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner. That alone should have inspired many curious questions. But, Green says, he didn’t want to be rude to LaCour; he didn’t want to ask probing questions. Jesse Singal, a good reporter on the LaCour scandal, has this to say:

Some people I spoke to about this case argued that Green, whose name is, after all, on the paper, had failed in his supervisory role. I emailed him to ask whether he thought this was a fair assessment. “Entirely fair,” he responded. “I am deeply embarrassed that I did not suspect and discover the fabrication of the survey data and grateful to the team of researchers who brought it to my attention.” He declined to comment further for this story.

Green later announced that he wouldn’t say anything more to anyone, pending the results of a UCLA investigation. Lynn Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation advisor at UCLA, had already made a similar statement. They are being very circumspect.

4. The existence of an academic elite that hasn’t got time for its real job. LaCour asked Green, a virtually total stranger, to sign onto his project: why? Because Green was prestigious. And why is Green prestigious? Partly for signing onto a lot of collaborative projects. In his relationship with LaCour, there appears to have been little time for Green to do what professors have traditionally done with students: sit down with them, discuss their work, exclaim over the difficulty of getting the data, laugh about the silly things that happen when you’re working with colleagues, share invidious stories about university administrators and academic competitors, and finally ask, “So, how in the world did you get those results? Let’s look at your raw data.” Or just, “How did you find the time to do all of this?”

LaCour’s results were counterintuitive; his data were highly exceptional; his funding was vastly greater than anything one would expect a graduate student to garner.

It has been observed — by Nicholas Steneck of the University of Michigan — that Green put his name on a paper reporting costly research (research that was supposed to have cost over $1 million), without ever asking the obvious questions about where the money came from, and how a grad student got it.

“You have to know the funding sources,” Steneck said. “How else can you report conflicts of interest?” A good point. Besides — as a scientist, aren’t you curious? Scientists’ lack of curiosity about the simplest realities of the world they are supposedly examining has often been noted. It is a major reason why the scientists of the past generation — every past generation — are usually forgotten, soon after their deaths. It’s sad to say, but may I predict that the same fate will befall the incurious Professor Green?

As a substitute for curiosity, guild courtesy may be invoked. According to the New York Times, Green said that he “could have asked about” LaCour’s claim to have “hundreds of thousands in grant money.” “But,” he continued, “it’s a delicate matter to ask another scholar the exact method through which they’re paying for their work.”

There are several eyebrow-raisers there. One is the barbarous transition from “scholar” (singular) to “they” (plural). Another is the strange notion that it is somehow impolite to ask one’s colleagues — or collaborators! — where the money’s coming from. This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

The fact that ordinary-professional, or even ordinary-people, conversations seem never to have taken place between Green and LaCour indicates clearly enough that nobody made time to have them. As for Professor Vavreck, LaCour’s dissertation director and his collaborator on two other papers, her vita shows a person who is very busy, very busy indeed, a very busy bee — giving invited lectures, writing newspaper columns, moderating something bearing the unlikely name of the “Luskin Lecture on Thought Leadership with Hillary Rodham Clinton,” and, of course, doing peer reviews. Did she have time to look closely at her own grad student’s work? The best answer, from her point of view, would be No; because if she did have the time, and still ignored the anomalies in the work, a still less favorable view would have to be entertained.

This is called, in the technical language of the professoriate, cowshit.

Oddly, The New Republic praised the “social cohesiveness” represented by the Green-LaCour relationship, although it mentioned that “in this particular case . . . trust was misplaced but some level of collegial confidence is the necessary lubricant to allow research to take place.” Of course, that’s a false alternative — full social cohesiveness vs. no confidence at all. “It’s important to realize,” opines TNR’s Jeet Heer, “that the implicit trust Green placed in LaCour was perfectly normal and rational.” Rational, no. Normal, yes — alas.

Now, I don’t know these people. Some of what I say is conjecture. You can make your own conjectures, on the same evidence, and see whether they are similar to mine.

5. A peer review system that is goofy, to say the least.

It is goofiest in the arts and humanities and the “soft” (non-mathematical) social sciences. It’s in this, the goofiest, part of the peer-reviewed world that I myself participate, as reviewer and reviewee. Here is a world in which people honestly believe that their own ideological priorities count as evidence, often as the determining evidence. Being highly verbal, they are able to convince themselves and others that saying “The author has not come to grips with postcolonialist theory” is on the same analytical level as saying, “The author has not investigated the much larger data-set presented by Smith (1997).”

My own history of being reviewed — by and large, a very successful history — has given me many more examples of the first kind of “peer reviewing” than of the second kind. Whether favorable or unfavorable, reviewers have more often responded to my work on the level of “This study vindicates historically important views of the text” or “This study remains strangely unconvinced by historically important views of the episode,” than on the level of, “The documented facts do not support [or, fully support] the author’s interpretation of the sequence of events.” In fact, I have never received a response that questioned my facts. The closest I’ve gotten is (A) notes on the absence of any reference to the peer reviewer’s work; (B) notes on the need for more emphasis on the peer reviewer’s favorite areas of study.

This does not mean that my work has been free from factual errors or deficiencies in the consultation of documentary sources; those are unavoidable, and it would be good for someone to point them out as soon as possible. But reviewers are seldom interested in that possibility. Which is disturbing.

I freely admit that some of the critiques I have received have done me good; they have informed me of other people’s points of view; they have shown me where I needed to make my arguments more persuasive; they have improved my work. But reviewers’ interest in emphases and ideological orientations rather than facts and the sources of facts gives me a very funny feeling. And you can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities. I have been informed that my writing is “clear” or even “sometimes witty,” but I have never been called to account for the passages in which I am not clear, and not witty. No one seems to care.

But here’s the worst thing. When I act as a reviewer, I catch myself falling into some of the same habits. True, I write comments about the candidates’ style, and when I see a factual error or notice the absence of facts, I mention it. But it’s easy to lapse into guild language. It’s easy to find words showing that I share the standard (or momentary) intellectual “concerns” and emphases of my profession, words testifying that the author under review shares them also. I’m not being dishonest when I write in this way. I really do share the “concerns” I mention. But that’s a problem. That’s why peer reviewing is often just a matter of reporting that “Jones’ work will be regarded as an important study by all who wish to find more evidence that what we all thought was important actually is important.”

You can see by the printed products of the review system that nobody pays much attention to the way in which academic contributions are written, even in the humanities.

Indeed, peer reviewing is one of the most conservative things one can do. If there’s no demand that facts and choices be checked and assessed, if there’s a “delicacy” about identifying intellectual sleight of hand or words-in-place-of-ideas, if consistency with current opinion is accepted as a value in itself, if what you get is really just a check on whether something is basically OK according to current notions of OKness, then how much more conservative can the process be?

On May 29, when LaCour tried to answer the complaints against him, he severely criticized the grad students who had discovered, not only that they couldn’t replicate his results, but that the survey company he had purportedly used had never heard of him. He denounced them for having gone off on their own, doing their own investigation, without submitting their work to peer review, as he had done! Their “decision to . . . by-pass the peer-review process” was “unethical.” What mattered wasn’t the new evidence they had found but the fact that they hadn’t validated it by the same means with which his own “evidence” had been validated.

In medicine and in some of the natural sciences, unsupported guild authority does not impinge so greatly on the assessment of evidence as it does in the humanities and the social sciences. Even there, however, you need to be careful. If you are suspected of being a “climate change denier” or a weirdo about some medical treatment, the maintainers of the status quo will give you the bum’s rush. That will be the end of you. And there’s another thing. It’s true: when you submit your research about the liver, people will spend much more time scrutinizing your stats than pontificating about how important the liver is or how important it is to all Americans, black or white, gay or straight, that we all have livers and enjoy liver equality. But the professional competence of these peer reviewers will then be used, by The New Republic and other conservative supporters of the status quo in our credentialed, regulated, highly professional society, as evidence that there is very little, very very very little, actual flim-flam in academic publication. But that’s not true.

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World Government, or Smaller Countries?


Some believe that we are rapidly moving towards a world government. The European Union was one of the most visible expressions of this motion. NAFTA, ASEAN, and other trading blocks were seen as small moves in the same direction. The UN was the dream of the mushy-headed, those living on intellectual welfare with no real-life experience of how wealth is created.

A world government would be unsustainable if it ever came to pass, for the kind of people who work in governments always take pride at backstabbing one another, as well as their competitors in other governments. People’s lives have changed tremendously, given easy travel and high technology, but the structure of governments has not changed.

The world is becoming increasingly complex, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

Duty-free shopping exists in every country, for each of these governments competes to benefit itself by helping travelers avoid paying taxes to other governments. The US, the world's self-appointed chief policeman, is among the worst (or best) in this respect. While governments in the Caribbean islands and many smaller nations — mostly termed tax havens — get bad reputations for secrecy (and hence, my own respect), Miami, New York, and London are probably the world's capitals for secrecy and tax avoidance as long as you are not the milk-cow of the US or England.

One might even ask how is it that such a large number of properties are bought by Chinese, Ukrainians, and Russians in the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. If these Western governments ensured that unaccounted money did not come from abroad, their hot property markets would crash.

The US makes almost no attempt to locate safety deposit lockers filled with US-dollar cash in jurisdictions outside the US. The government likes the convenience of interest-free loans in perpetuity from the cash holders. Using FACTA and all kinds of obnoxious enforcements on no other basis than American exceptionalism and its bullying power, the US gets the information it wants from other governments, but none dares to ask the US to reciprocate.

So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil.

Most banks comply with US bullying, although the cost of compliance is horrendous for financial institutions around the world. One day a breaking point will come and they will stop. Perhaps an alternative international currency will trigger this.

The US won’t be there forever

With every generation, glamour moves to a different jurisdiction. When I was growing up, it was France for fashion and snobbery, England for style, and Japan for the work ethic. A generation later, with all others having receded to the background, it became the US.

It is worth talking with today's teenagers in Asia. They follow Korean fashion, pop music, and soap operas. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is Indian music and movies. What the world looks up to will increasingly be Asia, while America recedes into the background.

If you find a Chinese girl with spectacles and no lenses in them amusing, you haven’t kept up with the fashion trends that originated in Korea or Japan. In Seoul, you will meet visiting teenagers from Malaysia who sing in Korean, and you can bet that they watch K-pop at home.

If you see girls wearing shorts that are a millimeter below the danger zone, but with the waist-band that does not end at the waist but much above the navel, you know where that fashion came from: from girls who worry about possibly having short legs. If you find men wearing tight pants, you know that the fashion is not from the West.

The bigger states will break

Before the world starts ignoring the diktats of the United States, America will become increasingly heavy-handed. Anything it doesn’t like will be considered "terrorism." For Americans, privacy will cease to exist. This is not based on prophecy, but on the history of how human civilizations have evolved and gone out of existence. The Roman Empire disappeared. So did the English and the French empires.

In other large countries — India, Brazil, France, the UK, etc. — the institution of government will come under huge amounts of stress, as heightened expectations of a populations hugely influenced by the modern-day welfare system can no longer be met. The world is becoming increasingly complex, with new technologies and cheap traveling, but the institution of the state has remained mostly unchanged, making large governments very brittle.

While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people.

To me the “Arab Spring” was the first visible sign of this. So was the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Behind the facade of higher vision and increased nationalism is indoctrination of a populace that is incapable of critical thinking, the kind of populace that in earlier generations would have stayed out of having an opinion on public policy. They have come to see democracy as a magic wand that delivers whatever one aspires for, merely through the vote. Nationalism is the emotional crutch for their failure to be self-dependent and their lack of self-confidence. None of these fake, irrational values can keep big nation-states glued together when the crunch time comes.

The result will be the possible breakup of many of the larger states. Would the US also break up? The irrational tribal slogan — “we are the biggest and the best” — can keep the US together for only so long. So far from world government being likely to happen, the future belongs to smaller states. But this will happen after a lot of turmoil, ironically made worse by the fact that in general, today’s populace is likely more statist and patriotic than the previous generations.

Central America: case studies on small countries

I have been very impressed with how well Hong Kong and Singapore are organized. In fact, I have become enamored with small countries.

I recently spent two months travelling in Central America, trying to understand its economy and people. I spent a fair amount of time in Boquete, Panama, a place where a large number of American expatriates live. When I was there, a girl with a flirtatious look (and from what I understood, based on my talks with the locals, her only competence) was elected as the local political representative. Alcohol was banned during the election days, but that did not stop restaurants from serving it, in coffee mugs.

The populace in Central America is not necessarily more awakened than that of the United States — perhaps much less. But does that matter? Mostly people are ambivalent about the existence of expatriates, if not grateful for their contribution to the economy. The state is alive and well there, but I hardly care about the state anymore. What I care about is how it affects me.

These small states recognize the economic importance of expatriates and mostly let them get on with their lives. Protecting property rights is their core competence. Nicaragua, for example, has become an attractive place for property investment, offering the cheapest options for those who can navigate this emerging country. In terms of expense, Panama is in between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Panama offers quality at a reasonable price. It also uses the US dollar, which is not the best way to run a monetary policy, for it is still dependent on a fiat currency, but this ensures that Panamanians cannot run their own printing press. Of course, they have no central bank of their own, and hence no cartel that comes with it.

Why is a place such as this, relatively conflict-free and wth enormous natural resources, not very rich?

Not only Americans and Canadians but also those from Ecuador, Venezuela, and other countries are finding safety in Panama. As a rule of thumb, small countries offer asset protection that big counties don't, for if these small countries stop respecting property rights, expatriates will fly away with their money.

Neither Costa Rica nor Panama has a military. This not only saves what would have been about 5% of the GDP in wastage but it sets a certain way of thinking among the citizenry. War is the health of the state, and statism is the worst religion. While all conventional religions are tribal in nature, they at least have elements of compassion, honesty, and other virtues. But statism thrives on hatred for other people. When you have the military solely for defence, narrowly defined (as is the case with Singapore and Switzerland) or have no military at all (as in Panama and Costa Rica), the social mindset is not about hatred for people who are different.

The repercussions are far-reaching. Less hatred also means fewer social conflicts within such societies, and hence a lack of civil wars within these countries. One must still be cautious about isolated crimes.

Incidentally, Central America is a unique place for nature lovers. This small piece of land separates two major oceans, the Pacific and the Atlantic, and hence is a channel for equalizing weather differences between the two oceans. I cannot think of another place where the forests change within minutes of walking, as you move from the area influenced by one kind of weather system to another, just on the other side of the ridge.

When traveling around in Costa Rica and Panama one must wonder — as I did — why a place that has been relatively conflict-free and has enormous natural resources is not a very rich place. Businesses tend to hire expatriates as much as they can. Locals are not known for their work ethic. Why this is the case, I am not sure. But that is why I travel, for it forces me to think about issues that would otherwise not occur to me. It hones my understanding of cultures, politics, and economics. Again, as an individualist, what I care about most is what affects me; and I doubt that the realm of One World Government would stimulate me much.

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What’s So Selfish About Capitalism?


It is a mischaracterization of the free-market society that is as old as capitalism itself. One recent recycle comes from self-designated “libertarian socialist” and “anarchist” Noam Chomsky: “It’s just, I’m out for myself, nobody else — and that’s the way it ought to be” (Power Systems, p. 157).

Now it is absolutely true that laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” (in the most shallow sense), basically because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things. A man can spend every penny he has on trinkets (from which expanding circles of merchants and others will actually benefit), or he can donate all he owns to charity — or select among all the types of intermediate options. Freedom of property gives people these choices, in the same way as freedom of religion provides them with a smorgasbord of theisms, atheisms, and agnosticisms. The separation of state and religion doesn’t mean that everyone will embrace, say, Seventh-day Adventism, nor does it follow that the separation of state and economics means that everyone will embrace “selfishness” — or any one exclusive behavior.

The fear that freedom of charity — ending redistributive taxation, thereby completing the separation of state and charity — will mean not a diversification, but the utter death of charity, proceeds from the premise that the one thing everyone will do under capitalism is nothing — for or with anyone else. But this contention that individual liberty entails an abject disregard for others corresponds to no social reality. Does freedom of assembly mean that people will never assemble — in any way? Does freedom of trade mean that everybody will in fact stop trading? Does freedom of speech and of the press — an unregulated market in ideas — mean not that we will have a rich and engaging culture, but that nobody will exchange any ideas about anything?

Laissez-faire capitalism allows someone to be “selfish” because such capitalism allows an individual to be any number of things.

Consider freedom of sexuality. Now it is also absolutely true that capitalism allows someone to indulge in what was formerly euphemized as “self-abuse.” Does that mean that without government control of sex — without a nationalization of the means of reproduction — individuals will do nothing but lock themselves away in their rooms? That there will be no dating, no courting, no marriages? No births, no propagation of the species — is that how “rugged individualism” will “atomize” society? Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” (Engels) degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators? Is that the fate from which only coercion — by a hereditary monarch, a Putsch oligarchy, or the Election Day majority-plurality — can save us?

Forebodings of societal necrosis notwithstanding, there is no conflict between liberty and community — the former is each tree, the latter the forest. By allowing each adult to act on his own choices, liberty empowers consenting adults to interact in various ways within a multiplicity of modes: religious-philosophical, professional-economic, sexual-romantic, cultural-artistic, fraternal-humanitarian, and many more. Hence the profound error of thinking that capitalism — voluntarily funded government limited to the defense of person and property — has any one “way it ought to be” concerning socioeconomic matters (such as Chomsky’s “I’m out for myself, nobody else” burlesque). Its only commandment is political: the prohibition of the initiation of force or fraud — by either state or criminal agents. We may therefore confidently retire verso Engels’ and recto Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus” caricature of the open society. Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity — the multifaceted, multihued consent nexus of capitalism vs. the flat, sanguineous coercion nexus of statisms left and right. When some lobbyist hands us the line “If government doesn’t do it, it doesn’t get done,” what he’s really telling us is: it doesn’t get done his way only.

Many of the giants of classical liberalism recognized the affinity of compulsion and conformity. Jefferson wondered: why subject opinion to coercion? His answer: “To produce uniformity.” And Ludwig von Mises, in a survey of paradoxical charges against the free market, observed: “The atheists make capitalism responsible for the survival of Christianity. But the papal encyclicals blame capitalism for the spread of irreligion. . . .” Irreligionists identify capitalism with religion because capitalism (unlike leftism) doesn’t suppress religion, while religionists identify capitalism with irreligion because capitalism (unlike rightism) doesn’t suppress that. Let us put aside the question of whether such behavior — the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself — constitutes “selfishness” in the most destructive sense. What this example illustrates perfectly is the statist projection inherent in linking laissez faire, which neither suppresses nor subsidizes, to any homogenized culture. A “capitalist society” is no more synonymous with “selfish materialism” than with “selfless spirituality.” The only thing everyone in a libertarian political order does — with no one’s mind, body, and property but his own — is act, not for his exclusive “gratification” against any consideration for others, but on his own judgment protected against any violence from others.

With regard to the nature of civil liberties, the freedom to withhold one’s wealth from the state — apparently the gravamen of the charge of capitalist “selfishness” — is wholly like any other human right. The state has no more claim to the individual’s private property than to his private body or his private mind. (Indeed, what a person does with his own property or body is what he does with his own mind — all coercion is “thought control.”) If we do not grant government the ability to more wisely or morally use a citizen’s mind or body, we do not grant it the ability to more wisely or morally use his property. Yet that is exactly what the accusation of “selfishness” wants to guilt us into conceding: that the state (essentially a handful of guys with guns) will manage each and every person’s money “better” than these people (essentially the entirety of the population) will do themselves. Just who is manning this administration — mortals or gods?

Will all of capitalism’s “sham-liberty” degenerate us into an anti-civilization of hermits, morons, and masturbators?

The importance of private property to political dissent was memorably demonstrated by an unexpected but significant source. In response to President George W. Bush’s launching of the Iraq War, the National War Tax Resistance Coordinating Committee issued a public statement entitled “An Appeal to Conscience: In Support of Those Refusing to Pay for War on Iraq,” which upheld a citizen’s right not to pay “all or a portion of one’s federal taxes as a form of conscientious objection.” Among the signatories were many who proudly wore the label “socialist,” including . . . Noam Chomsky. Now here were outright collectivists defending the right of every individual to keep his money from the taxmen, for no reason other than to reflect his private conscience — that is, his personal disagreement with government policy, even when the government was enthroned by the Election Day majority-plurality. (And certainly Bush 2000 won a much greater percentage of the popular vote than Chile’s Allende, whose “democratically elected” credential is repeated by the Left as calculatingly as Castro’s dictator status is not.) The “Appeal to Conscience” didn’t even contain a little pledge that each tax resister would spend his withheld wealth on good things (e.g., children’s charities) and not on bad ones (hookers and heroin).

Since war is a government undertaking, we must note the converse in America today: almost every government project is conceived as some kind of “war” — hence a War on Poverty and a War on Drugs no less than a War in Iraq and a War on Terror. If, as a matter of principle, a citizen may stop giving money to the state as a practical expression of his “conscientious objection” to any particular war — if he can in that manner legitimately protest national security and other policies — we thereby recognize that private property is essential to freedom of conscience. What then is left of any variant of wealth seizure? What are we left with but capitalism in its purest form?

Yet that is the very politics denounced by the Left, including even its antiwar tax resisters, as “selfishness.” One cannot help recalling the scene in A Man for All Seasons where Sir Thomas More, accused of high treason, explains that his believing a “loyal subject is more bounden to be loyal to his conscience than to any other thing” is a matter of necessity “for respect of my own soul.” Thomas Cromwell, the state’s advocate and More’s antipode in this “debate” — a rigged trial in which the defendant’s life is in peril — tries to undermine this statement of conviction in a common manner, sneering, “Your own self, you mean!” More doesn’t deny it: “Yes, a man’s soul is his self!”

Possibly the “egalitarian” supporters of the “Appeal to Conscience” believed that its broad principles should apply to only specific people — namely, themselves and those sufficiently parallel. That returns to the fore the refusal to extend to others the protection of law that one demands for oneself. Said refusal is a good working definition of what many actually champion as the corrective to capitalist “selfishness”: the social-democratic “welfare” state — the mixed economy:

To be capitalist or to be socialist?— that is the question. Precisely what is the mix of the mixed economy? When is it capitalist and when is it socialist? When does it protect property and when does it confiscate it? When does it leave people alone and when does it coerce them? When does it adhere to the ethics of individualism and when does it obey the code of collectivism? And just which is the metaphysical primary — the individual or the collective (e.g., the nation, the race, the class)? The fundamental truth about the mixed economy is that mixed practices imply mixed principles, which in turn imply mixed premises — i.e., an incoherent grasp of reality. With socialism, the chaos was economic; with “social democracy,” it’s epistemological. Ultimately, the latter can no more generate rational policies than the former could generate rational prices. The mixed economy doesn’t present us with a mosaic portrait of the just society, but with a jigsaw of pieces taken from different puzzles.

Unable to provide any philosophically consistent answers, the mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected. One example that virtually suggests itself: while a myriad of voices clamor for censorship, who ever says, “There have to be some limits on free speech, and we should start with mine”? Concerning “economic” issues, do we ever hear, “Y’know what? Give the competition the subsidies. Me, I’ll bear the rigors of the market”? As for intellectual and moral integrity: do we see the National Organization for Women (NOW) and fellow “progressives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the abortion industry — a heresy that elicited a charge of “possessive individualism” from Christopher Hitchens when in office as socialist inquisitor — except, that is, when these “progressives” demand tax dollars for abortions (and deny reproductive rights, the putative sine qua non for gender equality, to males)? Do we see the National Rifle Association (NRA) and fellow “conservatives” bring to other issues the laissez faire they demand for the gun culture — a deviation that roused Robert Bork, majoritarian mongoose to any perceived libertarian snake, to attack the NRA via a comparison with the ACLU — except, that is, when these “conservatives” demand that private property owners be prohibited by law from refusing entry to persons carrying firearms?

Whatever the skirmish, the conflict of freedom vs. control is that of diversity vs. conformity.

No matter what combination of contradictory positions any particular avatar of the mixed economy advocates on any given day, he is always a libertarian with his own liberty and a capitalist with his own capital, but an authoritarian with the freedoms of others and a socialist with their property. Such is the “idealism” that distinguishes modern liberalism and its special-interest lobbies from the “selfishness” of classical liberalism and its establishment of the same rights for oneself and one’s neighbors.

With social diversity now multiplying the types of special interests in many social democracies, the resulting political conflicts cannot be dismissed, let alone defused — least of all by the bromide that “we all accept that our tax dollars go to things we disapprove of.” No one in fact accepts that. Even though taxation exists to separate people from control of their money, selective tax protests span the spectrum of otherwise pro-taxation pressure groups. We’ve seen collectivists — reputed foes of all private property — endorse antiwar protesters who demand as a matter of individual conscience their right not to pay taxes. Years ago in The Nation, an ad told readers that “your tax dollars” funded what it alleged was Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. Public school supporters, who never voice concern over how many “Americans really want to give tax dollars” to that monopoly, suddenly claimed great concern with what “Americans really want” at the prospect of those dollars going to “school vouchers.” And among traditionalists, tax protests involve everything from abortion to art (if it offends them) to foreign aid (for the countries they don’t like) to free condoms and free needles. Under a system that denigrates the concept of equal rights for all, everyone wants to be exempt from paying taxes for the things he disapproves of, but no one wants — any guesses why? — his neighbors to be exempt from paying taxes for the things they disapprove of.

There’s not a mote of doubt as to what — with the double standard as its only standard — exposes itself as the inherent politics of “selfishness”: the hypocrisy of social democracy. All the warring camps of social democrats brazenly acknowledge that hypocrisy — in the other camps. A snowy day stuck indoors will pass much more tolerably with a back-and-forth Googling of “liberal hypocrisy” and “conservative hypocrisy.” (Each camp also detects tyranny — “fascism” — in only the others; compare Jonah Goldberg vs. Naomi Wolf.)

And what of social democracy’s central claim to “social justice”: its redistribution of wealth from the “most greedy” (richest? most materialistic? least philanthropic?) to the “most needy”? Consider one form of redistribution that no North American or European “welfare” state allows — or ever would allow. Let us stipulate that I have no problems with (a) the government’s taking a portion of my money for the purpose of tempering my “greed,” (b) the idea of those tax dollars going to the “most needy,” and (c) the percentage the state takes. But there is one thing: I don’t consider the current recipients to be anywhere near the “most needy.” My definition does not include my fellow Americans, who even at their poorest are richer than most people on the planet. To get right to it: I believe that the “most needy” — the “least of these” — are undeniably the starving children of the Third World, and I insist that my tax dollars all be sent to them.

The mixed economy demonstrates that the question of which rights will be protected degenerates into a struggle over whose rights will be protected.

Now why is that a problem? I am not declaring a right to withhold my taxes from the government, with no assurance about what I will do with the money — unlike the antiwar leftists who signed the “Appeal to Conscience.” Nor am I trying to control what others’ taxes pay for. All I’m asking is that my money go to those who my independent judgment and individual conscience tell me are the “most needy.” Why should I pay for full medical coverage for all Americans, when the Third World children don’t have any food? Why should I pay for textbooks for American children, when the Third World children don’t have any food? So, why can’tmy tax dollars go to them? Because the Election Day majority-plurality decides that “charity begins at home” (i.e., nationalism trumps humanitarianism)? If the neediest-recipient principle justifies my money’s transfer to my fellow Americans, why doesn’t it justify the money’s transfer from these Americans to the starving Third World children? Isn’t the principle violated by the dictionary “selfishness” of voting other people’s money into one’s own coffer (“tax booty for me, tax burden for thee”)?

The redistribution of wealth in a “welfare” state is not directed by a neediest-recipient or any other principle. It is purely a matter of power. With its rejection of consistent property rights, social democracy forces all people to throw all money onto the table (which some resist more successfully than others) and then allows them to take what they can (with some better able to take than others). That’s right: The money goes from those who are politically unable to hold on to their wealth, to those who are politically capable of grabbing on to that wealth. The former are no more guaranteed to be the “most greedy” than the latter are to be the “most needy.” It would be criminal not to cite Lord Bauer’s denuding of foreign aid: the “transferring [of] money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries.” And it would be downright felonious to omit business subsidies. Any redistribution of wealth operates in only one way: from each according to his ability to contract via civil society, to each according to his ability to coerce via the state — a feature applicable (by degree) to both socialist dictatorship and social democracy.

The confusion of limited government with “selfishness” is reflected in the socialistic thesis that such government comprises nothing but the “class self-interest” of the business (“capitalist”) class. This thesis implodes almost immediately when we begin to ask precisely what concrete policies manifest that specific “class self-interest.” If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations? If unregulated commerce leads to monopolization by these “capitalists,” why do real-world businessmen look to state regulation to gift them with monopoly entitlements? And if free trade gives an advantage to this class, why do each country’s business — and union — leaders lobby for protectionism?

The classical liberals formulated their principles of private property, laissez faire, and free trade — rejected by “socialists of all parties” and big business alike — not against the yearning of the have-nots for a better life, but in opposition to policies that favored the few over the common good, that is, the routine of “merchants and industrialists . . . demanding and receiving special privileges for themselves” (in the words of Robert B. Downs). Free-market economics (The Wealth of Nations) and American nationhood both arose as part of the revolt against such mercantilism — corporatism, in today’s parlance. The American “welfare” state, in contrast, began as a neomercantilist reaction against that revolt. “The essential purpose and goal of any measure of importance in the Progressive Era was not merely endorsed by key representatives of businesses involved,” observed Gabriel Kolko; “rather such bills were first proposed by them.” Big business has never stopped being a major driver of big government. Would President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug bill (the “largest expansion of entitlements in nearly forty years,” according to Jonathan Chait) have gone anywhere without its hundreds of billions in industry subsidies? Would Obamacare even exist without the “advice” and approval of the health insurance cartel?

If respect for everyone’s property rights actually favors “capitalists,” why do corporations seek subsidies and “eminent domain” confiscations?

Corporate privilege is a raison d’être — not a corruption — of the “welfare” state (aka “corporate liberalism”). Charity is not the purpose of the “welfare” state, much less its innovation. Concern for “the poor and stranger” long preceded its birth and will long survive its death. Like family life or the division of labor, charity is (to quote Paine’s view of society vs. state) “part of that order which reigns among mankind [that] is not the effect of government. It had its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man.” What had its origin in government is the swarm of anticompetitive measures benefitting “connected” entities — the fixed economy of the mixed economy. Without tariffs, for instance, how many people would always prefer to buy domestic goods? And how many would ever write out checks to a multinational conglomerate for nothing in return? Those are the “market failures” that the opponents of a free market fear.

Any state initiation of force exists not for a noble end (which, as Jefferson said of truth, requires no such coercion), but for a sordid one. Regarding military conscription, Ayn Rand pointed out that a “free (or even semi-free) country has never lacked volunteers in the face of foreign aggression.” However: “Not many men would volunteer for such wars as Korea or Vietnam.” Likewise, people will allocate money for the education of their children, sound retirement funds, the less fortunate, and especially the services of a limited government. What they won’t do is give it to “teachers” who can’t teach, Ponzi schemes, Boeing, or Chrysler — or the Taliban, which just a few months before 9/11 received from Uncle Sam a total of $43 million for its “help” in the victory-elusive War on Drugs (a sum that too obviously pales next to the multiple billions handed over to Vice President Cheney’s compadres for the purpose of building infrastructure — in Iraq). Only pursuits of folly and injustice seek the means of force or fraud.

Portraying laissez-faire capitalism as the tailored benefactor of big business is transparently a projection on the part of the mixed economy’s corporate liberals. The consistent socialists, on the other hand, care no more whether commerce is privileged or left alone by government than whether religion is privileged or left alone by government. They want the abolition of commerce, of religion, of a free market in anything, of any independent institution of civil society: the replication of totalitarian theory and history.

Will only the unfettered state stop the virulence of “selfishness”? Ideally yes, asserted Plato, for whom the “highest form of the state” was one “in whichthe private and individual is altogether banished from life, and things which are by nature private, such as eyes and ears and hands, have become common, and in some way see and hear and act in common, and all men express praise and blame and feel joy and sorrow on the same occasions. . . .” Reductio ad fundamentum: There will be no more “selfishness” when there are no more selves.

Capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees.

The unfettered market boasts no ability to effect a change in “human nature” — in social reality. There will always be situations in which people compete to get or to keep one position, one prize. But while the market can do nothing about this conflicting “selfishness” (and will do nothing about different parties’ demands for a guarantee of monopoly), it commands the common self-interest that people have in all competition being governed by an equitable rule: a ban on the use of force or fraud by any rival, the only possible such rule. The analogue of the market is not the jungle, but the stadium — more broadly, a network of stadiums and other venues.

Capitalism’s multiplicity of open competitions enables each individual to find the field where he can succeed. The free market’s profit-and-loss dynamic (to quote Adam Smith) “encourages every man to apply himself to [the] particular occupation” most sought after by others. These interactions synthesize the most prosperous social order as defined by the participants themselves — all of them, as opposed to any one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be.” It is an ideal that has been realized to the degree thata market mechanism has been implemented. In contrast, socialism’s “equality” has meant nothing but poverty for all. And in a jarring echo of the Great Depression, the mixed economy’s regulatory sector in recent years orchestrated a general downturn in the US (where the crisis was Orwellianly blamed on “deregulation”) and in Europe (the “PIIGS”). State intervention in production (i.e., one party’s wish for the “way it ought to be”), once heralded as the alternative to the market’s alleged class conflicts, evidently produces only the “common ruin of the contending classes” — to redirect a phrase from The Communist Manifesto. When the prescribed cure for “selfishness” actually afflicts the common good, we must reexamine the diagnosis of the condition.

Preponderant among the essential criticisms of limited government has been the charge that it fails to recognize as natural rights such things as food, clothing, and shelter, to say nothing of education (“from pre-K to Ph.D.”), advanced medicine, and whatever else might be tacked on. The sober reply: these items are not natural rights because they are not natural produce. It costs a man nothing not to coerce his fellow citizens, thereby respecting their rights to worship, speak, etc. But how can he provide everyone’s “right” to all those scarce materials and services? And why should he, when he himself is promised a “right” to those things whether he does any work or not? Realistically speaking, capitalism is being condemned for not assenting to the proposition that money grows on trees. And the condemners are quite serious in that belief: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Wealth simply exists, and only capitalist “selfishness” prevents its equal distribution to every soul on earth.

Ultimately, the free-market society is guilty only of affirming each individual’s right to control his own mind, body, and property, a conviction that calls for a single sentence: if that is “selfishness,” let us make the most of it.

Recommended Reading

  • Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, Free Market Revolution: How Ayn Rand’s Ideas Can End Big Government, 2012.
  • Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America, 2012.
  • David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, 2003.
  • Robert P. Murphy, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism, 2007.
  • Andrew P. Napolitano, It Is Dangerous to Be Right When the Government Is Wrong: The Case for Personal Freedom, 2011.
  • John Stossel, No, They Can’t: Why Government Fails — But Individuals Succeed, 2012.

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A Collaboration With History


Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.

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Should Tsarnaev Be Put to Death?


The verdict in Boston — death to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — may cause some libertarians to reaffirm or reconsider their position on the death penalty.

To me, the arguments against the death penalty seem obvious.

  1. The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?
  2. While some crimes of passion can be excused as, well, crimes of passion, cold-blooded killing is always ugly and sickening.
  3. There is always the possibility that an executed person will later be found innocent. There is a somewhat larger possibility that even a person so worthless as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could change and become, in effect, another person.

But I confess: these arguments, though obvious, do not seem conclusive to me. They might seem conclusive if it weren’t for the weakness of the arguments that are often added to them by anti-death-penalty people:

  1. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s just as wrong to kill a killer as for the killer to have killed someone else.
  2. In proportion to the population, more black people than white people are executed.
  3. The incidence of murder in states that lack the death penalty is sometimes lower than the incidence of murder in states that have it.
  4. It costs a fortune to execute someone.

When I listen to these latter anti-death-penalty arguments, a strange thing happens to me. I get the feeling that the full ensemble of arguments is not as good as I thought it was — or why would the arguers (many of them professionally devoted to the cause) fill out their case with such weak and (I can’t help thinking) disingenuous pleas.

The Bible condones plenty of killings. The same biblical book that commands “Thou shalt not kill” also commands executions for various crimes. In the very next chapter, we find: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” So “kill” in the first instance must mean “murder.” Even on non-biblical grounds, it seems very counterintuitive to suggest that it is as wrong for me to kill a man who casually murdered two teenagers and then happily ate the hamburgers they were carrying, as it is for the man to have killed the teenagers. Think of your own, doubtless even more horrible examples of crimes thought to merit the death penalty. Examples abound.

The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?

The question to be asked about “racially disproportionate use of the death penalty” is whether particular black people or white people received a fair trial — not whether those people were black or white. If you want an assurance of fairness, nothing will satisfy you if the elaborate provisions of the death penalty codes fail to do so.

Does it make sense to compare murder rates in Massachusetts (2.0 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, with murder rates in Texas (4.3 per 100,000), which executes people all the time, or Vermont (1.6) and Maryland (6.4), which have no death penalty? A deterrent that is rarely used can hardly deter; but would the death penalty, even if frequently used, explain the difference in murder rates between, say, Utah (1.7 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but also has a lot of Mormons, and Michigan (6.4 per 100,000), which abolished the death penalty soon after statehood, but which also has Detroit? The argument on each side seems impossible to make, on such evidence. Yet is there any possibility that the lack of a death penalty would actually lower the murder rate? How could that be?

It is childishly easy to answer the fourth objection, “It costs a fortune to execute someone.” It costs a fortune because of the legal ploys of the same people who are making the objection — ploys that are, in most cases, as intellectually dishonest as the objection itself.

It appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me acknowledging that there is something right, and something wrong, about the legitimate arguments on both sides. It leaves me with roughly the same questions that I think even anarchists would ask themselves about crime and punishment, if they succeeded in creating a society in which justice services were privatized.

Despite all attempted legal guarantees, is the death penalty sometimes wrongly carried out? Yes, probably it is, though it appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown. Yes, it’s possible that I will suddenly confuse the accelerator with the brake, but that’s not a reason for me to give up driving.

It seems certain that the real prospect of a death penalty would deter certain crimes, but not others. As libertarians, we must pay enough respect to individual psychology to admit that. We must also specify that killing is ugly, no matter who carries it out. Also, I think, we must specify that the world would be better off without some of its inhabitants, especially those who wantonly murder other people.

I’ve noticed that when there is about to be an execution, intense emotions are evoked by the idea that John Smith is about to suffer “the ultimate penalty.” John is said to be a changed person, or a brutally misjudged person, or a sad, wayward, confused person, and people cry out for him on the internet. School children are told to write letters supporting him. Meanwhile, would-be enforcers of the death penalty dwell with badly hidden glee on his awful deeds. But immediately after he is executed or has his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, he is forgotten. The issue wasn’t John Smith; nobody really thought he was worth talking about, as a real person who had done real things; the issue was an identity-making cause called the Death Penalty. That doesn’t mean that John was, in the end, truly worthless. It does suggest that the contestants may harbor motives that have little to do with truth or justice.

My suggestion is that I, and other people interested in this controversy, put aside our eager concern with our identity as judges or sympathizers, warriors or reconcilers, and marvel, for a moment, at the complexity of the issue. In other words, I think it would behoove all the ideological contestants to become a little more reflective and a little less self-righteous.

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Disquieting Developments


My father served in the Army Signal Corps, under General Patton, and participated in the liberation of one of the Nazi concentration camps. He and his fellow Signal Corpsmen photographed what he saw. As a young boy I found some of those grisly photos tucked away in the garage. They left an impression on me that lasts to this day — to this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be exact, when I decided to take some time to discuss the current state of anti-Semitism.

Europe is now witnessing a surge in anti-Semitism such as it has not seen since the Holocaust era of the 1930s and 1940s. This certainly shows up in European soccer matches, as a recent Washington Post article reports: the crowd at a game taunts the visiting fans from Amsterdam, a city with a historically large Jewish population, with chants such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” and “My father was in the commandos, my mother was in the SS, together they burned Jews, because Jews burn the best!” At another game, British spectators taunted a team often supported by Jewish fans with the chant “I’ve got a foreskin, how about you? F--- Jew!” In other games, players and fans have given an imitation Nazi salute (the “quenelle”) invented by a devoutly anti-Semitic French comedian named Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. The article cites a study showing that anti-Semitic incidents at European soccer games are at a record high.

Whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

More generally, as a recent US News & World Report piece put it, “From Toulouse to Paris, London to Berlin, Brussels to Copenhagen, Jews are being harassed, assaulted and even killed.” The report notes that a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows anti-Semitic attacks at a seven-year high. As of 2013, Jews have faced intimidation and even persecution in more than three-fourths of Europe — 34 out of 45 countries, to be exact. These attacks include desecration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, verbal slurs and physical assaults, and even murders — most recently of the Charlie Hebdo magazine staff and (right afterward) the killing of customers at a kosher food market.

The Pew survey indicates that currently 25% of all Europeans feel antipathy toward Jews. This result comports well with a 2013 survey reported in an article by Cathy Young. The survey was of 6,000 self-identified Jews living in eight EU countries, conducted by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights. The results were both surprising and disturbing. The survey revealed that:

  • two-thirds of the respondents thought that anti-Semitism was a serious problem in their home countries;
  • three-fourths thought that anti-Semitism has increased over the last five years;
  • one-fourth reported being personally subjected to anti-Semitic bullying or attack;
  • nearly one-half reported being concerned about harassment;
  • two-thirds were afraid that their children would be harassed at school, or in transit to and from.

What is behind this swelling tide of European anti-Semitism? I think we can point to three groups: Muslim immigrants to Europe European leftists and European right-wing extremists.

This triumvirate of communities infected with large numbers of Jew-haters is explored in a recent report by the American Jewish Committee. As the report puts it, “Three distinct groups in France are noticeably more anti-Jewish than the overall population, according to two new public opinion surveys on French anti-Semitism. The groups are supporters of the National Front party (extreme right), to a lesser extent supporters of the Left Front coalition (extreme left), and members of the Muslim community.”

The article gives the results of polling conducted by the French think-tank Fondapol last year. They show that while about 25% of the French generally say Jews have too much power in the media, 33% of Left Front sympathizers, fully 51% of National Front sympathizers, and a mind-boggling 61% of French Muslims agree. Again, on the question of whether Jews use “Holocaust victim status” as an egoistic ploy, 35% of the whole French population agrees — already a shockingly high number — while 51% of Left Front supporters, 56% of Muslims, and a nauseating 62% of National Front supporters agree. Regarding the recent upsurge in violence against Jews, while 14% of the French public generally thought it was “understandable,” 29% of National Front supporters agreed, as did 21% of Left Front supporters, and 25% of Muslims.

The polls also showed that the degree of anti-Semitism among Muslims was directly proportional to the degree of self-reported religiosity.

Let’s examine these groups more closely.

Start with the Muslim European community. It is no shocking news to report that Europe in recent years has seen a massive increase in Muslim immigrants. As a recent Pew study reports, the Muslim percentage of Europe’s population has grown about 1% per decade, from constituting 4% of the EU population in 1990 to 6% in 2010. (In 2010, the total Muslim EU population was over 13 million.) The study projects that this will continue through 2030, when the Muslims will be 8% of the total population. France and Germany have the highest percentages of Muslims (at 7.5% and 5.8% respectively). And from that community has come most of the attackers of Jews.

The idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality.

The polls I discussed earlier showed anti-Semitic sentiment strong among French Muslims. Other polls indicate that the same holds true of the rest of Europe. As a recent paper by Gunther Jikeli notes, many other surveys done throughout Europe confirm that there is a much higher level of anti-Semitism among Muslims than among non-Muslims (or the public at large). In a 2006 Pew study, Muslims in France, Germany, and Spain were twice as likely to have unfavorable views of Jews as were non-Muslims, while in Britain Muslims were seven times more likely. Jikeli reviews ten other studies conducted in a variety of ways in a variety of other European countries, all showing basically the same result.

It is often said that whatever hatred comes from elements of the Muslim immigrant community is created by Israel’s policies, specifically its occupation of the West Bank. I don’t find this claim plausible, for several reasons.

First, as the US News article noted, whenever there are demonstrations or riots in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, the participants don’t scream “Death to Israel,” but “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.”

Second, and more obviously, European Jews — i.e., precisely those Jews who have chosen to stay in their European homelands rather than immigrate to Israel — have virtually no influence over Israeli policies. So harassing, assaulting, and killing those Jews will certainly not change Israeli policy. And how crazy is it to think that desecrating the graves of long-deceased Jews could be motivated by the intention to protest against Israel and its various policies? I mean, if this were anger at Israeli policies, you would expect the attacks to be directed at Israeli embassies, not random Jewish graveyards.

Third, there has been tremendous antipathy toward the Jews in all Muslim lands since the inception, not of Israel, but of Islam itself. Anti-Semitism has been endemic in Islam throughout its existence for the same reason it has been endemic in Christianity throughout its existence. Judaism denies that Muhammed was a prophet and that Jesus was the Messiah. It is basically that simple. And we should note that the hatred Muslims often feel against the Jews for not accepting the Prophet is also directed at Christians (and Hindus, Zoroastrians, and so on) for the self-same reason.

None of this should be taken to mean that I think Israel’s state policies are now or have ever been above reproach, or that I think anybody who criticizes those policies is necessarily (or even likely) an anti-Semite. Of course everyone is free to criticize Israel — or America, Egypt, Iran, or any other country.

Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case.

I just doubt the claim that Israel’s policies are the predominant cause of Islamic anti-Semitism. The existence of Israel is the current focus for that anti-Semitism, but the long-standing Muslim antipathy toward Jews would have remained even if Yasser Arafat had accepted the two-state solution negotiated by Bill Clinton some years back, and even if all Israelis moved to somewhere else tomorrow. As Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Islamist terrorist army Hezbollah, so charmingly put it: “If we searched the entire world for a person more cowardly, despicable, weak, and feeble in psyche, mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew. Notice I do not say the Israeli.” Duly noticed.

Let’s now turn to another group responsible for the recrudescence of European anti-Semitism, the European Left. I want to start with addressing what I will call the New York Times Received Account. The name gives recognition to an NYT article written a couple of years ago by Colin Shindler.

In that piece (“The European Left and Its Trouble with the Jews”), Shindler began by noting the growth of anti-Semitic violence in France, such as the then recent firing of blanks outside a synagogue, Islamists tossing a grenade into a kosher restaurant, and the killing of a teacher and some children in a Jewish school. He then averred that much of the European Left had remained silent about these cases where “anti-Zionism spills over into anti-Semitism,” as he put it.

His thesis was that the Left was very sympathetic to Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but started reversing itself with Israel’s “collusion with imperial powers like Britain and France during the Suez Crisis,” and only intensified during the 1970s with the Israelis building out settlements on the West Bank. By the 1990s, he added, many European Leftists began to view the growing Muslim immigrant population as “a new proletariat.”

I don’t find the Times Received View remotely persuasive (but then, very little of what emanates from the Great American Progressive Propaganda Organ seems persuasive to me). To begin with a couple of obvious quibbles, the idea that the Left was sympathetic to the Jews after the Holocaust doesn’t comport with historical reality. Certainly in the contest of the post-war Soviet Empire, as Daniel Hannan notes, Stalin’s pursuit of the “Doctors’ Plot” was intended to initiate a campaign targeting Jews with the goal of throwing massive numbers of them into his Gulag. Also, there were show trials of “Israeli spies” in both Czechoslovakia and Hungary, as well as purges of Jews by the Polish communist party.

Of course, much of the European Left did not support the Stalinist Soviet Empire. But much of the European Left did.

And the idea that the Left began to oppose Jews and side with the Muslims because Israel sided with imperial powers in 1956 doesn’t square with the fact that the European Left seems to have had little problem with Soviet imperialism (remember, the year 1956 also saw the Soviets butchering Hungarians who wanted freedom from their empire), or Chinese imperialism. Moreover, as Daniel Greenberg has observed, Islam itself was a colonialist creed. The Turkish Empire was hardly a Jewish one, to take the most recent case. And the empire that Iran is trying to put together (by controlling Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen) is again not a Jewish but a Shia Muslim one.

Anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning.

But waive those points. Jews who have chosen to remain in Europe have no control of any kind over Israel’s policies. The main reason a person would allow his hatred of Israel’s policies — which are not universally accepted even by Israelis — to extend to all Jews would be that he is a Jew-hater to begin with.

And again, as Daniel Hannan has forcefully observed, anti-Semitic trends in socialism go back to the beginning. Pierre Leroux, the 19th-century leftist who coined the term “socialism,” trumpeted, “When we speak of Jews, we mean the Jewish spirit — the spirit of profit, of lucre, of gain, of speculation in a word the banker’s spirit.” The 19th-century German radical Wilhelm Marr embraced the term “anti-Semitic,” crowing, “Anti-Semitism is a Socialist movement, only nobler and purer in form than Social Democracy.” The 20th-century French socialist-communist Pierre Myrens had that, “The Yid is an Israelite by religion, a Jew by race, and what is more, a capitalist!”

Of course, the über-leftist himself, Karl Marx — whose father converted to Protestantism from Judaism, so would have been categorized as Jewish under the Nuremberg laws — held that “the essence of Judaism and the root of the Jewish soul is expediency and self-interest: the God of Israel is Mammon, who exposes himself in the lust for money.” He and his collaborator Engels wrote of the Polish Jews, “The Polish Jew-Usurer cheats, gives short weights, clips coins, engages in common swindling.” This from the “genius” revered in philosophy departments worldwide!

Jews themselves have often been politically leftist, but as a group they have historically been associated with capitalism (“money-lending”) in the European mind. And what defines the Left — from progressive liberalism, to socialism, to communism — is precisely the disapproval or loathing of capitalism.

Here of course is one of European history’s great ironies. You might call it the Catch-22 of Judaism in Europe. Jews were often barred from land ownership, membership in the trade guilds, and government service. They were, however, allowed to be peddlers, and otherwise to engage in business. They were allowed to do something Christians were forbidden to do: lend money at interest — to Christians. So Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

Again, I want to add the caveat that while the European Left has been a wellspring of anti-Semitic sentiment, I don’t say that most European leftists harbored such feelings. I simply say that they are more likely to have such sentiments than the population as a whole.

Let’s finally consider the rise of ultra-Right parties in Europe. Over the past five years, they have been making rapid gains in membership and (accordingly) in representation in legislatures. Last year in particular saw these parties achieve major gains.

Christian policy itself often drove Jews into business generally and banking in particular. Drove them into it — but condemned them for it.

These parties fall into two broad categories: the ultra-right-wing, so to say, and the neo-Nazi. The Independence Party in the UK and the contemporary National Front in France, both to the right of what we would call conservative or neoliberal parties, are of the first category. The Golden Dawn Party in Greece and the Jobbik Party in Hungary are both in the second category. The difference between the two types of European radically right-wing parties is explored in an article by John Palmer a couple of years back.

The neo-Nazi parties mimic the German Nazi Party of yore. For example, the Golden Dawn party of Greece has its own version of the SA (Sturmabteilung), which delights in bullying immigrants and refugees. And the Jobbik party in Hungary delights in bullying the Roma (Gypsies). On the other hand, the UK Independence Party and the contemporary National Front don’t terrorize anybody, but instead oppose continued widespread immigration and want firmer measures to assimilate the recent immigrants.

Interesting here is the National Front in France. It has recently seen something of a power struggle between the founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his daughter Marine. The father has said a number of things that seem to show genuine anti-Semitism. For instance, he has spoken about making an “oven-load” of a Jewish singer. Regarding the Holocaust, which killed 6 million Jews, he has repeatedly made slighting comments, such as, “If you take a book of over a thousand pages on the Second World War, in which 50 million died, the concentration camps occupy two pages and the gas chambers ten or 15 lines, and that’s what one calls a detail.” Considering that of the 50 million people killed in WWII, at least 11 million died in the Nazi concentration camps, I don’t think we are talking about a detail meriting two pages out of 1,000. And he has said, “I’m not saying that the gas chambers didn’t exist. I couldn’t see them myself.” While not denying the concentration camps existed, Le Pen has clearly attempted to dismiss them, which seems odd for a person who had no anti-Semitic beliefs to do.

His daughter seems to have taken command of the party and distanced it from his anti-Semitism, focusing instead on anti-immigrationism. But even so, it seems clear that the long-term members of the party are more likely to harbor anti-Semitic beliefs than is the French public as a whole.

Now, in the European context, radical right-wing parties have a markedly different flavor from that which we Americans view as “right-wing.” Many Americans consider libertarians to be on the Right politically, but Europeans would more correctly view then as “liberal” advocates of minimal government. Most American conservatives, too, are distrustful of a powerful central government. But the European Right tends to favor economic statism and intense nationalism. What focuses their anger is the vision that many European leaders share of a “United States of Europe.”

The European Union started as a free trade zone (at which it was quite a success). Then it became a unified monetary zone (the success of which is bound to be severely tested, should Greece leave). But the goal of political union, in which the existing European nation states merge into one overarching state, sticks in the craw of the radical Right. (To get a sense of the intensity of the disagreement, you can listen to a recent heated debate between two Euroskeptics and two True Believers in a United States of Europe.)

There are plenty of reasons for even libertarians to distrust the idea of a unified European state. But one of the main reasons for the European Right lies in its own tribalist feeling of “volk,” of the people as an extended kinfolk bonded by blood as well as culture. Many of those who view immigrants as “outside the tribe” — i.e., as members of the out-group — also view Jews in this way as well. Jews are often seen by the ultra-rightists as being “cosmopolitan,” a code for saying that they aren’t really Germans (or French, or whatever). They are of “different blood.”

Add to this the traditional tie between the Right and the church in Europe, which brings in the element of Christian antipathy toward the Jews, and the attraction the fascist Right has toward socialism, with its suspicion of capitalism (and hence of “money-lending”), and you have a further source of anti-Semitism.

As Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence.

One point should be made explicitly and stressed. While the three European communities with the most anti-Semitic feeling are Muslims, leftists, and rightists, that of course does not necessarily mean that the majority of their members approve of Jews being physically attacked, or are even anti-Semitic. Reverting to one of the polls reported earlier, while 14% of the French generally say violence against Jews is “understandable” (which may or may not mean that those respondents approve of it), 21% of the Left Front, 25% of Muslims, and 29% of National Front say it is understandable. That in turn means that 79% of the Left Front, 75% of Muslims, and 71% of the National Front say that they do not believe anti-Jewish violence is understandable, much less approve of it.

That said, however, some other points must be made as well. First of all, the number of people agreeing to certain anti-Semitic statements (such as the one about Jews using the Holocaust as a victimhood ploy) does reach majority support among the three groups. Also, it is quite likely that many people who really do believe violence against Jews is understandable (and perhaps even deserved) will not want to admit that to a pollster. Almost surely, the reported percentages are lower than the real ones.

Further, as Europe struggles economically, the radical Left and radical Right may continue to grow in number and political influence. Should Greece leave the Eurozone, and should this lead to financial crisis, these groups may increase their influence. And regardless of Europe’s short-term financial future, the Muslim population is likely to continue to grow. In view of these trends, I think that the level of European anti-Semitism will probably be rising as well.

In short, though Holocaust Remembrance Day has come and gone, there is much still to ponder, and it is deeply disquieting.

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Acapulco Gold Rush


Last weekend my wife was seized by an unwholesome enthusiasm for tiny houses. She’d read they were featured at something called a Better Living Show and wanted to go.

That’s what they call them, tiny houses; and in the truth-in-naming department you can’t do much better than that. Tiny houses are two-hundred-square-foot jobs, conveniently sized to fit into a single parking space. Except, if you lived in a parking space you’d have more room because you wouldn’t have to share your living quarters with a furnace and a water heater.

Tiny houses are the city of Portland’s newest, most environmentally correct way of encouraging neighborliness and doing something about urban sprawl at the same time. “Infill” is the word the planners use to justify them: 11, maybe 20 of the things bumper to bumper on a standard neighborhood lot. A business opportunity is what my wife called them. We could crowd a few dozen in the backyard, charge rent, and kayak the income stream into a comfortable old age.

The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips.

Marriages being what they are, we headed over to the Better-Living-in-the-Shanty-Town-of-the-Future Show, got out of the car, made our way on foot to where the parking lot receded over the curve of the earth, spotted a crowd, followed it into a warehouse-like building and found . . . marijuana paraphernalia. In fact, the first aisle was nothing but marijuana paraphernalia, display after display of the kind of things that would get you busted at any airport in America. Better living indeed.

Interesting, we thought, how quickly the free market kicked into gear once Oregon passed its marijuana initiative last fall. The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips. And it wasn’t just paraphernalia. One particularly popular young lady was pushing samples of what she billed as “medicine-free” edibles. Not that you can’t get edibles with medicine right now, just not at a recreational-use booth. Medical marijuana has been legal for decades but, until July, you will still need a prescription to indulge in recreational munchies.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations. Orchids, we thought. Now that we’ve found the more traditional part of the Better Living Show, can tiny houses be far away?

Turned out they could. It also turned out that the grow-box wasn’t meant for orchids. The orchids were nothing more than body doubles for the medicinal herbs that were meant to go in the grow-box but, like the medicine for the munchies, were biding their time until July. Next to the grow-box were shelves of seedless seed packets bearing the names of every imaginable variety of the scientifically engineered seeds you could grow in the grow box, just as soon as July rolls around and the seed packets contain seeds.

It began to dawn on us that, maybe, the better living show we’d arrived at wasn’t the same Better Living Show advertised in the paper. Sometimes we can be pretty insightful.

“This is the Oregon Cannabis Convention & Trade Show,” a nice young man informed us. “Better Living Show is the next building over. Building after that is the Gold & Treasure Show.”

Gold & Treasure? I thought. Gold and treasure is even better than marijuana paraphernalia. The Internet will send marijuana paraphernalia right to my home, but gold and treasure? Not even the most desperately dispossessed Nigerian widow ever came through with any of that. We headed over to the Gold & Treasure Show.

You had to go through a metal detector and check your guns before they’d let you in. I saw that as a favorable sign, a promise that we were about to be ushered into Aladdin’s cave. Or, and this is a particular fantasy of mine, Uncle Scrooge’s money bin.

Tiny houses are a lot more honest about what they call themselves than that Gold & Treasure Show. At the Gold & Treasure Show there was no treasure and not much more gold than there was marijuana at the marijuana show . . . and gold has been legal since the early ’70s. A couple of guys at out-of-the-way tables were pushing run-of-the-mill coins at about 30% more than you could get them for at any gold shop in town, which may say something about who they thought would be attending the show.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations.

What there was plenty of was late middle-aged men dressed up like prospectors who’d been thawed out of a glacier left over from Klondike days. They sported full beards and work boots, flannel shirts, and heavy-looking pants held up with suspenders. Their only sartorial concession to the 21st century was baseball caps advertising the names of equipment companies, which weren’t that much of a concession because the equipment they were advertising was as old-fashioned as the outfits. Row after row of sluice boxes. Pans. Picks. All the latest in 19th-century gold-mining technology. Pretty much anything you’d want if you were about to head on up to Dawson City in 1898.

Except, that is, for the gold magnets. Gold magnets weren’t part of any 19th-century prospector’s kit I know about. The fact is, I’m not persuaded that gold magnets should be part of any 21st-century kit, either. The idea of using magnetism to suck gold out of the ground doesn’t fit with anything I remember from high-school science; and, when I tried one on my wife’s wedding ring, it didn’t notice anything special. Which could go a long way toward explaining why these guys were at a trade show selling equipment rather than making their fortunes in the wilds of Alaska. But then, gold-rush fortunes are always made by the guys who sell the equipment.

Competitionwise, the Better Living Show picked a bad weekend to come to Portland. Marijuana fills the better-living bill for lots of people, and pretty much everybody thinks gold and treasure would go far toward making their living better, but almost nobody except city planners and the occasional overly enthusiastic wife imagines tiny houses could possibly make life better for anybody except slumlords, which left the Better Living Show a distant third attendancewise.

The people who put on that show seemed to share the general opinion and gave tiny houses the same pride of place as the Gold & Treasure Show gave gold coins: next to a wall on the far side of the room. There were two of them, both looking like the kind of place Red Riding Hood’s grandmother immigrated to America to escape from, once she’d been regurgitated by the wolf.

While the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Also, they were culturally better suited to Red’s grandmother than to modern Americans. Medieval European peasants were minimalists in the way of possessions, and the houses were decorated in that style. Nothing was in them, including plumbing, so you had to imagine where the toilet and sink and shower would go, along with the furnace and water heater, which took some imagining because a tiny house doesn’t have space for much more than a single room with a fold-down bed, and the beds weren’t there, either. I would have gone into one for a better look, but I couldn’t get in. Somebody was already inside and I wouldn’t fit.

The vendors at the Better Living Show appeared to have a lot of spare time on their hands. The one I got to talking to seemed much more interested in the marijuana show next door than trying to sell me whatever he was supposed to be selling. He was elderly, almost as old as I am from the grizzled look of him. He’d grown up in Detroit and, like a lot of inner-city Americans, didn’t have any tolerance for drugs. But marijuana? He spent time volunteering with veterans and, well, he’d seen guys even older than himself cured, by drinking marijuana tea, of the neuropathy that goes along with type 2 diabetes.

Tea, he said. “If it’s tea it’s not a drug. “That show still there tomorrow?”

“Think so,” I said.

“I need to go find out about tea.”

The marijuana show wasn’t really about tea, although there were people there who probably could have told him. Maybe the munchie lady would have slipped him a recipe or two. What the marijuana show was about was selling you equipment, then selling you the knowledge you needed to use the equipment.

The marijuana show was about gleaming pipes and tubes and gauges and vats and dials that looked like they’d been left over from Breaking Bad. It was about grow lights and consultants to tell you how to save electricity once you’d bought the grow lights. It was about other consultants who knew how to maintain the optimum humidity, or the proper day-night cycles. It was about scary-looking machinery to extract hash oil from all the buds you’d be growing with all the grow boxes and humidity and day-night cycles. It was about consultants on indoor growing to tell you about nutrients and hydroponics, and about entirely different lines of equipment and consultants for people who wanted to make their fortunes growing marijuana outdoors. Underneath it all, it was about selling people who didn’t know the first thing about marijuana cultivation or marijuana processing the dream of turning into international marijuana kingpins.

If I’d had a lot of money, even if I’d had a lot more money than that, I still would have had to go into debt, yea, even unto the seventh generation, to get started in that business. But none of that debt would have made the least bit of difference in light of all the money that would be rolling in, once I got the business cranked up. It was pretty clear these people had had a lot of practice selling this line.

They were, when I thought about it, the same sort of people as the ones at the Gold & Treasure Show, except that, while the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Something that nobody was selling was the statistics on what became of marijuana prices in Washington when weed went legal. Despite sellers up there having their state, Idaho, and the whole captive Portland market to themselves, the bottom fell out of their businesses. Too many who thought they were getting on the elevator at the ground floor wound up stepping into an empty shaft, only to get smashed flat when the elevator turned out to be heading down at them.

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why weed farmers would want to unionize their workers.

It wasn’t as if there was nobody at the marijuana show who knew that. Or knew how to run a business in general. Several organizations had booths selling business-support services. One fellow claiming to provide this kind of expertise was a union leader trying to organize the workers on marijuana farms.

“But nobody here is planning to be a farm worker,” I told him.

“Plenty are planning to be growers, though,” he said. “I’m organizing growers, too.”

“You think growers want to join a union?”

“Their workers would. I’m organizing the growers so they can organize their workers.”

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why farmers would want to unionize their workers. The best unclear reason involved keeping all the farms on the same playing field, which would keep prices for the product at a uniformly high level so that everybody, farmers and workers alike, would get rich. When I asked if his union planned to organize the illegal growers who are, when I thought about it, all the growers that exist right now, his answers became more unclear than usual. When I asked how anybody was going to get rich when marijuana doesn’t sell for any more than it’s selling for in Washington, he became even less clear.

A few booths over, a lady was touting a security service. “Marijuana businesses attract a lot of shady characters,” she said. “Owner needs to know who they are.”

Maybe, I thought, when marijuana is against the law. When it’s legal and cheap, shady characters are a lot more likely to hang around jewelry stores and places selling gold and treasure.

“You see a car in your parking lot with some shady characters inside,” she went on, “the last thing you want is to have to approach that car to find out who they are.”

Probably true I thought. Of any business.

“If you hire us, all you have to do is call with the tag number and we’ll tell you everywhere that car has been in the last few months.”

“You know that?”

“Sure. We get it from the street cameras. We can tell you within seconds everywhere that car has been.”

I knew about street cameras. Street cameras are one of things I talk about that make people think I’m some kind of anti-government crazy person, along with the thing I used to say about how the NSA records everybody’s phone calls and emails. I never expected the government would bother about something like a warrant when it wanted to check up on where my car had been, but I did think that calling up a specific license number would take a bit of trouble, like those operators tracing phone calls in old movies. And that, at the very least, the government would be embarrassed enough by the whole thing not to go making it any more public than it needed to. It never crossed my mind that you or I or a private security firm could tie directly into the street cameras and know where somebody else’s car had been. And do it within seconds.

I also couldn’t see how knowing where a car had been would tell you much about the people in the car. Unless the car turned out to be parked every night in a federal motor pool, which would tell you all you needed to know if you were running a marijuana outlet.

Which brings up the gentleman in the insurance booth. He was selling policies tailored for marijuana businesses. “Cover slip-and-fall. Product liability. Renter’s insurance to ease landlords’ concerns about leasing buildings to use as grow facilities. Theft. Bad debts. Acts of Government.”

Say what?

“Acts of Government. It’s not just what the thieves are planning that a businessman has to worry about, you know. It’s what the government has in mind, too.”

Now that’s something I could understand, at least until I thought about it. Insurance against acts of government was the one thing out of the whole trade-show lollapalooza, the one thing among all the fantasies of tiny houses and 19th-century gold-mining, of drive-you-to-the-poorhouse high-tech grow equipment and knowing where somebody else’s car has been, that made sense to me. Insurance against acts of government — that has . . .

That has . . . I don’t know. The things the government gets up to always turn out to be so far ahead of anything any sane person can imagine, I’m not sure what that guy was really selling. Could be he was no different from the other hucksters that morning. At the very least, he knew who his marks were.

Lots of people who use marijuana, and lots of people who would have wandered over from the Gold & Treasure Show, have their suspicions about acts of government. Could be he saw us coming.

Could be I’m the sort of guy who’d be suckered into the empty promise of a policy insuring me against acts of government in the same way those latter-day prospectors imagined they’d make their fortunes in Alaska, or those urban wannabe farmers and processors fancied there’s endless money to be had in marijuana.

Could well be something like that.

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