Trump and Brexit – Some Thoughts for Liberty

Leave a comment

Following the British referendum to leave the European Union on June 23rd and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the United States on November 8th it is possible that 2016 will come to be regarded as a turning point in the direction of world history, a turning point that is favourable towards the progression of liberty and the diminishing of the size and scope of the state. This analysis will remain relatively brief as there have been, to be frank, so many libertarian analyses of both Brexit and the Trump phenomenon that another one is probably not needed. This essay will focus on the meaning of precisely what has happened so far and what libertarians now need to do in order to capitalise upon these events.

The first thing to note is that people across the world are rebelling against the forces of globalisation under the aegis of increasingly centralised and consolidated state power. What might be called “the establishment” and its plans for increasing hegemony through open borders, managed global trade and military interventionism have been dealt a severe blow by both the Brexit vote and the Presidential election. For the first time in generations the false choices presented by broadly and blandly similar political candidates who happen to come from different parties have been shattered and now it the fundamentals that are at stake. Indeed, few votes in recent times could have signified a real choice between one path and another. A vote for Britain to remain in the EU would have bolstered the European project, while Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton – who spoke of her “dream” for a unified hemispheric common market with open trade and open borderswas practically the personification of the status quo. Voting for Brexit and for Donald Trump, however, signified a widespread desire to depart from this status quo, a rejection of the current path and the destination to where it was heading. These are momentous events and we cannot help feeling a sense of optimism for the future, a chance that we might finally emerge from the dark clouds of the twentieth century socialist experiment – an emergence which received its last victory with the relatively peaceful collapse of Soviet communism, and the dissolution of the Soviet vassal states in Eastern Europe into independent territories.

As significant as these events have been, however, we must now turn to making some cautionary notes. First, while there has been a widespread desire for change we must remember that a change from the status quo is the only thing that has been signified. Precisely what people want us to change to, on the other hand, is less certain. As the present author mentioned in his earlier analysis of the Brexit vote, apart from the liberating tendencies of decentralisation which would be afforded by the breakup of the European Union, it would be a mistake to characterise that vote as a conscious battle between freedom and tyranny. People are certainly waking up to the fact that the present regime does not (and is not designed) to serve them, but this is a far cry from saying that they have embraced the cause of liberty and anti-statism as a whole. It is looking increasingly likely, for example, that Britain will replace European socialisation and enslavement with its own version, particularly following the passage this month of the Investigatory Powers Act – the so called “snoopers’ charter” which has been dubbed the most far reaching spying legislation ever enacted – and the turn towards increasingly Keynesian economic policies rather the monetary fiddling of former Chancellor George Osborne. In the US, many of Donald Trump’s proposed policies – such as increasing protectionism – are far from adequate solutions to the problems that his election indicates he has recognised, and may end up making things worse. The greatest risk, however, is that the final catastrophes and calamities resulting from the heinously unstable financial system, which is drowning in a sea of debt created by reams of increasingly worthless paper money, will be realised within the next four years. For Brexit, this might not matter too much – the precarious state of the Eurozone is not likely to weather any serious financial collapse any better than an independent Britain. It could, on the other hand, be disastrous for the Trump administration. Apart from the fact there is no telling what Trump may do in response to these calamities, the average American, having no real grasp of economics or of cause and effect, may well associate this disaster with their new President and his markedly different economic policies. We can be almost certain that the defeated left will use such an opportunity to demonstrate that capitalist businessmen, led by one of their most prominent stereotypes, have failed once again and that only the experienced, professional politicians of the ilk of Obama and Mrs Clinton should have been trusted to steer the giant ship. Indeed, it is possible to suggest that the Trumpian revolution has come too early and may have been better in 2020 after a Clinton administration had to deal with, and be rightly blamed for, a complete economic collapse. Instead, a lot may depend, between now and then, upon the continuity of the trust that Trump has built with those who voted for him, his ability to identify the future financial disaster as the product of the very forces he fought in the election, and the continuing evaporation of the integrity of the left and the mainstream media.

The second and related issue is that, unfortunately, neither Brexit nor the election of Trump signifies any kind of unified desire for change – rather, they represent a stark and bitter division among their respective peoples. Although both results were decisive they were hardly landslides, and if one believes the official count of the Presidential election (which would include any illegal votes and other fraudulently cast ballots) then Mrs Clinton won the popular vote, losing only because of the Electoral College system. Thus, there is still a vast number of people who do not desire the change that the victorious voters desire. From this, we can expect a bitter battle, a battle that will ultimately be won by ideas. Although the “remainers” in Britain and the ideological left in the US are far from a coherent bunch, it is possible to suggest that they represent a more readily identifiable set of ideas than their opponents – and, of course, they benefit from the existing institutional structures. Their opponents, on the other hand, most likely had a myriad of different rationales for voting the way that they did and one of the problems that has been associated with Brexit in particular is that there is no particular “Brexit strategy” – some wanting a so-called “hard Brexit” of severing all ties from the so-called “single market” which would leave Britain free to pursue its own interests, with others wanting a “soft Brexit” promising continued access to the “single market” and some contribution to the EU budget, much like the relationship that Norway has with the EU. There is no problem, of course, with people having their own private reasons for voting the way that they did. However, this seeming lack of ideological unity may well make it very easy for the establishment forces to couch their worldview as the one that represents progress, inclusiveness and co-operation while writing off everyone who voted for Brexit or Trump as simply backward thinking racists, rednecks or “little Englanders” who want to retire to their little tight, white communities, shutting themselves off in isolation and having nothing whatsoever to do with the challenges that the world has thrown at us. It is true, of course, that part of the anti-establishment backlash was precisely because of this characterisation and the hubristic attitude that everyone who did not share the visions of the liberal elite could simply be slandered and ignored. However, it is also true that the anti-establishment voters for Brexit have still not yet elaborated convincingly how their side is the representation of genuine progress towards a peaceful and prosperous society – and it is this that presents the greatest threat to our ability to capitalise upon what we have experienced in this watershed year. It is here, of course, where libertarianism and libertarian ideas are perfectly suited for filling the vacuum as only libertarian ideas provide both a marked contrast to the establishment programme and a demonstrable ability to build a world of sustainable peace and prosperity. It is only libertarianism that can point out the falseness of the globalising elites’ desire for “inclusiveness”, “co-operation” and “unity”. For what they really mean is inclusiveness, co-operation and unity under the banner of globally expanding and consolidating state powers under the yoke of a single, global bureaucracy with the only possible alternative being, in the minds of the elites, to retreat into a barbaric, atomistic existence where everyone hates everyone else and we all wish to remain on our own private island. Only libertarianism can show that the elites’ vision of inclusiveness, co-operation and unity is the shell of all of these things enforced by the barrel of a gun – in other words that we would all be co-operating in an inclusive and unified manner if we were doing what the elites wanted us to do rather than what we wanted to do ourselves as private individuals who wish to make things better for ourselves and for our families. Only libertarianism can show that genuine co-operation and inclusiveness is practised not by the bloated bureaucratisation of all aspects of our lives, but by private individuals and institutions on their own terms through voluntary trade and consensual desire for association. Only libertarianism can show that, far from being against global integration and global networks, the genuine alternative to the establishment narrative is to create an expansive and integrated division of labour across the entire world, with each of us choosing to specialise in that which we do best in order serve other people. It is only libertarianism that can show that we, in rejecting the elitist approach, are embracing an outward looking and engaging manner with the rest of the world – not a closed, curmudgeonly, hateful and xenophobic society. Hence, 2016 marks the beginning, not the culmination, of the point at which libertarian education and libertarian ideas take on crucial importance because, having placed the fundamentals back onto the political table, there is now an ideological vacuum to fill. It is particularly crucial that we work to ensure that libertarianism fills this void given that so many of the young are choosing to fill it with Bernie Sanders-style socialism (which is really just a dressed up version of tax and spend Keynesianism). Needless to say, this would be a disaster.

One final possibility that we should countenance is that the sharp political divide may well provide an impetus for the kindling of secessionist movements. Remain voters in the Brexit referendum were heaviest in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, while much of the rest of Britain was decidedly in favour of leaving. After the result the possibility was mooted, perhaps half-jokingly, of London becoming an independent city that could join the EU singlehandedly. In the US, Mrs Clinton carried the Pacific states and most of the North East while Trump carried the South and most of the Midwest and mountain states. With the backlash against the election result in the blue states, revolution and secession has been introduced as a possibility – something of an irony when it comes from the side that has, for decades, pleaded for gun control. We as libertarians should not be afraid of this possibility; indeed, we should positively welcome it. It is far better for a bunch of wilful yet smaller states and territories to go off on their own and socialise themselves rather than inflict their misery on the rest of us. Even where we do not share their motivations we as libertarians should look favourably upon any secessionist and decentralising movement that weakens the power that is concentrated in large and consolidated state entities.


View the video version of this post.

Advertisements

“Brexit” Wins – Where now for Liberty?

3 Comments

As I am sure everyone is now aware the British people, on Thursday, voted to leave the European Union by a slim majority of 51.9% to 48.1%. Without a doubt this largely unexpected result represents one of the most important, possibly the most important, step forward for liberty in at least a generation, dealing a serious body blow to a major project that sought to centralise and consolidate state power and to weaken the primacy of individual nations and identities. However, while our enthusiasm remains palpable and before the champagne goes flat it is important to judge this outcome in a sober light and to reflect upon how we, as libertarians, can capitalise upon this victory.

As I stated in my essay prior to the referendum, we must bear in mind the fact that the official leave campaign was not a battle between libertarians, or liberty-leaning individuals on the one hand and statists on the other. Rather, it was between small statists and large statists. The contest was not about getting rid of the full house of government horrors – central banks printing paper money, the welfare state, the NHS, and so on – but about national control of the state apparatus versus international control. The populist politicians who will benefit the most from “Brexit” – notably, former London mayor Boris Johnson, who is likely to become the next UK Prime Minister, and US Presidential candidate Donald Trump – may shove two fingers up to the establishment but they are very, very far from perfect and principled characters. Consequently, if they are elected they will soon become part of that establishment and subject to its infiltration. But even if they manage to resist this they may assume they have a mandate to become more authoritarian in their own way. Moreover, the centralising forces that have invested so much in the European project are not going to give up easily. They may have been set back considerably but we can expect them to fight, in the short term by making the stipulated two-year process of withdrawal from the EU punitively painful for Britain, and in the longer term by finding other ways to enact consolidation and centralisation through the back door.

However, let us explore now some aspects revealed by this referendum that provide both something which we libertarians can capitalise on and reasons for us to be optimistic for the future. The first aspect is the sentiment of the voters who participated in the ballot. According to Lord Ashcroft Polls, 43% of those who voted for Britain to remain in the EU did so because “the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices” while only 9% voted because they felt “a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions”. Out of the leave voters, better trade and economic growth outside of the EU was a relatively minor concern with only 6% acknowledging this as their primary reason. However, 49% of leave voters said the biggest single reason for them wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. In other words, looking deeper than the overall slim majority in favour of leaving we can see that remain voters voted pragmatically for their jobs and financial security whereas leave voters voted out principle for British sovereignty. If these figures are correct, therefore, the referendum indicates either a complete lack of support for or a downright repudiation of the ideology of centralisation and the merging of individual nation states in a giant behemoth. This is an extremely encouraging revelation for the cause of liberty and one that has seemingly been missed by mainstream commentators.

The second aspect is the reaction of liberal elites to the referendum result, a result that has shocked them profoundly. The prevailing attitude of these people is one that I have detected from conversations with and observations of my own friends and acquaintances, who are mostly young, are either well or highly educated, and are either intellectuals or professionals. This is the attitude that all progress, peace and prosperity, and that all prevailing cultural attitudes emanate from the top down, from a stewardship and management of society and the economy by wise, far sighted elites such as themselves through the apparatus of the state; and, hence, the bigger and more unified the apparatus of the state run by people like them then the more successful and prosperous will be the society it rules. In the same way that great engineers can fashion the tallest buildings, the fastest cars, the biggest planes and so on, so too do these people believe that they can engineer and shape society according to what they believe is virtuous and valuable. What they fail to see is that a peaceful and prosperous society is nothing more than individual people seeking to co-operate to attain ends that they want; that it is individual people with their own thoughts, feelings and desires making their own choices to better their lives; that their attitudes and values are motivated from the bottom up by what is good for them and for their families and friends. The narrow minded, intellectual view has led the elites to interpret the results of the referendum – i.e. rejection of a unity of states – as being a rejection of peace and harmony with the rest of humanity because they cannot imagine a unity of peoples without the unity of states. Indeed, the reaction of one acquaintance to the outcome of the referendum was that she was feeling “apocalyptic”. However, the most pertinent example of this globalist-elitist attitude is in the following reaction offered to the BBC by a young Polish lady:

Seriously Britain? It’s sad that a majority of your people didn’t realise that it’s not a choice…about your no longer imperial country, but about commitment, devotion and enthusiasm of the whole Europe. If you voted Leave, you are selfish and you deserve to watch Scotland saying ‘bye’.

I pity well-educated people of Britain, especially youngsters, that will need to face what the ‘majority’ brought them.

[…]

As a person who truly believes in unity of European culture and heritage and supports sticking together against the odds, I feel really disappointed, even personally touched” [Emphasis added]

Another individual expressed regret that we do not have weighted voting – because obviously all of those stupid voters out there in the wilderness do not know what is best for them, an attitude no doubt bolstered by the fact that much of the leave vote came from working class heartlands where the Labour Party is normally strong. What these bright individuals have utterly failed to realise is that people have had enough of “well educated”, morally superior, self-righteous elites such as themselves telling them how to live their lives and forcing them to do it, with the most hubristic and arrogant of them now retreating into their shells because they think the world is about to end without this pan-European state structure that they have designed for us all.

Happily, however, I also sense, amongst some of the smarter individuals within these kinds of circles, a small but glowing realisation that there was, outside of London and the ivory towers of universities, a whole other country from which they were entirely disconnected – attitudes, opinions, thoughts, feelings and desires which they completely ignored. It is this realisation that libertarians should attempt to nurture and grow, an opening into which we can begin to instil the benefits and morality of decentralisation and personal liberty. It will be a long haul but at least there is a glimmer of light.

So while, therefore, I believe that June 23rd is a great day for liberty, there is much work to be done and we should not lose any time in getting down to it.


View the video version of this post.


 

Britain and the EU

1 Comment

On June 23rd of this year, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, voting either to remain (“Bremain”) or to leave (“Brexit”). The present author is rooting for a “Brexit”, which is unsurprising for a libertarian who detests any metastasised growth of the state that the EU certainly represents. Unfortunately, in spite of the passionate rhetoric that the issue tends to inspire in the so-called “Brexiteers”, from a libertarian point of view it is difficult to reconcile oneself with, or to endorse, some of the arguments that are emanating from the “Brexit” camp. In other words, it would be a mistake to characterise the debate as a defiant band of liberty lovers seeking to shake off the tyrannous ogre of a bloated, continental tyrant, although that is surely part of the motivation. Rather, many of the “Brexit” arguments, seeking to respond to the “Bremain” side, are couched in the same conventional, statist terms. They therefore lack any incisive bite that would provide a convincing case for withdrawing from the union.

The most prominent issues where this is visible are economic growth and trade. When it comes to the former, both sides fling at each other hypothesised GDP figures that show either a marked gain or reduction in the number. Obviously “Brexiteers” are attempting to show that the figures would be higher outside the EU whereas “Bremainers” are attempting to show the opposite. However, simply adding up flows of monetary expenditure (and then expecting the public to comprehend the methods and assumptions involved in doing so) in order to try and get a bigger, magic number than the other guy tells you very little. If you had a billion pounds yet the only thing to spend it on in the entire world was a loaf of bread then you would be in abject poverty in spite of your nominal wealth. The key to encouraging economic progress is increased investment in capital goods such as factories, machines and tools developed with ever better technology, which permits more consumer goods to be produced per worker, thus lowering prices and making more things affordable for everyone. The kind of economic system that best incentivises this accumulation is one of strong private property rights, minimal regulation and minimal taxation. GDP figures can be high in spite (or even because) of the fact that these things may be absent, as it is buoyed by monetary inflation and government spending. The relevant question, therefore, is whether the EU is likely to either promote or discourage this kind of environment. Instead of arguing over GDP projections the answer that “Brexiteers” should be giving is that the consolidation of states makes it more likely that property rights will be diminished while taxes and regulations rise. Smaller states do not usually possess within their territories all of the resources they need to build a strong economy. In much the same way as a single household or individual needs to go shopping at the grocers, the butchers, the bakers and so on, so too does an individual state need to go “shopping” in other countries, trading what they have for things they do not have. Burdensome regulations simply discourage this trade, while high taxes and insecure private property rights will deter foreign investment, all of which will seek more favourable markets as a result. Moreover, if the state becomes too onerous it is far easier for citizens of even modest means to leave a small state than it is for them to leave a larger state. Large, consolidated states, on the other hand, usually have access to a wide labour market and a greater number of resources, and are better equipped for a degree of autarchy. Moreover, the large state’s sheer, geographical size makes it more difficult for a citizen to emigrate to a similar country which is unaffected by the large state’s diktats. The large state will therefore step up its plundering of the citizenry as it is shorn of any real impetus to cease doing so. What produces trade and economic progress, therefore, is not consolidating states into one giant monopoly, which has a reduced incentive to relax its depredations upon its citizens. Rather, it is allowing states to compete with each other to attract entrepreneurial migrants, investment and trade. In other words, while creating a trading block may give the appearance of vanquishing border controls, tariffs and other trade restrictions it does not stop the trading block from imposing internal taxes and regulations that are more burdensome to trade and prosperity than those between independent states. Indeed, a high rate of internally imposed Value Added Tax (VAT) can be worse than a tariff. And, as the “Bremainers” trumpet, while it is true that within a single market companies no longer have to deal with a myriad of different tax rules, different regulatory codes, and so on, it is likely to prove less costly in the long run to deal with many light and fleeting taxes and regulations than it is to deal with one behemoth. Just to give an idea of how big and bloated the EU bureaucracy is, one source (Brexit: The Movie) lists a whole host of household items one encounters between waking up in the morning and eating breakfast:

  • There are 109 regulations for pillows, and 50 for duvets and bed sheets;
  • 65 EU laws cover bathrooms;
  • 31 for toothbrushes and 47 for toothpaste;
  • 172 laws for mirrors, for some reason;
  • 91 for showers, 118 for shampoo, and an incredible 454 for towels;
  • At the breakfast table, there are 1,246 regulations for bread, 52 for toasters, 64 for fridges, 99 for cereal bowls, 201 for spoons, and 625 for coffee;
  • Far ahead, however, is milk which has been deemed to deserve an incredible 12,653 EU regulations.

None of this is to imply, of course, that a world without the EU would be wholly unregulated. Rather, regulation will come from the market place and it is consumers who will decide whether products should meet certain standards. Moreover, increased quality and better safety comes about through the wealth creating endeavours of free individuals so that these things become more affordable, not through the wealth distributing fiat of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

Concerning specifically the issue of trade is the argument over whether Britain would, outside of the EU, be able to negotiate so-called “trade deals” without the backing of the EU. In his final visit to the UK as President of the United States, Barack Obama indicated that Britain would be “at the back of the queue” for trade deals owing to what is presumed to be its diminished influence outside of the EU (although this attitude did not stop him, in the same trip, from preaching to an audience of young gullibles an instruction that they should “reject pessimism and cynicism”). The response of “Brexiteers” has been to try and demonstrate how trade agreements would, in fact, be possible and how Britain would open itself up to being able to deal with other large markets, such as China and India, independently. While the latter is certainly true, all of this is wide of the mark. For trade agreements between states are precisely what we wish to avoid. Trade agreements do not open up trade at all; rather they stifle it. Genuine free trade can be accomplished by adhering to a single principle that can be written in a single, short sentence: no restriction of trade across borders. Trade agreements, however, which frequently masquerade as free trade agreements, are simply government managed trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for instance, runs to more than 1,200 pages across two volumes of government imposed rules and regulations, usually in order to grant protectionist privilege to a handful of powerful firms and interests. Indeed, one of the motivations for “Brexit” is for Britain to avoid the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US, which is seen as giving too much power to overseas corporations and ignoring environmental concerns. However, “Brexiteers” do not augment this rejection of a specific trade agreement to a rejection of trade agreements as a whole. One possible retort to this argument is that, in the absence of any kind of trade agreement, other countries could simply whack enormous tariffs and regulatory burdens on imported British goods, almost like some kind of punishment. In the first place it is, of course, far-fetched to believe that every one, or even most, of the significant markets with which British companies trade would do this. If a state shuts off or otherwise burdens trade from another state it ultimately harms itself as much as it harms the state upon which it has imposed the restriction. For if, prior to the elevated tariffs or increased regulations, certain resources or products were purchased from Britain it is because Britain produced these products at the best value compared to anyone else. Therefore, after the restrictions, the citizens of the other state must now pay more to produce the same goods internally or buy them from an alternative state, or must be content to purchase goods of lesser quality. Moreover, shutting off imports weakens a demand for a state’s exports as ultimately all imports are paid for with exports. It would, therefore, be foolish for states to respond to a “Brexit” in this way. The same argument applies to the EU itself. Another of the arguments from the “Bremainers” is that if Britain left then the EU would still be Britain’s largest trading partners with the power to impose its regulations on trade entering the block, in addition to newly imposed tariffs. Britain would be shorn of any influence whatsoever to change these rules, and would end up in much the same condition as some of the proximate outliers such as Switzerland and Norway are alleged to languish (never mind, of course, that GDP per capita in those countries is markedly higher than in every EU country). In the first place this argument shows just how few clothes the emperor is wearing. On the one hand, the EU is supposed to be committed to promoting trade and commerce yet on the other hand, if you dare to leave it, you will be shut out by tariff walls and have to suffer whatever burdens the EU rains down upon you. Clearly, therefore, the EU is far from being a promoter of peaceful trade and prosperity. Rather, it is really nothing more than a protectionist club, like a gang of bullies in the school yard who look after each other yet terrorise the other kids. That aside, however, Britain’s “influence” does not come from its membership of the EU – rather, it comes from the value that the EU places on its partnership with Britain, which will ultimately boil down to Britain’s economic clout. If trade with Britain is valuable to the EU then Britain will have as much real influence outside of the club as it does inside; you do not stop talking to someone you need simply because you are not in a political union with them. If, on the other hand, Britain was a tiny, unproductive state that produced little then it would be ignored as a member of the EU just as it would be largely ignored as outside. That is why the larger, more prosperous states in the EU, such as France and Germany have most of the influence. Most of the arguments concerning the loss of any “influence” for Britain, both within the EU and on the so-called “world stage”, do not refer to the diminished influence that the average British citizen would have in improving his life and furthering his goals. Rather, it refers to the diminished influence that the British politician will wield following “Brexit”. Being a representative of a large territory such as the EU gives the state’s lackeys a much more prominent position at the table when they jet off, at taxpayers’ expense, to their plush conferences and summits to devise an ever increasing number of predatory ways in which they can burden the real wealth creators. In any case, however, the “loss of influence” argument seems to have received the final nail in its coffin in early May when it was alleged that Germany had a de facto veto over Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s terms of EU membership. However, even if we imagined the worst case scenario where all of the countries of the world, including the EU, imposed punitively high tariffs and onerous regulations on British imports and refused to engage with Britain in any way shape or form, the latter would still benefit from making a universal declaration of free trade – no tariffs on imported goods and little or no regulation. This sudden reduction in cost would then make Britain a highly competitive market, reducing costs of inputs for British businesses, attracting investment, expanding output and lowering prices for British consumers.

Looking more broadly, what are we to make of the argument that the EU was the supposed solution to centuries of war and human rights abuses? Strictly speaking, the human rights obligations of European states depend not so much upon the EU but, rather, upon whether they sign up to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which dates from 1953. The Convention is used as a convenient short hand for states to demonstrate their commitment to human rights, which is a condition of EU membership, and jurisprudence from the European Court of Human Rights normally plays an important role in determining how member states should implement EU law in accordance with their human rights obligations. Nevertheless, even though, as libertarians, we must be suspicious of any kind of government implemented human rights charter, which simply cherry picks certain pleasantries, subjects them to state regulation, and calls them “rights”, it would be possible for a member state of the EU to leave and still remain a party to the ECHR. Somewhat perversely it is, in fact, prominent “Bremainers”, such as Home Secretary Theresa May, who are campaigning for Britain to withdraw from the ECHR while remaining in the EU. The possibility of war however, is an important issue, with Mr Cameron himself having argued that leaving the EU would increase the risk of Europe descending into war. In the first place we have to wonder why, if the situation was that grave, Mr Cameron’s commitment to the EU was so ambiguous before he achieved his so-called “reform deal”, which renegotiated Britain’s EU obligations in areas such as welfare and immigration. Prior to this he supposedly had no “emotional attachment” to the EU and at least gave the impression that he may campaign to leave if the reforms failed. Mr Cameron was effectively saying that if he was devoid of an “emotional attachment” to the EU he was also devoid of an “emotional attachment” to avoiding war, the latter of which is surely more important than tweaking the conditions of EU membership. That aside, however, we have to wonder what this argument – the possibility of European war – makes of the so-called “democratic peace theory”. This is the idea that democracies are less likely to go to war with each other, and is peddled by pretty much the same people who crow for political unity. Weren’t the continent’s wars started by despotic monarchs and crackpot dictators? Surely now that we all bask in the bliss of democracy we won’t be so eager to fight each other? Why do we need something more? Regardless of this, however, the argument that a diminution of the EU will lead to war is ridiculous – indeed, it is the opposite that is more likely. Wars are started and fought by states; human rights are abused by states; the state, in the twentieth century alone, caused more deaths than private criminals in the whole of human history. Even the greatest efforts of sub-state, politically motivated actors – i.e. “terrorists” – pale in comparison to the carnage and destruction wrought by states. If this is true, it stands to reason that the solution to preventing this is to make states smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger. The most destructive, and most potentially destructive conflicts we have ever experienced – the two world wars and the Cold War – occurred after the consolidation of smaller states into large territories, namely Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. The origins of both of the world wars is complex, of course, but a fundamental cause was the drive of the unified Germany towards autarchy. As an industrialised country, Germany relied upon the import of food and the export of manufactured products in order to pay for it. The costs and burdens heaped upon German industry in order to fund the Bismarckian welfare state hampered German production, leading to fewer exports and fewer imports of food. Thus Germany looked to conquer the agrarian lands of Eastern Europe to overcome this self-inflicted handicap. What is clear, however, is that this problem was facilitated by the unified state, which was endowed with the wherewithal to grow the depredations of the state upon its industry and the might to launch invasions. Later, the persistent nuclear terror that was extant during the Cold War was made possible because territories as large and as rich as the United States and the Soviet Union could afford to fund things such as the Manhattan Project. The most aggressive and belligerent state today is the United States, which, together with its fawning collection of NATO allies, is driven by the neoconservative foreign policy agenda that seeks a unipolar world of American dominance. The greatest threat to peace is that such ambitions emanating from a large, rich and powerful state run head first into the ambitions of other large, rich and powerful states – namely, China and Russia, as we are seeing lately with the expansion of NATO to Russia’s border, the demonization of the Russian president and the altercations in the South China Sea. The worst case scenario is that the world will be vaporised in a nuclear holocaust, something which is likely to get worse if the next US President, who will be elected in November of this year, continues down this path. It is clear therefore that the consolidation of states may reduce the number of potential warmongers – but the stakes are far, far bigger. The key to achieving peace and prosperity is free trade in a sound money environment. You do not have to point a gun at your butcher or your baker in order for him to hand over what you want; you simply have to offer him something that he wants and then you both get on with the rest of your day. Exactly the same is true on a global scale; individuals engaging in voluntary exchange without interference across borders will not fight each other. War and conflict result only when states infringe this harmony.

This leads us on to the so-called “democratic deficit” argument – the idea that the EU’s governance and institutions somehow lack democratic legitimacy. It is true that if the EU is perceived as beyond the control of the voters then tolerance for it will dissipate quicker than if they believe they are “having their say”. On the other hand, however, democratic legitimacy is something of a red herring. People possess a de facto control over the state, with or without democracy, the smaller and more local it is. Even if the EU reformed all of its institutions in order to eradicate the “democratic deficit”, the EU would remain as a vast territory in which the individual voter vanishes into an ocean of 500 million others and its institutions would still amount to a vast bureaucracy awash with special interests that speak umpteen foreign languages making it impossible for the voter of any individual country to understand precisely what is going on. This can point can be made without us having to resort to the wider libertarian critique of democracy as an enabler of, rather than a restriction upon the state.

In drawing all of what we have said together, we will conclude with an observation that is likely to resonate with libertarians. When it comes to the big issues such as economic progress, trade, and promoting peace and prosperity, all of the arguments in favour of the EU boil down to the assertion that the EU makes it easier to get rid of state imposed restrictions and to vanquish ills that are created by the state. In other words, the EU is supposed to be good not because it actually achieves a positive accomplishment over the restrictions imposed upon humans by nature (such as a new product or service), but because it clears away artificial roadblocks that states have put in the way. If this is true, perhaps it would be better to address the question of whether we need the state at all, rather than whether we need a giant one such as the EU.

British Election Headlines

Leave a comment

The UK is currently enduring the general election campaigns of its political parties prior to the vote on May 7th. Needless to say this is provoking the usual raft of daily daft headlines where the balloted buffoons attempt to outdo each other in promising us endless rounds of goodies paid for with our own money. This is exacerbated by the fact that the total lack of fundamental ideological difference between the main contenders makes a hung parliament the most likely result. This essay comments on a number of them that have appeared over the past few weeks.

Healthcare

“We’ll find £8bn more for the NHS!” (Conservative)

£8bn makes for a pretty fantastic headline. Unfortunately the only thing that the NHS will be nursing with it is itself, as this crippled corner of the welfare state experiences spiralling costs which claim an increasing proportionate share of the UK’s GDP and whose waiting times for operations have hit a seven year high this month.

Taxes

“End the non-dom status!” (Labour)

This refers to the non-domiciled tax status where certain foreign UK residents can exclude their non-UK income from their tax liability. The allowance is seen to be a bone of contention among the less well-off British public who had the misfortune to be born in the UK and hence have to pay tax on all of their worldly income. Needless to say, creating “tax fairness” is about increasing the taxes of the rich instead of just cutting them for everyone else. Talking of tax loopholes…

“Labour will raise an extra £7.5bn a year through closing tax loopholes and imposing bigger fines on tax avoiders”

Politicians seem to be promising endlessly to “close tax loopholes” in order to either increase revenue or induce tax equality. By their own standards, we have to wonder what is taking them so long to do this. Aren’t we going to run out of loopholes at some point? Or maybe if you set up a compulsory monopoly of violence the wealthy will always have the greater wherewithal to infiltrate it and tune it to its benefits. Yet again there is also the blurring of the legal distinction between tax evasion, which is illegal, and tax avoidance which is legal. So a Labour government would believe that it is OK to fine you for behaving legally.

“Raise the inheritance threshold to £1m for family homes” (Conservative)

Undoubtedly the reduction of any tax should be applauded, particularly the especially egregious inheritance tax as it is a charge on accumulated capital. You can tax income all you want but so long as there is enough left over to replenish the capital stock then the standard of living will be maintained. When you start taxing that capital stock itself, however – as any kind of wealth tax does – you destroy the very machinery of production. This measure by the Conservatives would therefore appear to be welcome, although not quite as welcome as abolishing the entirety of wealth taxes altogether. Unfortunately, it is designed to be “revenue neutral” and will be “paid for” by reducing tax relief on the pension contributions of people earning more than £150K. Although this proposal is supposed to alleviate the fiscal drag of rising house prices, it is likely that inflation will push those who benefit from it into the £150K tax bracket anyway.

“The Liberal Democrats will eliminate the deficit by 2017/18 by raising taxes by an additional £12bn, cutting public spending by 12bn and cutting welfare by £3bn.”

Kudos to the Lib Dems for at least making the (probably empty) promise that spending cuts will exceed tax rises. Unfortunately the figures are altogether too miniscule. The problem is not just the deficit – the discrepancy between the government’s revenue and expenditure in any fiscal year. It is the enormous debt to which that deficit contributes. The UK government’s official debt is £1.56trn. The total saving of £27bn from this proposal amounts to a mere 1.7% of that debt. Even if we were to assume that this figure will amount to a budget surplus, it will still take another two generations to pay off the debt. However, that is not what the Lib Dems are proposing and it also ignores the unfunded liabilities that do not form a part of the official debt.

Housing

“George Osborne [Chancellor of the Exchequer] promises to get 2.4m first-time buyers onto housing ladder with property ‘revolution’ (Conservative)”

Will this so-called “revolution” involve cutting the incessant inflation of the money supply that blows up housing bubbles? Probably not. Labour’s turn…

“£5bn for funding 125K homes” (Labour)

It seems that both parties feel that a government solution is necessary for a government created problem. Far better to remove the source of the problem.

Transport

Freeze Rail Fares for Five Years” (Conservative)

This will be the same railway that is nominally privatised but whose track, signalling and infrastructure is owned by a statutory corporation and the train operating companies are geographic monopoly franchises that are parcelled out to private companies by the government. In economics it is of course a travesty that a good can be both overpriced and overcrowded, yet somehow government – including a £4bn subsidy from the taxpayer – manages to achieve this and so the age old remedy of price fixing is brought out of retirement. Making the railways a true free market enterprise by selling them off completely is not considered.

Jobs

“We’ll create a 1000 new jobs every day” (Conservative)

They’ve been in government for five years – why haven’t the been doing it already? That aside however, will these be genuine, productive, free enterprise jobs that genuinely meet the needs of consumers? Or will they be a part of the bloated public sector and paid for through loot mulcted from taxpayers?

“An end to zero-hours contracts” (Labour)

Apart from the fact that zero hours contracts (previously known as “casual labour”) are likely to be a beneficial arrangement for some employers and employees, perhaps their abundance is less to do with corporate greed and more to do with the fact that the government has made it so ridiculously expensive to hire low skilled workers for a committed number of hours per week?

UKIP has proposed a UK-controlled fishing zone to replace involvement in the EU Common Fisheries Policy to revive the British fishing industry”

What would benefit the British fishing industry is government leaving it alone and opening areas of the sea to private ownership so that fish stocks can be cultivated through a genuine aquaculture industry. Although UKIP’s replacement of the words “EU controlled” with “British controlled” may appeal to voters it doesn’t hide the fact that an industry will be still be subject to the stifling interference of government.

“£800m to protect 10,000 police jobs (Labour)”

Why? How do we know that these jobs are needed? Does Labour have any profit and loss statement to show that these jobs in the security industry benefit the consumer through their protection?

And Finally…

“Lib Dems promise £1bn to ‘build a better Wales’”

As we noted above, the Tories are dredging up £8bn for the NHS. The Liberal Democrats think that one eigth of that figure is enough for an entire country.

Give “respect” to teachers” (Labour)

This stunningly innovative piece of education policy alludes to the alleged breakdown in the relationship between education ministers and teachers. Far better would be for that relationship to be severed altogether rather that the government have any further wherewithal to indoctrinate the next generation of voters.

“UKIP hopes to woo women with plan to scrap the Tampon tax”

No doubt all of Britain’s female voters will be delighted to learn that UKIP believes that the contents of their underwear is the most pressing political issue burning away in women’s minds. It is no small wonder that, amongst other things, UKIP is seen to be sexist.

View the video version of this post.

Executive Pay

Leave a comment

Within the firing line of public vitriol, particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, is the issue of executive remuneration, the rewards and incentives paid to executives and directors of large corporations in return for their productivity. Specifically, of course, we mean remuneration that is deemed to be excessively high in relation to the resulting output that these rewarded executives create. Needless to say the level of remuneration in the financial services sector – the proximate cause of the seemingly endless depression we are enduring currently – has been singled out for its apparent injustice. Why should executives, motivated by their greed and lust for riches, get to walk off with pots of gold when they are responsible for so much entrepreneurial failure while the rest of us are left to suffer job losses, redundancies and unemployment? Indeed there is even the accusation that executive remuneration is the primary cause of the financial crisis, fuelling the fire of so-called “irrational exuberance”.

There are many typical free-market responses to this sort of criticism – that high levels of remuneration are simply a function of supply and demand; that talented bosses would just go elsewhere if a firm did not offer competitive remuneration, and so on. Indeed, many of the same responses are made to criticisms of egregiously low pay in developing countries and the call is always to leave things alone and let “the market” determine the figures. While this is all true, it is only so in a genuine free market and not in the heavily managed and distorted economy with which we are cursed today. It is only by analysing and understanding the influences on wage rates in the economy as it actually exists that we can propose any solution, should one be needed. To simply dismiss the problem leaves it vulnerable to alternative (and false) explanations that lead to the danger of equally false solutions. Indeed, one of these current incorrect analyses is that there is a natural (rather than a deliberately engineered) tendency for the rich to get richer while the poor get poorer, with all economic development fundamentally being a struggle of rich against poor. As libertarians and “Austrian” economists we must examine the root causes of social phenomena and not assume that everything is alright simply because the proximate social relations appear to be voluntary. Let us, therefore, proceed with this task.

Theoretically, executive remuneration is no different from the remuneration of every other type of employee – all workers, from bosses to bin men, earn their marginal revenue product. Bonus payments, an aspect of executive remuneration that seems to particularly grate in the public mind, can even save a firm money in a given year. A firm might agree to pay an executive a £1m bonus if and only if he achieves £1m or more worth of productivity; if he delivers £0-£999K worth then he gets nothing; if he delivers £2m worth then the firm is paying only £1m for double that amount in net income. In both cases the firm receives a level of productivity without having to make a corresponding pay out. However, this idyllic description is not the situation in the economy where the government distorts price signals, causing the delivery of false income during the boom years only to have it all come crashing down at the bust. The basic problem with executive pay lies in understanding the influence of government credit expansion on the economy, and particularly on the financial services sector.

The starting point of the business cycle, as understood by “Austrians”, is the expansion of credit and the lowering of the rate of interest. Not only does this falsely incentivise all firms to enter longer term investment projects but, crucially, this new money enters through the financial system. It is, therefore, the firms most closely connected to the source of new money – large banking and investment operations – that will experience the largest distortionary gains first. Hence, remuneration in these firms will rise fastest and strongest, in line with the false profits made from all of the doomed loans and investments that they happily make in blissful ignorance. Everything at this point looks fine, executive remuneration for apparently successful operations going without mainstream criticism. Yet, once the taps are turned off and the flow of new money dries up, the bust sets in and it is exactly those same firms that benefitted the most in the boom – those closest to the source of new money and ploughed it into unsustainable assets – that have the most to lose. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that the entire financial system would have collapsed in 2008 had central banks not intervened to prop up asset prices and hence keep financial firms nominally solvent. Executive pay, therefore, is not a cause but merely a symptom of a deeper, underlying problem that is caused by governments and central banks. Anticipation of higher profits does not appear because executives are paid more; rather, it is the false anticipation of future profits caused by the distortions of credit expansion that leads to rising executive pay.

This is not the end of the matter however. For the very same problem – credit expansion – produces an endemic and seemingly endless price inflation, price inflation we are told is the natural consequence of growing economies. Indeed central banks even maintain price inflation targets (the Bank of England’s being 2%) as a result of the false (or perhaps dishonest) impression that price inflation is required for economic growth. The result of this is that anyone who holds cash for an extended period of time can watch the real value of their wealth diminish. This has several important impacts upon the financial services sector. First, companies opt to switch from equity financing to debt financing as it is cheaper, in real terms, to fuel growth through servicing a loan rather than from revenue reserves. Secondly, the need to hold appreciating assets rather than depreciating cash has meant that the average saver – i.e. someone who wishes to put money away for retirement – now has to invest in stocks or bonds rather than simply save cash. Indeed it was once possible to fund one’s retirement simply by hoarding gold coins, the coins appreciating in real value through a gradual price deflation caused by increased productivity. Now, however, everyone has to entrust their hard earned savings to money managers and speculators who, having taken a fat percentage cut, will probably be barely able to keep up with price inflation anyway. Both of these aspects cause a vast swelling of the demand for financial services and, consequently, an increase in executive pay in that sector.

The latter aspect, however – that of investing in order to fund one’s retirement – also has another important consequence. Executives serve their shareholders and are employed to meet the needs of those shareholders by “executing” the purpose for which the shareholders formed the enterprise. They are the delegates, the servants of the shareholders and their scope of activity and their remuneration for the same is bound by that which the shareholders desire. Taking a part ownership of an enterprise as a shareholder, therefore, is an important and active responsibility, one that requires the focus of one’s attention and is not a mere hobby or pastime. It was once the case that most companies and corporations were privately owned by a handful of active investors rather than publically traded on stock exchanges like they are today. Yet, because of the necessity to invest one’s money to keep a pace with inflation, we are now in the position where the majority of beneficial owners of businesses are passive investors, merely entrusting their money to a fund manager who will spread it across a vast array of businesses – probably following an index of shares such as the Dow or S&P 500. The result of this is that there is no one keeping an active eye on executives, or at the very least the capacity for doing so is greatly diminshed. Indeed, the most popular base index for tracker funds in the UK – the FTSE All-Share Index – is comprised of around one thousandcompanies. No single beneficial owner of the companies in that fund can hope to maintain a keen interest in even a significant minority of those organisations. With executives left alone to run the shop entirely, their ends begin to take precedence over the ends of shareholders. The primary preoccupation of the latter is to grow, sustainably, the capital value of the business, investing assets in productive services that meet the needs of consumers. Executives, however, are mere “caretakers” of those assets who can derive a gain from the enterprise only so long as they are in charge. Not only, therefore, will they have the incentive to increase present income as fast as possible at the expense of long term capital growth, but they will attempt to milk the business as much as possible for all they can get during their tenure – the primary method of doing this being through their remuneration packages. This incentive is always present in any business of course, but the lack of shareholder oversight presents an enhanced opportunity for it to be fulfilled. Indeed, most boards – who, nominally regulate the activities of the executive on behalf of the shareholders – are usually made up of other executives in the same or related industries and will, therefore, largely defer to and be empathetic towards the management rather than the shareholders. This is not to imply that executives are only looting businesses for all they can get. There are, of course, many brilliant and competent managers who richly deserve their rewards for growing, sustainably, complex and important operations that serve the needs of consumers. However where all other outcomes are equal and it comes to a basic choice between maximising long term growth on the one hand and increasing present income on the other we can see quite clearly that executives will plump for the latter. Some attempt has been made to rectify the situation by paying bonuses in shares or options and creating longer-term incentive plans – in other words, turning bosses into part-owners – but it does not remove the fundamental problem which is the lack of keen oversight from the beneficial owners.

What we have learned therefore is that excessive executive remuneration, especially in the swollen financial services sector, is not a cause of financial collapse but merely another unhappy consequence of underlying problems – that of government and central bank interference in the economy through meddling with the rate of interest and expanding the volume of credit. If we want to return to executive pay that accurately reflects the creation of long term growth in sustainable businesses then we need to do away entirely with government interference and establish a genuine free market economy.

View the video version of this post.

The Pope, the Mafia and the Government

Leave a comment

Pope Francis, the poverty-obsessed pontiff who seems to be unable to do anything other than advocate measures that will increase it, recently turned his attention towards mafia violence. In doing so he does not seem to have become aware of the fact that replacing the word “mafia” with “government” would turn reports of his recent outcry into what reads like a piece of libertarian literature. Indeed had he just changed this one, tiny word and shifted his entire focus to the real root cause of evil in the world today the present author would be embracing the Pope as his new libertarian hero and be preparing for his conversion to Catholicism.

In the following extract from BBC News, let us try this very thing – substituting the word “government” for the word “mafia” and the word “politician” for the word “gangster” – and see what we get.

Pope Francis has launched a stinging attack on the government, warning politicians that they will go to hell unless they repent and stop doing evil.

“Blood-stained money, blood-stained power, you can’t bring it with you to your next life. Repent,” he said.

He was speaking at a prayer vigil for relatives of those killed by the government.

The Pope has spoken out frequently about the evils of corruption and wrote a booklet on the subject in 2005 when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The meeting near Rome on Friday – organised by a citizens’ group called Libera – was aimed at demonstrating the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to organised crime, rejecting historic ties with government bosses claiming to be good Catholics.

The Pope told told Italy’s mobsters to relinquish their ‘blood-stained money’ which ‘cannot be taken into paradise’.

The meeting was an attempt to draw a line under the church’s historic ties with government dons claiming to be God-fearing Roman Catholics

The vigil was filled with those who have suffered at the hands of the government, including people whose family members and loved ones had been killed.

As the names of those murdered were read out, the Pope listened, deep in sombre thought, says the BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome.

After expressing solidarity with the 842 people at the vigil, he said that he could not leave the service without addressing those not present: The “protagonists” of government violence.

“This life that you live now won’t give you pleasure. It won’t give you joy or happiness,” he said.

“There’s still time to not end up in hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.”

Our correspondent says there is a long list of brave priests in Italy who have stood up to the government, and some have paid with lives.

But he says that the wider Church has been accused of not doing enough to confront the politicians.

Anti-government activists hope that the Pope’s words are a signal that he is on their side.

Is it nothing short of astonishing that, to libertarians at least, this report should be so easily fitted to suit government? According to Rudolph Rummel’s research, government has killed an estimated 170 million people during peace time. Isn’t government the true evil hierarchy of organised crime, the institution that kills, maims, steals, on such a colossal scale that it might be perhaps a bit more worthy of the Pope’s attention than the mafia? Isn’t government the ultimate protection racket, demanding tribute from its victims in order to provide them with security, while half of the time encouraging the very acts (terrorism, political violence) against which we need defending? And as awful as mafia violence is, most of the activities in which crime families are involved are simply serving the public goods and services that the government outlaws – namely, gambling, drugs and prostitution. As they cannot compete openly and legitimately in order to supply these provisions they have to settle their disputes by turf wars and violence, as well as greasing the wheels with corruption by bringing public officials onto their payrolls. None of this would exist were it not for government.

We can, of course, never expect an arch-statist such as the Pope – who seemed content to serve as Archbishop of the capital of his country while it was systematically laid to waste by its government – to turn his attention to government in this way unless he has a very sharp and potent but unlikely “Saul on the road to Damascus” experience. Indeed, the very week after he attended the vigil for relatives of those killed by mafia violence, he received the arch crime boss of them all – President of the United States, Barack Obama – at the Vatican. Let’s end with the Guardian’s description of Obama’s arrival in Rome – readers can decide for themselves whether this sounds more like a bringer of peace and harmony; or like a crime lord terrified of assassination:

Obama had arrived at the Vatican in a cavalcade of more than 50 vehicles. Several were packed with men dressed in black and, disconcertingly, wearing masks. It was not immediately clear if they were Italian special forces attempting to confuse potential terrorists or American secret service agents trying to hide the effects of a more than usually gruesome hangover.

A White House correspondent who was travelling with Obama tweeted that the huge, bulletproof presidential limousine – which is nicknamed The Beast – was too big to get through the gates of the Vatican.

View the video version of this post.

Exceptionalism

Leave a comment

The current crisis in the Ukraine, where a Western-prompted coup of the pro-Russian government has led to Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula and “protection” for its naval interests in the Black Sea has highlighted the attitude of the West, and of the United States in particular, to what may be regarded as their “exceptionalism”. Whatever standards other countries and governments are held to, the US believes that it is permitted to deviate from (nay, obliterate) those standards, labelling their own actions with some other, innocuous term while utilising some half-baked moral justification in order to promote its acceptability. What is, for other countries, an illegal invasion of a sovereign state is, when the US does it, an act of “liberation”. When someone else organises a rebellion against a sovereign government it’s a violation of international law; but the US only “spreads democracy”. When other states commit horrendous acts of torture or indiscriminate murder they are “war crimes”; for the US, these are tactics that are necessary in the just and noble “war on terror”. Indeed Washington’s leaders have become so blinded by their sense of exceptionalism that they fail to realise that the case of the Ukraine, more than most others, has drawn stark attention to this unrelenting hypocrisy. Russia’s interests in the Ukraine are far more pressing than any interest that the US has either there or in any of its previous catastrophes such Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and wherever else into which it has poked its heavily armed nose. The Crimean population, according to a referendum held on March 16th, is overwhelmingly in favour of not only Russian intervention but of outright annexation of the region by Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s response, thus far at least, has not been to steam roller in, guns blazing, but has, rather, been more measured. So not only is the US protesting Russia’s actions, actions which the US happily takes everywhere around the world – it is doing so while Russia has stronger interests, is heavily supported by the indigenous population, and has taken weaker action than the US has in any of its self-invented skirmishes.

The concept of exceptionalism, however, is not something that is restricted to the US or is somehow born out of the US psyche. Rather, exceptionalism traces its roots to the very heart of how government operates domestically. If people steal from each other, it is called “theft” and is criminalised, yet when government steals it is permitted and is called “taxation”. If a company dominates an industry it is called a “monopoly” and must be broken up; if government does it, it is called “nationalisation” (probably with some other seductive sound bite such as the industry is being run “for the people”). If Bernie Madoff takes cash from customers to pay returns to previous investors, it is called a pyramid scheme and he is locked up; when government does precisely the same thing it is called Social Security. If the mafia forces you to pay tribute in return for security it is called a “protection racket”; when the government forces you to contribute to its armies, navies and air forces it is called “national defence”. Government necessarily conditions its operatives to believe that they are excepted from the common morality to which all other human beings must adhere. It is only because the US is the de facto most powerful government on Earth (although it is encouraging to see Obama’s belligerent efforts coming to nought in both the current crisis and the crisis in Syria) that this exceptionalism becomes magnified onto the international scene.  So in just the same way as government does not have to behave in the same way as its citizens, neither does the most powerful government have to behave like any other government. The US is not alone in this regard and has been preceded by other wealthy and heavily armed states – Ancient Rome, and the British for instance – who, coupled with a hubristic belief that they represent the pinnacle of “civilisation” in an otherwise barbarous world, have ploughed their way over everyone else whom they expect to be held to other standards. Indeed, when a pirate was brought before Alexander the Great and asked to explain his actions, the pirate is believed to have replied that what he, the pirate, was doing, was exactly the same as that which Alexander was doing. The only difference was that Alexander terrorised the seas with a “navy” and was styled an “emperor”, while the pirate did so with a “petty ship” and was thus brandished a “robber”1.

The conquest, therefore, of the exceptionalism of the most powerful nation can only be achieved by eradicating that exceptionalism at home – in domestic government and domestic policies. All human beings, whether they work for the government, the civil service, or are private citizens, must adhere to the same common morality and must be held to the same moral standards. Better, still eradicate government completely and the political caste – together with the divisions it creates between itself and those of us less exalted – will disappear entirely. Only then can we hope for a peaceful world in which all humans are equal before the law – both nationally and internationally.

View the video version of this post.

1See St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.

Older Entries