Archives for category: Economics
Photo: Ralf, Flickr, some rights reserved

The temerity of the Left! One of today’s leftists’ characteristic charges is that capitalism and slavery are a package deal, somehow, and that American capitalism depended upon the institution of chattel slavery for its success, and that the wealth Americans now revel in is tainted by the institution of slavery that was abolished over a century and a half ago.

An astounding assertion, and utterly without merit. But some of the scholars associated with Project 1619 are adamantine in their linkage.

Their arguments make much of not clarifying between capitalism, capitalism, and capitalism, as it were. That is, what we advocates of free markets are for is laissez faire, which is a policy quite distinct from that of mercantilism — and against which laissez faire was first advanced — and that it is mercantilist capitalism which is quite compatible with chattel slavery.

Now, later forms of anti-laissez faire practice, such as neo-mercantilism, progressivism, fascism, social democracy and other forms of statism, are not usually associated with chattel slavery, for the point of statism is to turn the masses into wards of the State, and to encourage a kind of servility all around. Laissez Faire Liberalism opposes all statism as well as mercantilism and institutions of chattel slavery. Ideological projects, like those that flying under the banner of 1619, muddy up this — trying to tar private property and free labor with slavery! — and must be argued against, and perhaps ridiculed out of existence. These people are generally socialists, and for that reason have no grounds to criticize we who oppose all forms of slavery, socialist as well as chattel.

Most bizarre is the notion that a good way to redress past harms caused by slavery is to oppose freedom generally.

What leftists cannot confront is that it is their policies that are “reactionary,” atavistic, retrogressive. Slavery is bad. Yes. Evil. Yes. It must be stamped out. But it is bad in both chattel and political/collectivist forms. Socialism is bad.. Yes. Evil. Yes. It must be opposed in all forms.

Socialism is slavery for all.

A few years ago I answered a question on Quora that touched on this issue. Here it is:

Why is capitalism not the root cause of slavery?

Because, perhaps, the root cause of slavery is the opposite of the root cause of capitalism?

Slavery is a very old institution. It appears that it was often a result of warfare: the conquered, instead of being slaughtered, were enslaved. There are many accounts in ancient literature like this. And it has been argued that slavery is moral because of this, because “at least we are not killing them all.”

At least!

Interestingly, the account of the salvation of the Manchurians after being conquered by the Mongol Horde is not very dissimilar. Temujin demanded that the Manchurians be slaughtered en masse. One of his generals suggested that letting them live, and taxing them, instead, would be more profitable. Temujin assented. And so the Manchurian Chinese became tax-slaves.

And it is no shock: taxation often proves itself the easiest form of slavery to manage. Indeed, if one limits one’s slavery over others to just such a simple tribute, the “slaves” will manage themselves. It is all so very efficient.

Capitalism is a rather different set of institutions. It features widespread private property, including land holdings, but especially in raw materials and the results of productive processes. These institutions go hand in hand with low rates of expropriation (criminal theft as well as government confiscatory practices, including taxation), a division of labor with free entry and exit from wage and service contracts, and markets in productive goods. Prominent features of capitalism thus include money, banking, and a stock market.

So, note the obvious: Slavery is not free labor.

Slavery is, instead, a political/micro-political limitation on exit from master-worker relations. It requires heavy degrees of coercion (force and threat of force) to maintain.

Capitalism, to the contrary, is marked by low levels of coercion to maintain. A rule of law, however provided, is capitalism’s foundation. Slavery, on the other hand, has existed where no real rule of law exists, proving more than merely compatible with the rule of the strongman’s threat. Slavery is the natural coexistent with tyranny.

Historically, there is a strong association between capitalism and the policy of laissez faire. It is generally agreed-upon that the more laissez faire the government, the more capitalist the society — so long as there is also widespread respect for private property and freedom of contract. A weak government without at least customary private property will not be capitalistic, but (most likely) merely pastoral.

And it is worth noting that the laissez-faire economists (Adam Smith, J.-B. Say, Destutt de Tracy, Frederic Bastiat) were, on the whole, among the most persistent voices against slavery as an institution. Laissez faire was never really about weak or no government. It was a policy of defense of basic rights under a rule of law, and not much more. After such basics were maintained, the idea is then to let business and labor and the people in general interact freely. It was “hands-off” or “let-alone” only after the basic set of standards have been established and maintained.

And those standards were anti-slavery in principle. They were thought of as the laws of a free people.

The conflict between those new and liberal standards with the ancient institution of slavery was widely recognized in the heyday of liberalism, c. 1776–1860. It was the liberals who opposed slavery, by and large (though the word “liberal” was not much used in America, probably for obvious reasons). Thomas Carlyle, for example, hated “political economy” because it was associated with breaking down the old order, the pre-capitalist ancien régime:

Carlyle labeled the science “dismal” when writing about slavery in the West Indies. White plantation owners, he said, ought to force black plantation workers to be their servants. Economics, somewhat inconveniently for Carlyle, didn’t offer a hearty defense of slavery. Instead, the rules of supply and demand argued for “letting men alone” rather than thrashing them with whips for not being servile. Carlyle bashed political economy as “a dreary, desolate, and indeed quite abject and distressing [science]; what we might call . . . the dismal science.

Carlyle, as summarizes the writer for The Atlantic just quoted, “couldn’t find a justification for slavery in political economic thought, and he considered this fact to be ‘dismal.’”

And then there is the apologist for slavery, George Fitzhugh. Contemplate his arguments in Sociology for the South (1854) and Cannibals All! (1857). He identified slavery with socialism and free labor (which he pilloried as “wage slavery”) with liberal capitalism, arguing that only a few people were fit to run their own lives. Liberalism was a curse upon society, because free markets allowed the masses to be enslaved at low rates, not benevolently under class socialism of slave-owning South. These are quite amazing books. Even if some elements of his arguments can only be regarded as preposterous, he is utterly convincing in showing that laissez-faire liberalism and its support of capitalism had nothing to do with the spirit of slave-holding. He was very forthright about this, and he, also, like Carlyle, had contempt for the social science that wasn’t named “sociology,” as economist Pierre Lemieux explains in his introduction to a recent ebook reprint of Fitzhugh’s 1854 work:

Fitzhugh disliked “political economy” (as economics was then called), which he saw as “the science of free society,” as opposed to socialism, which is “the science of slavery.” He was totally ignorant of economics and had almost certainly not read Adam Smith or any of the other economists he attacks, such as David Ricardo and Jean-Baptiste Say. Fitzhugh denied that an increase in the money supply normally leads to a higher price level. He was hopelessly confused between money and wealth. He did not understand comparative advantage. And so forth.

But however much genius there is in Fitzhugh to recognize an important identity — between socialism and slavery, a point often made by advocates for laissez faire in the century-and-a-half since — his own defense of slavery and against freedom are incoherent. “Fitzhugh had no idea how free markets work,” Lemieux, again, explains. “He believed that competition reduces individuals to economic cannibals, making the weak freeman no better off than slaves, and in reality worse off because the freeman lacks the protection of a master. . . .” But there is a lesson in his mishmash:

Fitzhugh’s writings brew a strange mixture of socialism and conservatism. “Extremes meet,” he notes. This saw is not the deepest aphorism in the history of mankind, but it is at Fitzhugh’s level. A better way to express his idea would be to say that authoritarian power is the common denominator of socialism and conservatism.

Capitalism rests upon principles of individual sovereignty; slavery rests on the repudiation of such principles, at least for some (the slaves). There are many kinds of capitalism, of course, many degrees of freedom, so to speak. Just as there are many kinds of slavery: chattel and political, to name just two. And it is certainly possible to combine the two principles, the two institutional forms. It is what our modern conservatives and progressives do.

We call the current mixture “the mixed economy.”

There are reasons some of us prefer laissez faire rather pure: because we want our capitalism without the taint and evil of exploitation and slavery.

While it is true that capitalism grew out of previous institutional arrangements, which included slavery, it is not true — and can in no way be demonstrated — that capitalism gave birth to slavery. The history is clear: with the rise of capitalism, then and only then was it possible to array the political forces necessary to abolish slavery worldwide. The claims we often hear to the contrary are by ignorant and desperate propagandists, people who want to parlay your instinctive love of freedom as an excuse to enslave you in some way you are not expecting.

The usual method is to fixate on chattel slavery and ignore other forms.

So I suggest we be really scrupulous about those other forms. Like the huge burdens promoted by today’s socialists to increase levels of taxation and regulation, as well as add on evermore new mandates to do specific things.


N.B. The image of Marx, at top of page, should not be construed to imply that the old commie was stupid enough to believe current leftist b.s. about slavery. He may have been evil and wrong about most things, but he did not fall for that.

For libertarian economics, what do property rights include?

as answered on Quora:

I hate to pick at nits, but I do not think there is such a thing as “libertarian economics.” But I assume that the questioner really means “economic policy,” and is right to think that libertarians have a distinct policy. But any such policy is also a matter of law (libertarians, even of a hard-core private law variety hold to a rule of law) so the question becomes, What property rights are included under libertarian legal and economic policy?

Well, this turns out to be a big subject.

There are some differences of opinion, in part because the libertarian camp is a bit broader than usually let on by its most insistent advocates. But what defines libertarians is the way they themselves define liberty: as the freedom that all can share by being seen in the negative: a freedom from initiated coercion, or force. (Freedoms-to, in Isaiah Berlin’s formulation, are not the focus of libertarian principles.)

And for libertarians, liberty starts with the individual. Though it can be defined politically, as selfgovernment, it is often, perhaps usually (following Locke and the Levellers) defined in property terms. Liberty entails selfownership. To own one’s self means to own one’s own body. And like all property this entails excludability. In other words, self-defense.

So, already, at this most fundamental level, chattel slavery is prohibited. One cannot own others against their will, unless that other has committed some crime and his enslavement is repayment. Slavery is commonly thought to be not an acceptable kind of ownership, and slaves not legitimate property. Though Libertarians argue about the legitimacy of selling themselves into slavery.

Certainly, the chattel slavery that was the basis of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century American economy is not legitimate property according to libertarianism. Libertarians were almost all abolitionists, in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War.

The basic conception of justice that libertarians hold has been called the entitlement, or proprietary theory of justice. As formulated by Robert Nozick, a property holding is just if it was justly acquired and justly transferred. To be justly acquired, it cannot be wrested from another. Hence the idea of self-ownership, and the idea of a first-come/finders-keepers ethic of property acquisition. This is the fairly logical outcome of the attempt to find a basic rule that would minimize conflict. Only scarce resources can be owned. So free goods (in the economic sense, as defined by economist Carl Menger and other early marginalists) are not subject to ownership.

This leads to problems of some common resources, such as air (non-economic on the surface of the planet, outside our nose and lungs) and oceans (lots of water there). Libertarians tend to evade or disagree or remain puzzled by these resources, and how property rights could possibly be applied in these resource pools. (Nevertheless, much work has been done, and should be looked up.)

But not to problems of land. I know of few libertarians who go the Georgist route, thinking that land may not be owned — but there used to be many of these, including the young Herbert Spencer and the individualist Joseph Hiam Levy, an able fin-de siècle economist (see his debates with Auberon Herbert and Benjamin R. Tucker.)

Intellectual property rights attorney Stephan Kinsella argues that intellectual property is a misnomer. He extends the analysis of Murray Rothbard, who thought that laws against “libel and slander” were unsupportable because one cannot own one’s reputation. Kinsella makes the point that patent and copyright law are both monopolistic “protections” (intrusions, interventions) of the State, and could not possibly arise in a society that takes the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP — really just a formalization of the principle of universalizble negative freedom) seriously, consistently.


a. property in one’s own person, by which we mean “body”;

b. property in land and other scarce resources that no one else has owned, and which you have appropriated by some widespread or locally apt convention; and

c. property in scarce resources that one has purchased, by contract and without duress.

Libertarians these days almost univocally reject the Lockean idea that possible-to-own resources that have not been appropriated are “owned in common.” This notion is at best a fiction. At worst an imposition. Non-privatized property is seen as UN-OWNED. And property rights theorists are beginning to understand the importance of “ceasing-to-own” as a category. That is, not only must property rights require justice in acquisition and transferance, but also in maintenance. Just as one may lose property, in a physical sense, one can abandon it, in a normative sense. This puts the property into the category of un-owned. If you leave your car on the side of the road, and never return, it is abandoned. The road owner usually appropriates it, but since, today, all automobile titles are tightly regulated by the states, and most roads are State-owned, the states tend to assume ownership. This would not be the case in a libertarian society. Law and custom would look very different. And would have to include rules about disowned property, inadvertent or deliberate, and regard it as un-owned, allowing for a new appropriation.

Other cases of property abandonment? Littering, pollution, and (in the realm of self-ownership) body abandonment upon inadvertent death as well as intended death (suicide). (Would a consequence of this perspective be that suicide is often a form of littering, and, unless measures were made in advance by the would-be suicide, many acts of suicide would be rightly preventable, by coercion, as defense of the property the corpse is intentionally being abandoned upon?)

According to Murray Rothbard, there can be no “public property.” All property must be private. F. A. Hayek demurred from this, arguing that what we are really talking about is “several property,” which would include ownership by groups, in some corporate or even informal capacity. (Randy Barnett explains the seemingly archaic term in this way: “The term ‘several property’ makes it clearer that jurisdiction to use resources is dispersed among the ‘several’ — meaning ‘diverse, many numerous, distinct, particular or separate’ persons and associations that comprise a society, rather than being rooted in a monolithic centralized institution.”) The rule of law defends several property, which would allow for any forms of property now considered “public.”

Philosopher Roderick Long has discussed a public property element in a free society as configured around by the NAP. This subject is still under debate among libertarians.

All property comes down to the right to exclude and the right to control. Several property is private chiefly in the sense of de-priving others of its use. Where you cannot forcibly exclude others (understood as self defense), there is no property. Where you cannot control the thing ostensibly owned (without initiating force), it is not property. I believe Kinsella’s arguments against intellectual property flow directly from these considerations.

No wonder, then, that one proposed alternative to the term “libertarianism” is “propertarianism” — no other school of thought takes property rights as seriously libertarians do, or see them as so fundamental.

Note: There is a whole school of economics devoted to property rights discussion. Many of these economists are libertarians or near-libertarians. Richard Stroup, for example, has proffered a basic rubric for property rights: “For markets to work . . . rights to each important resource must be clearly defined, easily defended against invasion, and divestible (transferable) by owners on terms agreeable to buyer and seller. Well-functioning markets, in short, require ‘3-D’ property rights.” Again, the 3-D property rights require

  1. Definability — clarity in boundaries;
  2. Defense — ability to be maintained;
  3. Divestibility — capacity for ownership cessation by the property holder.

This latter includes divestment by gift, divestment by exchange (giving on condition of receiving something), and inadvertent abandonment (loss by inattention) and purposive abandonment (essentially, gift to the unowned state, gift to “whoever will appropriate from an unowned state” or assault upon others, if the property abandoned is specifically disutile or inutile to all).

Libertarian economic policy rests on conceptions of property rights, centered on individual self-ownership and extending outwards to natural resources and produced goods. Many kinds of several property are allowed, but the society would not be de facto libertarian if there were extensive black markets in stolen goods of whatever kind, or if the state (or similar institutions) appropriated by decree all sorts of un-owned and dis-owned property, or engaged in mass expropriation (taxes) or piecemeal expropriation outside the court system, or in contravention of the NAP.

Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy, my set.

Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50%? Isn’t world over-population the cause of all the problems in the world?

…as answered on Quora:

Two questions, eh?

  1. Is it possible to reduce the world population by 50 percent?
  2. Isn’t world overpopulation the cause of all the problems in the world?

The answers are simple:

  1. Yes.
  2. No.

But there are complications:

  1. Many of the ways to decrease populations quickly, especially by half, are of the Thanos-or-worse variety. We do not want to decrease populations quickly. Gradually could be another story.
  2. As economist Theodore W. Schultz explained — and as Julian Simon demonstrated in a more daring and popular form — population is not the huge problem that neo-Malthusian alarmists say it is. Human beings, if they do not rely upon predation and parasitism, and have plenty of opportunities for market coöperation (trade), are what Simon calls “the ultimate resource.”

When we rely upon trade, we must be of service to one another. We engage in trade only when we expect to gain, that is, when both parties to an exchange expect to gain from it. I help you out if you help me. And the more trades occur, the more that competition for each others’ business hones our productivity. The more productive, the more advances in technique and technology we bring to the stock of civilization. This is progress.

Thomas Robert Malthus’s worry in his Principles of Population (1798) was that (a) the rate of agricultural advance would be outstripped by (b) the natural rate of human population growth. He was stumbling towards a modern conception of external economies, of the “market failure” focused on in neoclassical economics. That is where options seen by the individuals as in their best interest yields widespread effects not in the interest of people generally. (Malthus was arguing against the anarchist rationalist William Godwin and his belief that moral progress would lead to an ethical utopia of excellence everywhere.) Basically, the Malthusian fear is that people would be incentivized to reproduce at a socially dangerous rate. Reason would fail — in effect be upended by circumstance.

But Malthus had an interesting analytic mind, and he handled the problem with something more than a glib pessimism. He noted that these two diverging trendlines (agriculture expanding at an “arithmetic rate” versus population expanding at a “geometric rate”) were offset by other forces, at least on the reproduction trend line.

There were, he wrote, natural checks on reproduction rates, including famine and pestilence and infant death by malnutrition; and there were artificial checks, including sexual abstinence in several forms, most of which he regarded as moral, and some gruesome means, such as infanticide and abortion and eugenics. His worry was that populations would grow to bring misery, and also a rise in immorality out of perceived prudence. He rightly saw that crude measures of packing people in close together, as happened in cities, often breed plague and sexually transmitted diseases. And it is in his spirit — and often inspired by reading his treatise — that many modern prophets of doom have developed the popular anti-population mania. And theirs is indeed a harrowing philosophy, turning otherwise nice and smart folks into anti-humanist immoralists, praising horrific measures of (aack) mass death or (ugh) government repression. This sort of thing inspired the modern environmental movement, where you will find some folks advocating reducing humanity to “a size twice the population of bears.”

But all this misses the “miracle” of modernity: progress.

Malthus failed to see what Herbert Spencer saw in the early 1850s: coöperative humanity can indeed fight against the Malthusian trap, flipping the trend lines so that agriculture can grow exponentially more productive than the rate of population reproduction . . . and in turn spurring increased populations to be increasingly productive. The only thing we would have to give up? The militant, regimented means of social organization, instead embracing “industry.” Which in this case was the predecessor to the industrial recolution, the agricultural revolution. Spencer saw trends on Malthus’s agriculture forecast that would raise the line several orders of magnitude.

Interestingly, Spencer almost came up with the theory of natural selection in this work. But he only applied his notion of a ratcheting up of living standards by means of competitively coördinated coöperation to the social world, not to the long-term cycles of plant and animal descent. “Missed it by that much,” as Agent Smart said in Get Smart. It is for this reason that sociologist Jonathan Turner inverted the infamous “Social Darwinist” charge against Spencer: Darwin, really, was a “biological Spencerian.” Spencer spiffed up his approach a decade later, for the final section of his Principles of Biology. And in the process he gave us the turn of phrase “survival of the fittest.” Though it has been trendy (for a full century, actually) to look upon Spencer’s viewpoint as a ghastly exercise in cruel theoretics, Spencer was actually emphasizing peaceful coöperation and presenting humanity with a remarkably positive vision. J.D.Y. Peel, in his study of Spencer, said that the British philosopher-sociologist “out-Godwinned Godwin”! But Spencer did this not by hoping for a triumph of Reason, but by merely noticing the flourishing that is possible with distributed patterns of collaboration sans an over-arching plan.

The amazing thing? He was basically right.

Spencer was actually presaging what today’s more realistic economists and demographers understand perfectly well. And, what is more — less: today’s best researchers notice that as human societies get wealthier, the rate of reproduction goes down.

In Schultz’s terminology, parents swap “quantity of children” for “quality of children.” In mere agricultural societies, children can be productive in farm life and in resource extraction; in industrial societies, for people to be productive they have to decelop their skillsets more markedly, so parents opt to expend resources to “invest” in their children’s “human capital.” So, that old black magic of having scads of children ceases to increase the chances of family success, but, instead, tends to reduce it.

That is one big reason why people, today, tend naturally to produce fewer children than in the past.

One might think that this would be completely scuttled by the lowering of childhood death rates, but for a number of reasons, this does not appear to be the case.

And, yes, populations are indeed declining in the First World — and as the rest of the world catches up (and in my lifetime the poverty rate has declined markedly with the expansion of the extent of the market), the general reproduction rate will level off. In Europe, the white population is veering to the opposite-of-“Malthusian” trend: demographic collapse. In the United States, were it not for immigration and recent immigrants’ higher reproductive rates, America, too, would see population decline.*

Demographic collapse is actually probably going to be a bigger problem in the future than the “population explosion.” It is the implosion that would more likely destroy civilization.

But here we have another offsetting trend: technological progress.

The great heterodox genius Samuel Butler, not long after publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) argued that the next form of evolution will be machine evolution. This was played for science-fictional interest in his dystopian romance (or is that utopian comedy?) Erewhon (1872), but now we are really seeing this kick into high gear, as we approach something like a social Singularity (see Ray Kurzweil).

About the time of Malthus, there arose the legendary “Ned Ludd,” who saw only devastation in the destructive creation of technological advance. And since then there have been worriers who see mainly the death of labor in “labor-saving devices.” And like Malthusianism, Luddism, if true, would have meant the death of free labor and our whole civilization a century ago. The opposite is the case: technological advance increases worker productivity, leading to a general increase in wealth and welfare. The “trouble” is, people have to adapt to the machines.

Perhaps the challenge of population decline will not be so bad, as machine evolution makes our lives better and better. Maybe, in Richard Brautigan’s poetic lines, we shall be “watched over by machines of loving grace.

The real challenge will be political.

* The downward trend line is exacerbated by welfare state interventions, and the high rate of abortions, too. But for this analysis I need not get into to it.

Additional thoughts:

I wonder if there is not a third major danger playing here besides Malthusian and Luddite, but the belief in scientific management of the human livestock, which inevitably buys into Malthusian and Luddite predictions, then uses untold cruelty to violently whip the human population towards a better condition. Our OP demonstrates it.

Timo, do you agree that there is this third strain and from whom do you think it originates?

Dennis Pratt, replying to my answer, May 30, 2018.

Yes. These are the intellectuals I call Social Galtonians, after Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. There is a great irony embedded in this social engineering movement. Inspired by Darwin’s tough-minded biological theories, these scientists and activists invented eugenics. But it wasn’t natural selection they advocated, or even sexual selection (the two key concepts Darwin marshaled to help understand speciation), but, instead, the everyday concept that Darwin used to explain natural selection, by analogy: “artificial selection,” or breeding.

Basically, these people see the apex of advance in an elite that would engineer society for further advance. It is profoundly anti-Darwinian, really. They wanted to “take charge of evolution.” But Darwin was trying to explain spontaneous order, advance without Plan. The Social Galtonians wanted to Plan, in all-caps: PLAN.

And here we can see the contrast with the thinker usually called the major “Social Darwinist,” Herbert Spencer. His view was that in the course of super-organic evolution various interpenetraing and almost-indistinguishable institutions (like religion and The State) would diversify and integrate simutaneously. The state would get smaller to accommodate countervailing, offsetting institutions like religions and industrial organizations and markets and the like. That is not what happened, but he thought that was what needed to happen for the kind of progress that would work best for the greatest diversity of people.

And what was important and “Darwinian” about this was not the scope for “natural selection” (a factor in explaining man and society at every level) but the primacy of individual selection selection. Voluntary breeding.

The social engineers and eugenicists wanted to clamp down on this decentralized, distributed reproduction technique and replace it with top-down breeding. Artificial selection as a super-elitist activity justified by a mis-reading of evolutionary science.

So, Spencer was more Darwinian and less crude in his preference for sexual selection over anything like social engineering. The State should be peeled back to a limited role, not expanded to mimic the reductionist and naive view of organisms as top-down, total-conscious mechanisms.

The social engineers, of course, are hubristic. They make a huge error in their basic world view. But it “feels” scientific, to themjust as the maroons who wax enthusiastic over “the scientific consensus” get all the good feels from their mania.

It is scientism.

But it is not our current problem. Not really. For sentiment transformed eugenic-minded progressivism after the Hitler debacle into an incoherent welfare state-cum-churning state. And what dominates now, in combination with the feminist cult and cultural Marxism, is dysgenic. Policies leading to the cultivation of vast hordes of near-criminals and parasites.

That is hardly a Social Galtonian view, or Social Darwinist. It is its own satire.

The Hegelian dialectic as it spins society through the rinse-repeat cycle is something of an ironist.

The primary political reaction to the Darwinian challenge, then, comes down to this: how we conceive of responsibility in the management of human reproduction. Should folks be regarded as their own people, responsible for their own couplings and reproduction strategies (per sexual selection) or should they be treated as breeding stock (per artificial selection)?

The Progressive Era, with the rise of socialism and fascism, chose artificial selection, which led to the sterilization of “the unfit” and unwanted — and those perceived as dangerous. I have called this Societal Galtonianism. The old liberal idea was simply the Smithian “natural liberty” and Spencerian “Law of Equal Freedom” approach, where people were let alone to choose for themselves. Call this alternative Independent Adaptation.

So, which will be “the ultimate recourse”? Freedom and the division of responsibility, or force and social engineering?

But note that Independent Adaptation, which I obviously prefer, is now developing to a new level of sophistication, where the sexual selection of partners can be boutique and even commoditized. Instead of letting the ablest swimming sperm capture the egg immediately after an act of coition, now we enter a world where

  • fertilized eggs can be chosen for viability according to various criteria
  • eggs can be pre-selected
  • sperm can be pre-selected
  • DNA can be altered in pre-nates

which certainly will all have huge social consequences, making the “problem of children” all the more interesting.

The modern fear of the breeding stock approach led to a few famous dystopias, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and many not-so-famous ones, such as the late J. Neil Schulman’s The Rainbow Cadenza. And in the world of open-source science fiction — that is, in ufology — the fear of humanity being reduced to breeding-stock status becomes a major cultural meme.

None of this expresses the core truth of our time, though.

In reaction against eugenic breeding programs of the Progressive Era, modern “liberals” and (post-modern) progressives have embraced the dysgenics of the unstable pairing of free sexual selection with tax-funded subsidy. This is our current paradigm, in which freedom and responsibility are kept separate. This is part of the dominance of left versus right politics, where the two flavors de-link freedom and responsibility issue by issue, and the compete in the political marketplace to set policy in an ad hoc way. It is quite messy, and we live under the chaos of freedom-without-responsibility and responsibility-without-freedom as the two option against which society constantly lurches in drunken sailor fashion.

Trouble is, the pure social engineering, totalitarian approach, which might be more culturally stable than our current kludgy dysgenic approach, strikes most people, including me, as horror-show repugnant. While the libertarian/responsibilitarian approach strikes most people, excluding me, as freaky unsettling.

So we will probably be stuck in the intelligentsia-approved compromise system until our civilization crumbles.


Cultural diversity means conflict when the individuals and groups see themselves as competing for scarce resources in the Commons, and the access is a zero sum activity.

The meaning of said conflict is clear in the El Paso anti-immigrant shooting, in the group-righteous racism of intersectionalist hectoring, and . . . well, one could read about it in the pages of this book, Politics in Plural Societies, by Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth A. Shepsle, who begin their treatise listing ethnic conflict around the world.

“Outright killing frequently takes place,” is a typical topic sentence in the first chapter.

The key concept is that of “the plural society,” coined by J. S. Furnivall, who defined the concept as a mixed-group society “comprising two or more elements or social orders which live side by side, yet without mingling, in one political unit.”

Because of his training as an economist, Furnivall naturally focused on the economic aspects of the Dutch colony. Observing that each community possessed a distinct set of values incompatible with those of other cultural groups, he characterized the plural society as one lacking consensus or, in his terms, one without “common social demand.” To illustrate his point, Furnivall constructed the following example. The buying of cathedrals involves an expenditure of resources much like the purchase of groceries. In a homogeneous society, the purchase of a cathedral provides an indivisible “public good,” i.e., every citizen may benefit from its construction. In the plural society, however, the erection of a Chinese temple constitutes a “public bad” for Muslims; in a similar manner, Muslim mosques provide few or no benefits for Chinese. Therefore, in the plural society social demands often result in public expenditures with benefits for one community and opportunity costs for the others. The plural society thus isolates the demands of its separate communities, and fails to aggregate, in Furnivall’s terms, common social demand.
Furnivall points to the presence of separate ethnic demands as a basis for differentiating a plural society from its homogeneous counterpart.

Rabushka and Shepsle develop what is basically a familiar theory, a Classical Liberal Theory of Competing Interest Groups, the basic idea being that if you want diversity, you must have limited government — and if you want big government, you must possess or (more ominously, create) a monoculture.

And if you fail to create a monoculture, you will get violence.

There is a reason today’s “multiculturalists” are such hectoring, moralistic ideologues: they are trying, rather desperately, to create a monoculture, an ideological one. And that is why they tend to look upon their political opponents as “deplorables” — because they resist the multiculturalists’ creation of a utopian society based on left-moralism.

Drolly, “right-wing” nationalism and its relentless pushing of flag worship and patriotic rite amounts to much the same thing, if on a much more limited scale — after all, nation-building is what nationalists do, and its element of doctrinal monoculture (in America, anyway) is the major competitor to multiculturalism.

Furnivall’s major contribution lies in his observation that plural societies are qualitatively distinct from homogeneous ones, and that the different communities of the plural society can meet only in the marketplace. His insistence that outside force is required to maintain order implies that plural societies are inherently prone to violent conflict.

This should be familiar to anyone who has immersed themselves in the sociology of Spencer and Sumner, or of the less ideological conflict theorists. That it is not familiar to most folks today is largely the result of bad education all around.


To members of a proud in-group, those in the out-group tend to look like Yahoos. Not Houyhnhnms.

The Quoran who asked the question, below, might not have been driving at what I took it to mean. The intention may actually have had something to do with economic systems, with “capitalism” as it has developed in “the West.” It never crossed my mind, as I wrote my answer, that it was not about the social science. But I should have guessed, for people often use “economics” as a description of some system.

Ayn Rand wrote of “the separation economics and State” while James Branch Cabell referred to “The Economics of Coth” (and others) when drolly recounting one of his better character’s decisions and rationales.

Cabell’s usage strikes me as more than merely forgivable, Rand’s does not. For one thing, when Cabell wrote, “economics” was still a fairly new term in an educated person’s lexicon. “Political economy” had served for over a century, and many economists wrote tomes in Cabell’s time calling the science “Social Economy.” For another, there is only one way to take Cabell’s construction, while Rand’s “economics” could mean either the science (it should not be subsidized) or “markets and the private property order.”

I write a lot comparing varying social systems of production, distribution and consumption on Quora. But here I stick to considerations of basic explanatory theory.

Why is western economics based on self-interest?

…adapted from an answer on Quora…

It isn’t.

Self-interest is a moral concept, and economists are supposed to be Wertfrei (value-free) social scientists — if on track of value.

You might say, “but economics is all about the results of people choosing according to their own values, thus all about choices dependent upon a kind of perceived or self-constructed interest.” And I reply, “well, OK, if you must — but it is just as much a science exploring other-interest, for these selves doing their choosing also value others, and their interests in others figure into their demand and supply curves just as much as does their self-regard.”

The truth is this: the logic of choice at the heart of subjective value and marginal utility and marginal rates of substitution and satisficing and all that is not egoistic . . . according to economists. And when they say that it is — as they sometimes do, in large part because they are not always good philosophers — they err.

The brilliant Jevonsian economist P. H. Wicksteed tried to make this clear when he argued that economists are not pushing a rationale of egoism when they develop their notion of a demand schedule or draw up indifference curves, nor negating altruism, either. What they apply, he argued, is a concept of non-tuism.

This is a coinage he offered to help explain what he regarded as the basic nature of trade: when a person economizes in his purchases and asks for the highest prices possible in his sales, he may do so for egoistic or altruistic reasons, but still works to maximize the interest of the transaction, either egoistic or altruistic, when he makes those trades. (Or when she makes her trades, for one of Wicksteed’s better examples was of a housewife deciding the basic economy of the household under her charge.) Non-tuistic interest is a worthwhile concept to try to understand: see Israel M. Kirzner’s The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought (1960), for a good treatment.

But even Wicksteed did not get it exactly right, for we do sometimes trade for others’ benefit, accepting a higher price for pencils from the blind man at the corner than at the Five and Dime.*

It helps to focus not on “interest” — which, as I assert above, has too moral a component — and not on “utility” — which is unduly abstract, and gets students confused. Concentrate, instead, on the specific uses to which a good may be put. Under the theory of Grenznutzen (border use) of the Austrian School economists (from which English-language economists got their term of art marginal utility), the various uses to which a fungible good may be put, and against which value is to be understood (as dependent upon the importance of the specific use the last unit of a good decided upon has to the economic actor), can be almost any mix of self-regarding and other-regarding purposes.

In my personal economy, my first gallon of clear water goes to drink, the second and third to food preparation, the fourth to cleaning myself, the fifth to my neighbor, the sixth to my dog, the seventh to washing the dog, the eighth to washing the house, the ninth to letting the neighbor’s cow to drink, and so forth.* All of these uses satisfy me, but several also satisfy others. Do you see how useless quibbling about whose interests are being served?

The economist does not usually inquire deeply about the egoism and altruism of the goals, or uses, that are the foci of the border use (Grenznutzen) that goes into explaining the formation of prices and the rates of exchange. Because such concerns are irrelevant to what economists are usually trying to explain.

Similarly, economists rarely fret about how a person forms the value scales which place the various uses to which goods are put into order. Not because they cannot be analyzed, but because they are mostly irrelevant to what economists do.

Who is concerned? Moralists, whose traditional and self-appointed job it is to get people to change their values.

But when moralists get worked up over whether choices on the market are “too egoistic” or “not altruistic enough,” they go too far if they also castigate all economic choice as selfish. And usually they descend into a very deep error.

The error was identified clearly by Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong in his Ethische Bausteine (see Marie-Luise Schubert Kalsi, Alexius Meinong’s Elements of Ethics, 1996), where he explores the difference between subject and object, ego and alter. Of egoism and altruism, Meinong argued that, before any deep inquiry, one might think that “a value is egoistic if the subject is egoistic, altruistic if the alter is the subject. However, that this is not so can be seen in the fact that I myself have altruistic desires and valuations besides egoistic desires and valuations. Thus, no objection should be raised that there are altruistic and egoistic values for me. Then, the ego is subject of even altruistic values. But the altruistic nature of these values must be grounded on something other than the valu[ing] subject.”

The notion that economics is “based on self-interest” is actually a misguided philosophical complaint, and though I recommend Wicksteed and Kirzner and other economists to clear this up, it really is a philosophical error, and should be dealt with philosophically.

 * Yes, I am old. I like throwing around seemingly ancient examples.

N.B. In addition to the texts explicitly cited, above, one should consult


I have to confess to writing my Quora answers fairly hurriedly. It is obvious that some are better than others. This one was not great, rather poorly organized, with some sloppiness. The Meinong section should have been placed up a few paragraphs, and my problem with Wicksteed’s non-tuism is not adequately identified.

The issue lurking (as if Yog-Sothothery) behind the scenes, is this: in discussing market prices in terms of marginal utility we generally assume that the goods being traded are discrete and serve a specific set of needs, or wants. But sometimes we do trade “just to trade,” even though Adam Smith protested that he was unaware of much good being done in that vein. Human interaction is more complex than simple models can map, and, yes, the Austrian praxeological method of catallactic explanation is modeling, too. There is no way around models. There are just different sorts.

This complexity becomes clearer, amusingly enough, when you move away from mass markets and into murkier realms of barter markets, gift economies, plunder procedures, and straightforward cooperation in domestic and tribal contexts.

Much work must have been done in the manner I indicate, here, but I have not seen that work, especially amongst the Austrians.

Austrians, whose basic approach I apply to social science, are like today’s leftists in one sense, at least: just as leftists endlessly and obsessively and yammer about racism for the obvious reason that the fight against racism is the only good thing they have ever accomplished, Austrian economists grind their brand of marginal utility theory because it was, indeed, the best thing they ever accomplished. Expanding it into other domains is harder work. So that work is generally not done.

That being said, Austrians are least apt among market-oriented economists to get caught up in puerile charges of “egoism.” The self-interest notion, too, is rarely botched by Austrians in a crude way, though I do not see many in the tradition to take a deep interest in the processes by which individual actors construct and revise their own understandings of their interests.

Finally, it is indeed unfortunate that we have to deal with two quite distinct concepts of “interest”: the moral concept, in which one aims to provide an objective standard for one’s subjective (personal) value scale, and the catallactic concept, which is associated with (if not defined as) the price of loaned funds.


Remember President Barack Obama’s annoying “You didn’t build that”?

Today I watched President Donald Trump “explain” how awful trade deficits are. In that explanation he basically said to China, “You didn’t build that.”

The line should still be familiar. Obama had purloined it from the lips of Senator Elizabeth Warren. With this argumentative gambit, these two politicians revealed themselves for what they are, demagogues out to fan the flames of resentment and entitlement. In trying to give to government the credit for the entrepreneurial accomplishments of businessfolk, they were honing an agenda: de-legitimize the achievements of the successful the better to take their wealth away.

But while Obama gave to government the credit for business successes, Trump gave America the credit for China’s.

His logic?

Trump said previous presidents had allowed China to get away with trade policies that disfavored the U.S. to such an extent that no future deal could be 50/50; then, that a deal had been made, but China changed it, so he put up the wall of high tariffs.

Next, Trump boasted of the huge increase in government revenues from his taxes, er, tariffs.

And then the kicker: “We rebuilt China because they got so much money” under freer trade.

That is how Trump had America take the credit for Chinese growth.

And he was more than implying that there is something wrong with Americans helping Chinese grow in this manner.

Trump seems not to understand that when people trade (it is not, really, countries trading) both sides gain. The farmers who support Trump can imagine selling more agricultural product had President Xi’s own protectionist measures been lower, and it is on the basis of those lost opportunities that Trump makes his pitch to American farmers. But it is Chinese consumers who have the greater cause to complain for past Chinese protectionism, for had Xi allowed more trade, China would have grown even faster. Because of all the exchanges. 

Like in all trade, neither side to a trade is irrelevant. China could with just as much justification take credit for American progress in all that past trade.

Every instance of which was an advance for both sides.

The Chinese built what they built, with American help. And could’ve built more had their government gotten out of the way.

And right now, with Trump’s high tariffs in place, American consumers will have to pay more for what we buy from China.

And elsewhere.

Trump is apparently trying to get Xi to take down his protectionist barriers by putting up American barriers. And if Trump succeeds, we do indeed all win. If he fails, we all lose. Meanwhile, we are hurting as much as the Chinese.

And what Trump is saying encourages resentment and economic superstition. So, even if he wins, what we may end up with is more resentment and a greater reservoir of protectionist sentiment in the American electorate.

And that almost guarantees disaster.


Why isn’t corporatism talked about as an alternative to capitalism and socialism?

…an answer on Quora by Ethan Lee:

‘Corporatism’ is not an alternative to capitalism, it is capitalism. Albeit not free market capitalism, it is capitalism none the less. Calling X corporatist is just a cop out to avoid admitting that is in fact capitalism.

Capitalism = Private ownership over the means of production

Socialism = Worker ownership over the means of production

Is that exactly right? Workers can own the means of production in capitalism. 

I own my small business. There do exist workers’ cooperatives. And laborers’ pensions often own stock in companies, though most often not majority stock in any one company, and not in their own — which, since they invest at their own discretion, suggests that workers, generally, do not want to own the means of production. Only a few exceptional people do.

And, interestingly, under several of the socialist societies that have existed — the most prominent one, anyway, that called itself socialist, explicitly — small business was not exactly tolerated, was it? And workers did not own their factories, etc., the State did. And, further, it was industrial workers that were focused on: agricultural workers were despised, expropriated, and killed en masse. For “workers” owning “the means of production” was not the point of socialism, historically. Not really. It was “everybody” owning the means of production through a central planning office, through the State. Which in practice just means tyranny.

And I note that the socialists I know personally, and the ones I see on TV, do not seem much interested in workers as such, or the means of production as such. They are concerned with consumers, making sure that everyone can consume about the same amount of goods: equal access to healthcare, equal access to housing, equal access to iPhones, complete financial security for all, etc. Which suggests, once again, that “workers” is the reddest of red herrings. Socialism always comes back to a form of consumerism. State-supported and -enabled consumerism.

What “corporatism” means is not always clear, either. We have a lot of publicly* traded stockholders’ corporations in these United States, and they sure look like market institutions, and not a few are even basically operating within something like a free market. But many — though, once again, certainly not all — of the most successful are dependent for their success on government contracts (some of the biggest corporations are those within the ambit of the military-industrial complex) and, when the biggest fail (most recently in the financial sector) they are bailed out, at taxpayer expense. Further they are regulated in such a way that “just so happens” to protect established businesses from upstart competitors. This system is certainly not laissez faire, as stated in the answer, above. But its capitalist nature, while being there, is certainly open to some interrogation. What it looks like to me might best be called “producerism.” A form of it. Producerist arguments were dominant in 19th century support for protective tariffs, and they now dominate the government practice of regulation and bailouts.

Which should indicate my approach to free-market capitalism: it is consumerist-producerist . . . both. We produce to consumer, sure, but no consumer and no producer should really be given special favors. “Workers” and “business” do not compete so much as cooperate, and foisting a class narrative on their relations is a bad idea. They are just two special interests, and our rule of law should serve the general interest, not any specifically identified class or group. Neither consumer-oriented socialism nor worker-oriented socialism make sense, and corporatisms that focus on bolstering up specific industries for the sake of stability are not much better.


* Note that we call publicly traded stock companies “private” — our nomenclature sure must confuse the young.

Gustave de Molinari

The economist must not confound interest with selfishness, still less with the satisfaction of such needs as are purely material. It signifies rather the sum of the requirements of human nature, material as well as moral. A man does not impose upon himself the sufferings which are inseparable from effort, nor abstain from enjoying the fruits of his toil, for the sole purpose of satisfying selfish wants, whether present or future. Altruistic intention is a frequent and often the more powerful factor in determining labours or abstentions. Altruism includes the love of family and the race, of truth and justice; and its scope is only limited by that of the moral sentiment. Under its spur men have died for each other, a cause, even a cherished idea. There is no real warrant for the opposition between interest and duty, a contradiction that has been too often reiterated. Duty is no more than the obligation to act in conformity with justice, the criterion of which is the general and permanent interest of the species. The sense of justice — in other words the moral sense — naturally predisposes us to conform action to duty. This sense is, no doubt, distributed most unequally. Certain individuals find that obedience to its dictates yields a joy which outweighs any pain, and such men pursue duty at all costs and in face of every obstacle; others are less conscious of the stimulus. A sense of obligation is often disobeyed, but every lapse is followed by that feeling of pain which is called remorse. Finally, there are many persons whose moral sense, the sense of justice, is quite rudimentary; they commit every kind of injustice or immorality to satisfy their passions or vices, and are a menace to society and the race. Mere self-defence compels society to supplement such enfeebled sense of the obligations. It therefore imposes penalties, regulating their incidence in such a way that the amount of pleasure obtained by comitting an injustice is more than neutralised by the punishment which follows.

Society’s first duty is, therefore, to foster the sense of justice — the moral sense. And it is equally imperative to define the distinction between just and unjust, moral and immoral, since the hurt or benefit of society and the species is bound up with the opposition between these two ideas. The interests of the individual and the species are, in their regard, identical.

Gustave de Molinari

The Society of To-morrow: A Forecast of Its Political and Economic Organisation (1904)

from the Preface, third footnote (to the passage in the title on this page)

To believe that “deficits don’t matter” and “public debt is no problem” requires one to believe that government, and government alone, has solved the problem of scarcity.

Furthermore, governments have mastered this magic by doing the one thing that politicians most like doing: bestowing benefits on some constituents without immediately raising taxes on others.

Suspicious. Stretches the credulity, if you ask me. I have never been shown the mechanism how this could possibly work.

Most defenses of deficit spending are Keynesian, and Keynesian fiscal prescriptions only make sense on their own terms when counter-cyclical, that is, when deficit spending is parlayed in bad times to be offset by budget surpluses used to pay off debt in good times. But that no longer ever happens. If it ever did.

Politicians just get too few rewards from paying down debt.

So, as near as I can make out, the modern State’s “solving” of the “problem of scarcity” is not a solution at all, but is, instead, a con job. It depends wholly upon misdirection. As is so often the case, we come back to Bastiat’s “the seen and the unseen.”

The populace? Blind to it. But politicians and their pet economists? They squeak and take their politic soundings for mastery of flight.


Cultic behavior is not limited to marginal groups.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the social controls we associate with cults are the prime drivers (with interesting differences) of almost all center-dominant cultural organizations, institutions and movements.

Most people adopt center-dominant beliefs not because of the beliefs’ truth-values, but for pragmatic reasons and for signalling. Think of it as “innocence by association.”

We should expect nothing else.

And it is for this reason that whole cultures can lurch into extremely perverse directions, whether they be Aztec mass sacrifice, communist political centralism, or even dietetic “science” and eating habits.

My favorite modern example is usually deficit spending by governments and debt accumulation — often excused by half-adopted, half-assessed Keynesianism while being driven by very different but very obvious Public Choice factors.