Monday, February 25, 2008

Bastiat’s “The Law”

Frederic Bastiat was a Nineteenth Century economist, statesman, and author, born in France and served as a Deputy to the Legislative Assembly around the time of the French Revolution of 1948. "He did most of his writing during the years just before—and immediately following—the Revolution… As a Deputy…, Mr. Bastiat was studying and explaining each socialist fallacy as it appeared. And he explained how socialism must inevitably degenerate into communism. But most of his countrymen chose to ignore his logic."

The Law is a masterpiece and a must read for anybody who wants to understand the purpose of the law in keeping a just society. "For Bastiat, law is a negative. He agreed with a friend who pointed out that it is imprecise to say that law should create justice. In truth, the law should prevent injustice. 'Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.' That may strike some readers as dubious. But on reflection, one can see that a free and just society is what results when forcible intervention against individuals does not occur; when they are left alone."

A short Q&A should suffice in revealing just what Bastiat's The Law is about. And I believe it a must read for anyone who is ever interested in analyzing public policy:

Q: What is Law?
A: "It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense. Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force—for the same reason—cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all."

Q: What are the tendencies of mankind?
A: "Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.

But there is another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desires has its origin in the very nature of man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain."

Q: What is liberty?
A: "Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism—including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice?

It must be admitted that the tendency of the human race toward liberty is largely thwarted… This is greatly due to a fatal desire—learned from the teachings of antiquity—that our writers on public affairs have in common: They desire to set themselves above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate it according to their fancy."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?

A few months ago, I read another of Thomas Sowell's many books, this one published in the year I was born, 1984. As I'm sure you've figured out by now, I hold Mr. Sowell in very high regard. He is intellectually honest and, as an African-American, he's not shy to report the facts when it comes to race-related issues. Many of his books, if written by a Caucasian-American, may have never been published, or if they were, created wide-spread controversy and indignation. Not that what he writes about hasn't created indignation, it has, but because he's black, he's simply written off as an "Uncle Tom". The book I read is titled Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, and is "a brutally frank, perceptive and important contribution to the national debate over the means to achieve equality and social justice for minorities and women." In this book, Mr. Sowell "has forced civil rights advocates to take a hard look at what has, and has not, been accomplished in the three decades since the struggle for racial equality began."

As is my style, I would like to share with you just a few of the richest parts of one of Thomas Sowell's best books:

"Civil rights are among the most honored achievements of Western civilization. In the United States, civil rights for all people has been a goal for which an uphill fight has been waged, literally for centuries, at great human cost—including the lives of many who dared to stand up for what was right, even when it would have been far more expedient to look the other way. The Supreme Court decision against racial segregation in May 1954 was a landmark victory over some of the ugliest forces buried in American history. Yet the more honored and stirring any concept is, the more certain it is to be misused for the benefit of special interest. The Bible was used to justify slavery. 'Civil Rights' has come to mean many very different things—including some meanings that would be both foreign and repugnant to many of those whose struggles and sacrifices made civil rights possible."

The Civil Rights Vision
"Brown v. Board of Education may have been intended to close the door on an ugly chapter in American history going back to slavery and including both petty and gross bigotry, blatant discrimination, and violence and terror extending all the way to brutal and sadistic lynching. Yet it also opened a door to political, constitutional, and human crises. It was not simply a decision but the beginning of a revolution that has not yet run its course, but which has already shown the classic symptoms of a revolution taking a very different path from that envisioned by the who set it in motion."

From Equal Opportunity to "Affirmative Action"
"Those who carry the civil rights vision to its ultimate conclusion see no great difference between promoting equality of opportunity and equality of results. If there are not equal results among groups presumed to have equal genetic potential, then some inequality of opportunity must have intervened somewhere, and the question of precisely where is less important than the remedy of restoring the less fortunate to their just position. The fatal flaw in this kind of thinking is that there are many reasons, besides genes and discrimination, why groups differ in their economic performances and rewards. Groups differ by large amounts demographically, culturally, and geographically—and all of these differences have profound effects on incomes and occupations."

From School Desegregation to Busing
"The actual history of racial and ethnic education in the United States has played remarkably little role in the sweeping theories and pronouncements behind court-ordered busing—except in the special case of blacks, where one-group schools were only part of a much larger and complex system of oppression under Jim Crow laws. Yet, for purposes of busing orders, 'minority' children include Hispanics and Asians—even though the latter often out-perform the white children who are depicted as an urgent necessity for their education. Yet, in another sense, inclusion of the Asians is perfectly consistent. Under the assumptions of the civil rights vision, Asians as non-whites should not be doing as well in school as they do, just as they should not be doing as well as they do in the job market. The question, then, is whether assumptions are to be accepted for their plausibility and their conformity to larger social vision, or whether even the most plausible and satisfying assumptions must nevertheless be forces to confront actual facts."

The Special Case of Blacks
"Why should discussion of positive achievements by blacks ever be a source of embarrassment, much less resentment, on the part of black leaders? Because many of these positive achievements occurred in ways that completely undermine the civil rights vision. If crime is a product of poverty and discrimination as they say endlessly, why was there so much less of it when poverty and discrimination were much worse than today? If massive programs are the only hope to reduce violence in the ghetto, why was there so much less violence long before anyone ever thought of these programs? Perhaps more to the point, have the philosophies and policies so much supported by black leaders contributed to the decline in community and personal standards, and in family responsibility, so painfully visible today? For many, it may be easier to ignore past achievements than to face their implications for current issues."

The Special Case of Women
"The central '59 percent' cliché [(the non sequitur, that a woman is paid just 59 percent of what a man receives for doing the same work, that is derived from the statistic that says the median annual income of women has generally fluctuated at a level just under three-fifths of that of men)] would require us to believe that employers could survive in a competitive market, paying nearly 70 percent more for given labor than they have to, whenever that labor is male. Even if employers were that needlessly generous to men, or so consumed by ideology, waste of this magnitude would be economically fatal to those businessmen who happened to have more men on the payroll than their competitors. Far smaller differences in cost have sent innumerable businesses into bankruptcies. As in so many other areas, the civil rights vision is so preoccupied with individual intentions that it ignores systemic effects."

Rhetoric or Reality?
"The battle for civil rights was fought and won—at great cost—many years ago. Like any fundamental human achievement, these rights cannot be taken for granted and must be safeguarded. But civil rights are not protected or enhanced by the growing practice of calling every issue raised by 'spokesmen' for minority, female, elderly, or other groups, 'civil rights' issues. The right to vote is a civil right. The right to win is not. Equal treatment does not mean equal results. Everything desirable is not a civil right. Nor are the institutions or methods that produced civil rights likely to produce all the other things required to advance minorities, women, or others."

The Degeneration of Racial Controversy
"One of the many painful contrasts between that era [Brown v. Board of Education] and today is that evidence is increasingly evaded by those who speak in the name of civil rights. Whether it is low test scores or high crime rates, the first order of business is to dismiss the evidence and discredit those who bring it. Even good news—successful minority schools or the rise of a black middle class—is denounced when it does not fit the preconceived vision. Unvarnished facts are today more likely to arouse suspicion and hostility than any joyous anticipation of more ammunition for the good fight."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Internet Anonymity

Dennis Prager wrote an excellent analysis in October 2007 on anonymity on the Internet, specifically anonymous comments posted in comment sections of blogs, online newspapers, etc. The column can be found here. An excerpt below:

"The Internet practice of giving everyone the ability to express himself anonymously for millions to read has debased public discourse. Cursing, ad hominem attacks and/or the utter absence of logic characterize a large percentage of many websites' 'comments' sections. And because people tend to do what society says it is OK to do, many people, especially younger people, are coming to view such primitive forms of self-expression as acceptable."

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Defense of Global Capitalism

I just finished reading an insightful book on globalization by Swedish think tank Timbro's Jonah Norberg titled In Defense of Global Capitalism. This book is the first to rebut, "systematically and thoroughly, the claims of the anti-globalization movement. With facts, statistics and graphs, [the author] shows why capitalism is in the process of creating a better world." Below I have selected my favorite parts of my favorite chapters from the book and hope that they will prove insightful to you as well:

The Preface
"By capitalism I do not specifically mean an economic system of capital ownership and investment opportunities. Those things can also exist in a command economy. What I mean is the [classic liberal] market economy, with free competition based on the right to use one's property and the freedom to negotiate, to conclude agreements, and to start up business activities. What I am defending, then, is individual liberty in the economy. Capitalists are dangerous when, instead of seeking profit through competition, they join forces with the government…they are [then] a threat to the free market and as such must be criticized and counteracted… What I believe in, [first and foremost], is man's capacity for achieving great things, and the combined force that results from our interactions and exchanges. I plead for greater liberty and a more open world, not because I believe one system happens to be more efficient than another, but because those things provide a settings that unleashes individual creativity as no other system can. They spur the dynamism that has lead to human, economic, scientific, and [technological] advances. Believing in capitalism does not mean believing in growth, the economy, or efficiency. Desirable as they may be, those are only the results. At its core, belief in capitalism is belief in mankind."

Oppression of Women
"It is true, as many complain, that globalization upsets old traditions and habits. How, for example, do you maintain patriarchal family traditions when children are suddenly earning more than the head of the family? One of the traditions challenged by globalization is the long-standing subjugation of women. Through cultural contacts and the interchange of ideas, new hopes and ideals are disseminated."

That's Capitalism for You!
"The growth of world prosperity is not a 'miracle' or any of the other mystifying terms we customarily apply to countries that have succeeded economically and socially. Schools are not built, nor are incomes generated, by sheer luck, like a bolt from the blue. These things happen when people begin to think along new lines and work hard to bring their ideas to fruition. But people do that everywhere, and there is no reason why certain people in certain places during certain periods in history should be intrinsically smarter or more capable than others. What makes the difference is whether the environment permits and encourages ideas and work, or instead puts obstacles in the way. That depends on whether people are free to explore their way ahead, to own property, to invest for the long term, to conclude private agreements, and to trade with others. In short, it depends on whether or not the countries have capitalism. In the affluent world we have had capitalism in one form or another for a couple of centuries. That is how the countries of the West became 'the affluent world.' Capitalism has given people both the liberty and the incentive to create, produce, and trade, thereby generating prosperity."

Property Rights—For The Sake of the Poor
"Capitalism is not a perfect system, and it is not good for everyone all the time. Critics of globalization are good at pointing out individual harms—a factory that has closed down, a wage that has been reduced. Such things do happen, but by concentrating solely on individual instances, one may miss the larger reality of how a political or economic system generally works and what fantastic values it confers on the great majority compared with other alternatives. Problems are found in every political and economic system, but rejecting all systems is not an option. Hunting down negative examples of what can happen in a market economy is easy enough. By that method water or fire can be proved to be bad things, because some people drown and some get burned to death, but this isn't the full picture."

Mutual Benefit
"Trade results in the person who has a knack for making bicycles doing just that, the person who is best at cutting hair working as a hairdresser, and the person who is best at manufacturing television sets taking a job in the TV factory. Then those workers exchange, so as to get what they each want. Through free trade, we can consume goods and services that we could never have produced ourselves. The possibility of free choice means that we can choose the best and cheapest goods possible. Free choice gives us access to goods that we cannot procure by ourselves. In a Minnesota grocery we can buy bananas and pineapples, even though neither is likely to be found on a Minnesota farm. Even in northern latitudes, fresh green vegetables are on sale all winter, and people in landlocked countries can buy salmon from Norway. Free trade results in goods and services being produced by whoever is best at producing them and then being sold to whoever wants to buy them. That's really all there is to it."

Freedom of Movement—For People As Well
"Openness to immigration and emigration is also important for the sake of a living society. A diverse population, comprising people with different starting points and values, provides a greater variety of perspectives on long-standing social problems, and perhaps also a better chance of finding creative solutions to them. Immigrants can take what is most viable in American culture and combine it with traditions of their own, and native-born Americans can do likewise. Cultural innovation almost always flows from the contact or fusion of different cultures. It is no coincidence that the United States, the most dynamic society in history, was built by immigrants… In this way the [U.S.] is constantly renewing itself and laying the foundations of continued global leadership—economic, cultural, and scientific."

Let Them Keep Their Tariffs
"If we in the affluent countries truly believe in free trade, we must abolish our tariffs and quotas without demanding concessions from others. Forbidding the poor of the world to develop is immoral. Besides, we ourselves stand to benefit from freer imports, even if others do not want to import from us. But that does not mean it is wise of the Third World to protect its own industries with trade barriers. On the contrary, the best thing for their populations is for their tariffs also to be abolished. Those who want them to preserve their tariffs may constitute an inverted, mirror image of traditional protectionists, but the face in the mirror is no more attractive than the original."

Big is Beautiful
"What has happened in the age of globalization is not that corporations have acquired more power through free trade. They used to be far more powerful—and still are—in dictatorships and controlled economies. Large, powerful corporations have always been able to corrupt public institutions by colluding with rulers and hobnobbing with them on luncheons and dinners. They have been able to obtain protection through monopolies, tariffs, and subsidies just be placing a phone call to political leaders. Free trade has exposed corporations to competition. Above all, consumers have been made freer, so that now they can ruthlessly pick and choose even across national borders, rejecting those firms that don't measure up."

The Right to Choose a Culture
"The cultural encounters of globalization reduce the risk of people being trapped in one culture. This may come as bad news to the guardians of tradition, but many people can imagine no greater triumph than escaping from the stereotypes and constraints of their own cultures. Globalization may be necessary in order to escape hidebound gender roles, to be allowed to live according to one's own values, or to break the family traditions and enter a career of one's own choosing. Having other cultural expressions to refer to can help. How can the elite maintain that their own way of life is the only possible one when television and the Internet carry so much information about an infinite number of alternatives?…Regularly meeting people who do not think and live like oneself is an effective antidote to narrow-mindedness, parochialism, and smug complacency."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Economics for the Citizen

As part of my Basic Economics series, I'd like to also direct anyone who is interested in learning more about economics to read Walter Williams' short Economics for the Citizen, "a ten part series on basic economic concepts". The series can be found here. A few examples of what you'll read:

"The first lesson in economic theory is that we live in a world of scarcity. Scarcity is a situation whereby human wants exceed the means to satisfy those wants. Human wants are assumed to be limitless, or at least they don't frequently reveal their bounds. People always want more of something, be it: more cars, more food, more love, more happiness, more peace, more health care, more clean air or more charity. Our ability and resources to satisfy all those wants are indeed limited. There's only a finite amount of: land, iron, workers and years in a lifetime."

"In order for specialization to occur, there must be trade opportunities. It wouldn't make sense for U.S. farmers to produce more grain than they consume or plan to consume if they couldn't trade it. Neither would it make sense for Japanese producers to produce more camera lenses than they consume or plan to consume. That's why trade opportunities are necessary in order for people to take advantage of specialization."

"Economic theory is broadly applicable. However, a society's property-rights structure influences how the theory will manifest itself. It's the same with the theory of gravity. While it, too, is broadly applicable, attaching a parachute to a falling object affects how the law of gravity manifests itself. The parachute doesn't nullify the law of gravity. Likewise, the property-rights structure doesn't nullify the laws of demand and supply."

Monday, February 4, 2008

Once a Politician...

One of the worst things about a race for the Presidency is that its filled with politicians. And we all know that with politicians comes special interests, lies, deceit, flip-flops, you name it and it's there. It really doesn't matter if the politician has never worked in Washington either, as in the cases of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Below you'll find various columns outlining the political characteristics on just a few front-runners:

Deroy Murdock on Mitt Romney's Flip-Flops
"Mitt is the born-again supply-sider who today swears he never raised taxes, even though he increased taxes and fees $983 million as Massachusetts governor. He is 2008's stalwart defender of traditional values and man-woman marriage who, in 2002, distributed a hot-pink flyer among Boston's gay community that read: 'Mitt and Kerry Wish You A Great Pride Weekend! All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference.' (Kerry Healey was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor.) Romney is the Second Amendment enthusiast who brags about being a life-member of the National Rifle Association — "life" beginning in August 2006 — who said in 1994, 'I don't line up with the NRA.'"

Thomas Sowell on John McCain's Straight-Talk
"We have been hearing for years that Senator John McCain gives 'straight talk' and his bus has been endlessly referred to as the 'straight talk express.' But endless repetition does not make something true."

Star Parker on Hillary Clinton's "Plantation Politics"
"It was Clinton who introduced race tension into the election. After Obama told a crowd in South Carolina at the time of Martin Luther King's birthday that the slain civil rights leader's crusade was not a "false hope," Clinton stepped in to point out that President Lyndon Johnson (the white patron) got the Civil Rights Act passed."