Eric Mack on Libertarianism

Eric Mack on Libertarianism

04/22/2019David Gordon

Libertarianism. By Eric Mack. Polity Press, 2018.  Vi + 167 pages. + online bonus chapter http://politybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Mack-Libertarian-FINAL-Online-Chapter-pdf.pdf

Eric Mack, for many years a philosophy professor at Tulane University, has a well-deserved reputation as a critic of philosophical arguments, and that talent is on abundant display in Libertarianism. In what follows, I shall comment on only a very few of Mack’s penetrating discussions.

The book is intended as an introductory guide to libertarianism, which Mack characterizes as “advocacy of individual liberty as the fundamental political norm. An individual’s liberty is understood as that individual not being subject to interference by other agents in her doing as she deems fit with her own person and legitimate holdings.” (p.1) The position may be defended with varying degrees of strictness, ranging from hardcore libertarians, who confine coercion to the protection of individual liberty, to soft-core libertarians, who allow coercion for a few additional reasons, such as aid when people are in “dire straits.” As the extent of permissible coercion grows, libertarianism shades into classical liberalism.

What is the justification for libertarianism? Mack distinguishes three principal answers, though noting that libertarianism can be defended in other ways as well. “There is the natural rights theme, according to which certain deep truths about human beings and their prospective interaction allow us to infer that each person has certain basic (‘natural’) moral rights that must be respected by all other persons, groups, and institutions.” (p.40)

Here I wonder whether one should make a distinction. Sometimes people use the term “natural rights” to mean basic rights, but sometimes people have in mind a narrower usage. In this understanding, it follows from human nature that human beings have certain rights. For example, in the Objectivist philosophy, because you need freedom in order to survive as a rational being, you have a right to freedom. There is no “is-ought” gap.  Philosophers like Nozick, who accept the is-ought gap, would in this usage count as supporters of basic rights but not of natural rights.

The second justification for libertarianism “is the cooperation to mutual advantage theme, according to which general compliance with certain principles of justice engenders a cooperative social and economic order that is advantageous to all its members.”(pp.4-5) These two justifications vie in popularity among libertarians, but there is a third justification as well, though this has been less influential. “A third possible approach. . .is a form of utilitarianism that maintains that the greatest happiness must be pursued indirectly through steadfast compliance with certain constraining moral norms—as it turns out, pretty much the same constraining norms that are celebrated by the natural rights and mutual advantage approaches.” (p.5)

Mack takes Locke to be an example of the first approach, Hume of the second, and John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer of the third. Among twentieth-century figures, he concentrates on Robert Nozick as a representative of the natural rights approach and Friedrich Hayek as a representative of the mutual advantage approach. Mack devotes most of the book to a close analysis of these two great thinkers. He mentions Murray Rothbard, who exerted a profound influence on Nozick, several times, but I wish he had devoted more space to him. Mack in the bonus online chapter subjects to critical scrutiny a number of contemporary libertarians: Hillel Steiner, Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl, Loren Lomasky, and David Schmidtz.

In what follows, I shall comment on only a few points. These concern Robert Nozick though some of the issues are relevant to others as well. This makes for an idiosyncratic review, but Nozick’s thought has fascinated me since I first encountered it some forty-five years ago, and that is why I have chosen this path.  Despite the narrow scope of my review, I hope that readers will gain some idea of Mack’s concerns and his style of argument.

Mack gives an excellent account of the argument, given by both John Rawls and Nozick, that utilitarianism does not take seriously the separateness of persons. The greatest happiness principle may require that you sacrifice yourself for the benefit of society. But, so the objection goes, this wrongly assimilates an individual’s sacrifice of part of himself for his overall good to the sacrifice of a person for the good of society. You may need to have your leg amputated to save your life, but there is no social entity having persons as its parts.

Mack considers a utilitarian response to the point raised by Rawls and Nozick, which does not rely “on the conflation of persons into a social entity.” (p.45) This response is that “what makes it rational for an individual to incur a lesser cost within her own life in order to attain a greater benefit within her own life is simply that the benefit is greater than the cost. The fact that the cost and the benefits are hers---that they both occur with her life---plays no role in making rational the production of the greater benefit at the lesser cost. Therefore, no contentious inference is needed to get from the so-called principle of individual choice to the principle of social choice.” (p.45, emphasis in original)

Mack responds on behalf of Rawls and Nozick to this rejoinder. They might reply that the rationality of prudential sacrifices within the life of one individual is “far less contentious” than the utilitarian’s balancing of costs and benefits across lives. (p.46) Can one show that utilitarian balancing is rational, without assuming the existence of a social entity with persons as parts? It seems doubtful that one can.

Mack’s response is excellent, but another answer is also worth considering. James Buchanan maintains that if one takes adequate account of the subjectivity of costs and benefits, a cost or benefit exists only relative to a single person. Your cost or benefit may be a cost or benefit to me, but only if I view it as one. I do not say that this view is correct, but it is at least worth considering. (Amartya Sen, like Buchanan a Nobel laureate in economics, thought there was a great deal to be said in favor of Buchanan’s view) If it is correct, benefits and costs cannot be added up across persons.

After a careful discussion of Nozick’s condemnation of using others as means, Mack says, “Nozick is concerned that his unqualified condemnation of using others as means will support anti-libertarian prohibitions, , for example, taking pleasure in another person’s appearance or trading with another person to one’s advantage. He then rules out such implications by declaring that, for the purposes of political philosophy, we need only be concerned ‘with certain ways that persons may not use others: primarily, physically aggressing against them. [quoting Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia]However, this restriction is ad hoc because no reason is given for why political philosophy should only be concerned with this subset of usings.” (p.49, emphasis in original)

I do not think this objection altogether fair to Nozick, though it would be no doubt desirable to show how this view of political philosophy can be deduced from moral theory, as Nozick acknowledges. Confining political philosophy to the topic of when force is permissible (or obligatory) is not idiosyncratic to Nozick but a commonly used approach, especially among libertarians. He might respond to Mack, applying a strategy he often used on critics, ---much to their frustration, I might add---- that the problem of why political philosophy is thus confined is no more a problem for him than for anyone else. As such, it should not be taken as a decisive criticism of him.

Mack makes an excellent criticism of Nozick’s argument that if one starts with a network of competing protective agencies, as free market anarchists like Rothbard wish, “one of the protective agencies or the cooperative network as a whole seems to attain a natural ( non-coerced) monopoly in the provision of protective services.” (p.117), Nozick contends that if an agency or group of agencies attracts more clients than its rival agencies, there will be a cascade of new clients to it, because people will find it less costly to settle disputes if they are in the same agency. This will enable the largest agency to become a de facto monopoly. Mack is skeptical: “The fact that it may be less complicated and costly to resolve automobile collision claims when both parties are customers of the same insurance company has not led to one company having a virtual monopoly within the automobile insurance business. In addition, Nozick’s argument seems to overestimate the homogeneity of the services that competing protective agencies would offer.” (p.117)

There is an additional point here that seems worth making. Suppose that the process Nozick describes results in everyone’s joining the same agency. In that case, we would not have a state as Nozick characterizes it, because one of his requirements for a state is that it offers free or low-cost protective services to disadvantaged independents who are not its clients.  Thus, Nozick requires for his argument to the minimal state to succeed that the very process by which the derivation starts will come to an end before it completes itself, but he offers no reason for this.

Mack raises against Nozick the specter of public goods. “For our purposes here, we can think of a public good as a good which, if it is produced and enjoyed by some members of a given public, cannot readily be withheld from other members of that public. . .The standard and useful example of a public good is national-scale defense. . . The conventional economic wisdom. . .is that the total value of the orders that the state or firm [ that offers defense services]will receive will be markedly less than it naively expects.”(p.122) People will prefer to free ride, hoping that others will pay for the good; but if everyone reasons this way, the good will not be purchased.

Mack is certainly right that if anarchist protective agencies or a Nozickian minimal state, lacking the power of taxation, proved unable to supply effective defense, that would be a serious objection indeed. But I think his argument has moved too fast. According to the customary neoclassical analysis, public goods will not be supplied efficiently. It does not follow from that, though, that the good will not be supplied at all, or in a quantity insufficient to “do the job.” The extent of the supply is an empirical matter. It is not a requirement for a theory of libertarian rights that it never requires efficiency losses, as neoclassical theory defines these.[1] (The same difficulty also applies to Mack’s argument for a “dire straits fund” on pp.39-40 of the online bonus chapter.)

Suppose, though, that the free market turns out to be unable to supply defense. Would Mack then be correct when he says that a taxation minimal state may be justifiable on Nozickian grounds? He says, “Persons’ rights indicate what must not be done to them---or more specifically, what must not be done to them without their consent. But what about cases in which consent is not feasible?. . .A person’s right over her own body entails that she has a right not to be cut open without her consent even by an expert surgeon seeking to save her life. However, what if the person who needs that surgery to save her life is already unconscious and, hence, unable to give consent? If it is permissible for the surgeon to proceed with the needed surgery on the already unconscious individual, this seems to be true  because the requirement that the subject consent to the physical intervention is really a requirement that she consent if and only if consent is feasible.” (pp.123-124)

If this is right, then, “the libertarian advocate of the TMS may argue that, precisely because of the non-feasibility of attaining consent from individuals to make payments in exchange for the public good of rights-protection, it is permissible to impose those payments without actual consent.” (p.124, emphasis in original)

I do not think this argument succeeds. In the first case, it is permissible to proceed with the life-saving operation because there is reason to believe that is what the patient would want. Most people would. Had she given instructions beforehand not to operate, then the operation would not be permissible. In the taxation case, the reason consent is not feasible is that people refuse to consent. It is hardly plausible to say that I may force you to pay me for my services, because, owing to your refusal of my services, getting your consent is not feasible.

Mack himself raises an important problem for the argument for the taxation minimal state. ”Recall. . . . .that this defense of the TMS turns on a striking assumption about information. It assumes that the state’s tax assessors would know, for each assessed party, what magnitude of taxation would leave that party net better off in light of the value for that party of her receipt of the tax-funded public good of protective services.” (p.124)

In Libertarianism, Mack does not, for the most part, discuss his own views but confines himself to the exposition and criticism of others. An exception is his brilliant presentation of Mises’s calculation argument against socialism (pp.58 ff.), one of the best known to me, where it is clear that he endorses the argument. Readers should be aware though, that Mack has written a large number of papers setting forward his own views in great depth and detail. Readers of Mack’s work will encounter a very fine philosophical intelligence. Few can approach his power of critical analysis. Libertarianism is must reading for anyone interested in libertarian theory.


[1] For challenges to the neoclassical analysis of public goods, see Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Chapter 23, pp.650 ff; and Anthony de Jasay, Social Contract, Free Ride. See also the discussion in David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics Volume 22, Issue 2 is Now Available!

09/24/2019Mises Institute

This issue contains selected lectures, papers, and abstracts of papers presented at the 2019 Austrian Economics Research Conference in Auburn, Alabama. Articles include Daniel Ajamian's "The Cost of the Enlightenment," Michael Rectenwald's "Libertarianism(s) versus Postmodernism and 'Social Justice' Ideology," Edward Fuller's "Keynes and the Ethics of Socialism," Jeffery Degner's "Family Formation, Fertility, and Failure: A Literature Review on Price Increases and Their Impact on the Family Institution," and more.

Available here.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Prolonged Monetary Easing Paves Way for Wealth Redistribution

09/24/2019Victor Xing

Recent Democratic debates focused on rising wealth inequality, as candidates introduced various ideas to roll back disparity by taxing the affluent and redistribute their wealth. This would punish working professionals and small business owners without capital market access nor legislative influence. Meanwhile, malinvestment reliant on central bank stimulus and the unproductive of “zombie firms” sustained by ultra-low rates would proliferate unabated.

Both the GOP and Democrats tolerate monetary stimulus, for elected officials view effects of easy money (higher equities and lower bond yields) as beneficial to economic growth. This enabled the triumph of asset owners over wage earners to create the most potent inequality catalyst of the 21st century.

Donate $5 today.

Inherent risks in the financial market used to decimate malinvestment and define capital gain in terms of risk-adjusted returns. However, central banks’ volatility suppression policies such as quantitative easing and negative rates have enabled a decade of policy-fueled capital gain to outpace wage growth. In the case of QE, relentless bond buying and “reach-for-yield” would immediately boost asset prices, while impacts on the real economy (and especially wage earners) would materialize over Milton Friedman’s famous “long and variable (policy) lags.” Under monetary intervention, fortunes have diverged along the lines of asset ownership.

If central banks release volatility back into the market, malinvestment will reprice and valuations will again couple with risks, while prudent management would reward astute investors. This is an organic path to solve the inequality puzzle, but prolonged easing (as central banks mistaken structural low inflation from globalization for cyclical weakness) have increased developed economies’ sensitivity to higher interest rates. As major central banks grab the volatility tiger by the tail, they have fostered a vicious cycle where brittleness under ultra-low rates would beget even more easing:

debttrap.PNG

Wealth Redistribution Follows Monetary Intervention

As rampant asset price appreciation worsen inequality, angry voters left behind by a buoyant market would give rise to anti-establishment candidates unsympathetic to consensus views. As protectionist policies take hold, erosions to global value chains (GVCs) would lift inflation and threaten major economies’ debt-fueled growth model. To make matters worse, central banks resorting to money printing would risk sending bonds yields soaring under higher inflation and subsequently threaten risky assets.

Faced with voter anger and eager to counter the rise of anti-establishment challengers, elected officials would resort to another policy intervention to placate voters: wealth redistribution. In other words, wealth redistribution programs are often attempts to “amend” monetary policies’ distributional effects . Rather than unwinding policy disruption, authorities would double down with further measures to offset effects of prior policies. In the end, repeated interventions would exacerbate socioeconomic distortions to beget further redistribution.

At the July FOMC meeting, “a number of” Fed officials urged the central bank to be even more aggressive at interventions such as deploying quantitative easing, for they were encouraged by the perception  many of the potential costs of the Committee's asset purchases had failed to materialize.” The Fed officials did not connect the dots between rapid asset price appreciation, worsening inequality, and the 2016 election. As a result, their actions will likely pave way for further waves of follow-up wealth redistribution, as well as elected officials losing their seats to political insurgents capitalizing on popular discontent.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

The US Military Isn't As Invincible As It Thinks

09/24/2019Ryan McMaken

The United States itself has about a zero-percent risk of being invaded from any foreign power. This has been clear since 1945 that the Navy and nuclear arsenal make invasion of the US both politically and practically impossible for any foreign regime. The US Army could be totally abolished this afternoon without in any way increasing the risk of foreign military action against the US in North America.

The invincibility of the military itself, on the other hand, is something different. After all, the US military is mostly in the business of doing things other than protecting the borders of the United States. It primarily worries about projecting its power into every corner of the globe, propping up dictators in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and bossing around foreign regimes that are no threat to the United States.

But most of this has long been based on the assumption that the US can do anything it wants to any country without any fear of significant repercussions to its allies anywhere.

Those days are rapidly coming to an end.

In the UK's Independent last week, Patrick Cockburn noted that some important targets are now sitting ducks, and the US and its allies have no economical defense:

On the morning of 14 September, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles – all cheap and unsophisticated compared to modern military aircraft – disabled half of Saudi Arabia ’s crude oil production and raised the world price of oil by 20 per cent.

This happened despite the Saudis spending $67.6bn (£54bn) on their defence budget last year, much of it on vastly expensive aircraft and air defence systems, which notably failed to stop the attack. The US defence budget stands at $750bn (£600.2bn), and its intelligence budget at $85bn (£68bn), but the US forces in the Gulf did not know what was happening until it was all over.

...a middle ranking power like Iran, under sanctions and with limited resources and expertise, acting alone or through allies, has inflicted crippling damage on theoretically much better-armed Saudi Arabia which is supposedly defended by the US, the world’s greatest military super-power.

...If the US and Saudi Arabia are particularly hesitant to retaliate against Iran it is because they know now, contrary to what they might have believed a year ago, that a counter-attack will not be a cost-free exercise. What happened before can happen again: not for nothing has Iran been called a “drone superpower”. Oil production facilities and the desalination plants providing much of the fresh water in Saudi Arabia are conveniently concentrated targets for drones and small missiles.

In other words, the military playing field will be a lot more level in future in a conflict between a country with a sophisticated air force and air defence system and one without. The trump card for the US, Nato powers and Israel has long been their overwhelming superiority in airpower over any likely enemy. Suddenly this calculus has been undermined because almost anybody can be a player on the cheap when it comes to airpower.

Meanwhile, the US is pouring money into expensive toys like the F-35 which after more than a trillion dollars offer no defense against dirt-cheap drones:

Compare the cost of the drone which would be in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to the $122m (£97.6m) price of a single F-35 fighter, so expensive that it can only be purchased in limited numbers. As they take on board the meaning of what happened at Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities, governments around the world will be demanding that their air force chiefs explain why they need to spend so much money when cheap but effective alternatives are available. Going by past precedent, the air chiefs and arms manufacturers will fight to their last breath for grossly inflated budgets to purchase weapons of dubious utility in a real war.

It is unknown how long it will take for US military planners to accept "that they command expensive, technically advanced forces that are obsolete in practice. This means they are stuck with arms that suck up resources but are, in practical terms, out of date."

This doesn't mean, of course, that the US has no options here. The US could engage in a full-scale war against Iran, killing hundreds of thousands of Iranians and spending trillions. The number of US casualties would be very small by comparison, but probably not trivial. This bloodbath eventually incapacitate the Iranian state, but not before Iran destroyed the flow of oil out of the Persian gulf, and extracted its pound of flesh from US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The effect on rivals like China and Russia would be electrifying as well, since the US would then be viewed as having slipped the bonds of rational foreign policy.

This means the situation now is far different from what it was before. But don't expect the Pentagon to act any differently. It will keep demanding trillions of dollars for weapons of war designed to fight a 1960's-style war. But that all sounds perfectly reasonable in a place like Washington, DC where both Capitol Hill and the Pentagon exist in a world of fantasy built on printed money.

See more:

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

How Entrepreneurs Can Survive the Next Recession

09/20/2019Per Bylund

There has been increasing talk of a burgeoning recession, whether because of a historically rare decade-long economic expansion or recent reports of an inverted yield curve, which is traditionally an indication of a downturn. Any recession is hard on all Americans, but it can be particularly devastating for entrepreneurs, who often have more to lose. Not only does an economic ebb add to the uncertainty of owning and running a business, but it also means opportunities become scarcer, with fewer potential partners willing to invest, consume and otherwise enter into deals.

Recessions, of course, are famously hard to predict, but even when there's mounting evidence of a looming crisis, it can be hard to anticipate timing and how it will affect your industry. Simply closing shop is no solution. It might not even be an option. A better strategy is to prepare for the worst and make your business downturn-proof. But how does one do that? Here are four things to think about that can help make your business recession-ready ... just in case.

Full article at Entrepreneur

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

The Conscientious Objector

“Because liberty is so fragile, its true defender recognizes that war is its greatest enemy, and therefore the true patriot is often the courageous individual who opposes a particular war because he recognizes that it is unjust — that it would be fought for the wrong purposes or that the risk for the loss of liberty is greater than any benefit to be gained by the war.” - John V Denson

If we have freedom: are we not responsible for what we do and what we fail to do? History is littered with stories about valor and bravery on the battlefield. Men who went off to war, who fought, and died. But what about the men who refused to fight?

The World War II draft operated between 1940 - 1946, and inducted some 10 million men into forced military service. Of those 10 million men, approximately 72,000 were conscientious objectors, of which 25,000 entered the military in noncombatant roles, another 12,000 went to civilian work camps, and as Robert Higgs points out in the book, The Cost of War :

The government also imprisoned nearly 6,000 conscientious objectors- three-fourths of them Jehovah’s Witnesses- who would not comply with the service requirements of the draft laws.

One of those American conscientious objectors was Desmond Doss. During World War II he refused to carry a weapon and kill the enemy. Despite this, he is credited with saving 75 of his fellow soldiers during the Battle of Okinawa. To this day he is the only conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions on the battlefield.

Franz Jägerstätter was not as lucky as Desmond Doss. He was an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II who refused to fight for Nazi Germany. On February 23, 1943, he was drafted to serve and on March 1, 1943, upon entering into the Wehrmacht garrison, he declared his Conscientious Objector status and offered to serve as a paramedic instead. His offer to serve as a paramedic was ignored and he was arrested and later killed for refusing to fight for Hilter. He left behind a wife and three children.

These were men who dared to say no to war and murder and these are just two examples out of 1,000’s of men during that war. Why did these men oppose war? People may profit from studying their examples. For, As Lew Rockwell once pointed out :

“We don’t oppose the state’s wars because they’ll be counterproductive or overextend the state’s forces. We oppose them because mass murder based on lies can never be morally acceptable. So we don’t beg for scraps from the imperial table, and we don’t seek a seat at that table. We want to knock the table over.”

Conscientious Objectors refused to be pawns and knew that war was morally unacceptable, with some paying the ultimate price. Sadly, in a sense, there is a case to be made that these Conscientious Objectors were the only ones who truly did their job and upheld their oath.1 For all members of the military are instructed: they have a duty to obey all lawful orders, and conversely, they also have a duty to disobey unlawful orders. This principle is embedded in the precedent of the Nuremberg Trials whereby Nazi war criminals invoked the “just following superior orders defense” and were nevertheless found guilty as the orders were found to be illegal. It is worth noting at this point, that illegal orders can happen at any time, wartime or peacetime, civilian or military.

Does ‘Conscientious Objection’ relate only to war and military personal? Or, are there other circumstances to which this term may be applied? I contend that conscientious objection can and should apply to a variety of circumstances other than war, for example whenever morality and ethics are at play. Objections based on one’s conscience may arise in numerous and more mundane circumstances. The world would be a much better place if the principles of conscientious objections were more universally applied, and daily.

Consider this, the category of human action can refer to either an action, or an inaction. Both actions and inactions potentially have value, as Ludwig von Mises noted:

“For to do nothing and to be idle are also action, they too determine the course of events.”2

Let’s ask ourselves: Is Patriotism defined as blind obedience to governmental authority? Can saying ‘no’ be more heroic than saying ‘yes’, when your conscience tells you its wrong that the Government requires innocent blood on your hands? As the Afghanistan war enters its 18th year, it’s long past time we reconsider the examples set by those who conscientiously objected to war. In the words of the late Justin Raimondo,

“We have to show the American People that war is not patriotic.”

  • 1. Murray Rothbard noted that “ There have been only two just wars in American history that were, in my view, assuredly and unquestionably proper and just.”
    https://mises.org/library/just-war
  • 2. Murray Rothbard also stated in Man, Economy, and State that “Action does not necessarily mean that the individual is ‘active’ as opposed to ‘Passive,’ in the colloquial sense.”; See also Carl Menger’s discussion of useful inactions in Chapter 1, Principles of Economics.
When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Let Alaskans Decide The Fate of Alaska's Forests

09/19/2019Ryan McMaken

Mother Jones today reports on how the Trump administration is loosening some restrictions on logging in some public-lands areas of Alaska.

In response, a group of indigenous women traveled to Washington to oppose the plan.

Most of the article goes into how the forests — left untouched — are good for local residents, and how the forests are allegedly a defense against global warming.

But it was a phrase in the headline that struck me most: "These Native Women Traveled 3,000 Miles to Stop It."

That is, a group of people from the Alaska panhandle, in order to talk policy about a forest right next door, had to fly thousands of miles to do so.

That strikes me as a bit odd.

I was reminded of the outcry from non-Alaskans when the Feds proposed renaming the state's highest mountain, now called Denali. Back in 2015, I wrote:

Here's the basic story: About 100 years ago, some people started calling Denali mountain in Alaska "Mount McKinley." Eventually they managed to convince the federal government to make "McKinley" the official name. In 1975, however, the government of Alaska petitioned the federal government to change the name back to "Denali." To this day, Alaskans routinely refer to the mountain as "Denali" in spite of the fact that the Federal government, seated 4,000 miles away in Washington, DC, had not respected their request. Then, during a recent trip to Alaska, Barack Obama decided that the federal bureaucracy is going to start using the name "Denali" for the mountain.

Reading this, the whole thing should strike any sane person as immediately absurd. Why do people in Alaska have to ask a bunch of non-Alaskans thousands of miles away to call their name by the locally preferred name? If the Alaskan government, not to mention most of the locals, call a mountain "Denali," then the mountain is obviously named "Denali."

But that's not how it works in the land of the free. Here in America, apparently, people from Ohio (McKinley's home state), 3,000 miles from the mountain in question, get to veto Alaskan petitions. In this article in the Washington Post, a writer from Ohio makes the case (with a straight face, no less) that it's mean and nasty of the federal government to defer to the Alaskans about the names of Alaskan mountains. For the Ohioans, it seems, it is of monumental importance that the United States Congress, composed of 533 non-Alaskans, and three actual Alaskans, decide what that mountain should be called.

This latest controversy over an Alaskan forest just highlights the absurdity of federal control of federal lands yet again. But while Mother Jones highlights the fact Alakans had to travel across a continent to address issues going on 50 miles away, the publication nonetheless considers this to be perfectly right and normal.

This, of course, is to be expected from those with a progressive mindset. For them, policy should be decided by "experts" perhaps 3,000 miles away who ought to control every aspect of life for people who have far less power and far less ability to affect policy than the experts in the metropolitan centers of power.

If this group of Alaskans fails to win the day, then that's just a sign that maybe some California billionaires should get involved bossing Alaskans around from a different ideological perspective.

The idea that It's the same attitude, of course, that we encountered in response to the Brazilian forest fires in recent months. Wealthy, powerful first-world politicians united to boss around impoverished Brazilians and tell them how to run their country. After all, we were told the Brazilian forests aren't really Brazilian anyway. They belong to everyone else because they are "the lungs of the world." Therefore, in their minds, the Frenchman Emmanuel Macron ought to be dictating to the Brazilians on the matter.

The same thinking rules the day in Washington, DC, including among Republicans who have no intent of relinquishing control over federal lands they now enjoy. For instance, when questioned about his willingness to decentralize control of federal lands to the states, Trump appointee Perry Pendley of the Bureau of Land Management called the idea "silly" and "illogical" even though he has admitted that the authors of the US constitution never envisioned the sort of vast federal land holdings that are now common in the US.

If there's anything DC politicians can agree on, it's that Washington, DC should have the final say over everything everywhere. This, of course, even extends to foreign countries.

For them, the idea of leaving Alaska to the Alaskans remains simply a bridge too far.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

3 Charts Showing Just How Boxed-in the Fed Is

The Fed met market expectations by cutting its target for the fed funds rate by 25 basis points, down to the range of 1.75 - 2.00 percent. In this post I want to demonstrate just how boxed in the Fed has now become, with the help of 3 charts.

First, let's review just how low interest rates have been (and still are), in a long-term historical context:

fed funds.png

As the chart shows, the (effective) fed funds rate was in this range back during the early 2000s, which helped spawn the housing bubble and bust (as I predicted in this Mises.org article which ran 11 months before the financial crisis). Before then, we have to go all the way back to the early 1960s to see rates this low. And furthermore, to the extent that Mises was right, and artificially low interest rates lead to an unsustainble boom, then the seven years of virtually zero percent interest rates (from December 2008 - December 2015) have fostered a plethora of malinvestments.

Now here's the irony: In the midst of the Fed cutting rates, and injecting $75 billion in repo operations on Tuesday to push down a spike in short-term rates, at least on paper we see that everything seems to be fine. Specifically, consumer price inflation is a bit lower than the Fed's desired level but is still at a "healthy" 1.8% (year over year, as of August), while the official unemployment rate is still at a 50-year low:

unemployment.png

Finally, despite the apparently healthy economy (vis-a-vis the Fed's "dual mandate"), there is still an extraordinary stockpile of excess reserves in the banking system, relative to the pre-crisis era:

excess reserves.png

Medical metaphors for economics are never perfect, but we can certainly say this: Far from being in the midst of a robust "recovery," the patient--i.e. the US economy--is still incredibly weak, needing constant infusions of medicine to stave off a crisis in its circulation.

On the one hand, it's refreshing that Fed officials don't think the economy can be summed up in two numbers, namely the official unemployment and consumer price inflation rates. But on the other hand, the fact that the Fed is cutting rates now, in spite of the "healthy numbers," is an ominous indication of just how deep the rot goes in the economy's capital structure.

Unfortunately, the world may soon see exactly why 7 years of unprecedently loose monetary policy was a very foolish idea.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

Joey Rothbard

09/17/2019David Gordon

Today would have been Joey Rothbard's 91st birthday. She was Murray Rothbard's "indispensable framework." She was a scholar in her own right, but she devoted her life to helping Murray. She was a wonderful friend, and I miss her very much.

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

"This Is Basically Clown World," Jeff Deist Talks Negative Interest Rates on RT

09/13/2019Jeff Deist

Jeff Deist joins Rick Sanchez to weigh in on the European Central Bank’s introduction of negative interest rates and why it signals a global recession.

Europe’s desperation move to avert global recession

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here

European Central Bank Doubles Down on Ultra-Easy Money

09/13/2019Ryan McMaken

Not that QE ever really went away, but the European Central Bank is taking it up a notch with today's rate cut. According to the Wall Street Journal today :

The European Central Bank cut its key interest rate and launched a sweeping package of bond purchases Thursday that lays the ground work for a long period of ultraloose monetary policy, jolting European financial markets and triggering an immediate response from President Trump.

The ECB’s pre-emptive move was aimed at insulating the eurozone’s wobbling economy from a global slowdown and trade tensions. It is the ECB’s largest dose of monetary stimulus in 3½ years and a bold finale for departing President Mario Draghi, who looks to be committing his successor to negative interest rates and an open-ended bond-buying program, possibly for years.

But the move triggered opposition from a handful of ECB officials, according to people familiar with the matter, while leaving key practical questions unanswered. Primarily: How long can the ECB keep purchasing bonds without significantly enlarging the pool of assets it can buy? Some analysts estimated it might be less than a year.

entralbanks.PNG

Meanwhile, the president attempted to use the move to put additional pressure on the Fed to ratchet up its own QE plans, writing: "European Central Bank, acting quickly, Cuts Rates 10 Basis Points. They are trying, and succeeding, in depreciating the Euro against the VERY strong Dollar, hurting U.S. exports.... And the Fed sits, and sits, and sits. They get paid to borrow money, while we are paying interest!"

Trump, apparently is unconcerned by the effects of negative rates on the banking sector or on family budgets.

For example, the European banking sector has been hit hard by negative rates, as shown by Maurus Adam recently at mises.org:

Low interest rates make credit for private banks — and in turn, for consumers — cheaper. But at the same time, the low return on government bonds makes investment in these long-term options unattractive. Inflation and low return on investment options discourage people from saving and investing capital but encourage spending. Moreover, the low interest rates result in a low return for banks on the credit they grant to consumers. High consumption, low investment, and low profit on all banking activities strongly affects the ability of European banks to compete. Consequently, Markets Insider reports :

The bank has struggled financially amid rock-bottom interest rates in Europe and fierce competition in the German banking industry, limiting its ability to invest and expand in line with US rivals.

The extremely low interest rates in the Eurozone hit the bank’s investment branch hard...

And, as reported by Matt Egan at CNN:

Deutsche Bank's struggles have also been amplified by something the 149-year-old lender never imagined, mostly because it had never happened before in modern history: negative interest rates. In 2014, the European Central Bank wanted to boost the sluggish economy but interest rates were already at zero. The unconventional decision to take them into negative territory was aimed at encouraging growth and avoiding deflation, but it meant banks were charged a fee for parking their reserves with the central bank. The ECB's extreme policies may have injected some life into Europe's sleepy economy, in turn giving Deutsche Bank and other lenders a boost. However, negative rates are also crushing the profitability of all banks, Deutsche Bank included. And this unorthodox policy — one that the ECB is on the verge of doubling down on — is making it awfully difficult to revive the champion of Germany's banking system. But rates don't have to be negative to have a negative impact on savers and pensioners. In order to see any meaningful gains from saving in an economy with ultra-low rates, an investor must engage in yield chasing. but that;s much more difficult for ordinary households who don't have the tools of wealthy investors at their disposal - tools that allow for a variety of risky investments that may bring sizable returns. Ordinary people, in contrast, can't gamble their savings in that way, and can't even access hedge funds and other tools designed to seek out returns in an environment with so few opportunities for yield.

Moreover, pension funds that rely on more safe and traditional investments must pursue riskier investments, or do without the sorts of gains they need. That means future retirees will face far fewer returns and a falling standard of living.

None of this concerns the president, apparently, as he now appears to be champing at the bit to get his over version of European style QE.

Just yesterday, he was demanding the Fed cut the federal funds target rate "down to ZERO, or less":

That is, the president apparently believes savers should have to pay to save money, as is potentially the case under a negative-rate regime.

The president might also want to consider the fact that even after a decade of extreme easy-money policies, the European economy is still weak, and the euro zone's growth has slowed to under one percent.

This won't surprise hawks who understand that easy money is not exactly a miracle formula for economic growth. But this fact is seemingly irrelevant to the president who sees monetary policy as little more than a tool to spur exports.

Although the Fed is now expected to cut its own target rate later this month, one can only hope that it keeps to only 25 basis points.

fedfunds_0.PNG

After all, the good news here is that, with a target rate of 2.25 percent, the US's central bank looks relatively sane compared to the ECB and the Bank of Japan, both of which are employing negative rates. The Fed is even clocking in at well above the Bank of England's target rate of 0.75 percent.

So long as the Fed does not significantly increase its own balance sheet and other QE efforts in response to the ECB and other central banks, the dollar will continue to look relatively attractive compared to other currencies. Predictions that the dollar will quickly devalue in relation to other currencies are likely overstated. It is true that larger geopolitical trends, such as de-dollarization efforts among some major world economies , are a threat. But these efforts lie outside run-of-the-mill monetary policy right now which continues to point to a relatively sound dollar.

A summary of the most recently set rates:

  • USA: 2.25%
  • Canada: 1.75%
  • UK: 0.75%
  • Australia: 1.0%
  • ECB: -0.5%
  • Japan: -0.1%

Note: All graphs by Ryan McMaken. Here are the specific key rates discussed here, with links:

When commenting, please post a concise, civil, and informative comment. Full comment policy here
Shield icon power-market-v2