Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Did the emergence of the state reduce the rate of human death from warfare? Steven Pinker’s outstanding book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surveys many reasons why you are less likely to die from violence today than your ancestors were. Part of his explanation is that warfare was constant in stateless, anarchic societies, but the emergence of the state, beginning about six thousand years ago, helped reduce this problem. He has nice things to say about Thomas Hobbes’ thesis in Leviathan, that a powerful government is necessary to rescue people from their natural state of constant warfare.

In my most recent Learn Liberty blog post, I question this finding of Pinker’s. I argue that the evidence he presents for the claim does not suffice to prove it, because there are other factors that could explain declining rates of war death. Moreover, even if the state reduced war death somewhat, we can’t necessarily infer from that fact alone that the state increased human welfare. From the post:

[T]here is an important conceptual problem for the claim that the rise of the state improved human welfare by reducing violent deaths.

After all, early states arose almost exclusively out of conquest, as Pinker concedes. They started as roving bands of armed robbers, who eventually found that converting robbery into regularized taxation would destroy less wealth and generate more revenue over the long run. Autonomous peoples do not go into “subject” status willingly.

More at the link.

Read Full Post »

Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School is the latest collection of essays from Ralph Raico, published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Ralph was kind enough to send me a print copy.

The introductory, eponymous essay concerns the relationship between Austrianism as an economic methodology and classical liberalism as a political program or ideology. Raico disputes Mises’ contention that Austrian methodology (methodological individualism) is clearly separate from the normative claims of classical liberalism (2-3). Raico builds a persuasive case that Austrianism as traditionally understood is indeed naturally related to classical liberalism; however, I would argue that this implication is not entirely to the credit of traditional Austrianism.

First, let us take methodological individualism. Modern neoclassical economics is as thoroughly methodologically individualist as Austrianism ever was. But note that both neoclassical and Austrian economists depart from methodological individualism when convenient to do so, for instance when deploying the firm as a rational actor. The firm is a collective entity. Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia has a brilliant insight into when methodological individualism “might go wrong” (22):

If there is a filter that filters out (destroys) all non-P Q’s, then the explanation of why all Q’s are P’s (fit the pattern P) will refer to this filter. For each particular Q, there may be an explanation for why it is P, how it came to be P, what maintains it as P. But the explanation of why all Q’s are P will not be the conjunction of these individual explanations, even though these are all the Q’s there are, for that is part of what is to be explained… The methodological individualist position requires that there be no basic (unreduced) social filtering processes.

The filtering process for the firm is profit maximization. We can know that firms try to maximize profit even if we do not have a good explanation for why each individual firm tries to maximize profit, or why individuals have chosen so to organize themselves. The answers to the latter question were developed by Coase and Williamson, by the way (Chicagoites, not Austrians, though fully taken on board by contemporary Austrians).

Second, (more…)

Read Full Post »

This post is about three books I’ve polished off recently, all quite different from one another:

  • Timothy Besley & Torsten Persson, Pillars of Prosperity: The Political Economy of Development Clusters – nothing to do with industrial districts or network externalities; this is a (mostly) theoretical exploration of the reasons why rulers might choose to invest in fiscal and legal capacity, generating a strong state and good conditions for economic development
  • Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Critique – an excoriation of wartime leaders beloved by those whom Rothbard called “court intellectuals”
  • Mark Pennington (our very own!), Robust Political Economy – a defense of classical liberalism as being more institutionally robust to imperfections in markets & governments than various alternatives

Besley & Persson‘s work is a dense slog, if you read the math. Its contribution should be seen as mostly theoretical, rather than empirical – although there are some simple empirics along the lines of demonstrating cross-national correlations. The central aim is to try to understand why GDP per capita tends to correlate positively with other things like tax take as a share of GDP, income tax and VAT take as a share of total tax take, years in external war, and executive constraints, and negatively with things like expropriation risk and years in civil war. The basic story is that there are three types of societies: common-good societies in which political leaders focus on providing collective goods to the entire population, long-run redistributive societies in which political leaders invest in fiscal capacity because they expect to be in power for a long time and want to redistribute funds to their favored constituencies, and kleptocratic societies in which political leaders steal as much as they can in a short period of time. In common-good societies, expected tenure in office is irrelevant to investments in fiscal and legal capacity: leaders invest whether or not they expect to stay in power, because they are interested in doing good things for their citizens. In long-run redistributive societies, leaders also invest in fiscal and legal capacity in order to grow the pie and their take from it. In kleptocratic societies, leaders’ pillaging keeps the economy in an underdeveloped state. Ethnic diversity is bad (in a sense) because it makes societies more redistributive (more internal rivalries), but this is not necessarily a critical failure so long as leader tenures remain long. External war is good (in a sense) because it brings people together and helps create a common-good society.

The book advances some new arguments, and the theoretical framework alone is impressive. However, I have at least two fundamental concerns as well. First, I question how many societies really fall into the “common good” category. In the strict economic sense, there are hardly true collective goods for an entire political society. National defense, for instance, is a collective bad for pacifists. The fact that external war correlates with tax take does not imply to me that war is good for bringing people together and fostering development, but that war is the health of the state, sharpening the competitive blade that pares away “inefficiencies” in governments’ extractive capacity. Second, the modeling of fiscal and legal capacity as simply being a matter of leaders’ past decisions to “invest” is so simple as to be a gross distortion. There’s no politics here, no grappling with influential prior arguments from North, Weingast, and others that leaders must be forced to limit their own power, because it is impossible for them to make credible commitments to private property rights on their own initiative.

Raico‘s book isn’t for the faint of heart or for someone looking for an impartial academic account of “great” historical figures like Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. On the other hand, it is blood-pumping red meat to the contrarian libertarian, as Raico moves from exposing the bizarre authoritarian fantasies of Wilson and his cronies to calling Truman out as a war criminal and mass murderer of innocent men, women, and children in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (I’ve addressed in slightly more depth Raico’s criticisms of Churchill in these virtual pages.) Raico stands firmly in the Rothbardian tradition of focusing critical revisionism on the actions of one’s own government and its allies. I wouldn’t assign this work on its own to students; I would include alternative perspectives. Nevertheless, (more…)

Read Full Post »

Few in power find it convenient to notice inconsistencies in their own conduct. Alas, but President Madison was no exception. Federalism and decentralization exist precisely because free constitutions should not depend on the good graces of those in office, but on the checks necessary to harry them back under the law.

Seeking the financial means to carry on his war, Madison did not appreciate New England’s opposition to his measures or her refusal to lend. As the enemy bore down from the north at various points along the Canadian border, Madison attempted to impose conditions on the New England militias, not trusting them, as he did the other states, to staff and command their own forces.

In these efforts, the fourth president was roundly rebuffed by the governors and legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. They correctly pointed out that the Constitution reserved to each state the right of officering her state militias: The president could certainly call those units into service according to the constitutional powers that authorized Congress to declare war, but he could not reorganize those units without a state’s permission. Unable to get his way, Madison refused to mobilize New England’s forces and subsequently refused to pay any expenses for her defense.

Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts organized and raised his own force of some 10,000 men at a cost of 1 million dollars, which was a considerable sum in that day. Facing such staggering costs and outraged by what they considered to be the unconstitutional and dangerous manner in which their region had been treated, the New England states elected to protest in the same spirit as they had done against the embargo, but this time they went a step further: Coordinated state action.

Under the inspiration of Harrison Gray Otis and Theodore Dwight (the brother of Timothy Dwight of Yale), Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and several counties of New Hampshire and Vermont sent representatives to meet in Hartford Connecticut between December 15, 1814 and January 4, 1815. There they formed a list of grievances and a call for constitutional amendments, concluding with a threat to organize another convention should these proposals not be taken up by the other states in the Union.

The men who attended this gathering tried to moderate the more extreme elements calling for secession and outright resistance to the national government (see Justin Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. VII, Houghton Mifflin, 1888, p. 321 and notes) but the prospect of a convention sent shivers through the administration. It is not difficult to see why.

In “A Short Account of the Hartford Convention to which is Added an Attested Copy of the Secret Journal of that Body” (1823), Theodore Lyman, noted that Massachusetts was quite open about her aims, and “the sense of her citizens was at that time well known, and in relation to the Hartford Convention, she adopted without delay that course of conduct, of which an eminent example had been given less than half a century before, and which, in this juncture of affairs, was especially judicious, from the vast magnitude of the subject and occasion.” (p.8) That example was Madison’s own call at the end of the Annapolis Convention for the convention that followed in Philadelphia, which of course ultimately put an end to the Articles of Confederation.

When the Hartford Convention got down to business on its second day, it considered, according to the Attested Copy of the Secret Journal, the two constitutional grounds of New England’s grievances just mentioned: “The [unconstitutional] powers claimed by the executive of the United States, to determine, conclusively, in respect to calling out the militia of the States into the service of the United States; and the dividing the United States into military districts with an officer of the army in each thereof, with discretionary authority from the executive of the United States, to call for the militia to be under the command of such officer.”

The second grievance followed immediately after: “The refusal of the executive of the United States to supply, or pay the militia of certain States…on the grounds of their not having been called out under the authority of the United States, or not having been…put under the command of the commander over the military district.” These two grievances then formed the basis of the final and more damning constitutional conclusion that the national government had failed to meet its obligation as stated in the preamble “to provide for the common defense.”

In their protest the members stood on solid textual grounds. It was true that Section Eight of the First Article gave Congress the power “To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States,” but it specifically reserved “to the states respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

Did this “prescribed” discipline give Madison the right to reorganize the New England militias? It might have, but only if Congress had specifically formed such a policy, and had done so equally for all parts of the Union. The fact that President Madison asserted this as a matter of executive authority, and the fact that he applied that policy unequally to some of the states and not to all of them, violated both the spirit and the letter of the fundamental law. With these arguments before them, the delegates proposed their Constitutional remedies.

They called for consideration on the part of the states for amendments that would permit the state legislatures “some arrangement whereby the States may be enable[d] to retain a portion of the taxes levied by Congress, for purposes of self defence (sic), and for reimbursement of expenses already incurred, on account of the United States.” They then proceeded to request further consideration be given to certain other constitutional issues: To restrict Congress’ power to declare war; to restrain its power “to make new States, and admit them into this Union; to limit Congress’ power to impose embargoes and restrict commerce; to prohibit a president from the same state serving two consecutive terms; and finally, and perhaps most ominously of all, to eliminate the 3/5ths provisions of the Constitution “respecting slave representation, and slave taxation.”

This last provision underscored a growing cultural and political divide already evident between the northern and southern states. New Englanders had always felt aggrieved to some degree by the so-called 3/5ths compromises in the Philadelphia Convention. Already by this time, they saw it as a principal driver of western expansion, and the Southern states made little bones about their desire to move the peculiar institution westward, and to form an alliance with that region in opposition to New England.

Thus the Hartford delegates sought restrictions on admitting new states as well as the elimination of the South’s use of slaves in calculating her population numbers. It is interesting to note that at this point in time, the South’s rising star, J. C. Calhoun of South Carolina, was a strong nationalist defender of the War of 1812 and a proponent of a new national bank so that the general government could more easily finance such military ventures in the future. The irony of ironies is that this situation was about to change yet again.

As reported by Theodore Dwight, the Secretary of the Hartford Convention, in his later history of that meeting, the timing of the delegates’ report to Washington could not have been worse. It arrived just as news from England of the War’s end came along with the report of Andrew Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. While the war had not gone so well for America in general, the popular sense created by this juncture produced a patriotic fervor that was ill disposed to consider of the resolves of the Hartford delegates.

The commission attempted to quietly retire back to New England, but the popular reaction, especially among Madison’s Republican Party was to revile its proceedings as radical secessionism, and the reputation of that convention has labored under such a misapprehension ever since.

Far from secessionism, however, the Hartford Convention presented yet another means of interposition through coordinated state action, and to the degree that such coordination gathered more sustained attention (even if in the negative) from the other states, to that degree it succeeded. With the war’s end, Hartford’s issues became moot, but one could easily imagine what might have developed had the exigencies of war persisted.

The next stage of development in the ideas of interposition, however, would raise the stake higher, actually attempting what Jefferson had contemplated in the Kentucky Resolves: Nullification. Interestingly, the author of this approach was our leading nationalist of the 1810s. Calhoun had been a student of Theodore Dwight’s brother about a decade earlier at Yale. Timothy Dwight shared his brothers’ attachment to the reserved rights and powers of the states. Calhoun had resisted such thinking as his student, but when the issue of tariffs touched his own state’s interests in the next decade, he began to avail himself of Dwight’s understanding, coming to a deeper appreciation of the need to constitutionally restrain centralized power, but he did so with an interesting and novel twist that would have a profound impact on the popular perception of state’s rights.

And Calhoun’s solution would prove perhaps the most difficult and cumbersome of all…

Read Full Post »

When tensions with England finally began to degenerate into violent altercations, first on the western frontier in such places as Tippecanoe and later along the Great Lakes, the Madison administration decided the time had come to vindicate America’s claims of offended sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, these claims also happened to coincide with popular desires to expand into the Old Northwest and Canada. Those particular voices were especially powerful in the mid Atlantic and southern states. Two of the leading voices of those regions, Henry Clay and J.C. Calhoun were united at this point in their careers, generally supporting more vigorous forms of nationalism at home and abroad.

But Mr. Madison had let the charter of the first Bank of the United States expire in 1811, and when he turned to finance his war he had of necessity to turn to state banking institutions. These entities were comprised of various private and state banks who were generally quite willing to buy American treasury securities. There was one region, however, that was not quite so willing: the New England states and the banks that operated under their approval.

Already rocked by years of embargo, New Englanders were poised to suffer even more outrages in open war. Popular sentiment ran high against the conflict, and when the treasury presented its notes for sale to New England banks they received a cool reception. The vast majority of such paper was consequently sold to the south and west. Indeed, needing to purchase supplies in the north, the national government found this a particularly galling impediment. To remedy the situation, Madison’s administration not only borrowed from existing banks in the mid-Atlantic states, it actively promoted new ones, even over the existing laws of those states that had tended to restrict private unchartered banks.

From 1811 to 1815 the number of banks more than doubled, from 117 to 247, 35 of which were unincorporated. The result was a massive increase in circulating paper money–nearly three times the amount in circulation at the start of the war. Treasury certificates were used as, and encouraged to be considered backing for notes in the same fashion as gold or silver. But one difficulty was not anticipated. When the District of Columbia was burned by British marines on August 24, 1814, it quickly became apparent that certificates on the U.S. government might not be such a sound investment.

Runs the banks that very month demonstrated the insolvency of most of the new institutions, and in opposition to various state laws, the national government encouraged the mid-Atlantic and southern states to ignore or restrict bankruptcy proceedings against their offending banks, but allowed those very institutions to pursue such proceedings against their own debtors. All this was done, no less, while they continued to make new loans, adding yet even more to the already general inflation.

Only one region did not experience suspension of payments or bank runs: New England. For once in over six years, the New England states could boast a small economic indicator in their favor. In Federalist 10, Madison had argued that federalism might serve to insulate local evils from becoming universal, national ones. In this case, the evils of expansionism had been halted at the gates of Massachusetts, and New England’s representatives left little doubt about their sentiments in this regard.

In words that would later come back to him, a young Daniel Webster, then a representative of New Hampshire, declared in Congress on December 9, 1814, that the “operation of measures unconstitutional and illegal ought to be prevented by a resort to other measures which are both constitutional and legal. It will be the solemn duty of the State Governments to protect their own authority over their own militia, and to interpose between their citizens and arbitrary power. These are among the objects for which the State Governments exist, and their highest obligations bind them to the preservation of their own rights and the liberties of their people.”

Would it be too much to suspect that Webster both knew and approved of the New York statement of ratification? But even if he hadn’t, and that seems dubious, the words demonstrate just how deeply the sense of the states as checks to central power was engrained in the American mind. At this point in time, Webster was no Jeffersonian. He was a New England Federalist, and the home states were listening. On to Hartford.

Read Full Post »

With the war in Europe between France and England intensifying, Americans found their rights as neutral traders regularly violated by both French and British navies, and French and British port restrictions further limited American opportunities for commerce. To make matters worse, on numerous occasions, English vessels had boarded American ships and “impressed” many of their crews into service as if they were British subjects. Such disregard for American sovereignty and rights was taken hard by the public, but America’s naval capacities were far from adequate to enforce a due respect on the high seas. Yet doing nothing was not a popular option.

President Jefferson attempted to draw a lesson from our colonial past and impose an embargo of American trade. The hope was that such an embargo would inconvenience European commerce to such a degree as to bring the powers, especially Britain, to that level of respect which American arms were insufficient to obtain. In 1807, the Embargo Act was imposed, interdicting all vessels from entering or exiting American ports. Trade was the life blood of New England, however, and the Embargo hit them especially hard. As weeks moved to months and months to a year, the suffering in the port cities became nearly unbearable. Numerous calls for lifting the interdiction were heard, but none of the offending powers seemed even remotely ready to bargain. Unwilling to surrender the point of honor or to risk outright war, Jefferson’s administration remained steadfast in its policy.

At a certain point, the states began to question not only the efficacy of the measure, but its justice. Should not the risks of trade be borne by the traders themselves? Why a general restriction? If families and communities are ruined, is this not an indication of a policy gone too far? Indeed, so far that it might conflict with a vital principle of constitutional government? The national authority was to engage in defensive action in support of the states and their communities, not in their strangulation. If it could not live up to its military obligations, this was no excuse for an imposition of a total ban on trade, a power not contemplated in the original design.

In the earliest resolutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island the hue and cry was again heard. Massachusetts’ legislature, as Thomas Woods noted in his collection of sources, sought only formal political means, and counseled patience on the part of its citizenry as it pursued these avenues of redress. Rhode Island observed that it was “the duty of this general Assembly, while cautious not to infringe upon the constitution and delegated powers and rights of the General Government, to be vigilant in guarding from usurpation and violation, those powers and rights which the good people of this state have expressly reserved to themselves…” Here were the states as Sentinels calling out their warning.

But Connecticut, first through its governor and then its legislature went further still, openly and officially “declining to designate persons to carry into effect, by the aid of military power, the act of the United States, enforcing the Embargo.” And “that the persons holding executive offices under this state, are restrained by the duties which they owe this State, from affording any official aid or cooperation in the execution of the act aforesaid.”

This action went the further step of embracing the idea of non-cooperation, and its precedent went back to colonial legislatures that had refused to cooperate with the enforcement of the Imperial Stamp Act. No force would be applied directly to interdicting federal officials, but no cooperation would be accorded them either. They could do their work on their own, but in the absence of active assistance or support from state institutions, they would find that task far more difficult. No power of the federal government could compel action on the part of the states in this regard.

And here New England’s civil society operated in yet a further way to exert force against the centralized exercise of power, again, much like what had happened in earlier colonial protests. While not directly engaged in administering smuggling, the governments of New England gave tacit affirmation of private actions through their resolutions. New England’s merchants were long practiced in the arts of running goods around imperial restrictions. Now they would do the same with respect to national ones. And the general government found its resources stretched to the breaking point.

Remarkably, Jefferson himself later reflected on this opposition of local authorities. He recalled this episode as a powerful illustration of why local governance is so critically important to the maintenance of a free society! No longer president, he could reflect with some approval on the nature of the opposition he had then faced. (more…)

Read Full Post »

I recently came across this interesting, five-year-old interview with law professor William Ian Miller on “talionic” law in the Middle Ages, which specified literal “eye for an eye” justice. Talionic law developed in societies that lacked stable state institutions, like Iceland and early England. As such, it was embedded in strong extended-family institutions that used tit-for-tat strategies to keep order.

The traditional understanding of “eye for an eye” justice is that it is retributive, that is, that its motivating principle is punishment of the wrongdoer, pure and simple. Miller, however, makes a persuasive case that such systems are actually restitutory, that is, aimed at making the victim whole. In that sense they are much more humane than much contemporary criminal law, which ignores the victim and unproductively locks away criminals. An excerpt that makes the argument in a nutshell:

Your book argues that we often use the term “eye for an eye” to describe a harsh kind of justice from the past. But talionic societies could be said to put a higher value on human life and the human body than we do. They were much more committed to finding the exact worth of body parts and lives. So, let’s say you poke out my eye…

Then, instantly, my eye becomes yours. To get the value exactly right, we say an eye is worth an eye. You have a right to my eye. Now you can say to me, “I’m going to take your eye.” Then I’m going to say, “Hey, what would you be willing to accept instead?” It becomes an initial bargaining position.

If you want victims to be more highly valued and you want real, adequate compensation, this is how to do it. Now if I offer you what some lousy insurance company says your eye is worth — say, $100,000 — you’ll say, “No way! I would never have let you take my eye for that.” Instead, you can be sure I’ll put the same value on not losing my eye that you would have put on yours, and I will pay you that amount to keep my own eye. How about $5 million? Let’s start there. And we’ll bargain it out.

The book mentioned is this.

So how about it – should we return to the lex talionis?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: