Discrimination and State Power

Reading a column by Karen Attiah in the Washington Post (“Monuments of White Supremacy Obscure the History of Colonial Crimes. That’s Why They Must Come Down,” June 13, 2020), I remembered the guy who defended the state by asking, “If the state did not exist, who would have abolished slavery?” The real question is, of course, “If the state did not exist, who would have protected slave owners with overwhelming monopolistic force?” The guy should have known Article IV, Section 2 of the US Constitution about fugitive slaves, which remained in force until the 13th Amendment in 1865:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Most of Ms. Attiah’s column can be read as a justified attack on the governments who financed and enforced racial discrimination, not only by erecting statues but in more direct ways. She mentions Belgian king Léopold II, a “brutal colonial ruler” whose

claim to genocidal fame was his orchestration of mass violence against the people in the Congo, a large portion of which he considered his personal territory for cultivating and exporting rubber and ivory.

She also writes:

Powerful governments erased the contributions of black people, the customs and traditions of native populations during colonization—and then whitewashed the evidence of the great harm done to these communities.

She ignores many things, though, such as zoning laws, which were originally adopted to prevent black Americans from using their economic freedom to move into white neighborhoods and which continue incognito to play that function today. (See my Regulation review of Jonathan Rothwell’s recent book, A Republic of Equals: “The One-Percenter State,” Regulation, Spring 2020; and my Econlog post “Rothwell Si, Piketty No!”  But, to be fair to Ms. Attiah, one can’t talk about everything in one column.

Still, I suspect Ms. Attiah is not a closet anarcho-capitalist, because such people are rather rare at the Washington Post. But if what she wants to defend is individual liberty instead of group identity, she might want to reflect on the following classical-liberal principle and apply it also to other issues than race: Grant to the state only powers that would not be dangerous if the worst racist (or hater of any minority) came to its helm. Who knows, you might not always be in a group preferred by the government.

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Fewer laws, less police brutality

There has recently been a great deal of discussion as to how to reduce police brutality. I don’t necessarily oppose attempts to reform police forces, but I doubt whether that sort of approach would be effective. In my view, the problem must be addressed indirectly. The primary problem is not too many police; it’s too many laws.

There are two obvious objections to my argument:

1. I’ve long advocated a reduction in laws, so my motives are suspect. Perhaps I’m just using recent events as an excuse to promote a libertarian agenda.

2. A reduction in the number of laws would not have helped in the case of George Floyd, who was detained (and then killed) over a counterfeiting charge.

Those are both good arguments. But it’s equally true that suspect motives don’t necessarily mean my argument is incorrect. And the fact that it would not have helped George Floyd doesn’t mean that it would not help in many, many other cases.

As a general rule, police have two types of interactions with the public. Traditionally, police were called in by victims of crimes. In these cases, the victims were happy to see the police show up and assist them.

During the 20th century, however, the police increasingly became a semi-military force that launched a war on significant segments of the population, including drug users/merchants, prostitutes, gamblers, possessors of illegal ammunition, tax evaders, and others.  Whole communities are almost under siege, with paramilitary SWAT teams breaking into houses.

In 2014, Eric Garner died after telling the police “I can’t breath”.  He was being arrested for selling individual cigarettes from low tax states.  This crime would never have occurred if New York had not decided to adopt a highly regressive cigarette tax, aimed at behavior modification.

Prostitutes are often harassed by law enforcement, with police sometimes asking for special “favors”.

Police often barge into homes (without knocking) in search of drugs, illegal ammunition, and other contraband.  This often leads to confusion, and innocent people are occasionally shot and killed.

If we were to dramatically reduce the number of laws, then the police would have less leverage to harass the public.  Power corrupts, and the police will have an enormous amount of power in a country where thousands of consensual acts are illegal.  Even minor infractions such as loitering and jaywalking are used as excuses to harass people, often members of minority groups.

Roughly 400,000 people are currently imprisoned for drug crimes, often activities that would not even be illegal in other states.  We’d be much better off if the police were to focus on protecting us from violent criminals, not trying to tell us how to live our lives.

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Is Being a Cop So Dangerous?

Any defendable normative political philosophy—at any rate, any classical-liberal one—holds that policemen are the citizens’ servants, not their masters. A policeman owes respect to a peaceful citizen and, to a certain point, even to a violent one. The policeman is paid by the citizen, not the other way around. While protecting some citizens, policemen have no right to attack innocent bystanders or protesters.

I use the European term “policeman” (which of course includes policewomen) instead of the American “police officer” for a purpose. It seems to better avoid the implication of extraordinary power and emphasizes that policemen are civilians among other civilians.

Trying to explain police violence in America (which is only endemic in parts of the country), The Economist (“Order above the Law: How to fix American Policing,” June 4, 2010) mentions that “American police patrol a heavily armed country,” referring to private guns, a topic on which the venerable magazine always sees red (not all is rosy in Europe). In this article, don’t miss the photo of a gang of marching police thugs violently pushing down a woman out of their way. And note how rare it is that demonstrators fire guns in America.

Defending a policeman who violently hit a protester on the head with a baton in Philadelphia, the Fraternal Order of Police says its member “only had milliseconds to make a decision” (as paraphrased by the Wall Street Journal: Viral Videos From Protests Fuel Broader Debate Over Policing,” June 5, 2020). The policeman is now facing aggravated assault and other charges, which is encouraging news.

In the current troubles,  many cases of police violence have led to investigations and brought many criminal charges against policemen. As if to put the final nail in the propagandist idea that it is “the rabble” who have been attacked by the police, Ghian Foreman, president of Chicago’s Police Board, the body which receives citizens’ complaints, said he was struck five times by a police baton, even if he was not actually participating in the protest. “I have a perspective now that I didn’t have,” he said (“Thousand of Protesters in D.C., Nationwide Decry Police Abuse,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2020).

As of June 5, more than 300 policemen had been injured in the current demonstrations and mob looting. Being a policeman is clearly not a job without risk.

However, it is far from being the riskiest job in America, as shown by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics excerpted on the chart below. Of the few hundred occupations surveyed by the BLS (or at least the ones selected in their summary table online), 15 are more at risk of lethal injuries than a policeman’s job. The risk is 13.7 per 100,000 policemen, which is for times higher than the risk for all occupations, which stands at 3.5. But, to take a few examples, the proportion is 97.6 for loggers, 77.4 for fishers and fishing workers, 18.0 for miscellaneous agricultural workers, and 15.8 for construction helpers.

Moreover, nobody is forced to earn his living as a policeman. If it is important that the ones hired be courageous men and women, it is even more important that they know they are the servants, not the masters, if that’s the only element of political philosophy they have. Let’s hope that the current troubles will help promote this idea. As I have argued before on Econlog, there is a dire need for humble government, starting at the highest level.

Among the compulsory readings of police trainees, I might recommend Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992). Browning explains why middle-aged German police conscripts murdered, usually with a bullet at the back of the head, tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. The reason: esprit de corps, not to look like pussies to their comrades. As you will discover in the book, they were not really forced to participate in these execution squads.

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Lockdowns are partly endogenous

In monetary policy, a common mistake is to assume that low interest rates and/or QE are indications of an easy money policy. They might be, but more often they are the effect of a tight money policy that drove interest rates to zero or below, and dramatically increased the demand for liquidity (i.e. base money.)

I wonder if something similar is true of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly there are occasions when lockdowns are reflective of an aggressive policy of containment, but perhaps just as often they reflect the exact opposite.

Germany was much more successful in containing the virus than the other major Western European powers, and as a result had less restrictive lockdowns:

This occurred despite one of Europe’s least draconian shutdowns. Though schools, non-essential shops and restaurants were closed for weeks, a large proportion of businesses and factories continued to operate as normal. Germany also left lockdown more quickly than many of its neighbours.

Some East Asian countries were even more successful than Germany, and in many cases they even allowed their restaurants to stay open.

In contrast, where the epidemic got out of control, as in Italy and Spain, extremely restrictive lockdowns were often put in place.

I often see the discussion framed as “lockdowns vs. lots of deaths”. That’s true in a few cases, but just as often lockdowns are endogenous, a sign countries have stumbled into the “lots of deaths” equilibrium.

This is why I continue to reject the framing of the debate over Sweden’s policies, a country that avoided mandatory lockdowns. In most cases, the best way to avoid lockdowns is by restraining the virus with a combination of test/trace/isolate, masks, hand washing, and voluntary social distancing, not herd immunity.  Do all that and you will likely be able to avoid mandatory lockdowns.

Neither Sweden nor Norway is the model; it’s the most successful East Asian democracies that deserve our attention.

PS.  I understand that Germany had more time to prepare than Italy.  But so did the UK.  Britain wasted valuable time flirting with a “herd immunity” approach before opting for a more conventional approach.  It ended up with the worst of both worlds—lockdowns plus even more deaths than Italy.

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Why We Need to Keep Talking About George Floyd

I must begin by pointing out that this is really not what I wanted to be writing about. This is EconLog, for crying out loud; a virtual property of Econlib.  They don’t just let anyone natter on here, and for that reason, I would rather my introduction to the readers here be a message of freedom and hope. It was a mere few days ago that NASA launched a rocket built by SpaceX into space, ferrying humans to the International Space Station from American soil for the first time since 2011, signaling the successful culmination of a public-private partnership (sort of) that may one day see mankind colonize the stars.  But…I can’t engage you in a whimsical fantasy of our descendants enjoying Andorian ale in a bar on the joint colony at Titan.

Those of us tethered to the ground have been subject to pandemics, government overreach, massive loss of employment…and then there’s George Floyd. Those of us possessed of the masochism inherent in formal training in the social sciences have an obligation to review the world as it is, making data-driven observations, providing deep analysis of proximate causes, and generating recommendations aimed at making improvements and finding solutions. This last is the most difficult, because in matters involving race, I don’t necessarily know that here are any solutions outside of “we all need to be better.” Nor, in truth, am I an indifferent observer. As an African American myself, I have known too many George Floyds to remain indifferent.

It must be noted that the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers, and the resultant riots raging across the American landscape aren’t entirely about race. As Reason’s Christian Britschgi has so ably observed, a combination of coronavirus lockdowns, joblessness, and other related factors combined to form a perfect soup that boiled over the day Derek Chauvin and his cohorts essentially strangled Floyd to death. This, however, is an outcome, not a cause. While this matter isn’t entirely about race, it’s still about racial relations in America. As ostensible thinkers in the classical liberal tradition, those of us dedicated to the natural rights of all men often shrink from in-depth discussion of such matters, when we may be the only parties left with any shred of moral authority to lead the charge.

So, we’re going to have that discussion, no matter how uncomfortable it might be. We’re going to discuss public choice and path dependencies. The ruinous War on Drugs and its unholy offspring, the carceral state, are also on the docket.  Institutional bias, uneven enforcement of laws that, by all right, shouldn’t even be laws…they’re on the table as well. The first step to solving a problem is admission that the problem exists, and we’re going to get to the root of it.  We’re going to analyze through the filters of economics, sociology, political science, history…because we must. To channel Acemoglu, history happens when critical junctures mate with institutional drift, giving birth to persistent paradigms.  We are, as the fires attest, at a critical juncture. To create new paradigms, we must facilitate changes within our institutions.

I will, of course, talk about other things. It is an honor for me to be here, and this isn’t the only issue that needs discussion. Nevertheless, this will be an ongoing conversation, and it is my hope that both author and readers benefit from it. The American apartheid system known as Jim Crow was relegated to the dustbins of history because men and women of good conscience did not bury their heads in the sand at a critical juncture in time, but the work is not yet done. It is up to us to find its completion, so that we can truly fulfill the obligations inherent in our credo “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

 

 


Tarnell Brown is an Atlanta based economist and public policy analyst.

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A Humble State with No Motorcade

In many ways, the modern world, including economic freedom, was born from the fear of tyranny and the institutions (not always successful) to prevent it. In Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (Basic Books, 2000), famous economist Mancur Olson had interesting historical remarks about Italian city-states in early modern times:

Sometimes, when leading families or merchants organized a government for their city, they not only provided for some power sharing through voting but took pains to reduce the probability that the government’s chief executive could assume autocratic power. For a time in Genoa, for example, the chief administrator of the government had to be an outsider—and thus someone with no membership in any of the powerful families in the city. Moreover, he was constrained to a fixed term of office, forced to leave the city after the end of his term, and forbidden from marrying into any of the local families. In Venice, after a doge who attempted to make himself autocrat was beheaded for his offense, subsequent doges were followed in official processions by a sword-bearing symbolic executioner as a reminder of the punishment intended for any leader who attempted to assume dictatorial power. As the theory predicts, the same city-states also tended to have more elaborate courts, contracts, and property rights than most of the European kingdoms of the time. As is well known, these city-states also created the most advanced economies in Europe, not to mention the culture of the Renaissance.

This quote is from pp. 39-40 of Olson’s book. Part of it is reproduced at Liberty Tree quotes.

Instead of a bully state, we are in urgent need of a humble state where political leaders and bureaucrats know their place. I especially like Venice’s symbolic executioner, who could beneficially replace the motorcade or, at the very least, occupy the last limousine. (For more discussion of related issues, see my Econlog post “Praetorian Guards from Ancient Greece to Palm Beach or the Hamptons,” January 14, 2019.)

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A Humble State with No Motocarde

In many ways, the modern world, including economic freedom, was born from the fear of tyranny and the institutions (not always successful) to prevent it. In Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (Basic Books, 2000), famous economist Mancur Olson had interesting historical remarks about Italian city-states in early modern times:

Sometimes, when leading families or merchants organized a government for their city, they not only provided for some power sharing through voting but took pains to reduce the probability that the government’s chief executive could assume autocratic power. For a time in Genoa, for example, the chief administrator of the government had to be an outsider—and thus someone with no membership in any of the powerful families in the city. Moreover, he was constrained to a fixed term of office, forced to leave the city after the end of his term, and forbidden from marrying into any of the local families. In Venice, after a doge who attempted to make himself autocrat was beheaded for his offense, subsequent doges were followed in official processions by a sword-bearing symbolic executioner as a reminder of the punishment intended for any leader who attempted to assume dictatorial power. As the theory predicts, the same city-states also tended to have more elaborate courts, contracts, and property rights than most of the European kingdoms of the time. As is well known, these city-states also created the most advanced economies in Europe, not to mention the culture of the Renaissance.

This quote is from pp. 39-40 of Olson’s book. Part of it is reproduced at Liberty Tree quotes.

Instead of a bully state, we are in urgent need of a humble state where political leaders and bureaucrats know their place. I especially like Venice’s symbolic executioner, who could beneficially replace the motocarde or, at the very least, occupy the last limousine. (For more discussion of related issues, see my Econlog post “Praetorian Guards from Ancient Greece to Palm Beach or the Hamptons,” January 14, 2019.)

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Herd immunity was never a feasible option

Bryan Caplan has a post on Covid-19 that is full of sensible ideas. But I disagree with one of his claims:

18. Alex Tabarrok is wrong to state, “Social distancing, closing non-essential firms and working from home protect the vulnerable but these same practices protect workers in critical industries. Thus, the debate between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy is moot.” Moot?!  True, there is a mild trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.  But if we didn’t care about the vulnerable at all, the disease would have already run its course and economic life would already have strongly rebounded.  Wouldn’t self-protection have stymied this?  Not if the government hadn’t expanded unemployment coverage and benefits, because most people don’t save enough money to quit their jobs for a couple of months.  With most of the workforce still on the job, fast exponential growth would have given us herd immunity long ago.  The death toll would have been several times higher, but that’s the essence of the trade-off between protecting the vulnerable and protecting the economy.

From my vantage point in Orange County, that just doesn’t seem feasible.  People here are taking quite aggressive steps to avoid getting the disease, and I believe that would be true regardless of which public policies were chosen by authorities.  Removing the lockdown will help the economy a bit, as would ending the enhanced unemployment insurance program.  But the previous (less generous) unemployment compensation program combined with voluntary social distancing is enough to explain the vast bulk of the depression we are in.

In many countries, the number of active cases is falling close to zero.  In those places, it will be possible to get people to return to service industries where human interaction is significant.  Speaking for myself, I’m unlikely to get a haircut, go to the dentist, go to a movie, eat in a crowded restaurant, or many other activities until there is a vaccine. (Although if I were single I’d be much more active.) If I were someone inclined to take cruises, I’d also stay away from that industry until there was a vaccine.  I’ll do much less flying, although I’d be willing to fly if highly motivated.  For now, I’ll focus on outdoor restaurants (fortunately quite plentiful in Orange County) and vacations by automobile. Universities are beginning to announce that classes will remain online in the fall.

If you think in terms of “near-zero cases” and “herd immunity” as the two paths to normalcy in the fall of this year, I’d say near-zero cases are much more feasible.  Lots of countries have done the former—as far as I know none have succeeded with the latter approach.  Unfortunately, America has botched this pandemic so badly (partly for reasons described by Bryan) that it will be very difficult to get the active caseload down to a level where consumers feel safe.

Don’t get me wrong, both the lockdown and the change in unemployment compensation create problems for the economy.  But they are not the decisive factor causing the current depression.  If the changes in the unemployment compensation program were made permanent, then at some point this would become the decisive factor causing a high unemployment rate.  But not yet.

BTW, I am not arguing that it wouldn’t be better if people had a more rational view of risks, as Bryan suggested in a more recent post.  This post is discussing the world as it is.

Here’s a selection of countries with 35-76 active cases (right column), followed by a group with less than ten.  Many are tiny countries and some have dubious data, but not all.

. . .

 

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Something to Learn from the Trump Presidency

The president of the United States tweeted a video of an alleged rioter (who, in all likelihood, is an American citizen, not a “Mexican rapist”) with the threatening comment:

“Anarchists, we see you!”

Is it for the president to identify suspects? So much for the ideal of the rule of law, it seems.

But my point is different and related to the benefits of personal knowledge. I have always hoped that a journalist would, during a press conference, ask the president something like “Mr. President, what do you mean exactly by ‘socialism’?” Or, “Mr. President, what do you mean by ‘the extreme left’ and how does it differ from the left?”

Since Mr. Trump’s tweet of yesterday and his other recent references to “anarchists” as another type of scapegoat, my dream has changed. I would now propose questions like the following:

Mr. President, what is an anarchist? What does an anarchist believe?

Mr. President, do you think that Henry David Thoreau, Lysander Spooner, and Murray Rothbard were anarchists?

What about David Friedman?

Do you think that Anthony de Jasay is a conservative anarchist?

Of course, looters have to be stopped and arrested but different sorts of anarchists exist, just as there are different sorts of defenders of the state. Another idea for a question along those lines:

Mr. President, don’t you think that the so-called “anarchist” rioters and looters actually want more state power, just like the “extreme left” you attack?

The following question may be problematic for both Mr. Trump and the libertarians involved:

Mr. President, what do you think of the anarcho-capitalists who, during your 2016 election campaign, created a group called “Libertarians for Trump”?

More seriously, I suggest the Trump presidency has taught something important to those of us who define themselves as libertarians or fellow travelers: knowledge is important, both in the sense of a minimal culture about what has been happening in the world until yesterday and in the sense of an intellectual capacity to learn. To advance liberty, an ignorant disrupter is not sufficient. He is more likely to advance tyranny. If he appears to defend one libertarian cause—say, the Second Amendment—he will more probably bring it into disrepute.

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A libertarian is a conservative who has been oppressed

When I was young, there was an old saying that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I suspect that the debates between liberals and conservatives are especially fierce precisely because they are generally based on genetics and random life experiences, not rational thought.

Along these lines, a Politico article by Rich Lowry caught my eye:

The intellectual fashion among populists and religious traditionalists has been to attempt to forge a post-liberty or “post-liberal” agenda to forge a deeper foundation for the new Republican Party. Instead of obsessing over freedom and rights, conservatives would look to government to protect the common good.

This project, though, has been rocked by its first real-life encounter with governments acting to protect, as they see it, the common good.

One of its architects, the editor of the religious journal First Things, R.R. Reno, has sounded like one of the libertarians he so scorns during the crisis. First, he complained he might get shamed if he were to host a dinner party during the height of the pandemic, although delaying a party would seem a small price to pay for someone so intensely committed to the common good.

More recently, he went on a tirade against wearing masks. Reno is apparently fine with a much stronger government, as long as it never issues public-health guidance not to his liking. Then, it’s to the barricades for liberty, damn it.

Ouch!  Lowry and Reno are both conservatives, but I’m guessing they are not the best of friends.

PS:  Tom Wolfe’s version is pretty close to the sentiments in this post:

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.

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