Judith M. Hermis Letter to Governor Newsom

 

Earlier this month, Judith Hermis, one of my junior colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom and sent me a copy.

I edited it and she accepted my edits. So the letter you see below is not the same one she sent. But it is true to the spirit and argument of her original letter. We talked on the phone and agreed that people need to speak out against Newsom’s and other officials’ wholesale infringements on our freedom of association. That’s why Judith gave me permission to quote it here.

By the way, she sent this well before either of us knew that Newsom did not practice what he preached when he went to the French Laundry with a lot of people and dined indoors without masks–and then lied about it.

Here it is:

Dear Governor Newsom,

I hope this message finds you and your family well. I am writing in response to the November 13 statement issued by the California Department of Public Health in connection with private gatherings. I am opposed to these mandates on freedom grounds. The Declaration of Independence states that Americans have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are impossible to maintain under the conditions of a coercive nanny state masquerading as a free republic. Second, and as important, government derives its just powers from the governed, not the other way around.

If you think your office has the right to issue rules pertaining to the activities that go on within private individuals’ homes, you have sorely misestimated the bounds of your authority. I fail to find Constitutional grounds for your office or any administrative branch to whom legislative authority is delegated to issue mandates, proclamations, guidelines, or statements bearing the imprimatur of governmental authority to regulate the activity of individual citizens within private homes.

The Declaration of Independence assures life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It does not assure perfect physical safety from infectious agents. Moreover, as billions of humans from authoritarian societies, including members of my own immediate family, will willingly testify, perfect safety and perfect liberty are mutually exclusive goals. Many Americans, myself included, prefer liberty to safety because under liberty, those who wish to take additional precautions and private actions against, for example, contagious illness, are free to do so, while those who wish to live differently may also pursue their desires. Liberty maximizes the wellbeing of all citizens, including those who are more cautious and safety-oriented, and those who chose to live according to other priorities. Government mandates, by contrast, unreasonably deprive citizens of liberty under the guise of safety and force all citizens to comply with the desires of the most frightened members of society with no corresponding derivation of the government’s power from the governed. In plain English, the state government is attempting to coerce citizens to comply with the concerns of the most frightened individuals. This is antithetical to the conception of freedom America has long protected.

In closing, I would like to remind you of the wise words of Benjamin Franklin, who stated that, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Please defend our liberty by immediately denouncing the actions of the Department of Public Health. Are they free to make suggestions? Yes. Are they free to issue binding guidance? No. Sacrificing liberty for safety is an unacceptable arrogation of private rights by the government of our beautiful state.

Best,

Judith M. Hermis
Private citizen

 

 

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Murray Rothbard on Humane Immigration Policy

 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

 

It all boils down to this: In all the talk about freedom to leave or to enter, are we really interested in freedom, justice, and humanity, or are we only interested in scoring Brownie points in the Cold War game? If the former, we should not merely be content to condemn Russia or Cuba for not letting their people go; we should hail any occasion when some of their people do go, and we should welcome all of them to our shores with good fellowship and open arms. If we truly wish to be the land of the free, we must return to the traditional American policy before World War I of welcoming immigrants, of lifting our lamp by the golden door. America was built by immigrants, and we lost a good deal of our soul when the lamp nearly went out after World War I and immigration was sharply restricted by a combination of racism and labor union restrictionism. Let us return to our own noble heritage and be the beacon-light of freedom once more.

This is from Murray Rothbard, “From Cuban to American Socialism,” Reason, December 1980. It was highlighted today on the Reason web site here.

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Trump supported lockdowns

President Trump is such an unusual politician that people (myself included) have trouble seeing him clearly. For instance, Trump is often seen as an opponent of lockdowns. But while he did often speak out against lockdowns during the waning days of the campaign, he actually supported them during the period they were most restrictive.  Here’s a NYT headline from April 22:

Trump Criticizes Georgia Governor for Decision to Reopen State

“I think it’s too soon,” said the president, who joined several mayors in questioning Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, who had said some businesses could resume on Friday.

And here’s a tweet from April 30:

And it’s not just lockdowns.  I could easily dredge up Trump quotes for and against masks, for and against testing, or for and against any of a number of other policies.

Trump needed substantial votes from two groups that had very different views on Covid-19.  One group, mostly made up of his “base”, included small businesses worried about the economic effects of lockdowns, libertarians opposed to mask mandates, and Hispanic workers who lost jobs due to lockdowns.  Another group included moderate Republicans in the suburbs with professional jobs, who were economically insulated from the crisis but worried about the effects on their health.

It seems to me that early on he sensed that there was a risk of going too far “right” on the issue, losing those swing suburban voters.  Later in the year, it became clear that the problem wasn’t going away and indeed was picking up again.  At that time, he decided to go down the final stretch by appealing to his base with an anti-lockdown message.

I’m not sure that Trump had any good options politically (once the epidemic was out of control), although it’s intriguing to speculate as to what would have happened if he had followed me in questioning the experts (skeptical) view on masks back in early March.  The actual issue in which Trump questioned the experts (chloroquine) didn’t seem to pan out for him in the end, but by late April, experts throughout the world had basically decided that masks were indeed the way to go.  It might have been a big political win for Trump if he’d been ahead of the experts.  In addition, masks are a more attractive solution for small businesses than lockdowns.  In conservative Mission Viejo, almost everyone wears mask when in stores.  In contrast, very few people in North Dakota wore masks, and now they are paying the price.

When politicians encourage people to voluntarily wear masks, they are actually promoting liberty.  That’s because the more people that wear masks, the less political pressure there will be for lockdowns.

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-Draft

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 4. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.

 

When M*A*S*H debuted, the U.S. armed forces still used conscription to fill out its ranks. The peacetime draft began in 1948, following the expiration of World War II conscription, and included a special “doctor’s draft” for medical personnel. Selective service was vital to staffing up the U.S. military for both the Korean and Vietnam wars and was particularly despised by Vietnam protesters. Partway through M*A*S*H’s first season, the Pentagon announced that it would shift to an all-volunteer force, with the last inductions occurring before the TV season ended.

Among government institutions, conscription is one of the most disturbing. People of a particular demographic group — young men — are taken from their private lives and forced to work and live under strict government direction, at great risk to life and limb. The draft is regularly derided on M*A*S*H; as Hawkeye explains about his draft board in “Yankee Doodle Doctor” (s. 1), “When they came for me, I was hiding, trying to puncture my eardrum with an ice pick.”

No element of the show better represents opposition to the draft than the character Klinger. The show’s first seven seasons depict his many schemes to get discharged from the Army: trying to hang-glide out of Korea (“The Trial of Henry Blake,” s. 2), preparing to raft across the Pacific to California (“Dear Peggy,” s. 4), threatening to immolate himself (“The Most Unforgettable Characters,” s. 5), attempting to eat a jeep (“38 Across,” s. 5), pretending to believe he’s back home in Toledo (“The Young and the Restless,” s. 7). In “Mail Call” (s. 2), he claims his father is near death, hoping for a hardship discharge. Blake then flips through Klinger’s file:

BLAKE

Father dying last year.

Mother dying last year.

Mother and father dying.

Mother, father and older sister dying.

Mother dying and older sister pregnant.

Older sister dying and mother pregnant.

Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying.

Here’s an oldie but a goody: half of the family dying, other half pregnant.

Klinger, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?

KLINGER

Yes, sir. I don’t deserve to be in the Army.

Klinger’s longest-running scheme is pretending to be a transvestite in the hope of earning a “Section 8” psychiatric discharge. Among the outfits from 20th Century Fox’s wardrobe shop that Farr wore (sometimes while puffing on a stogie) were Ginger Rogers’ Cleopatra costume (“April Fools,” s. 8) and a woolen coat of Betty Grable’s (“Major Ego,” s. 7), as well as reproductions of Dorothy’s pinafore dress from the Wizard of Oz and a Scarlett O’Hara gown from Gone With the Wind (“Major Ego,” s. 7), and a flare-torched Statue of Liberty get-up (“Big Mac,” s. 3).

Klinger usually provides comic relief, but in “War of Nerves” (s. 6) he delivers a serious condemnation of the draft. Confiding in Sidney, who previously knocked down several of Klinger’s Section 8 schemes, he says he really does fear he’s going crazy because of his attempts to get out of the Army. Sidney asks Klinger why he wants out:

KLINGER

Why? Well, there’s — there’s lots of reasons.

I guess death tops the list. I don’t want to die.

And I don’t want to look at other people while they do it.

And I don’t want to be told where to stand while it happens to me.

And I don’t want to be told how to do it to somebody else.

And I ain’t gonna. Period. That’s it. I’m gettin’ out.

SIDNEY

You don’t like death.

KLINGER

Overall, I’d rather lay in a hammock with a couple of girls than be dead — yes.

SIDNEY

Listen, Klinger. You’re not crazy.

KLINGER

I’m not? Really?

SIDNEY

You’re a tribute to man’s endurance. A monument to hope in size-12 pumps.

I hope you do get out someday. There would be a battalion of men in hoopskirts right behind you.

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Wayne Rogers: Much More than M*A*S*H

I was very pleased to see Thomas Firey’s thoughtful series on the classical liberal currents in what was, arguably, the greatest television comedy ever, M*A*S*H.  The two original stars of the show were Alan Alda and the late Wayne Rogers.  What is lesser known of the latter, Wayne attended many Liberty Fund conferences between 2003 And 2015.  I had the privilege of knowing him for a number of years during his long and productive relationship with Liberty Fund.

By CBS Television – Public Domain

 

Wayne first became acquainted with Liberty Fund through a personal relationship with a member of the Liberty Fund Board of Directors. Wayne began to attend our events, and he grew to love Liberty Fund.  I still vividly remember watching Wayne on his Fox Business show “Cashing In” wearing a Liberty Fund tie early on Saturday mornings.  I first met Wayne at a conference in 2006 on biology and the origins of virtue (directed by a long time friend of EconLib, the ever humble Mike Munger).  Wayne and I hit it off immediately and over the years I had the opportunity to work with him twice as he directed Liberty Fund conferences.

 

Wayne’s involvement was not simply because of his fame as a celebrity.  He was a graduate of Princeton and was sharp as a whip.  Sure he could tell stories about his days on M*A*S*H or hanging out with Cher, but he was a voracious reader, and a tenacious advocate for positions he believed him.  Woe be the person who disagreed with him on Glass-Stegall.  Anyone who thought he was just some Hollywood figure quickly learned that Wayne was an intellectual of the first order who was prepared to push you if you couldn’t defend your position or the text didn’t support your views.

 

For a while, people used to joke that Wayne Rogers must have financially regretted leaving the cast of M*A*S*H after just two seasons because of a contract dispute.  But trust me, Wayne got the last laugh.  At the root of his departure was what he described as his attraction to puzzles, most of them involving how to make money in a wide range of businesses and endeavors.  As I recall, the first deal that Wayne told me he was involved with was river barges, and because Wayne could tell a story, he made a business story about river barges seem like a pirate’s adventure along the Mississippi.

 

He went onto to be involved in a multitude of other businesses including wine making, banks, investments for some of his acting friends, such as Peter Falk, and perhaps most famously he was co-owner of a little bridal shop in New York called Kleinfeld. You may have heard of it because Wayne produced one of the most popular reality shows ever based at the shop called “Say Yes to the Dress” as just one of the many businesses he was involved with. In short, Wayne did just fine.

 

I’ll always remember Wayne for his energy and drive, his generosity with this time, the passion with which he lived his life, and his firm and unyielding commitment to the principles of liberty.  He loved playing what he called his “one string banjo” – his tendency to emphasize a point again and again until he convinced you of his position.  He was one of a kind, and as part of a one of a kind show, Wayne fit right in at the 4077th.  And he would have loved Tom’s discussion of the show’s classical liberal themes.

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The Liberal Solution

American voters (those who, in the electorate, actually vote) are split into two halves, each of which hates the other and wants to impose its preferences and values on others (assuming that each half is homogeneous). A Twitter follower of mine suggested that breaking up  the country into smaller pieces may be a solution.

It would still not be possible to gerrymander the country into homogeneous parts except with a very large number of pieces. I replied (in not perfect English) with another solution:

The other solution is to shrink the federal government to the point where it doesn’t matter much who is elected–except that voters keep the option of kicking out any elected ruler who turns [out] to be a liar and fraudster (or a dangerous ignorant).

This is the (classical) liberal solution, which a three-century-old tradition has been after, from John Locke to Adam Smith, from David Hume to James Buchanan–not to forget Jean-Baptiste Say and many others. At the extreme margin of this tradition, we even find some anarchists–witness Anthony de Jasay’s “capitalist state” or Robert Nozick’s “minimal state.” In some sense, the liberal tradition would split America into 330,000,000 pieces each made of one free individual (including children, who are sovereign-to-be persons). Live and let live.

A solution somewhere on this liberal continuum is not easy to reach, as the past three centuries demonstrate. But the alternative equilibrium, tyranny, is not exactly endearing.

My Twitter correspondent seemed to agree. He finally tweeted:

We learn to leave each other alone.” <–sounds like a plan!

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Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: Anti-War

This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

 

Though Hornberger’s book avoids judgment on war, both the film and TV series are unapologetically anti-war. The series regularly portrays war’s miseries, tugging at the heartstrings but not breaking them, respecting viewers instead of putting them off.

The greatest horror of war, death, was central to one of the series’ first ratings successes, the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (s. 1). Hawkeye is visited by childhood friend Tommy Gillis, who has volunteered for service in order to write a book on his experiences. Later in the episode, a wounded Gillis is brought to the 4077, where he dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Afterward, a tearful Hawkeye is consoled by the unit’s bumbling but kind-hearted first commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson):

HAWKEYE

I’ve watched guys die almost every day. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?

HENRY

Because you’re a doctor.

HAWKEYE

What the hell does that mean?

HENRY

I don’t know.

If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic?

All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war.

And rule number one is: young men die.

And rule number two is: doctors can’t change rule number one.

 

The series’ pivotal episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” (s. 3), concluded with news that Blake, on his way home after an honorable discharge, was killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The story shocked viewers, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to the network. But as show co-runner Gene Reynolds explained, “We didn’t want Henry Blake going back to Bloomington, IL and going back to the country club and the brown and white shoes, because a lot of guys didn’t get back to Bloomington.”

 

Death-centered episodes are among the series’ best. In “Old Soldiers” (s. 8), the 4077’s subsequent commander, the venerable Colonel Potter, reminisces tenderly about his now-deceased comrades from World War I. “Follies of the Living — Concerns of the Dead” (s. 10) depicts a deceased soldier’s soul lingering at the 4077, observing the big and small tribulations of the staff. In “Give and Take” (s. 11), an American G.I. and a North Korean soldier whom the G.I. wounded are both treated at the 4077 and become friendly, only for the North Korean to succumb to his wounds. “Who Knew?” (s. 11) shows Hawkeye, sobered by the tragic death of a unit nurse, finding the courage to express his love for his unit colleagues. And in “Death Takes a Holiday” (s. 9), Hawkeye, fellow surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), and head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) try to extend the life of a brain-dead soldier brought in on Christmas Day, hoping to not ruin future Christmases for his children. When the G.I. dies before the day is out, Margaret reflects: “Never fails to astonish me: you’re alive, you’re dead. No drums. No flashing lights. No fanfare. You’re just dead.” And in “The Life You Save” (s. 9), a philosophical surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) compares his profession’s limited abilities to those of the 4077’s company mechanic, Sgt. Luther Rizzo (G.W. Bailey):

Don’t you understand the power you have here?

You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk.

And then, whenever you want to, at whim, you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life.

If only we could do that with human beings.

They — they wouldn’t die.

Also among the series’ best episodes are several portraying the war’s devastating effects on the Korean people, few of whom cared—or even knew—about the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War. In “In Love and War” (s. 6), Hawkeye falls for a cultured, upper-class Korean woman who sells her possessions and uses her wealth to care for villagers dislocated by the war. The relationship ends when the woman decides to take the people in her care further south, away from the war zone. In “B.J. Papa San” (s. 7), B.J. devotes himself to a Korean family impoverished by the war. Just as he is about to reunite them with a long-missing son, he discovers they have disappeared, also fleeing south. And in “The Interview” (s. 4), “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Klinger’s predecessor as company clerk, is asked by war correspondent Clete Roberts about the plight of Korean peasants:

ROBERTS

Do you get to meet the South Koreans? Do you know them?

RADAR

Yeah, they’re nice people. I worry about ’em though.

We got a girl here that was, you know, pregnant. She doesn’t have any money or anything.

I don’t know how these kids live. I mean, some of ‘em don’t. That’s the God’s honest truth. Some of ‘em don’t even live over here.

ROBERTS

Do you help them?

RADAR

We do the best we can, but we haven’t got— I mean, we got just— Sometimes we got just enough for ourself. Penicillin and stuff like that.

I mean, I really wish somebody would tell these people back home this.

When you have to look these kids in the face, that’s where it’s really at. I mean, that’s what the ball game really is. Is looking these kids in the face here.

Several episodes focus on war-orphaned children. In “The Kids” (s. 4) and “Old Soldiers,” orphans visit the 4077 for checkups, touching hearts and boosting morale. “Yessir, That’s Our Baby” (s. 8) has Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles finding an abandoned Amerasian baby and battling the xenophobia of Korean society and the nativism of America to secure the girl’s future. And in “Death Takes a Holiday,” an initially incensed Charles learns just how desperate the lives of the orphans are after he confronts orphanage master Choi Sung Ho (Keye Luke) for selling the gourmet chocolates that Winchester had left the children as a gift, in accordance with a Winchester family tradition:

CHARLES

Go on. Deny it. Deny it, if you can.

You took the Christmas candy I gave you, and you sold it on the black market.

Have you no shame?

CHOI

May I explain?

CHARLES

No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately and have it in the children’s stockings by morning.

Otherwise, they’re gonna find you hanging by the chimney without care!

CHOI

Major, I cannot. The money is gone.

CHARLES

You parasite!

CHOI

Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.

The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.

CHARLES

Rice and cabbage?

CHOI

I know. I have failed to carry out your family tradition, and I am very sorry.

CHARLES

On the contrary, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.

 

Just as moving are episodes in which members of the 4077 deal with their own terror in war. In “The Interview,” Hawkeye describes how sometimes, when he’s lying on his cot at night, he finds it shaking — not because of falling artillery, but because his heart is racing. “Heal Thyself” (s. 8) tells of visiting surgeon Steve Newsome (Edward Hermann) who had performed valiantly under fire on the Pusan Perimeter during the desperate early months of the war, succumbing to post-traumatic stress and fleeing the 4077’s operating room. In “Dreams” (s. 8), members of the principal cast suffer nightmares of how the war has changed their lives. The same device is used in “Hawk’s Nightmare” (s. 5): Hawkeye experiences sleepwalking and nightmares of childhood friends suffering horrific deaths. Exhausted and worried about his sanity, he turns to recurring character Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), a psychiatrist, for help:

HAWKEYE

I keep having these dreams about these kids I grew up with. And the dreams start out OK. The kids are fine. And then they end in disaster.

SIDNEY

Like those kids who roll past you on that bloody assembly line. You dream to escape, but the war invades your dream, and you wake up screaming. The dream is peaceful. Reality is the nightmare.

HAWKEYE

Am I crazy, Sidney?

SIDNEY

[Chuckling] No. A bit confused, a little fershimmeled is all. Actually, Hawkeye, you’re probably the sanest person I’ve ever known. The fact is, if you were crazy, you’d sleep like a baby.

HAWKEYE

So when do my nightmares end?

SIDNEY

When this big one ends, most of the others should go away. But there’s a lot of suffering going on here, Hawkeye, and you can’t avoid it. You can’t even dream it away.

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Zoom and the Society of Meddlers

One potent argument for free markets is that they make individual liberty and autonomy possible. To use an example from Milton Friedman’s 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, it is unlikely that both the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Worker would have equal access to newsprint if paper were allocated by government instead of markets. Same for other means of communication. But is it true that free markets always work in the impersonal, non-discriminatory way implied by this argument?

One problem is the following. If society is populated by meddlers—busybodies who are intent on interfering with other people’s preferences and choices—even free markets may fail to respond to some individual preferences. Businesses could be led, by their own self-interest, to obey the meddlers’ mob for fear of being commercially “canceled” (see my Econlog post “The Political Firm”).

We get a taste of this possibility not only with the social networks but also with Zoom’s conferencing service, as documented by the Wall Street Journal (“Zoom Video Tackles Tricky Role of Policing Its Service,” November 3, 2020):

Zoom said users may not use its service to break the law, promote violence, display nudity or commit other infractions. … In cases where Zoom has taken action and blocked a public event, the company has said it acted once it became aware of a virtual gathering that would transgress its rule or local laws. … Zoom in September blocked the use of its service for a webinar at San Francisco State University. The meeting was due to feature Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the U.S. government has designated a terrorist organization. … Zoom also blocked a series of follow-up Zoom webinars in October organized, in part, by a pro-Palestinian group in conjunction with staff at several U.S. and overseas universities to address what they said was censorship by the company. … The Council on Foreign Relations in September held a virtual meeting with Iran’s foreign minister. The minister was sanctioned by the U.S. last year, so the meeting would have violated Zoom’s rules. It allowed the meeting to take place after the think tank showed it had approval from the U.S. government for a prior meeting with the minister.

This case suggests many reflections. This is another example showing how a government’s “international sanctions” are in fact bans against its own subjects (see my posts “New Sanctions Against Americans” and “American Sanctions: Why Foreigners Obey”). Note that American spies may not be happy, for what is a better way to learn about threats to “national security” than to let the authors of the threats discuss them openly?

To justify its discrimination against some customers, Zoom invokes “local laws,” as it does in China. But it is not only laws that count; the meddlers’ mob is visible behind “nudity,” “other infractions,” or wokism. A century or two ago, if not more recently, Zoom’s services might not have been made available for meetings of individuals among the despised minorities of the times. Which brings us back to our original question: Can free markets help solve the social-meddling problem? The question is particularly pregnant since we cannot undermine the property rights of private owners of medias or other companies without dire future consequences.

Against the claim that free markets cannot prevent meddling by opinion mobs, a counter-argument is that as long as market entry is not forbidden by law, entrepreneurs with minority tastes or simply armed with naked self-interest will come to the rescue of socially oppressed people. At the limit, even if the state enforces the meddling mob’s tastes, smuggling and black markets (including their virtual forms) will offer needed alternatives. As Étienne de la Boétie would say, private vices are public virtues, the limit being in behaviors that are unanimously (or perhaps nearly unanimously) rejected such as murder and theft.

It is true that when private entrepreneurs cater to minority tastes and values, the beneficiaries may have to pay a supplement for that. Alternatives to Zoom may not, for a while, be as cost-effective. People discriminated against under McCarthyism might have found themselves in lower-paying jobs (another Friedman example) than they would otherwise have. Another way to see this is that if a large number of people show a “taste for meddling” (analogous to Gary Becker‘s “taste for discrimination“), that is, if we live in a society of meddlers, free markets will not completely eliminate the handicap of individuals who don’t share the preferences of the meddling majority. Entrepreneurs must choose between the cost for them of shunning the untouchables and the cost of “canceling” by the meddlers.

However, for the social eccentrics or pariahs–whoever they are as discriminatory fashions come and go–the cost of satisfying their preferences is still higher if, instead of social pressures, they have to deal with government bans and punishments. Markets are not perfect but political processes are even more imperfect. Overcoming private discrimination is not easy but fighting official discrimination (called “apartheid” in race relations) is more difficult. It is surprising how many people think that the government will protect minorities against majority prejudice while, during nearly all of mankind’s history, political authorities have amplified mob prejudice instead.

Economic theory suggests that a society of meddlers, like ours looks like, cannot be as economically efficient as a society of free-minded individuals and free enterprise. The reason is that economic efficiency is defined in terms of the satisfaction of individual preferences.

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A good night for libertarians

We don’t yet know the final outcome of last night’s election, but there are hints that we may be facing a divided government. The stock market is up strongly, perhaps anticipating that if Biden wins he will not be able to enact a “big government agenda”.

We do know the outcome of many other referenda, and there seem to be lots of wins for libertarian-leaning voters. John Cochrane has a post expressing satisfaction with the outcomes of a number of propositions in California, where voters defeated rent control and affirmative action, and approved a measure exempting ride-sharing employees from burdensome regulations. Uber and Lyft drivers will be able to continue operating as independent contractors.

Elsewhere, pot was legalized in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and even in highly conservative South Dakota. The national trend seems unstoppable.  What’s holding up New York?

Possession of all drugs was decriminalized in Oregon, and psychedelic mushrooms were decriminalized in Washington DC. Illinois voters seem to have rejected a progressive income tax.

More speculatively, there is some indication that the “socialist” label (fair or not) has little appeal to many minority voters.

To be sure, there were a few losses for libertarians, such as Florida raising its minimum wage. But overall, a very good night for libertarians. Please add races I missed in the comment section.

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Madame de Staël on the Media and Liberty

Confronted with shockingly violent attacks to the free expression of opinions, as the massacre at Charlie Hebdo or the beheading of Professor Paty in France, anybody with a drop of liberalism in her blood will rally to defend the freedom of speech and the press. Everybody ought to be able to say things others do not necessarily agree with, that are deemed to be obscene by some, or that the majority may consider distasteful. Of course, others may decide not to buy your paper, not to dine at your table (where the dinner’s price is listening to your idiocy), to unfollow you on Twitter. My right not to listen to you is fundamentally different from making it impossible for others to listen to you if they saw it fit.

In her learned and thoughtful blog post at Centre Walras Pareto, Biancamaria Fontana does not question this tenet of liberal thinking. However, she poses a relevant question: what’s the effect of modern media on the quality of the political debate? Is broadening the audiences always good for modern public opinion?

 

The French Revolution, Fontana reminds us, lifted the Ancien Regime’s preventive censorship. Hooray! But consider what the greatest liberal intellectual of the time (my view), Germaine de Stael, thought.Consider social media: their development “carried the promise of an easier, more immediate and transparent way to inform citizens, encouraging their participation in discussions and consultations.” Yet they are commonly seen as key for the making of contemporary populism. Fontana cites the Five Stars Movement in Italy but I am sure other examples may come to mind. Demagogues are great at twisting the media. Consider Benito Mussolini, who was, after all, a journalist, and he understood one thing or two about how the masses could be mesmerized through the at the time unprecedented flow of information and opinions.

In 1800, at the beginning of the Consulate, Germaine de Staël published a work entitled: De la littérature, considérée dans ses relations avec les institutions sociales. The book was a pioneering comparative history of European literature, seen in the light of the different national traditions. In the second part, dedicated to the present and future prospects of the Enlightenment, the chapter “On eloquence” offered a retrospective assessment of political discourse during the Revolution: an object that the author had been able to observe very closely.

Like many intellectuals, Staël had believed initially that the freedom of the press would favour the circulation of information, bringing political issues closer to the general public. The reality had proved very different. Staël stressed in particular two dismal effects of the new “liberated” press. The first one was the lowering of the level of political rhetoric, through the endless repetition of empty formulas, meaningless catch-phrases and party slogans: “The time has come to reveal to you the whole truth…the People has risen…the Nation was plunged in a deadly slumber… etc.”. The second was the escalation of violence in language: faced with a public used to the most outrageous claims, speakers competed in adopting increasingly ferocious formulas to capture their attention. The result in the end had no political or ideological significance whatever, but carried a dangerous potential of hatred and aggression.

“Words (la parole) – Staël wrote – retain the power of a lethal weapon while having no residual intellectual strength.”

Fontana, and Staël, know well that “the media (“eloquence”) can only repeat, echo, amplify those beliefs and passions, virtues and vices, that are already present within society”. They would also agree that censorship is no answer to this problem. But isn’t it something to ponder that magnifying the audience of political media tends to lower the bar? Can we say that is only a kind of snobbery? Or, on the other hand, the trivialization of political matters, the reduction of political issues to slogans, the polarization of the debate has something to do with the fall of barriers and filters in the public debate? Consider what is happening today with Covid: are social media helping in sharing useful information and getting interesting and well-argued views into the debate, or are they fostering hysteria, to the advantage of those who will cynically build on it?

Fontana’s piece is fascinating and raises some uncomfortable questions. It is also an invitation to read Staël (I wish more of her writings would be available in English, besides the meritorious translation of the Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution published by the Liberty Fund) – what a remarkable woman and thinker. When it comes to possible answers, I have none and hope to stumble upon some persuasive (and reassuring) ones

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