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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Should libertarians care about Brendan Eich's resignation?

Written by Ben Southwood | Friday 04 April 2014

Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has resigned his job after just 10 days in the role. This came after it was rediscovered that he gave $1,000 to Proposition 8, a direct democratic move to ban gay marriage in California, that narrowly passed. Upon discovering this, twitter and other areas of the internet mobilised, with 72,000 supporting a petition to the board to sack him.

One libertarian perspective might be that, since no negative rights were infringed, this was an entirely defensible use of social pressure to enforce social norms—Eich contributed to a proposal that many libertarians believe would restrict the rights of gays. For this perspective, the Eich situation is proof that state intervention is not needed to achieve socio-political equality for groups considered oppressed. It's very very interesting that many progressives are actually using the rhetoric of thin libertarianism, which they would usually abhor, to defend their position on the issue.

Contrariwise, an alternative "thick" libertarian perspective would hold that people have the right not to be hounded out of their job for opinions they hold and do not enforce on others—by all accounts Mozilla is a highly equal-opportunities place for LGBT people. For this perspective, Eich's resignation is a worrying indication that First Amendment—freedom of expression—rights are disappearing.

A third perspective might say that although this resignation, considered alone, might not be regrettable, because it advances gays' freedoms, as a rule people should not lose their job for holding certain political perspectives and even actively supporting them. This would hold especially strongly if we agreed that the small donations Eich made were unlikely to actually change anything.

I think all of these perspectives have merit as libertarian responses to what's happened. But whatever the normative issues here, I think the whole situation is much more interesting as an illustration of a positive (i.e. descriptive, not morally loaded) historical trend and tendency that is becoming, in my opinion, more and more obvious. Gay marriage was on almost no one's radar in 1990. In 2000 it was still only an utterly minority idea even among gays.

In 2008 (the same year as Prop 8, and the end of the google ngrams data range in the previous link), US President Barack Obama was elected and specifically opposed gay marriage. Between 2008 and 2014 gay marriage has gone from something a liberal Democrat felt he could not guarantee election without opposing to something that a chief executive (admittedly a Silicon Valley chief executive, of a particularly "socially aware" firm) has to favour, or at least not oppose, to keep their job. This is astonishingly rapid.

And various issues suggest that maybe this ousting had little to do with a cost-benefit analysis. Let's assume the best argument in favour of ousting him is that (a) he tipped the balance in favour of anti-gay marriage in the past, and this delayed gay people gaining their deserved marriage rights, and (b) his position at the top of Mozilla will stop it being truly equal to gay employees and consumers. That is, let's assume that the left-leaning people who got Eich overthrown do in fact wish Eich to have meaningful freedom of conscience and speech, but they also think it's fair to censor him if he acts based on those in ways which increase oppression or reduce social welfare.

(This isn't entirely accurate: some do think that people shouldn't be able to be both employed and hold personal anti-gay marriage perspectives. But I see personal opinions (which are very likely genetically heritable and uncontrollable) as a much weaker justification for the hounding and the principle of charity dictates I tackle the strongest possible opposing argument here.)

The fact that showing neither (a) nor (b) has even been attempted in any of the myriad of news and commentary I've seen on the issue is telling (I'm open to being refuted here). But more telling is the fact that none of the commentary I've seen has even mentioned these issues. And what's more I bet Eich-resignation-advocates wouldn't change their minds if we discovered that Mozilla's currently pro-LGBT policies were impervious to CEO influence, and that his $1,000 did pitifully little to change the outcome of Prop 8, never mind the overall progress of gays' marriage rights.

This suggests to me that this is about policing heresies. This is a doctrinal dispute. I wonder if Eich would still be in his job had he publicly stated regret at his old anti-gay marriage perspective and repudiated it forcefully. I bet he would. And this brings me to the final point: libertarians should care, but not because the instance itself is necessarily a bad thing—an ugly, base, low, cowardly, mean thing certainly, but it might pass a cost-benefit analysis if we really did one—but because of this trend. Progress appears to be an unstoppable juggernaught, and it might be speeding up.

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The conscience of the constitution

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Wednesday 02 April 2014

The Conscience of the Constitution by Timothy Sandefur, is a new Cato book that can be read with profit by anyone interested in classical liberalism, not just Americans. Some regard the US Constitution as a great bastion of democracy, yet the word, says Sandefur, appears nowhere in it. What the Constitution actually enshrines is liberty.

This liberal purpose and foundation is expressed in very plain terms by the Declaration of Independence, which is, in Sandefur's term, 'the conscience of the Constitution'. Where the Constitution says how the power of government should be limited, the Declaration explains why. Not to empower majorities and their representatives, but to restrain them.

Sandefur's thesis is that over a long period of usurpations, the liberty role of the Constitution has been eclipsed by its democracy rule. Its principles go back to Magna Carta, which declared that rulers and officials themselves had were subject to the 'law of the land' – the deep sense of justice and fairness that grows up through the voluntary interactions of free people. Governments cannot pass any rule they like, no matter how arbitrary, irrational, unfair, unclear or contradictory, and properly call it 'law'. It is this that 'due process' is all about – laws and their execution must be substantively fair and just. Americans do not simply enjoy a list of 'rights' but are protected (or should be) by a general rule against exploitation and unfairness.

In any particular case, that general rule might of course outrage the majority. And in recent years, says Sandefur, the courts have come to place the majority decisions in the legislature above the principle of safeguarding liberty, hardly ever striking down official powers. It is called 'judicial activism' but actually it is a baleful inactivity. Justices claim that legislators are nearer to the public and therefore better equipped to know what is in the 'public interest'. But that, says Sandefur, gives legislators carte blanche to pass almost any law, covering it with some or other 'public interest' fig-leaf. Also, majority decisions are actually made through the rent-seeking of interest groups, pressuring politicians, as described so well by the Public Choice economists. And much law today is made by unelected regulators anyway, so the 'nearer to the public' argument is plainly a sham.

Deliberately upholding unjust laws, concludes Sandefur, is no less damaging than accidentally striking down just ones. The courts should be in no doubt that, as the Constitution and Declaration specify, liberty is the primary object of their actions. However much democracy we have, our rulers have no right to go beyond the Constitution and thereby put the liberty of individuals at risk.

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I fear that Theresa May is deluded about modern slavery

Written by Tim Worstall | Wednesday 05 March 2014

As I noted yesterday there's a disturbing campaign going on to make the purchase of sex illegal. The argument being, the false argument being, that there's some appreciable amount of slavery among sex workers and that this is the only way that we can deal with the problem. That the original proposal came from the usual suspects worried me a little. That we then get ths from Theresa May which is much worse:

Modern slavery is an evil which is happening around the world today – including here in Britain. Across this country in restaurants, shops, brothels, nail bars and on illegal drugs farms are women, men and children, being held against their will, and forced into a life of slavery and abuse.

As I pointed out yesterday we have absolutely no evidence at all that there are any slaves, modern or not, in any brothels anywhere in the land. Indeed, when we actively went looking for such we couldn't find any. And the reason for this is actually quite simple. There are sufficient people entirely willing to sell sex at the prices currently on offer for it not to be worth the bother of trying to enslave someone to do it.

So, given that we don't have slavery happening in brothels we do have to wonder why Ms. May is so ill informed here. And we can diagnose that, at least in part, from something else she says here. That's that reference to "nail bars". Which is a ludicrous scare story that started here:

But it turns out that there may be another, far darker reason for the rise of the affordable manicure in the UK of late. A report by the Sunday Times (paywalled link) this week presented evidence about nail salons staffed by illegal immigrants, specifically from Vietnam. According to the report, industry insiders estimate that there are 100,000 Vietnamese manicurists working in the UK, despite only 29,000 Vietnamese-born migrants officially being registered in census data. [Questions raised below by commenters over these figures have been addressed in our Reality Check blog – see footnote.] It alleges that some of these illegal migrants are victims of "what appears to be a human-trafficking network" and that they are sometimes forced to work as prostitutes as well as manicurists.

"Industry insiders", may, possibly, allied with just entirely insane numbers do not proof of anything make. For a start there's estimated to be only 80,000 prostitutes in the country: we are really not going to start claiming that all of them are enslaved in Vietnamese nail bars, are we? Or that one in 200 women of fertile age in the country are in fact working illegally out of Vietnamese nail bars, or are Vietnamese themselves? This is actually such an absurd set of numbers that The Guardian itself had to investigate:

According to the latest statistics from January to March 2013, it is true that Vietnam is one of the top countries of concern, having the highest number of NRM cases after Albania, Nigeria and Poland. While even one case of human trafficking is one too many, the raw numbers do cast doubt on the implication that there are thousands of Vietnamese victims in the UK – 32 Vietnamese nationals were identified as potential victims in those three months.

32 people being abused is of course 32 people too many. But it's a rather different figure from 100,000.

At heart our problem here is simple. We've all cottoned on to the fact that the Socialist Calculation problem is intractable. It's simply not possible to have sufficient information to be able to plan the economy. But what we've not quite grasped, as yet, is that ths is not just a matter of economics. As above we've a scare story running about the country being infested with nail file wielding Vietnamese tarts and the government is proposing to legislate based on this most absurd of stories. But the information that the government is proposing to act upon is simply untrue. Obviously, clearly on the face of it, garglingly nonsensical. We simply do not have more Vietnamese women enslaved into prostitution than we do the total number of prostitutes in the country.

So what on earth is Theresa May doing? She is, God Save Us All, after all the Home Secretary. She has an entire department of people to tell her what is what, whch pieces of information are correct and those which are the fabrications of campaigners with an axe to grind. Why in heck isn't she listening to them?

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The deluded idea of making sex illegal to buy

Written by Tim Worstall | Tuesday 04 March 2014

There are times that I look upon those who would rule us and wonder where the collective IQ leaked out to. This is one such time: they're proposing that it should be made illegal to purchase sex in the United Kingdom.

Britain will today take a significant step towards reforming prostitution laws as the first cross-party report for almost 20 years recommends that only pimps and punters should be jailed or fined. The MPs and peers will recommend that the UK adopts a system whereby soliciting is no longer a punishable offence, but anyone who pays for sex is committing a crime. Prostitutes who are caught loitering on streets plying their trade should be given anti-social behaviour orders rather than being prosecuted, the group will say.

The Independent covers the same story:

What the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution broadly proposes is Nordic-style reform, which is what the European Parliament also backed last week. This would shift the burden of prosecution from mostly women sellers to mostly male buyers and pimps. MPs are right to say that one of the root problems with Britain’s laws on the sex trade is that they send conflicting messages about who is in the wrong. If trafficked women, especially, are to be helped, they must be assured that the law is on their side. It is why the MPs want the mass of current legislation consolidated into a single Act, which makes it clear that only those who purchase sex will feel the rigours of the law.

One minor lunacy is the idea of ASBOs instead of criminal punishment. But an ASBO is only a way station to a criminal punishment anyway. Effectively it's a sentence that if you do that again you'll be jailed. Which, given that under the current law no one is jailed for being a prostitute seems to be an increase, not a decrease, in punishment.

But what's truly nonsensical, delusional even, is the basic philosophy at the heart of all of this. That many people don't like the fact that prostitution exists is true. But then I don't like Simon Cowell's existence either and no one at all claims that this gives me the right to ban him. The only possible claim that can be made in favour of the banning of prostitution, or even of the declaration that it is something wrong that we would like to minimise, is that it represents some form of slavery in which people are forced to do things they do not agree to doing voluntarily.

And that is indeed the claim that is being made, see that reference to "trafficking" in the Independent. However, the one thing that we do in fact know about the "slavery" in prostitution is that it doesn't, in this country at least, actually exist. For we had a plan whereby every single police force in the country went out looking for people who were indeed sex slaves. People who were being forced, against their will, into prostitution (ie, repeatedly raped, a vile crime). And when they had a look through all of the brothels, working flats, saunas and street walkers they could find not one single police force was able to come up with sufficient evidence to charge anyone at all with the crime of holding someone in such sex slavery. Operation Pentameter it was called and it's the biggest refutation of the hysterical case about trafficking that could possibly have been devised.

The vision some have of people being forced onto the game is simply untrue. What we do in fact have is consenting adults deciding to offer such services as they wish to offer for the cash being proferred to them. And this isn't something that requires customers to be made into criminals: nor is it something that requires suppliers to be made into criminals either. It's just not something that requires anyone at all to be made into a criminal. It's consenting adults deciding what to do with their own bodies.

The only laws which should (apart, perhaps, from a little bit of zoning and planning law) apply to commercial sex are those that apply to non-commercial sex. Consent, age, these sorts of thngs, and nowt else.

This entire suggestion to adopt the "Nordic Way" is based upon a delusion. That there is some amount of sex slavery which the innocent must be protected from being sucked into. But given that we cannot find any evidence of the existence of sex slavery that is indeed a delusion. It's simply nonsensical piffle and those who would rule us should be ashamed of offering up such an idiotic policy.

Instead I would propose an Act making bansturbation illegal. Bansturbators being those who get sexual pleasure from banning one or more behaviours of others. There's definitely too many of those around and unfortunately they seem to be in control of the legislature at present.

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Unrestrained majoritarianism allows exploitation of minorities

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 25 February 2014

A few weeks ago, the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out that just 1% of Britain's taxpayers contributed 30% of income tax receipts. A decade ago the top 1% paid 20% of the total – indicating how much of the government's tax burden has been shifted onto higher earners.

But that is just income tax. What about the general burden of taxation, and who it goes to support? You might think that maybe four-fifths of us pay tax in order to support the other, low-earning one-fifth. Not a bit of it. In fact the majority of households in Britain are supported by the minority. Three-fifths of households get more from the state than they contribute. Only two-fifths contribute more than they receive, according to figures from the accountancy group Smith & Williamson.

The group who do best in terms of the difference between what they pay in and what they get out is in fact not the poorest at all. It is remarkable that the lowest-income decile, the tenth of households on lowest earnings (averaging £10,300 before tax) should pay tax at all, but they do – and national insurance, VAT and many other taxes to boot. Add it all up and take it away from the value of the benefits they get from the state, and the net support they get is worth £9,540. But the next decile up, households with an average gross income of £15,500, pocket a net balance of £11,240 in benefits over what they pay in taxes. The decile after that, earning £18,800, also get a better deal than the poorest, with a net balance of £10,240.

You may think it equally remarkable that higher earners should get any benefits from the state at all, but of course they do – think of all that free healthcare and education, child benefits and various subsidies to farms and businesses. In fact, a household in the seventh-highest earning decile, earning an average £38,800, receives benefits from the state of not quite £12,000 while paying taxes of not quite £11,000, making them net contributors of just £1,820. A household in the top earnings decile, on £101,300, would contribute a net £28,410.

So there you have it. Only a minority of the public, the top four deciles, meaning the highest-earning two-fifths of the population, pay more into the state than they get out. The majority, three-fifths, are living at their expense.

This in itself cannot be a healthy situation. Democracy is wonderful, but unrestrained majoritarian politics allows the majority to exploit minorities – and in the field of taxation, that exploitation is easy-peasy and the depth of it can be enormous. As we see today.

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An ageing libertarian on drugs

Written by Sam Bowman | Monday 24 February 2014

Over at ConservativeHome I've written a response to Kathy Gyngell's piece that claimed that "ageing libertarians" (!) are pushing drug legalization on unsuspecting youths:

No, “ageing libertarians” are not pushing legalization on abstemious youngsters – in the US, at least, a recent poll found that 67 per cent of under-30s supported legalisation, compared to 58 per cent of the population in general.

No, it is not legitimate to dismiss inconvenient research because it comes from “pro-drugs lobby groups”. Nobody should dismiss Kathy’s arguments simply because she is anti-drugs either. We should all play the ball, not the man.

And no, it’s not good enough to say that drug laws don’t matter because drug use is ‘marginal’ compared to alcohol and tobacco use. In the 12 months ending March 2013, there were around 87,000 convictions for drug offences. If our laws are unjust, then roughly 87,000 people are being wrongly convicted every year. Around 70 per cent of drug offenses relate to cannabis possession.

Read the whole thing.

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The Lego movie is the most libertarian film of the year

Written by Anton Howes | Thursday 20 February 2014

There's one important category missing from all the film awards ceremonies this month: The Most Libertarian Film of the Year. And the winner this year is without a shadow of a doubt The Lego Movie. Setting hilarity and great animation aside (and it has boxes of those), The Lego Movie shows us a compelling dystopian world of conformity, regulation and authority where everyone "must follow the instructions" or be "put to sleep". It is a tale of the battle between the chaotic, creative destruction of freedom, and the rigid, forceful regulation of bureaucracy.

The run-of-the-mill protagonist Emmet is blatantly shown to be brainwashed by repetitive and generic tv shows, corporatist celebration days like Taco Tuesdays, and a perpetually playing propaganda anthem called "Everything is Awesome" with clearly collectivist undertones: "everything is cool when you're part of a team". He works with other construction workers to tear down the "weird" and diverse buildings and replace them with generic ones.

But it gets so much better. The dystopian dictator's position as both the CEO of the Octan Corporation and President of the World perfectly encapsulates the problems with corporatism and monopolies on force. Indeed, his evil plan is stultifying regulation taken to the extreme: he wants to use superglue to literally stick everything permanently into the "perfect" position, relying on a robotic army of "micro-managers" to make sure that everything is exactly how he wants it to be before being stuck into place. There could be no clearer metaphor for the perils of intruding technocrats.

The evil Lord President Business wishes to destroy the chaos of innovation, hunting down and killing or imprisoning all the talented and resourceful master builders, and even erecting closely guarded borders between the different worlds in order to prevent the free movement of minifigures and their mixing of cultures into more interesting and diverse configurations.

At the same time, the resistance's enclave, Cloud Cuckoo Land is an anarchist utopia. As the UniKitty tells the heroes, "There is no government, no bedtime, no baby-sitters", though others have suggested this is also a subtle critique of the slightly creepy anti-freedom parts of modern tolerance culture: "Any idea is a good idea ...Except the not-happy ones." The dichotomy is later qualified when it turns out that creativity can work better when constrained within some rules that don't try to curtail it completely. You'd be challenged to find a simpler, more personal and appealing defence of the rule of law as conducive to freedom and human flourishing.

Above all, however, The Lego Movie is a story about the beauty of creative destruction, and how the battle between our fearful controlling impulses and our acceptance of the uncertainty of freedom is a profoundly personal one. It is an enjoyable must-watch for fans of free markets.

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Quote of the week

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Monday 10 February 2014

"The miracles of the past three and a half centuries – the unprecedented improvements in democracy, in longevity, in freedom, in literacy, in calorie intake, in infant survival rates, in height, in equality of opportunity – came about largely because of the individualist market system developed in the Anglosphere. All these miracles followed from the recognition of people as free individuals, equal before the law, and able to make agreements one with another for mutual benefit."

– Daniel Hannan
How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters

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An Indonesian answer to George Monbiot's question

Written by Tim Worstall | Saturday 25 January 2014

George Monbiot got very hot under the collar recently about a provision in hte various trade treaties that are under negotiation at present. Arguing that the ability of an investor to take a matter to arbitration was a vile undermining of democracy:

They have good reason to ask. The commission insists that its Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should include a toxic mechanism called investor-state dispute settlement. Where this has been forced into other trade agreements, it has allowed big corporations to sue governments before secretive arbitration panels composed of corporate lawyers, which bypass domestic courts and override the will of parliaments. This mechanism could threaten almost any means by which governments might seek to defend their citizens or protect the natural world. Already it is being used by mining companies to sue governments trying to keep them out of protected areas; by banks fighting financial regulation; by a nuclear company contesting Germany's decision to switch off atomic power.

And here's an example of what it is actually all about:

Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX) and Newmont Mining Corp. (NEM), the largest U.S. miners, said new Indonesian rules on metal export duties infringe on contracts they have with the government. Indonesia issued regulations on metal exports this month that curbed the shipping of unprocessed ore and placed duties on exports of copper concentrate, a semi-processed ore that’s shipped from mines to smelters. The rules have resulted in delays to obtain export permits, and Freeport plans to defer some production, according to the Phoenix-based company, the world’s biggest publicly traded copper producer. The duties on copper, which begin at 25 percent and will rise to 60 percent by mid-2016, took Freeport by surprise, Chief Executive Officer Richard Adkerson said yesterday on a conference call with analysts. Indonesia, where the company operates its biggest mine, the Grasberg copper and gold operation, accounted for 19 percent of its third-quarter revenue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine in the country contributed 6.8 percent of the miner’s total sales, the data show.

Indonesia has banned, in hte case of nickel, and heavily taxed, in the case of copper, the export of ores and or concentrates. They want the minerals to be processed within the country. Well, OK, I don't think that's sensible, you may or may not, but what is obvious is that this seriously changes the positions of those companies who have already invested billions into mines in the country. And that's what the right to go to arbitration is about.

If a government says, right, here's the terms upon which you can invest in our country then that's just fine. And it's also just fine if the government decides that it wants to change the law. However, if it does change the law it also has to compensate those who the law change affects. For example, Indonesia is entirely at liberty to nationalise those mines if it should wish to. But it does also have to pay market value when doing so. Similarly, the country is entirely within its rights to ban the export of concentrates. But it must compensate those who have invested on the understanding that concentrate exports would be allowed.

And the only purpose of arbitration is to make sure that the people deciding upon what the compensation should be are not controlled by the government that will have to be doing the compensating.

That's why these clauses exist in these treaties. Essentially, to make sure that governments keep their word.

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Motorways, pubs and nannies

Written by Dr. Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 21 January 2014

A new pub has opened in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. That's news in itself, given that around 1200 pubs closed down last year, thanks (or no thanks) to the weight of retail and employment regulation that makes pubs so darn expensive to run.

But the Hope & Champion is of doubt interest, because it is in the Extra Motorway Service Area at Junction 2 of the M40. So the people who go there are almost certain to get there by car. So naturally there have been plenty of critics complaining that this initiative sends out all the wrong signals about drinking and driving.

Well, pubs in the UK are licensed, precisely because we know the potential problems that can go with alcohol consumption. But the fact is that the local police did not object to the licence, nor did the local authority. And the local paper is giving the new pub splash coverage. So local people don't think there's a problem here.

The real problem is the message that the critics send out, yet again – that the political class in Britain thinks the adult population of their country are completely incapable of making their own choices, and that their lives have to be micro-managed for them. This pub, like most others these days, is basically a restaurant that also serves alcohol. It opens at four in the morning and starts selling alcohol at nine - though apart from one stalwart getting stuck into a pint for the cameras, most people there this morning were getting stuck into nothing more life-threatening than a Full English Breakfast. And if a group of people want to stop off the M40 for lunch or dinner, why should the passengers be denied the pleasure of a small sherry just so that drivers are 'kept away from temptation'?

Weatherspoons, the pub owners, are a responsible chain. Their menus carry Drink Aware slogans and information. Their staff do not serve people who have already had enough. People know that there are legal limits on drinking and driving - and they know that even drinking below the legal limit can slow down your reactions. So most drivers who visit the pub, alone or with a group, would probably not have alcohol anyway, and their passengers would probably not want them to.

So as the police and local authority figure, there's no problem. The only problem is all those people who deem it their business to treat us like children.

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