Arming “Moderate” Rebels in Syria? Really??

Let’s start with the facts.

In late August 2013, the US government and the rest of the western world accused the President/dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, of using sarin gas against an innocent village. This crossed Obama’s “Red Line”, so the US geared up for a military strike against Syria and Assad’s government.

Luckily, before getting pulled into another Middle Eastern quagmire, Russian leader Vladimir Putin came in and saved the day by arranging a deal where Syria surrendered its chemical weapons.

Not content to let the evil Assad gain any advantage in Syria’s civil war, Obama decided to aid the “moderate” rebels by providing them with weapons that he had already promised to send them months earlier. There were all sorts of protections put in place to ensure that these arms went to the moderate factions, and not the extremists.

Of course, that whole fiasco was a farce. There is no proof that Assad’s government used chemical weapons. The range of the rockets used to deploy the sarin gas was too short for them to have been launched from government controlled territory, as was shown by physicists from MIT. In fact, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the responsibility for the attack lies with the opposition, who was aided by Turkish intelligence. I’m not going to claim that I know who used the sarin gas, but the physical evidence and the US government’s record of lying about weapons of mass destruction would lead me to pause before accepting Obama’s official narrative.

In any case, Obama and the neoconservatives’ plan for war with Syria was foiled at that time. But in the past few months, an organization known as ISIS, ISIL, or IS (depending on who you ask) emerged out of nowhere and has become the greatest terrorist threat since al-Qaeda. These monsters have been oppressing all the villages they have taken control over, committed mass murders, and even beheaded two American journalists.

How did this organization, practically nonexistent a year ago, come to carve out large swathes of Syria and Iraq for their “Caliphate”?

It turns out that rebels who would later join ISIS received training in then secret CIA camps set up in Jordan in 2012. Not only that, but they’ve picked up American weaponry both as a byproduct of the US support of Syrian rebels as well as through their conquest of northern Iraq. Even weaponry that was sent to Libya to help fight against Gaddafi (with US support) have ended up in the hands of jihadis in Syria and elsewhere.

Given these facts, how do we make sense of the fact that Obama (and many others) are proposing the idea of further arming the “moderate” rebels in Syria in order to fight ISIS? The current proposal is to send an aid package of $500 million to these rebels. Somehow, the fact that our ongoing attempts to do this have led to vastly increasing the strength of ISIS has escaped the attention of policy makers.

The way I see it, there are two possibilities: either it has been the intention of the US defense establishment to strengthen extremist elements all along, or officials are absurdly stupid. In the first case, the US is clearly blameworthy for the entire mess we face right now, and the moral blindness of it all is almost too much to accept. In the second case, how in the world do these policy makers propose to keep these arms in the hands of true moderates?

Consider the fact that the US spent $25 billion to build up the Iraqi army over the past 10+ years. This is the official army of a state that was physically occupied by the US. The soldiers had direct training and weapons from the US. And they had it for years. Yet this army collapsed almost immediately against ISIS. Does anybody really think that a ragtag, disorganized group of “moderates”, in a country without US ground presence or any semblance of control, is going to be able to defeat both the brutal, US armed ISIS as well as Assad’s forces? The suggestion is laughable, and yet here we are.

Oh, and that’s assuming that, against all odds, the arms that were directed to support these “moderate” fighters don’t end up in the hands of ISIS anyways. If the Iraqi army could fold that quickly, it seems silly to think that a weak and fragmented group of Syrian rebels would fare much better.

Oh, and that’s assuming that these rebels that we propose to send arms to are decent, upstanding, liberty-minded people themselves. ISIS has already co-opted numerous US-backed rebel groups amidst the shifting alliances during the Syrian civil war. Not only that, but these “moderates” seem to have a thing for beheadings as well.

The fact that seemingly intelligent people are seriously suggesting that the US arm rebels in Syria is insane. As Mugato said in Zoolander: “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”

Update: Since posting this, it has come to my attention that some “moderate” rebel groups in Syria have signed a non-aggression pact with ISIS. 

Democracy, State, and Utopia

“Well, imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society, and used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets, hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose, and periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your worries be assured the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?”

Robert Taylor

 

American Flag

In one episode of The Simpsons, a comet is headed straight for Springfield. A bill was introduced in Congress to help save Springfield from destruction, but at the last second, someone tacked on another bill to give money to “support the perverted arts”. Naturally, the bill failed, prompting this classic quote from Kent Brockman:

In the context of the show, this was clearly a joke. However, I intend to show that, indeed, “democracy simply doesn’t work.”

Furthermore, I intend to show that not only does democracy not work, but that it is inherently utopian. For the purpose of this essay, a belief system is considered utopian if it requires a change in human nature without proposing a mechanism by which that change can take place. Wherever applicable, I have included scenes from The Simpsons that either buttress this view, or are merely relevant and entertaining.

As an anarchist, I support the abolition of all government. Most people consider this a “radical” view (true, in that it differs from the mainstream view considerably), and would label it as utopian. Most people consider democracy to be a form of government that has some problems, but is generally good.

There are a number of reasons that most people think that democracy “works”. In the limited space of this blog post, I will address some of the most common ones. While democracy may be a vastly preferable system to a totalitarian state, the main reasons we are taught that democracy is a good system are based off of utopian assumptions. There is more than enough evidence to show that, in practice, democracy can never work the way its proponents intend.

I will address the following methods by which proponents of democracy claim that liberty can be maintained through limiting the power of government:

  • People have a say in their government’s decisions by exercising their right to vote
  • Activism can help change the system for the better
  • The media can keep tabs on what the government is doing and keep the populace informed
  • Public education leads to an informed populace
  • Constitutional limits prevent government overreach
  • Checks and balances ensure that power is decentralized

My intention is not to say that these are bad things and should be done away with (they should, but only in the context of removing government entirely). Surely, they have prevented some amount of potential abuse of government power.

However, these methods are insufficient, and they do not perform anywhere nearly as well as proponents of democratic government believe.

 

People have a say in their government’s decisions by exercising their right to vote

Pro-Democracy: Most people are aware of their interests and vote in favor of their interests. Therefore, elected leaders in a democracy are those individuals who best serve the interests of the majority of the citizenry.

The most obvious and basic critique of this viewpoint is that the majority has the power to abuse the minority. That is how, for example, laws against gay marriage can exist in a democratic state, even to this day.

It’s also how such repugnant laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act and the Jim Crow laws could exist.

But it isn’t just minorities either; nonvoters end up without any form of representation whatsoever in government decision-making.

This includes women who couldn’t vote until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. For more than half of America’s history, 50% of the population automatically fell into this category.

“But women CAN vote now, so problem solved,” you say.

But it isn’t just women. Both convicted felons and people under the age of 18 are not allowed to vote, either. These groups are just as affected by public policies as everyone else (and in the convict’s case, likely moreso), yet they have no voting rights over these policies.

Children of age 17 are qualitatively the same as adults of age 18, yet one can vote and the other can’t. And felons can be victims of unjust laws, but still be denied the vote. Consider, say, drug laws. Someone caught selling marijuana can no longer vote, even though the legal status of these drugs is under serious debate.

What about foreigners? They are affected by state policies, such as immigration laws, travel restrictions, trade policies, and most notably, war. The hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died as a direct consequence of the US invasion had no say in the decision to go to war.

Finally, your vote makes no difference on the outcome of an election. This is mathematically obvious, yet somehow the myth that “your vote counts” persists.

No, your vote does not count. In order for your vote to determine anything, the outcome of the election (excluding yourself) would need to either be a tie, or have a one vote difference, with your vote being for the candidate who was losing (thus making it a tie).

The chances of this happening in a national election are negligible, and for other elections, still miniscule. For instance, take a look at this list of close elections throughout the world. There were a handful of ties or elections determined by a single vote, but nearly all of these were more local elections within sparsely populated Canadian territories. Every one of these elections had less than 40,000 total votes cast, most with well under 10,000. Consider that Wyoming had over 422,000 eligible voters during the 2012 presidential election, and this is the state with the lowest number.

Keep in mind that population growth makes the odds of your vote mattering decrease during every election cycle.

PD: An individual vote may not matter, but the voters as a whole have a huge amount of power.

While this may be true, it is not relevant to any given voter’s rational decision-making. This point will be addressed more thoroughly in the next section. For now, it is worth noting that, as an individual, you may have the power to sway a handful of votes, but rarely a significant amount.

Even so, the most robust of modern research on the topic has concluded that even mass groups of voters have a minimal effect on public policy. Rather, it is interest groups and powerful business interests that control policy outcomes. How else would incumbents win in Congressional elections over 90% of the time, even in a year like 2010 where people were particularly unsatisfied with their representatives?

PD: It costs you nothing to vote, so a rational individual will still vote for whoever serves their best interests. The probability of your vote mattering may be small, but it is positive, so there is still a positive expected return.

This is simply not true. There are considerable costs to voting in your best interest.

The act of voting itself requires taking time out of your day to make it to the polling station. In and of itself, this cost surely outweighs the very low expected benefit of voting.

But this is the least of the costs. In order to vote in your best interests, you must become an informed voter. This means familiarizing yourself with all the candidates and their voting records, plus understanding the actual content of the bills that they have voted on.

Not only that, but you must understand how these bills affect you personally. This requires and understanding of economics, foreign policy, dozens of different industries, etc. And you must make a concerted effort to eliminate any emotional biases you have surrounding each and every one of these issues. This is no small task.

Empirically, we see that political knowledge is abysmally weak. For instance, a 2006 survey found that only 42 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of the federal government.

Not only are voters ignorant, but they are also irrational.  Considerable biases affect voter perception, causing individuals to vote against their best interests. For instance, protectionist economic policies hurt everyone, yet all democracies have them (and are supported by large groups of people), despite hundreds of years of economists warning about their negative effects.

Worse yet, politicians are aware that their constituency is not well informed. Therefore, they know that they can freely vote on mere whims and give specious arguments to support their decision, without being held accountable. Hell, they don’t even have to familiarize themselves with the bills that they are voting on! Bills are often hundreds or thousands of pages long, released hours before the vote, and have various insertions and deletions done at the last second.

Furthermore, rent-seeking makes it even less rational for your average voter to become informed. Most bills will benefit a few people or organizations to a large degree, at the expense of many people to a much smaller degree.

You, as a voter, have almost no incentive to educate yourself and others or try to influence the election for mild savings. The large businesses who benefit can afford to spend millions of dollars lobbying for these policies that will give them even more money. And you wouldn’t need to familiarize yourself with and influence the vote on just one issue, but many.

An example here would be instructive. Consider the sufficiently bland subject of excessive federal reimbursement for anti-anemia drugs. A massive industry lobbying effort (over $8 million since 2009) has prompted a huge bipartisan coalition in Congress to reverse their previous decision and reduce their planned cuts in this corporate subsidy. All at taxpayer expense, of course.

That’s a fairly obscure issue, so imagine familiarizing yourself not just with that, but with thousands of proposed policies. Corporate welfare made up $100 billion in the 2012 federal budget, but each individual issue only costs you a small amount of money by itself.

Utopian Analysis: Voters would need to become completely irrational in order to make voting an appropriate means of people securing their best interests. Of course, once you assume people to be irrational, then the whole exercise of voting becomes silly.

 

Activism can help change the system for the better

PD: In a democracy, the public is active, and people can send letters to their representatives or otherwise put pressure on them to act responsibly and in the public interest.

It is generally not in an individual’s best interest to be an activist. We’ve gone over part of this in the previous section, since it is generally not in a given person’s interest to become informed. But it goes beyond that when it comes to activism.

I will readily acknowledge that activism can and does sometimes work. Gandhi and the civil rights movement come to mind. But these cases only happen (and only occasionally) in the most egregious cases of mass abuse by government. In everyday cases of government abuse, it is utopian to think that people will put in this kind of effort.

Even the most conscientious activist, devoting 100% of their time to monitoring government activities, could only familiarize himself with a tiny fraction of government activity.

It’s not just the problem of becoming informed; there are significant additional costs and risks to activism.

For instance, voicing your political views can be dangerous at work or for social reasons. People tend not to want to rock the boat in these areas, and most people don’t have the stomach to have their potentially unpopular political views known to their colleagues or acquaintances.

But the real risks come from the way governments, even democratic ones, look at activists. In America, practicing civil disobedience can get you labeled as a terrorist.

There is a rich history of democratic government spying on activists, right through today. Department of Homeland Security policy involves the day to day spying on activists, and the NSA has been spying on prominent Muslim-Americans since at least 2002. Anyone who visits the WikiLeaks website is getting their data captured by the NSA as well.

And then, of course, there is COINTELPRO, the secret FBI program that involved spying on and infiltrating political organizations between 1956 and 1971. If you’ve never heard of this, go read the linked Wikipedia article and tell me with a straight face that you still trust this government. It didn’t even take ten years after the constitution before the US passed the Alien and Sedition acts to punish dissent.

It’s not just illegal and unjustified surveillance; the odds are extra against activists’ success.

For instance, the GCHQ (Britain’s version of the NSA) has been manipulating public debate by hacking online polls to change their results, directing traffic to specific sites, and censoring “extremist” content. You can be sure that the NSA is engaging in similar activities.

More and more, government is criminalizing whistleblowing, with the Obama administration prosecuting five cases under the Espionage Act, more than all previous presidents combined.

Some of the most disturbing government behavior in this area is how they are deliberately destroying the reputations of activists online. This includes posting fake material and attributing it to the activist, pretending to be a victim of the person whose reputation they want to destroy, and posting “negative information” on various forums.

Despite high awareness of these abuses since Edward Snowden’s leaks over a year ago, things haven’t improved. The most important reforms have been completely ignored.

Utopian Analysis: The vast majority of people will not subject themselves to the extreme costs, both in informing themselves properly, as well as the risks of privacy violations or having their reputation destroyed, in order to have an almost non-existent chance of influencing government policy. While a handful of people will still choose to be activists, the odds are stacked heavily against them.

 

The media can keep tabs on what the government is doing and keep the populace informed

PD: We don’t need to do all the work of watching government ourselves. We can delegate this responsibility to the media, who will then alert and inform the public of government transgressions.

At least on the face of it, this sounds somewhat plausible. And in fact, the media has helped uncover many abuses (in recent years, this is primarily due to the influence of alternative media, however).

But while the media can and does sometimes help in this effort, there are systemic reasons why it doesn’t work this way in general.

Before going any further, it is worth noting right off the bat that in 2014, the US ranked 46th in the world in terms of press freedom in Reporters Without Borders’s annual index. I would have expected a bit higher in “the land of the free”.

We must remember that the media, like any business, caters to the desires of their consumers. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but it does cause significant problems with the “pro-democracy” idea above.

For the reasons outlined in earlier sections of this post, most people are not willing to invest the time to educate themselves about issues. Therefore, much of the news is about entertainment, not information. People tend to be more interested in the latest celebrity gossip than the intricacies of a recent Supreme Court case, so that is what the media will tend to focus on.

Regardless of how great some reporters might be, if people don’t want to educate themselves, then the media simply will not do the work for them. And when important issues are being covered, it is easier for the journalist to accept a government spokesman’s account rather than doing serious investigation of any complex issues. It’s even easier (and cheaper) to post opinion pieces and interviews, which are making up a larger and larger share of media time.

But there are more “dark and sinister” reasons to be skeptical that the media can help patrol against government abuses.

Government officials may become angered by overly critical pieces and have the power of coercion to respond (picture Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, the detention of David Miranda, etc.). If you reveal something too close to the heart of the National Security State, you will be punished. Consider James Risen, who is being coerced by the federal government for refusing to reveal a source for a book he wrote exposing the CIA.

The fact is, potential government sources are highly unlikely to provide information to journalists known to be critical of the government. And who can blame them? People tend not to like publicizing their own failures or being made to look bad.

Since government controls access to critical sources and information, this is a significant point. The government restricts physical access to sources, selectively provides information that highlights the administration’s successes rather than failures, and prescreens reporters’ questions or only allows scripted ones.

It doesn’t help that the major news networks are owned by the same few organizations. In fact, six giant conglomerates control over 90% of what you watch, read, and listen to. These corporate giants have their own agenda, and are deeply in bed with the government. Surely, media “objectivity” is affected when the Federal government is one of the largest advertisers.

A number of prominent journalists have exposed examples of media corruption, often being fired or otherwise suffering consequences in the process. These include withholding negative information about both corporate sponsors as well as government corruption and abuse.

In my opinion the most glaring recent example of the media not informing the populace of important information was with Iceland’s “pots and pans” revolution in 2009-10. The mainstream media in the US was completely silent about this event, and yet it was among the most important world events at the time. This was a peaceful revolution where the government was overthrown, and the fraudulent banksters were thrown in jail. Maybe, just maybe, this was because they didn’t want to give Americans any ideas?

Finally, I’d like to point out that there is overt government manipulation of the media. Most people refuse to believe things like this, because it is so depressing in a lot of ways. For starters, there is well documented collusion between the New York Times and the CIA. This isn’t too surprising, however, since they regularly push fabricated evidence in attempts to promote warfare and militarism.

The CIA isn’t just working with the NYT; there is a deliberate campaign to manipulate the media in general. Operation Mockingbird, which began in the 1950s, involved (among other things) recruiting journalists to push the CIA’s version of “news”. You can be sure similar work is being done today.

PD: Because of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government must give out information to anyone who wants it.

The FOIA is certainly a positive thing, and to some extent, it does help foster transparency in government. However, it is far from a panacea.

The FOIA is one of the most ignored laws on the books, sometimes not respected at all, other times taking years to fulfill the request (legally must be within 20 days). The Department of Justice claims to release almost 95% of requests, but those numbers are a bit fuzzy. There are legitimate reasons why not all documents are released in a timely manner, including the cost of providing these documents and the sheer volume of requests. In any case, it isn’t as though you can receive any document you want.

In fact, more and more, the US is citing national security as an excuse to censor or reject FOIA requests. In 2013, the Obama administration censored or rejected more requests than it granted outright. Some of these denials are surely legitimate, but it’s hard to believe that there are so many more security threats now than there have been in the past. This is a disturbing trend.

But the scariest thing is that some agencies, notably the powerful and secretive Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), are exempt from FOIA requests. Nobody knows who works for them or what their credentials are, but the majority of federal regulations are altered by them, without oversight, and often without explanation. Sounds pretty shady to me.

Utopian Analysis: While the media can expose some government excess (and the alternative media is increasingly promising), there are structural reasons why we can never rely on the media to keep us informed. So long as people don’t want to be informed, the media won’t provide it for them. And so long as government controls access to the most important information regarding its own excesses, it has no reason to share. The occasional brilliant journalism that we do see is the exception, not the rule.

 

Public education leads to an informed populace

PD: Public education leads to an informed populace of independent thinkers who will hold their government accountable.

On the contrary, public education leads to conformity, stifles dissent, and teaches children to obey authority.

At this point, many people will accuse me of going off the deep end or being a “conspiracy theorist” (as if that actually meant something), but this is NOT a controversial point. It is merely forgotten history.

The idea of public schooling grew out of a desire to create more malleable, easy to control citizens. The intention was to homogenize students and create obedient workers.

I will not go into the history of public schooling here, but for a fascinating and fairly short exposition (6-7 pages), I highly recommend you check this out: The Origins of the Prussian System. If you want far more detail, here is an archive of articles by John Taylor Gatto, an award winning teacher who has studied this extensively.

The father of public education in America, Horace Mann, observed the Prussian system of education and gave it a glowing review before bringing it back to America. But even supporters of public schooling didn’t beat around the bush regarding its purpose. Take this, from William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education (1889-1906):

“[Ideally] ninety-nine [students] out of one hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” (as quoted by Gatto, 2010, p. 13)

And things haven’t changed. While the rhetoric may be about “equal opportunity” and the like, dissenters are still punished. Consider these high school students who were suspended for political activism on campus.

The system of public education is necessarily propagandistic, regardless of the intention. Bringing government into it means standardization, and one size fits all policies.

For instance, required certifications for teaching means that the authority figures are fairly homogenous as well, not just the students. Creative or unorthodox teaching styles are discouraged, as is experimentation. Teachers are no longer wise mentors, but rather bureaucrats who are required to teach within a specified curriculum (and to standardized tests).

The government also gets involved in library and curriculum selection, which helps them frame the debate that takes place within the halls of the school. Do you think the government is really going to choose materials that threaten them? Could you ever see this article being referenced in a public school classroom?

While private schools could, in theory, provide some counterbalance, the sheer cost of sending your child to one is prohibitive. That, and the US government still has control over the curriculum for private schools.

Common standards have a stifling effect on knowledge and learning. But that isn’t stopping the government’s push to adopt Common Core, a national set of standards. While proponents may claim that it is about improving education, a look at one of the Common Core exercises that was released tells a different story. Some of the great things that these standards are going to teach America’s children include that “The wants of an individual are less important than the well-being of the nation,” and that “The commands of government officials must be obeyed by all.”

It’s not just Common Core; schools are already being used to craft obedient citizens. Consider this example of 3rd grade homework, where we learn, among other things, that “good citizens do not argue”. Or this 4th grade homework that teaches that government is like family.

You could argue that these are isolated instances. And perhaps they are. But the very structure of the classroom is designed to foster obedience to authority from a young age.

When a student wants the teacher’s attention they must raise their hand and wait to be called upon. Attendance is compulsory, often enforced by taking roll call in the morning. Children are seated in rows (isolated), silenced, and made to perform rote tasks and busy work. Assignments are mandatory. The children must be seated when the bell rings, or else get in trouble. Speaking of which, there are disciplinarians and punishments for breaking what are often arbitrary rules. There are specially designated times for lunch and recess, so students can’t just eat when they are hungry. The student must ask to go to the bathroom. One county has even mandated see through book bags, and biosensors are being developed to detect whether children are paying attention or not.

There are some rational reasons for some of these policies, of course, but it’s not like there aren’t other successful models of education, such as democratic schools, where students choose whether they want to attend and what they learn.

Even if you choose to not believe that the intention of public education is to create obedient, one-size-fits-all students, you can see that this is necessarily the effect. This mass of citizens, conditioned to obey, is very unlikely to start any kind of revolution, certainly not one every twenty years as Thomas Jefferson suggested.

PD: Higher education is different. Students are more mature and are taught many different viewpoints.

University-age students are surely more mature and open minded than elementary school students. As such, they are more capable of free thought.

Despite that potential, higher education, rather than leading to independent thinking, has some of the strictest rules against independent thought! Whatever rebellious ideas students may have largely get funneled into supporting the establishment, rather than fighting it.

It is well known that college professors tend to be more liberal. Students may believe they are fighting authority by being liberal (and when they are being anti-war, they are), but almost all support big government. The radicals are the socialists, who support even bigger government.

The preponderance of liberal/progressive ideals on campus is self-reinforcing. According to this study, even after taking into account merit and numerous other factors, more conservative professors tend to teach at lower quality institutions. This hardly fosters debate and the free flow of ideas.

In fact, students and faculty who take the “wrong” stance often get punished. Take the unfortunate ordeals that Professors Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Walter Block have had to go through because people have misinterpreted their views. And then here are a few absurd examples of liberalism gone wild on campus. Particularly silly is the student who was found guilty of racial harassment without a hearing, because he was reading a book with a picture of the KKK on the cover. Never mind that a major point of the book was to celebrate the defeat of the KKK. All that matters is that some people got offended!

Perhaps even worse than the stifling of ideas and academic freedom on campus is the crippling debt that young people are put in when they graduate. Saddled with debt, these young adults become dependent on the system itself, and are far less likely to practice any form of dissent.

In 2012, 71 percent of graduates had debt, an average level of $29,400. This debt cannot be discharged, and it is increasingly difficult for college graduates to find decent work (if any) these days. This basically turns people into debt slaves. I won’t dwell on the point here, as it has been sufficiently covered elsewhere. For those of you who want more information, here are some disturbing statistics about college loans, and here is an infographic describing the history if this scam.

Utopian Analysis: A government with the power to determine the curriculum, the rules of education, the qualifications for teachers, and so on, will never find it rational to teach children to think for themselves, because this diminishes the government’s power.

 

Constitutional limits prevent government overreach

“But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

-Lysander Spooner, No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

PD: A written constitution, strictly limiting the functions of the state, can limit state powers and make it easier to monitor.

While the US constitution is a radical document, and contains within it many ideals of liberty, it cannot effectively limit the power of the state. Just because a constitution exists does not mean that it will be followed. There would need to be an adequate mechanism in place for ensuring compliance with the constitution, and that simply does not exist.

There was a valiant effort on the part of the framers of the constitution to build in safeguards. But somehow, even these brilliant men could not see the obvious: No other organization has the power to coerce the government. Therefore, the government is responsible for enforcing its own compliance to the document.

PD: The courts/judiciary will nullify unconstitutional laws.

Sure, that is what they are supposed to do. And in many cases, they do! Certainly, in early America, the courts performed this job better than they do now.

But what is to stop a court official from merely judging the way that they feel is right, regardless of the constitution? Who watches the watcher?

The answer, of course, is no one. Judicial activism, or declining to uphold the constitution in favor of ruling how the judge believes proper, is quite common these days.

The size of government would be vastly curtailed if the courts were to actually do their job and follow the constitution. The 9th and 10th Amendments delineate the scope of lawful government activities. Anything that is not in the constitution is not an “enumerated power”, and is not lawful for the Federal government to be involved in. Take a look at Article 1, Section 8 of the constitution, and see what kinds of things are allowed. The whole section is short enough to include in full here:

“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the Supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

That’s it. If you can’t find it in here, then the Federal government isn’t allowed to do it. This rules out the vast majority of law on the books today.

However, through the use of absurd, specious reasoning, the government can create whatever justification is necessary to consider a given law or regulation constitutional. Consider the case of Wickard vs. Filburn in 1942 (a big shoutout to Professor Michael Huemer for this example, as well as much of the inspiration for this post – read his book, it’s fantastic).

The Roosevelt administration had been continuing with its fascist New Deal policies, and had just passed a law that limited the amount of wheat that farmers could grow, in order to increase the price. Roscoe Filburn was growing wheat to be used to feed the livestock on his own farm. He exceeded the amount that the law allowed him to grow, and the Department of Agriculture fined him. He sued, arguing that there was no constitutional authority for the government to determine how much wheat he could grow on his own farm.

For those of you keeping score at home, go back up a few paragraphs, and try to see where the constitution allows the federal government to restrict the amount of wheat you can grow. Right, it doesn’t.

And yet, the court unanimously decided that the law was legal and justified under the clause: “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” According to them, because he grew wheat to feed his livestock, he would buy less from other farmers. This lowers the price of wheat, having an effect on commerce, which may cross state borders.

This justification is laughable. But it happened, and it’s clearly not the only one.

It would be impossible for me to list all of the laws that are in direct violation of the constitution, because that would involve listing out nearly all of the laws in general. But I think a few of the particularly egregious are worth pointing out here.

With Executive Order 9066 in 1942, FDR mandated that Japanese-Americans be interned in camps, an order which the Supreme Court upheld.

In the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans, slave or free, were not American citizens and could not sue in federal court.

More recently, the USA PATRIOT Act, which gives the federal government sweeping powers of surveillance over American citizens, is a clear violation of the 4th Amendment. It shouldn’t take a constitutional scholar to see this.

Then there is the REAL ID Act, passed in 2005 but not implemented, which involves national requirements for driver’s licenses as identification. This is not an enumerated power, and is clearly something only the States can do.

Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition programs, and invasive police body cavity searches are all in violation of the 8th Amendment, which is supposed to prevent “cruel and unusual punishment”.

And then there are drone killings. According to the best legal scholars at the White House, it is perfectly constitutional and legal to assassinate American citizens living abroad if they are considered a terrorist threat, even if they haven’t actually done anything. This clearly violates their 5th Amendment right to due process.

The president cannot declare war on a foreign country without congressional approval, and yet that is precisely what Obama did in Libya.

The Federal Reserve is unconstitutional because the constitution says the US government ought to punish counterfeiting, not institutionalize it. Section 10 of the constitution says that only gold and silver coin can be legal tender.

And what about when federal investigators secretly seized two months’ worth of Associated Press phone records? Was this not a 1st Amendment violation?

Again, there are a nearly limitless supply of other examples, but these are some of the more egregious.

PD: Many people believe the constitution is too restrictive anyways. We need to interpret it anew regularly.

Perhaps. But in that case, you can’t expect the constitution to have any weight in terms of limiting the powers of government, by definition.

The government also has the power to amend the constitution, even in ways that nullify itself. If the same organization whose power is supposed to be checked by the constitution has the power to amend it, government abuse has an easy method of justifying itself.

Consider the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. It took a separate amendment, because obviously it is not one of the enumerated powers. But, as nearly everyone today would agree, prohibition was unjust! How quickly people forget, because not too long after, numerous other drugs have been prohibited, without even the formality of amending the constitution.

Utopian Analysis: Having the government be in charge of enforcing its own compliance with the constitution is the equivalent of having criminals be responsible for their own punishment.

 

Checks and balances ensure that federal power is decentralized

PD: The executive, judicial, and legislative branches each restrain the others from abusing their powers.

Like most of the other items on this list, the separation of powers was a well-intentioned system that has some benefits, yet utterly fails to protect your liberty. There are many cases where checks and balances have at least slowed the growth of tyrannical government, but they will not stop or reverse it.

There is no reason for each branch to use its power to restrain that of the other branches, and no mechanism to ensure that they do this. Is it not just as likely that the various branches will work in tandem to increase all of their powers?

Let’s think about the incentive structure here. If the legislature passes a law that infringes upon the rights and liberties of the citizenry (but has no negative impact on the other branches), there is no incentive for the courts to strike it down or the executive to veto it. Sure, it’s their job. But as we saw in the previous section, this is hardly good enough.

In fact, the more laws that are on the books, the bigger the executive and the judiciary branches need to become in order to enforce the new laws and to try court cases about them. In other words, there is a general inclination for all three branches to grow in power together.

Of particular concern is that the president gets to appoint Supreme Court justices. Naturally, they will make their selection based off of shared ideology rather than some objective qualification. This is a fairly non-controversial point. I have heard numerous people wish for some justices to step down at specific times, so their favored president is the one who gets to appoint the next one.

This makes perfect, rational sense. Why would any president (other than an ideological libertarian one) appoint a judge who intends to decrease the power of the government, including that of the executive branch? This incentive alone practically guarantees the perpetual growth of government. The slate of recent Supreme Court cases ruling in favor of the police state supports this theory.

Some people might counter here that politicians become politicians because they are good people, and their intention is to help, not to gain power. I’m sure this is true of many politicians, but their intentions are irrelevant. If they support policies that concentrate power, it doesn’t matter if it is because they think that concentrated power can be used for good or not. And there is reason to believe that the type of people who tend to become politicians are also the type of people who would behave in a corrupt and dishonest way, as this study shows.

Besides the institutional incentives, there are numerous ways by which the separation of powers has been weakened. For instance, a lot of regulatory functions have been delegated to specific agencies, giving the executive branch considerable lawmaking power.

In fact, the power of the executive branch has grown dramatically over recent years. Consider that Obama has appointed nearly 40 Cabinet officials without legislative approval, went to war in Libya, ordered drone strikes, and repeatedly amended the Affordable Care Act when it suited him politically.

The most disturbing possibility with regards to the separation of powers is that the NSA is spying on prominent members of government, including Congressional representatives. We know that J. Edgar Hoover used the FBI to spy on members of Congress in order to blackmail them (as part of COINTELPRO, mentioned above), so why would it be different now? In the unlikely event that politicians aren’t being blackmailed, much damage can be done when members of Congress are spied on, even just incidentally. The Jane Harman story should teach us this lesson.

Utopian Analysis: The separate branches of government have the incentive to cooperate in order to increase their own power and scope. There is no reason to believe that government officials will behave in ways counter to their own interests, but there is substantial evidence that they will act in dishonest ways to seize more power.

 

Conclusion

We may have a much better political life now than several hundred years ago, but this is largely due to the spread of classically liberal values, not the political system itself. It is because enough people would be disgusted by certain government behavior that authoritarianism hasn’t fully taken over. But as people become more illiberal, and that is the way we are trending, this protection would be reduced.

A number of these features of democracy may slow down this tendency toward authoritarianism, but they are all inherently flawed. The scale is weighted heavily away from freedom and towards the totalitarian state, and appealing to some of the features of this system can do very little to prevent this from happening.

For this reason, a limited state is impossible. America was the most well conceived government in the history of the world, with the most extensive built in protections to maintain the liberty of the people. And yet even in America, less than 250 years after its founding, the government is hardly recognizable when compared to its original ideals. Even in a democracy, state power will metastasize.

photo by:

The War On Ugliness

Silly face

Economists across the political spectrum agree that in instances of market failure, the government should step in to optimize when the market could not. One generalized instance of these market failures has been dubbed the “externality”, which is where the full social cost of an action is not paid by the agent who takes the action.

An example would be instructive. Let’s say I own a factory, and pollutants billow out of my smokestacks. Wind picks them up and carries the pollution into a nearby town, creating smog. The townspeople are experiencing the cost of the smog, but that cost is not factored into my decision of how much to produce at my factory. After all, I don’t have to suffer the consequences, so I will produce until my marginal product equals marginal cost.

Here, it is the role of the government to step in and “internalize” the externality, say, by imposing a tax on the amount of pollution I produce. Now that I have to pay the cost, I will decrease production and pollution will be reduced, maximizing the social welfare.

This is all well and good. The government has stepped in and helped to internalize some externalities, but there are some that have gone completely ignored, with disastrous consequences. There is one externality I have in mind that touches our lives every single day. Everybody knows about it, but our politicians are silent, despite the fact that it quite literally causes outright revulsion and disgust among most Americans today.

I’m talking about all the ugly people. Nobody wants to look at someone who is ugly, and yet that ugly person need not bear this cost. Conversely, beautiful people provide a positive externality, and yet they don’t get to reap the rewards! Why is Washington not doing whatever it can to maximize social welfare by discouraging ugliness and rewarding beauty in line with their appropriate social costs and benefits? Why is this issue not a matter of public discussion?

Call me a “conspiracy theorist” if you will, but I’ll bet it has something to do with the fact that most politicians are old and ugly themselves. Have you seen Hillary? Politicians balk at the idea, because they know that they will be on the hook themselves.

That is why I’m reaching out to You, the American People. I can’t solve this critical social justice issue on my own, but with enough of us together, we can get Washington to listen.

Perhaps you don’t think this is that big of an issue, or that things are okay the way they are. This is only because you don’t know what is possible.

Imagine living in a world where everywhere you turn, there are gorgeous people abound. Where most people look like supermodels, so supermodels look like….super-supermodels.

Imagine living in a world where the greatest dread of any air traveler, sitting next to a fat person, is no longer a concern.

Imagine living in a world where being the wingman doesn’t mean jumping on a grenade, where the song “Hot for teacher” has lost all meaning, and where every dining experience is like going to Hooters.

It may take 100 years, but yes, this vision is possible. Like preventing global warming, often those most worthwhile of pursuits may require a long time before we see the benefits.

“Even so,” you say, “but things aren’t that bad the way they are now.”

Oh really? Consider this:

  • According to the Journal of American Medical Association, over one third of all U.S. adults are obese, and 17% of children are as well1.
  • The estimated annual medical cost due to obesity is $147 billion dollars2. As wonderful as our more socialized medical system is, you, the skinny and attractive taxpayer, must foot the medical bill for your obese neighbors. Is this fair?
  • According to research done by OkCupid, attractive men get 11 times more messages than ugly men do, and attractive women get 28 times as many messages as ugly women. How inegalitarian! No wonder so many people whine about dating. Yet nobody considers the solution: remove ugly people from the equation, and human shallowness becomes a non-issue!
  • According to the National Bureau of Economics Research, ugly people commit more crimes3. Yes, it’s true. So the next time you walk past someone revolting looking, you are right to get as far away from them as possible.
  • Good looking people earn more money. The penalty for “plainness” can be as high as 5 to 10% of wages4! By improving our looks overall, we can increase wages, stimulate aggregate demand, and lift ourselves out of this economic slump.

Because we deal with peoples’ looks any time we find ourselves dealing with people in general, it is particularly important and warrants closer study and attention. And it requires action, and meaningful public policies aimed at decreasing ugliness and maximizing beauty.

 

My 9-Point Plan

davidwainsillyface

Luckily, there is a way forward. There are many ways the government can help internalize this externality. I’ve included here my plan, but I’m sure that individuals more clever than I can come up with more ideas. These are just a few suggestions, but I’m hoping this article can start a discussion about how we can right this wrong.

  1. First, we need to allocate more federal funds to the study of beauty. Science can show us more clearly what the American people find attractive and unattractive. Only through understanding this can we figure out what the “neutral” attractiveness is so that we can penalize those who are uglier, and reward those who are more beautiful.
  2. We also need more grant money going to the study of relevant psychological principles. We need answers to many questions. What will most entice people to go to the gym? At what point do people decide to get plastic surgery? What makes people eat fatty foods?
  3. Take a yearly survey of preferences for physical attractiveness in order to establish a baseline. Use this survey to figure out which traits are most and least attractive in the general population, and then mandate that those features be prioritized. Let’s say large breasts create the greatest positive externality. Then, at a woman’s mandatory yearly physical, she will receive a check from the government if she has large breasts, and will pay a fine if she has small breasts (after factoring in an age adjustment, of course).
  4. Nationalize the plastic surgery and health and fitness industries. Greedy plastic surgeons charge exorbitant rates for facelifts, breast implants, and hormone therapy. There are people who want to do their share for the community by getting implants or taking steroids (which should be legalized), but cannot do so because of their financial situation (getting paid 10% less than their more beautiful peers surely plays a role here). Similarly, few can afford good personal trainers. These services are a right, and it is a travesty of social justice that people be excluded just because of life circumstances.
  5. Levy a tax on all food items. A panel of experts will determine what is healthy and unhealthy, and the tax will be proportionate. Calories in general should be discouraged, because obesity is the leading cause of ugliness in this country. Reducing America’s aggregate weight will do wonders to increase our attractiveness (so called “chubby chasers” are a small enough percentage of the population that their effect is statistically insignificant).
  6. Expand the legal, medicinal use of certain drugs. All men age 16 and older who are in the bottom quartile of lean body mass will be prescribed steroids (under careful doctor supervision). Cocaine and methamphetamine should be prescribed to the obese of both genders (along with a responsible dose of cigarettes) to aid in weight loss. In order to ensure compliance, we will institute mandatory school and workplace drug testing. Anyone not taking their medication will be fined. Similarly, there should be harsher penalties for marijuana possession in order to reduce incidences of “the munchies”.
  7. Isolate the ugliest members of society. Some people are so hideous that normal people should not have to see them. There can be special jails for ugly people, or some type of house arrest. Conversely, there should be state sponsored cocktail parties for the most beautiful. Attractive people don’t spend enough time in public, so they are not producing the optimal amount of this positive externality.
  8. Implement strategic mating policies designed to increase the beauty of our next generation. More research will be needed to determine what characteristics of parents lead to the best looking children. As we learn more about this, we should nudge peoples’ decisions on who to have a child with toward more beautifying choices.
  9. Arrest parents who have obese children. Raising an obese child is just a subtle form of child abuse. Authorities have already begun to do this in the UK, and we need to start doing it here. Having an obese child is not only abusive to the child, but damaging to the rest of society.

It will take a concerted effort to end this epidemic of ugliness. But we must do it, for the good of humanity. It will not be easy, but the War on Ugliness will be won!

 

Footnotes:

  1. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1832542
  2. http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/28/5/w822.full.pdf+html
  3. http://www.nber.org/papers/w12019
  4. http://www.nber.org/papers/w4518

 

America’s War Against The Homeless

Homeless bus stop

With public land privatized, this would no longer be an issue.

The most common, most “feel good” justification for the state is that it can be used as a vehicle to help the less fortunate. Were it not for food stamps, Medicaid, and a multitude of other government entitlement programs, half of us would be living on the streets, eating from dumpsters, right?

Some of the least fortunate among us are homeless. One would assume that this generous government would do its utmost to take care of them, lending a helping hand to put roofs over their heads, and doing its best to prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place.

The reality is a whole other story entirely. Not only are government policies putting more people out on the streets, but they are systematically creating an economic and legal environment that does immense harm to those who cannot afford housing.

Don’t believe me? A 2011 report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty which analyzed 234 cities across the US found that:

  • 40 percent prohibit “camping” in particular public places, while 16 percent prohibit “camping” citywide;
  • 33 percent prohibit sitting/lying in particular public places;
  • 56 percent prohibit loitering in particular public places, while 22 percent prohibit loitering citywide; and
  • 53 percent prohibit begging in particular public places, while 53 percent prohibit “aggressive” panhandling and 24 percent prohibit begging citywide.

And these laws aren’t just empty threats; plenty of real damage has come from them. Survey participants had been arrested, cited, or both, for the following:

  • Public urination/defecation: 73 percent of respondents;
  • Camping/sleeping in public: 55 percent of respondents;
  • Loitering: 55 percent of respondents;
  • Panhandling: 53 percent of respondents;
  • Public storage of belongings: 20 percent of respondents; and
  • Sidewalk-sitting: 19 percent of respondents.

Most of these people were then robbed by the very state that claims to look after their best interests, through what they euphemistically call “fines” or “tickets”.

In 62% of these cities, respondents claimed that there were police sweeps to push homeless people towards the outskirts of the city, most of them unannounced. In many cases, police will seize the limited possessions that they find during these sweeps.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy for homeless people to find affordable housing. In 2009, affordable housing units were available to only 32% of extremely low income individuals, and 42% of all affordable housing for these individuals were occupied by high-income renters. In other words, those who can afford housing have displaced those who can’t in the market for cheap rents.

And we’re really just scratching the surface with these statistics. Let’s take a look at how governments across the US and at all levels are systematically making life worse for the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

Note: I encourage you to read the articles I’ve linked out to. Many of them show that the situation is in fact worse than I am describing here.

 

Criminalizing Homelessness

In cities across the US, there are laws on the books that specifically target homeless people. These laws have a variety of “justifications”, but are primarily done to make the city look nicer and sweep the homelessness problem under the rug. Wealthier individuals, the ones who can bring more investment into a city, don’t like seeing homeless people around, so city officials have catered to their “needs” and made living in the city as challenging as possible for the homeless.

How have they managed to do this? All manner of laws, either specifically designed to target the homeless, or just selectively enforced, are used to criminalize homelessness. Here are some of the more obvious examples, although I’m sure there are plenty more:

Illegal to sleep in cars. In a huge number of cities, local governments have made it illegal to sleep in a car. Many homeless people do have a car, and it is a huge asset to them because it gives them a shelter to sleep in and a place to keep their stuff. It also gives them a mode of transportation such that they have more opportunities for traveling to work. Unfortunately, these homeless people are targets of government theft any time they try to shield themselves from the elements.

Not only do these laws hurt the homeless, but they lead to some twisted incentives. For example, this woman was arrested for not wanting to drive drunk. Considering how fatigue is the #2 (and drunkenness the #3) cause of car accidents, you’d think our “protectors” would want to reward people for having the foresight to sleep in their car. Instead, being responsible may cause you to spend the night in a jail cell.

Squatting laws. It’s not uncommon to see abandoned buildings. If a property is legitimately abandoned, then it is un-owned, and a candidate for homesteading. Of course, if the owner intended to return (in which case, it isn’t abandoned), “squatting” would be trespassing, an actual property crime. But in many places, particularly publicly “owned” and unused land, this is not the case.

If some homeless people find an abandoned building, they have every right to use it as a shelter. But the majority of cities have made this illegal, and police will sweep through these areas, pushing the homeless out and stealing their (limited) stuff! And then of course, that building will continue to go unused for years while the government decides what inefficient way to use it.

Consider Umoja Village in Miami, where homeless people created their own shanty town society on a vacant lot. About 50 people made Umoja their (drug and alcohol free) home, despite the government’s repeated attempts to shut it down. After an accidental fire, the city used it as a pretense to seize that land and make 11 arrests.

Prohibitions on camping. In Ashland, Oregon, for instance, it is illegal to “camp” in any public spaces. Being caught leads to having possessions seized, and up to 48 hours of community service. Really, community service? Do lawmakers not see the irony of this? If homeless people aren’t even allowed to sleep outdoors, then where can they go?

But wait, it gets worse! In Pensacola, Florida, it is illegal to cover oneself with blankets, cardboard, or newspapers in public.

“Quality of life” ordinances. These are laws that tend to be related to hygiene. The most well known of these laws are ones against public urination, but there are many others as well. Take this list from Cleveland, which includes such non-crimes as “unlawful congregation”, feeding birds, and being outside past “curfew”. Some of these laws are well intentioned, but they are vague enough to be twisted in ways that police can easily fabricate an excuse to target the homeless. It’s not hard to imagine a man picking through trash to be construed as “feeding the birds”.

But the public urination laws are, in my opinion, the worst of the bunch. Even homeless people need to go to the bathroom. Yes, the world would be a nicer place if we didn’t have piss-soaked alleys, but that’s just the way it is (perhaps if government economic policy wasn’t so harmful to the poor, this would be less of an issue; more on that later). And since public urination is grounds to be given sex offender status, government agents have “lawful authority” to permanently ruin a homeless person’s life, several times per day.

Open container laws. Most people probably think of open container laws as a nuisance that stopped them from drinking on the streets in college. Their stated purpose is to prevent the non-crime of “public intoxication”. Of course, this is used disproportionately against the homeless. In Key West, for example, the law is selectively enforced so that tourists tend to not be targeted.

Begging is prohibited. Among the more absurd of these laws, prohibiting begging is quite clearly intended solely to force homeless people to leave the city or else (in tandem with laws against feeding the homeless) starve to death. Due to acts of economic warfare against the poor such as the minimum wage, most homeless people have no way to make money except for panhandling. If laws like these don’t convince Americans of the gross inhumanity of government, I don’t know what will.

Prohibitions on loitering and sitting in public places. Again, these laws are designed to push homeless people outside of the cities in which they reside. These laws are so vague and have such a wide scope that selective enforcement is rather simple. Luckily, many court cases have challenged the constitutionality of these laws. Of course, rational people should be challenging the morality of them. Some people are. For example, angry residents protested a law that would have made sitting on the sidewalk illegal in Portland.

Laws against jaywalking. Here’s yet another non-crime being banned in order to steal from the public, and disproportionately the homeless. In Los Angeles, it is illegal to use a crosswalk when the red light is flashing, even though it has a countdown. This is a $197 infraction! Sure, jaywalking is not as overtly targeted against the homeless as other laws on this list, but the hefty fines are used to destroy their lives and their chances of getting themselves on their feet.

Banning homelessness. Admittedly, this is not widespread (yet), but in Columbia, South Carolina, it is outright illegal to be homeless within city limits. The law mandates that the homeless must either check into a homeless shelter outside of the city, leave town, or get thrown in jail. Well, at least they can go to the homeless shelter! Oh wait, it only has 240 beds, and Columbia has 1500 homeless people.

Perhaps you are reading this and thinking that some of these laws don’t sound too bad. And for most people, they aren’t (beyond the fact that all laws are merely threats of violence). But the combination of all these laws, plus escalating court costs, creates a trap for the homeless and poor. Go ahead and read the following two articles before returning to this post:

There’s no way I can explain it better than those articles, but for those of you who don’t have the time to go through them, I’ll summarize the main points.

Court costs are being increasingly borne by the defendants. This means that the poor are being squeezed financially more and more as they get robbed from by the state for victimless “crimes”. These “fines” (“armed robbery” when done by a civilian rather than a government functionary) can then lead to a form of debt slavery for poor people who can’t make payments on it. Many then go to jail.

But it’s not just laws that harm homeless people. There is also an attempt by the state to make the lives of the homeless as challenging as possible in general. For example, in Manteca, California, the city turns sprinklers on in parks at night so the homeless can’t sleep there. And in numerous locations, including Sarasota, Florida, the city is removing benches in order to prevent homeless people from congregating.

Finally, there is the rash of police beatings of homeless people. The most high profile of recent cases was that of Kelly Thomas, who was beaten to death by a group of police officers using a taser and a baton, literally, for no reason. The whole affair was caught on video (Warning: graphic and disturbing), and yet the police officers got acquitted. I wish I could say this was an isolated occurrence, but it’s not.

 

Economic Sanctions Against The Homeless

Besides the direct criminalization of homelessness, the government is also systematically launching an economic war against the less fortunate. It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss all the ways in which the government screws over the poor, but I will touch upon some of the most egregious.

Criminalizing Charity and Food Sharing

Governments are doing everything they can to make sure that homeless people will starve to death if they don’t get out of their cities.

Yes, that is a bold statement. But it’s true. Many cities have made it illegal to feed the homeless, both on a small scale and in larger charitable events. Of course, this is always done with their “best interests at heart”, in order to prevent someone from giving out contaminated food.

In New York City, former mayor Michael Bloomberg outlawed donating meals to homeless shelters because they could not assess the salt, fat, and fiber content of the food. Because I’m sure that’s exactly what the homeless are concerned about. “I haven’t had a meal in 36 hours, but this food has half a gram too much sodium. What if I get hypertension?!”

What kind of monstrous psychopaths would enact laws like this?

To get a true feel for the scope of this heinous immorality, I suggest skimming through this 2010 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless. Local governments use numerous kinds of regulations, such as requiring a permit to serve food, limiting the number of people who can be served, and imposing zoning restrictions against charitable groups.

It’s not just food sharing restrictions either. Building codes and zoning laws make it harder for charities and shelters to operate. For example, in Lorain, Ohio, a shelter was shut down for not passing fire inspection.  Again, the noble intention is being used to justify an act of horrible immorality. Sure, there might be more risk in a fire, but the homeless people were choosing to stay there voluntarily. The fact that they had been operating for two years while in known violation of the fire code shows just how arbitrary the enforcement of these laws are.

The Rent is Too Damn High!

There is also a more indirect, but equally nefarious means of economic warfare that the government is waging upon the homeless, as well as the poor in general. Government economic policy (aka, threats and intimidation against those would interact with each other on a voluntary basis) both drastically increases the cost of housing as well as makes it more challenging for people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Why is it so hard to find affordable housing in America’s cities?

One of the greatest economic sanctions against the poor comes disguised specifically as a way to help (as usual). The stated intent of rent control policies is to keep the prices of housing down (by threatening with violence those who would charge rents above a certain arbitrary price) so that people with lower incomes can afford to live in a home for a “reasonable” price without “exploitation”.

And, as usual, this government policy causes significant harm to precisely those who, at least on the surface, it is designed to help. The actual effect of rent control policies is a shortage of adequate housing. These policies lead to decreased investment and a deterioration of housing quality. It causes existing homes to be converted into luxury apartments, condos, and office space so that landlords can charge a higher price. Because of this, rent controls actually lead to higher housing costs in sectors not covered under these laws (in addition to the shortages in the sectors that are covered).

By decreasing the availability and quality of low-income housing, rent control leads to more people out on the streets. With a near zero vacancy rate in low-income housing, those who are homeless would need enough money to afford the now higher priced, non-controlled housing units before they could find a place to live. As Assar Lindbeck said, bombing is the only thing that can destroy a city more effectively than rent control. Don’t believe him? Go here, and try to guess which images are of bombings and which are rent control. It’s not easy.

In addition, there are zoning and land use laws, as well as building codes, which ratchet up housing costs for just about everyone, as well as harm the tenant-landlord relationship.

For example, some laws prohibit people who are not blood or marriage-related from sharing a home. Building codes usually limit the number of residents who can live in a given apartment or building. This eliminates one of the most obvious ways for poor people to get a roof over their head. If a handful of homeless people could band together and chip in a smaller amount, they could live in a real, albeit cramped, apartment.

Not only that, but the many regulations regarding plumbing, electricity, safety, etc., while well-intentioned, drastically increase the cost of housing. Not only does it cost a lot of money to abide by these regulations, but they also become barriers to entry, resulting in less housing investment as well as decreased competition among construction companies. In fact, government regulations make up about 25% of the final cost of a new home.

The difference between high rent areas and low rent areas in the US is almost entirely explained by the zoning laws in the high cost areas. Since 1970, the increase in housing prices is mostly due to the difficulty in obtaining regulatory approval to build new homes. The fact is, cities with high regulation costs are not responsive to demand for new housing construction.

One of the most evil zoning laws I’ve ever heard is in Madison, Wisconsin (and also Washington D.C.), where it is illegal for a building to be taller than the Capitol building. This drastically decreases the amount of available housing, thus increasing its price. Anyone walking around downtown will notice the huge number of homeless people here. It is inexcusable that in a city with a population of only 250 thousand, nearly 3500 people will be spending a night in a shelter per year, and over a thousand students in the school district don’t have a home. If more housing units were available, there would be far fewer homeless people.

And then of course, there’s “eminent domain”, a euphemism for stealing someone’s land. Not only does the government forcibly make people homeless through eminent domain, but they will also seize formal title to unused properties. They will then hold these lots out of use, often for years at a time, all while prosecuting any “squatters”.

Cutting Off the Bottom Rungs

If poor people had fewer restrictions on how they could earn an income, not as many of them would be unemployed and forced to live on the streets.

Government (often with the support of large swathes of the misinformed public) has decided that it isn’t okay for two people to engage in mutually beneficial economic relationships on a voluntary basis unless certain conditions are met.

The most obvious example of this is the minimum wage, which cuts off the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder by outlawing employment relationships where one party is paid less than some arbitrary amount of money.

Let’s say there is a minimum wage of $10 per hour. If someone can only produce $5 per hour’s worth of output, an employer would be out of his mind to hire that person. And I imagine that unemployed homeless people would be seen as a fairly risky investment, especially compared to, say, the white son of a wealthy family. Since the employer would have to pay either of them $10 per hour regardless, the choice is obvious. Without a minimum wage, the homeless man could offer to work for $4 per hour and then actually have an income. As they prove themselves, they will surely become more valuable and get paid more to reflect it.

Besides the minimum wage, there are a whole slew of regulations surrounding cottage industries which make it far more challenging for poor people to compete (not to mention raising prices for everyone).

Different industries have their own separate regulations, but a lot of potential entrepreneurial opportunities are eliminated by government extortion rackets. In order for someone to get involved in many industries that poor people might have skills in, they must acquire a license. This usually involves some form of mandatory training and paying a tribute to our bureaucratic overlords.

Why can’t someone with the right skills just cut hair, operate a food cart, or have a taxi service, without going through a whole process? If a homeless person has a car, driving people around for a small fee would be an easy way for them to get off their feet. Too bad they don’t have a “medallion”, and can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for one.

More controversially, entire industries have been outlawed, including prostitution and drugs that are politically out of favor. These may not be the most “wholesome” solutions, but oftentimes becoming a prostitute, even just for the occasional income, is enough to help someone get by. These laws turn innocent poor people into “criminals”.

 

Conclusion

Homelessness is a large and growing problem in America. Most people just assume that homelessness is inevitable or that they should just “get a job”.

Unfortunately, government policies have made that far more difficult. And to add insult to injury, cities are doing their utmost to harass the homeless and make their lives as difficult as possible.

Demystifying Government and State Exceptionalism

Whenever I bring up the idea of a world without government to someone who doesn’t already agree with me (i.e. just about everyone), there is an immediate backlash, as though I am personally attacking that individual’s inner child.

From a young age, we are taught that the world works a certain way. Police are our friendly neighborhood helpers, there to save the day. Government functions to keep us safe from unscrupulous businessmen. Without government, who would build the roads?

These ideas are drilled into our head so often, from so young, and on such a basic level that most people will go through their entire lives without questioning them. Take this 3rd grade               government study guide from Ohio:

 

It’s like they aren’t even trying to hide the propaganda anymore! If we are receiving this kind of message from a very young age, it’s no wonder most people have such wild and unrealistic ideas about the government.

Ever since Plato, there has been this idea, perhaps somewhere in our collective unconscious, that government is a unique institution that possesses certain abilities that we as individuals do not have. When I refer to abilities here, I don’t mean legal abilities; people actually view the government as some entity that is capable of performing actions that free individuals simply cannot.

This State Exceptionalism is utterly absurd. It becomes quite clear once you take a moment to actually think about what government is, as opposed to the pre-programmed concept of government that comes with any elementary school education in this country.

When you think of a “government”, a “state”, or a “nation”, what do you think of? What does it mean to you? I’ve asked this question to a lot of people, and not one of them has given me an answer that would justify their belief in State Exceptionalism.

There are a few answers that I do hear over and over, and I’d like to dispense with them here. Answers tend to involve some mixture of geography, some vague notion of nationality/community or national identity,  and some vague notion of political process or the constitution.

 

Geography

Geography is the easiest to respond to, and most people recognize that by itself, this does not make a government legitimate or explain State Exceptionalism. Most reasonable definitions of government will include some idea of control over a specific geographic area.

Certainly this is true in most places today, but even geography is not a necessary feature of the state. If, as Franz Oppenheimer argues, the earliest governments were formed by nomadic hunters subjugating and taking tribute from peasants, then the geography becomes much harder to define. Is the state based on the territory of the peasants, or is it wherever the hunters are taking up camp at any given time?

But, even in the modern world, the geographic definition of the state is ill-defined. In fact, it is completely arbitrary. Look at how Middle Eastern and African states were divided as the Age of Imperialism “ended”. The borders, drawn up to serve the interests of European powers, were and are meaningless. And what about the various minor and major border disputes between just about every neighboring country in the world?

Finally, the state decides on its own geographic area and layout. Through wars, annexation, and rebellions, borders can shift rapidly. What makes the new or old borders justified? And what justifies the superiority of the Federal government over that of more local government? Or an individual household? Hell, we all live in the same geographic area if you zoom out far enough. Geography confers no legitimacy to a state.

 

National Identity

I also hear people say things along the lines of “We’re all Americans, and the government is an elected [sic] group of individuals who represent the will of the American People.”

This just kicks the can a little further down the road, because now we have to define things like “nationality”, or what it means to be an “American”/”Frenchman”/”European”/”New Jerseyan”/etc. Having asked many people to do this very thing, most definitions primarily invoke the idea of geography, or how “Americans” are the people who live in “America”, or some equally vague, circular idea.

But how wide of a net are we supposed to cast here? I’m from a town, a state, and a country (and a planet, solar system, and universe, even!), so you could define some “group” that I “belong” to based on any of these. In fact, it would be far more meaningful to use my hometown than to call me an “American”, as it is more specific. Surely I have more in common with people who grew up with me than someone on the other side of the country, right?

And besides, in a country as big as America (and even in much smaller countries), it is meaningless to say that we come from the same geographic area. If people as close as Northern and Southern NJ are different culturally, then how can we even compare East and West coast, or any of the many regions that comprise “America”?

As Michael Rozeff asks: “If there is an American nation, what characteristics of its members define it? If such characteristics actually exist, do they imply a government that each member is automatically required to accept?”

Wikipedia defines a nation as “People who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history.” Can anyone honestly say this is true in America (or anywhere really)? The only characteristic that all “Americans” have in common is that we live in the same (wide) geographic area under the control of the same Federal government. Therefore, claiming that our “shared nationality” is a justification for government is circular.

 

Political Process and the Constitution

Because we are a “democracy”, we are entitled to behave in a certain way in world affairs, right? A democratic state can do no wrong!

Now, most people don’t actually phrase it that way in their minds; in fact (I do have to be fair), many of the most vocal supporters of (big) government will argue against the decisions carried out by the state apparatus on a regular basis. However, most of these people will readily submit to the decision, or at least consider it “legitimate”, because it happened through the “political process”, or something along those lines.

This is why you will hear things like: “I don’t support the war, but I support the troops,” “I didn’t vote for Obama, but the President is the President,” “Marijuana should be legalized, but it should be like alcohol; you must be 21, no smoking and driving, and it should be taxed and regulated for quality.”

If you didn’t support the institution of war, you wouldn’t support the troops. These people merely dislike the war in question, but view war in general as a completely legitimate enterprise. Similarly, if you didn’t vote for Obama, why would you submit to his “authority”? And when you believe marijuana should be heavily regulated (and illegal for those under 21), you are suggesting that government has the right to make the policies that it does. To you, its current legal status for individuals under 21 is perfectly legitimate and just! There is nothing wrong with ruining an innocent person’s life if done with “proper” procedures.

In all of these examples, the individual in question disagrees with a certain aspect of government, but accepts it because it was a decision carried out by the state apparatus. In other words, because we live in a “democratic republic” (or whatever form of government you happen to live under), state action is legitimate, having flowed out through a “legitimate democratic process”.

Baloney. First of all, if you honestly believe we have a well-functioning political system, you are naïve and sorely mistaken. What we have is nothing more than a powerful oligarchy dressed up in a way that is tolerable to the masses, without giving them any real power. But more importantly, there is no such thing as a legitimate democratic process, representative government, or anything like that.

Let’s do a little math regarding representative government (ß short article, go read it). There are 535 members of Congress. These are the people “we” have “elected” to represent us as legislators in the U.S. government. As I write this, there are approximately 318 million Americans. That means that each member of Congress “represents” 594,392 people, on average. Sure, that seems totally reasonable.

Of course, that’s not how the American system works. It’s broken down by state, so that the average conceals wide variations in representation. Some Congressmen might be representing a million individuals, while others represent only 100,000. Does this seem fair to you? Does that make any sense whatsoever?

And what about elections? The winner has to represent those who voted for AND against them (as well as the largest group, those who didn’t vote at all). A tall order for sure, since it seems rather challenging to represent people with different and often mutually exclusive views. In the vast majority of elections, the winner didn’t even receive votes from half of the people they claim to represent!

Consider these voting statistics taken from the census website. Between 1932-2010, the highest voter turnout for any Presidential election was 62.8%, and Congressional elections were even less. Usually the turnout was significantly less than that, but for our purposes right now, let’s say 70% of the population actually votes. If the winning candidate receives 60% of the vote, which is a landslide compared to the typical distribution, then the winner of the election only received support from 42% of the population. With more realistic numbers, the “winner” of most Presidential elections would receive votes from less than 30% of eligible voters (but of course, they claim to represent and use their power to lord over people who aren’t eligible to vote either). Does this sound like representation? Does this sound like consent of the governed?

But what about the Constitution, you ask? Besides the fact that the Constitution has not stopped politicians from violating our freedoms (the fourth amendment reads as a joke nowadays, and, well, so do the rest), there is no basis for its authority anyways. It really is just “a piece of paper.”

There’s no reason why a constitution would provide any true legitimacy to a state. It is a product of the state that it is designed to restrict, and is interpreted and enforced by the same state. Saying that a constitution can make the state exceptional or justify it in any way is merely begging the question.

I never signed up to agree to any constitution. In fact, no one has. The Constitution has no authority.

 

So…What Is Government, Then?

The state is an institution generally defined as the monopoly of legitimate force in a given geographic area. Of course, in this definition, the idea of legitimacy is assumed.

A similar definition that avoids this problem, and thus is far preferable, comes from the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer. He defined the state as the institutionalized use of the “political means”. This is as opposed to the “economic means”, or through actual production. The political means is force and fraud. In other words, the state is a parasitic institution, leeching resources from the underclass of productive individuals.

But even this definition doesn’t explicitly call out (although it strongly implies) what I think is the most important aspect of government: it is just another group of people.

That’s it. Just like any other group, club, institution, team, etc., the government is merely a word used to describe a subset of individual people. These people are just like you and me; they have the same rights, shortcomings, and incentives as anyone else. They have no superpowers. There is nothing mystical or magical about them.

All individuals, government employee or otherwise, have the same rights as each other. These rights imply certain obligations upon other people. For example, my right to life gives you an obligation not to murder me. You can only grant others rights that you yourself had in the first place. So I can’t “give” you the right to my friend’s speakers, only they can. And if you don’t have the right to murder and steal, you can’t grant agency to the government to do it for you.

A state, therefore, cannot have the “right” to start an aggressive war, to institute a draft, to tax, or, well, to do anything that it does. The state’s raison d’être is the violation of rights (political means).

Government power rests solely on the legitimacy that people grant it in their minds. There is nothing exceptional about the state, and it should be treated and thought of as exactly what it is: a parasitic and corrupt organized crime ring.

Note: This is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a lot more to say about this subject, including a discussion of the ideas of “public goods” and “externalities”, among others. Stay tuned.

Minimum Wage Insanity

For some reason, the minimum wage is an issue that just won’t die.

I get it. If you only look at the “obvious” effects of a policy like the minimum wage, it seems like a brilliant idea. If everybody who was making less than $X/hour suddenly were making $X/hour, think about how much better the economy would be! No more greedy capitalists taking advantage of the poor, downtrodden proletarians!

And when studies try to parse out the effects of a minimum wage or the media reports on it, we can easily see the people who have benefited from it, at least in the short term. If you used to make $7.25/hour and suddenly you make $10.10/hour, there are obvious benefits. But the people who are hurt by these laws (usually) don’t even know it. How can you possibly isolate and measure the people who don’t get hired during the many years after the imposition of a higher minimum wage? Oh, and good luck trying to measure the social consequences of this unemployment.

I truly believe that most people who advocate for a minimum wage mean well. There are exceptions of course, such as the unions, politicians, and racists. But they are truly the exception. When I meet a random college student who thinks it is a great idea to have a $10, $12, $15, or even (gasp!) $25 minimum wage, I feel confident that it is because they are an empathetic person, not because they want to decimate the lives of the poor.

It is most unfortunate that the great majority of empathetic, caring, and good people do not understand economics and are unfamiliar with history. It is with these people in mind that I write this post, and I hope I can do my part to steer people towards economic and ethical sanity: a minimum wage of zero.

 

A Brief Introduction To The Minimum Wage

The minimum wage stipulates that it is a crime for an employee and an employer to do business together for less than a specified amount of money.

Note that it does not mandate that employees get hired, but only that they don’t get hired. In other words, the minimum wage is an unemployment law, not an employment law.

Putting economics aside for a moment, the only thing that the minimum wage does is violate the rights of consenting adults to engage in a mutually beneficial economic transaction. Thus, it falls into the same category as drug laws, prostitution laws, jaywalking laws, and so on. It’s kind of ironic that the people who tend to be most in favor of repealing these aforementioned victimless “crimes” are the ones who most support drastic increases in the minimum wage. But I digress.

Proponents of the minimum wage like to think of it as a kind of “rising floor”, lifting all those who stand on it to ever higher levels of income. Of course, if this were true, there would be no reason whatsoever why we should not institute a $1000/hour minimum wage. Hell, why would we even bother being so cheap when it could be $2000 or $10,000? Clearly, people intuitively recognize that there is some sort of tradeoff involved.

A more apt analogy than the rising floor would be a hurdle that people need to jump over. If you can’t produce $X/hour’s worth of value for an employer, they simply will not hire you. Increasing the minimum wage just puts that hurdle a few inches higher, making it that much more difficult to get a job.

In other words, the minimum wage hurts the very people that it sets out to help. It is, by definition, the most disadvantaged people who are capable of producing the least value. What business owner in their right mind would hire a severely disabled person who will likely require more training and supervision over a person who already has a good track record? It is precisely through lower wages that the disadvantaged are able to compete.

 

Demographics of Minimum Wage Workers

Statistics can be incredibly misleading. I don’t trust them, and neither should you. With that in mind, I would highly suggest you do your own background research, do some fact checking on me here, and interpret the following data with a grain of salt.

Using these statistics to get quantitatively useful information seems dubious to me. There is so much room for error or manipulation. Instead, I want to use this data to find qualitatively interesting information such as trends and the absolute significance of the problem. In other words, who is “the minimum wage problem” affecting, and is it even that big of a problem to begin with?

According to a 2012 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55% of the total minimum wage workers are younger than 25. Of those within this age group (16-24), 12.1% work at or below minimum wage. For those aged 16-19, that number is 21.1%. A mere 2.9% of workers age 25 and over are at or below the minimum wage.

What does this data mean? Clearly, the young (and therefore inexperienced) are disproportionately working for lower wages. This makes sense. Teenagers, in general, don’t have particularly valuable skills. With less than 3% of workers older than 25 being at the minimum wage, there aren’t too many “breadwinners” who would be directly affected by changing it.

In fact, according to this 2010 study, 63% of those earning less than $9.50/hour are the second or third income in households earning at least double the poverty line, and 43% live in households making at least $50k/year. Only 11.3% of workers who might gain from an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 are even in poor households.

This hardly sounds like the epidemic of working poor plaguing America’s cities that the media is trying so hard to present. Without even considering economic theory, it seems reasonable to conclude from the demographics that an increase in the minimum wage would have a negligible effect on poverty.

 

Common Arguments For The Minimum Wage

Again, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of laymen who advocate for increases in the minimum wage mean well. They are just economically illiterate, which is completely understandable, considering how they get their information from the economically illiterate media and overtly dishonest politicians.

In the course of numerous conversations and reading many articles in favor of minimum wage increases, there are several arguments that I see come up quite often. They are all dubious. I will now go through them one by one.

“People are worth more money than that!”

There is a difference between being “worth less” than someone else and being paid less. If you ask why someone “should” get paid a certain amount when other people get paid so much more, you are attaching a moral judgment to an inherently amoral issue. It’s like asking why it “should” be so cold in Wisconsin right now when it’s nice and warm in Miami or San Diego.

There are forces at work based on gazillions of separate decisions made by billions of different people which determine the price of all products and services, including the price of labor. This has nothing to do with the inherent value or worth of these products. Rather, it has to do with the value someone else would derive from using it.

The “price” of a person’s labor has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the “value” or “worth” of that person in general. It has to do with the relative value that the employer of that labor gains from the relationship. If an employer believes he will gain by hiring an employee at a certain rate, he will do so. And, of course, this goes both ways. Someone who trades their labor for a certain amount of money is not admitting to being “worth” only that much. They are just defining an amount of money that their time and effort is worth to them.

Why do some people accept less money than others? Because that is what they would prefer given the available alternatives, which have been determined by the gazillions of morally irrelevant decisions made by them and everyone else.

Setting a higher minimum wage is completely irrelevant to “improving the dignity of these workers”, as the pandering politicians allege. On the contrary, those in favor of a given minimum wage are saying that their opinions and personal values are more important than those who would voluntarily choose to trade their efforts for less than an arbitrary amount of money.

This is preposterous, and in insult to the dignity of these low-income workers.

“Big Business is exploiting minimum wage workers!”

In a voluntary transaction between any two consenting adults, there is no exploitation. So long as I am free to walk away from any potential agreement (as in, there is no coercion involved) and the terms have been stated clearly and honestly, it is silly to claim that I have been exploited, no matter the terms of the agreement.

There are infinitely many reasons I could be willing to work for any given amount of money, even small amounts (or pro bono). A few examples may help reveal the absurdity of this “exploitation” argument.

People volunteer. There are huge numbers of people who literally go out of their way (sometimes paying thousands of dollars) to find opportunities to do volunteer work with no motivation of financial benefit. In these cases, the desire to do good is a stronger motivation than money. For some people, volunteering is a way to strengthen their ego and make them feel like they are a good person. For others, they might volunteer in order to impress other people. I am in no position to judge or determine the motivations that encourage these people to make the voluntary decisions that they do.

People go to school. They’re even willing to sell themselves into effective debt slavery in order to obtain whatever benefits they think they’ll receive from going to university. Think about this. There are people who are willing to trade four years of their life and take out $150k in loans to major in classics! This is, from a financial standpoint, an incredibly stupid move. What could possibly possess someone to make a decision like this? Clearly, there are more than just financial considerations when people choose to voluntarily associate with each other. Perhaps this person really enjoys reading and learning about the classics. Perhaps they just feel that society has pressured them to go to university. Perhaps they want to make friends and get hammered for four years. These are all valid reasons, because they are being made by the person who has the right to make them. Who are you or I to make this decision for them?

Finally, what about unpaid internships? These poor fools are providing their labor for zero monetary benefit, and likely without charitable purposes in mind either. Is this not slavery? Is this not massive human exploitation? Of course not! People will gladly take unpaid internships because they serve the clear function of getting them valuable experience and potentially future, paid employment opportunities.

All this is not to say that, ceteris paribus, people would not prefer to get paid more than they are currently. Of course they would. Just about everybody would. But that is irrelevant. So long as there is scarcity in the world, there will be opportunity costs. These tradeoffs are the price we pay for not living in a utopia. I’d love it if I got paid $1000 per word for my writing. As it stands, I make a whopping zero, minus costs for domain and hosting. But I’ve been doing it for years, and this is hardly exploitation.

“The minimum wage isn’t a living wage!”

But what is a “living” wage? I’m sure my definition of a living wage is different from yours, which is very different from that of a poor farmer in Bolivia, and different from that of George Soros.

If the end that we have in mind is to raise the minimum wage such that it is equivalent or higher than some “living wage”, how can we determine when we have succeeded?

A poor person today making the minimum wage has luxuries that were a struggle for middle class people to have access to just fifty years ago. Up until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people lived in abject poverty. Three hundred years from now (unless our politicians have destroyed us all with nuclear war or socialist economic policies), poor people will “only” have their own private jets, and the middle class will be taking regular vacations to the moon.

Our standards are constantly fluctuating, both personally and collectively. What many would consider a living wage now will surely be outdated in twenty years. What I considered a living wage as a college student is very different from what I consider it as a yuppy.

Claiming that the minimum wage needs to match up with some mythical “living wage” is pandering, pure and simple. It is completely meaningless in the real world.

Besides, very few people are actually trying to make a “living” on the minimum wage, so this is practically a non-issue. If you look at the demographics section above, you’d see that there are not many people who would be lifted out of “poverty wages” to “living wages”, even if the minimum wage made economic sense (which it doesn’t). It’s also worth noting that many of the individuals included in the “minimum wage or below” category are actually making quite a bit more money in tips or commissions, so the relevant numbers are even lower.

“The minimum wage should keep pace with labor productivity!”

Ahh, here’s a good one! Those who lean toward the free-market side will often say that wages are a function of productivity. Your income is equal to the value that you produce, so those with low productivity have low incomes.

Minimum wage supporters will now say “A-ha! In the past 30 years, labor productivity has risen [some large] XYZ%, but the minimum wage has remained the same! Capital is exploiting labor!” Usually this argument leads to a call for a minimum wage that is linked to the increase in average productivity of labor, which at this time would be a little over $20/hour.

Average labor productivity has certainly increased substantially over the past 30 years. It’s also utterly irrelevant. If average labor productivity has increased by a million percent, but mine has been stagnant, my wages will remain stagnant as well. There is no injustice in this.

It would be impossible for data to measure with enough precision whether this economic law is “working”. But I will, for the more empirical among us, do a kind of approximation.

As a substitute for individual productivity, which would be impossible to measure in most cases, we should look at a specific industry. Since, according to the BLS data cited above, 43.8% of minimum wage workers are in the food service industry, they make a decent proxy for minimum wage workers in general.

Between 1987-2012, the productivity of labor in food service industries increased at an anemic 0.6% per year according to the BLS. This amounts to a total productivity increase of just over 16% during that 25-year period. During this same period, labor compensation for food service employees increased at a rate of 5.1% per year, or 347% during the same period! If anything, this shows that many of these people are probably overpaid.

“Costco pays its new employees $11.50/hour, so why can’t everyone else?”

This one I don’t really understand. Are they saying that because Costco employees are similarly low-skilled but paid this much, all other low-skilled workers should be paid the same amount?

Supporters of a higher minimum wage claim that if Costco can afford to pay its employees this much and still make a “healthy” profit (a false and dangerous concept, which I plan to write about in another post), other businesses will have a similar experience.

But every business is different. They have different types of customers, different business models, and different employment strategies. What works for Costco will not necessarily work for Walmart.

There are definite advantages to paying your employees more. For example, Costco probably has a smaller employee turnover than other retailers, which saves money on training and on human resources/recruiting. These workers may be more satisfied with their jobs, and therefore be more productive. More than likely, their higher wages allows them to hire the best of these low-skilled workers.

Of course, these benefits depend on paying a relatively higher wage than competitors, not on the absolute wage they pay. An employee of Costco is less likely to quit because he will be paid less if he does.

If higher wages were generally warranted throughout the economy, or throughout a specific sector in the economy, other companies would be paying higher wages. If business owners are “selfish”, then won’t they act in whatever way maximizes their profits? If so, then it’s in Costco’s best interest to pay a higher wage, but it’s not in everyone’s best interest.

Free, unfettered markets set prices such that resources, including labor, are used as efficiently as possible. Profit is the reward for the entrepreneur to find these efficiencies. Lower prices and more access to goods and services is the reward that consumers get. Costco has found a way to be more efficient by paying workers more and employing fewer of them. Walmart has found a way to be more efficient by employing huge numbers of workers and paying them less.

“A higher minimum wage will stimulate the economy!”

I blame the mainstream economics profession for this one. Those who follow The Unquestioned Lord And Master of Economic Knowledge, also known as John Maynard Keynes, love to push this idea.

Here’s how it goes. By raising the minimum wage, low-income workers will end up with more money at the expense of the higher-income business owners, who lose out on profits. Because low-income individuals spend a higher portion of their income than the wealthy, there will be a higher aggregate demand injected into the economy. Since the less wealthy will be buying more stuff, the people whom they buy stuff from will then have more money to spend on other peoples’ stuff, and prosperity will be increased in ever widening circles.

A thorough refutation of Keynes would take more than a few hundred words. Wait a minute, no it won’t.

All consumption in an economy is preceded by production. If you want to buy a new video game, that game must have been created already and be available on store shelves or the internet. This much is trivial, but the implication is that the economy is not static; time is an important factor in its structure. Output in an economy does not immediately rise and fall with spending, as the Keynesians would have you believe.

There are capital goods, which are essentially investments in future productive capacity. It is the accumulation of capital over time that makes us more prosperous. This is as true in your personal life as it is for the economy as a whole; if you want to become wealthier, you save more of your money rather than spending it. More to the point, you choose to forego present consumption in favor of a larger amount of future consumption.

In other words, more spending isn’t intrinsically good for the economy. I’ll allow economist Robert Murphy to explain further:

“For example, imagine that thousands of couples in a large city one day decide to skip their weekly restaurant outings in order to save up for a summer cruise. At first, it seems that this would hurt the economy. After all, local restaurants see their sales drop, and so they buy fewer items from their suppliers and lay off some workers. The suppliers and workers in turn have less income to spend, and so sales are hurt elsewhere too.

However, so long as the entrepreneurs involved in the cruise industry anticipate the eventual increase in demand for their services, they will exactly offset the above effects when they hire more workers and other items in preparation for the busy summer months. The new savings (which were previously spent on restaurants) drives down interest rates, perhaps allowing the cruise operators to borrow money and pay for an additional liner. Thus the decision to save more doesn’t reduce total income or employment, once everyone adjusts to the new spending patterns. It is really no different from a scenario where thousands of people become health conscious and decide to spend their money on vegetables rather than fast food.”

Now of course, the minimum wage isn’t just about spending versus saving; it’s about income distribution as well. Those who support the minimum wage believe that it would take profits away from the wealthy and help the lives of those who are worse off.

For those individuals whose incomes do increase with the minimum wage (we’ll ignore negative employment effects until later), I won’t deny that they will be better off in the short term. Of course, if you are making $7.25/hour now but start making $10.10/hour tomorrow, you have certainly gained financially.

But again, this ignores the time structure of production. It’s not as though that extra money came from inflation (that will be the subject of another post), but rather it came out of the profits of the firms that were employing these individuals. The popular conception is that these profits merely benefit the rich and do nothing for anyone else.

That ignores the fact that ultimately, most of these profits get invested (yes, even the profits that go into ridiculously high CEO bonuses). These investments fuel the capital accumulation that makes us all wealthier, especially those at the bottom of the totem pole. For example, the profits may be spent on the building of a new factory, thus leading to an increase in the number of people that can be hired, and an increased supply of their product, which will help keep prices lower for consumers, making them wealthier too.

Okay, that’s enough Keynes-bashing for now. Raising the minimum wage will NOT help the economy. It will help a very tiny fraction of the economy for a short period of time, but then will make everyone worse off in the long term.

 

The Minimum Wage And Unemployment

Somehow I’ve managed to get through 4000 words without beginning to discuss unemployment. From an economic (rather than moral) perspective, this is the meat of the debate about the minimum wage.

Until the 1990s, the relationship between the minimum wage and unemployment was one of the few areas where nearly all economists were in agreement: raise the minimum wage, and you increase unemployment. That’s because the minimum wage is a price floor. When you have a price floor, it leads to an excess in quantity supplied of that good (labor).

Price floor graph

Then, in 1993, David Card and Alan Krueger did a groundbreaking study, comparing fast food workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania after New Jersey raised its minimum wage. They found no indication that the increase in the minimum wage had a negative effect on employment.

Since that study, many more have come out (see here and here, if interested) with similar results. Those of us who “refuse to look at the evidence” are considered old fashioned and stubborn.

The reality is that there are many quantitative studies supporting both sides of this debate. More importantly, these studies are completely irrelevant.

This is not the place for a full blown discussion of epistemology in economic science. That being said, here are a few related facts (that all pretty much say the same thing):

  1. Statistics can be used in debate to prove just about anything (Or, as Homer Simpson said, “Facts can be used to prove anything that’s even remotely true”). Using the same data set, I could fairly easily phrase an argument in favor of two mutually exclusive ideas.
  2. The economy is an incredibly difficult system to model, because the complexities of psychology and human action cannot be simplified without losing key elements of them. There are far too many factors involved, and it would be presumptuous to think otherwise.
  3. Economic studies are very interesting from a historical standpoint, but the information cannot be generalized. If a study that used flawless methodology found that a minimum wage hike had no adverse employment effects, its conclusion would hold only under the exact conditions of the study.
  4. As any empirical scientist will tell you, a valid experiment involves manipulating a single variable at a time, and measuring the effects of the change of that one variable. If more than one factor were manipulated (intentionally or otherwise), there would be no way to know what caused the system under investigation to behave the way it did. In economics, it is impossible to isolate a single variable for study.

We could go back and forth all day throwing peer-reviewed papers at each other, but it would all be pointless. None of these studies tell us anything about economic law.

But for those of you who don’t believe me on the above points, I’ll give you a few of the near infinite number of ways that these studies could be flawed (beyond the inherent epistemic flaws, of course).

The studies which claim that an increase in the minimum wage will not decrease employment are usually industry specific. Even if employment remains constant in a given industry, this means nothing about employment throughout the whole economy. These studies will not capture all the people in other industries who lose work because of it.

Most of these studies also take place over a short period of time. While their fancy econometric methods make their models “time-independent”, there are time related factors that simply can’t be captured in these models. There are psychological aspects that may prevent an employer from firing workers immediately. But that doesn’t exclude the possibility (inevitability) that, over a period of several years, employment will be lower than it would have been absent the higher minimum wage. In fact, there is evidence that the negative effects of minimum wage manifest in a slower rate of job growth rather than immediate unemployment. If, like me, you are a nerd, I suggest you read that paper for more details. The conclusions are even stronger than I’ve mentioned here.

Here’s another possibility: what if the current minimum is below the prevailing wage for most workers? After all, the data from the demographics section above shows that there aren’t a huge number of people working at the minimum wage. If 99% of all workers are making at least, say, $10/hour, raising the minimum wage to $9/hour will, obviously, have a very small effect on total employment.

Ineffective price floor graph

These studies also do not include non-monetary compensation. It’s quite possible, for instance, that the delivery guy doesn’t get laid off because of a minimum wage increase, but instead has his mileage reimbursement cut. It’s also possible that workers will have their hours cut, but this won’t change the total amount of employment in these studies.

Then there are some more specific methodological problems. For example, in the Card and Krueger study, they used telephone surveys to find their employment data. Thomas Sowell did an excellent job explaining a potential problem with this:

“Imagine that an industry consists of ten firms, each hiring 1,000 workers before a minimum wage increase, for an industry total of 10,000 employees.  If three of these firms go out of business between the first and second surveys, and only one new firm enters the industry, then only the seven firms that were in existence both ‘before’ and ‘after’ can be surveyed and their results reported.  With fewer firms, employment per firm may increase, even if employment in the industry as a whole decreases.  If, for example, the seven surviving firms and the new firm all hire 1,100 employees each, this means that the industry as a whole will have 8,800 employees – fewer than before the minimum wage increase – and yet a study of the seven surviving firms would show a 10 percent increase in employment in the firms surveyed, rather than the 12 percent decrease for the industry as a whole.  Since minimum wages can cause unemployment by (1) reducing employment among all the firms, (2) pushing marginal firms into bankruptcy, or (3) discouraging the entry of replacement firms, reports based on surveying only survivors can create as false a conclusion as interviewing people who have played Russian roulette.”

There are many more complications with many of these new quantitative studies, which are described in horribly boring detail in this paper. In some cases, the results would have been completely different if the researchers sampled from a slightly different time period.

Alrighty then, I think you get the point: empirical studies of the minimum wage are problematic at best.

I’ve already mentioned a few ways that workers can be hurt by the minimum wage (and won’t show up in the research), but I think it’s important to go into a little more detail on the real consequences of the minimum wage.

Put simply, the minimum wage leads to higher unemployment among exactly those who the policy is intending to help: namely, the most disadvantaged members of society.

Even if, hypothetically, the total change in employment is negligible, a higher minimum wage will change the distribution of workers. Here is a graph for an example I’m borrowing from Robert Murphy:

Minimum Wage with inelastic demand

In this example, we have a very inelastic demand for labor. In laymen’s terms, this means that even large changes in the wage rate lead to relatively small changes in the quantity demanded of labor. This is an assumption that is very favorable to those who argue that the minimum wage doesn’t impact employment.

In this case, if the market clearing wage was $7.25/hour, and then we institute a $10.10/hour minimum wage, total employment will only decrease by 2000 people, which is a very small decrease from the 2 million we started with. However, the supply of labor has also increased, in this case, to 2.5 million. We have a “surplus” of about a half million unemployed people drawn to this higher wage.

Suddenly, employers can be a lot more selective. Mentally and physically disabled people can no longer compete, so the vast majority of them will lose their jobs or won’t get hired. Why would an employer take the risk? Similarly, teenagers tend to be more irresponsible and less experienced than college graduates. If an employer can choose between the college grad and the 16-year old, the choice is obvious. And this crowds out things like on the job training (analogous to unpaid internships), which allow those at the bottom to gain more skills and lift themselves out of poverty.

This also allows other factors, like discrimination and nepotism to come into play more forcefully. In order for a teenager to get a job, they’ll need to know somebody on the inside. Merit simply won’t be enough most of the time. And if an employer doesn’t like black people, you’d better believe he’s not going to hire them. It’s ironic that people who are most vocal about discrimination tend to be the very people who support higher minimum wages.

Realistically though, a higher minimum wage won’t just lead to these substitution effects; there will also be an increase in unemployment. I’ve already gone over a number of ways that this could happen, usually over an extended period of time. But just to make sure that you really, really get the point, here’s two more.

Besides replacing low-skilled workers with higher-skilled workers, firms will also begin to substitute labor in general with capital. This is a more long-term, structural change, but a rational response to an increase in the cost of labor. By automating tasks that would have been done by people at a lower wage, firms can reduce their dependence on labor and employ fewer workers.

Another possibility is that the most profitable firms remain in business without firing workers (although still hiring at a slower rate, most likely). However, the least profitable ones, aka the marginal firms, will go out of business. Of course, when this happens, people who were employed at these firms lose their jobs.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got. For those of you keeping score at home, I suggest you do your own research (or better yet, just listen to me unquestioningly). I’ve linked to multiple articles on both sides, so that is a good starting point.

 

How The Minimum Wage Benefits Politicians, Unions, And Racists

Despite all this, there are still some people who benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, and a discussion about this policy would be incomplete without considering their perspective as well.

Since low-skilled workers tend to get pushed out of work by a minimum wage, it is their substitutes who most obviously gain from it.

Let’s say the cost of fast food was artificially propped up. Purveyors of fast food may or may not gain from this, depending on the elasticity of demand. But a substitute, the late night pizza joint, will surely win out.

So, what are some substitutes for low-skilled workers? The most obvious would be unions. As Gary Galles explains:

“A higher minimum wage increases the demand for union workers by reducing competition from lower-skilled workers. For instance, if the minimum wage was $8 and the union wage was $40, employers give up 5 hours of low-skilled work for every union worker-hour utilized. But increasing the minimum to $10 means employers give up 4 hours of low-skilled work for every union worker hour.”

Similarly, businesses that already pay higher wages benefit from an increase in the minimum wage. It doesn’t affect them, but it does raise the cost of doing business for their competitors, allowing them to gain a higher market share. This is why it should be no surprise that the CEO of Costco has come out in favor of increasing the minimum wage.

Politicians will also benefit. Those who are in areas that are already higher paying will gain because of the substitution effects. Those who are in lower-income areas can gain by making more of the citizens in that area dependent on government largesse. Continue dishing out welfare, and continue reeling in votes. Yes, I’m quite cynical.

Some historical context will help shine some light on this issue. Minimum wage laws have been used openly in order to price minorities out of the market. For a few quick examples, see the second half of this article.

The most glaring case of this is South Africa under apartheid. White trade unions pushed hard for laws that mandated “equal pay for equal work”. The whole point was to prevent black laborers from offering their services more cheaply, and taking jobs away from the more expensive white laborers.

This included the Wage Act and the Mines and Works Act of 1926 (just two of many racist laws pushed by the white socialists), otherwise known as the “colour bar”. They were the result of the 1922 Rand Rebellion, when the mine owners attempted to replace white workers with lower paid blacks, even to skilled and supervisory positions. In order to protect their privileged economic position, the socialist white labor unions staged a rebellion. Ultimately, it was put down, but they were able to regain their legally protected racist privilege through a minimum wage that prevented blacks from competing.

The US has its own history of racism and minimum wage laws (see the controversy over the Davis-Bacon Act). But it’s not just about racism or economic advantage; real people are hurt by these policies. The most famous case is that of Jacob Maged, who went to jail during the Great Depression for the “crime” of pressing a suit for only 35 cents, when the Tailors’ Code of the National Recovery Act stipulated a minimum of 40 cents.

There was also Fred Perkins, who produced batteries, but paid his employees less than what the code mandated. He, too, went to jail. But his employees were content with the wages he paid them, even though they were half of what the NRA mandated.

This historical background, I think, is revealing of the true nature of wage controls.

 

Conclusion

I know this post had a lot of information to digest, including much that you may not have been familiar with. Here is a summary of the main points:

  • Most laymen that support the minimum wage mean well, but are unaware of the economic consequences of the policies they advocate.
  • Most minimum wage workers are young, and most aren’t living in poverty.
  • The minimum wage prevents consenting adults from engaging in a mutually beneficial economic transaction.
  • A higher minimum wage leads to higher unemployment, particularly among the most disadvantaged workers.
  • The minimum wage has been historically used as a tool for racism and economic gain for special interests.

It’s time we put an end to the minimum wage and its terrible consequences. If you have any questions or anything to add, please leave a comment.