URLs du Jour

2020-05-21

  • A new, longish (PDF) essay by Deirdre McCloskey: The Immoral Equivalent of War.

    We are in a war, say all the presidents, the thoughtful and quasi-liberal presidents such as Emmanuel Macron in France and Moon Jae-in in Korea, as well as the thoughtless and quasifascist ones such as Donald Trump in the US and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. A terrible war. But the worst part is not the war itself against the disease and, as collateral damage, the crushing of the economy, wretched though they are. The worst part is the post-War likelihood of a triumphant statism, and then the fascism to which triumphant statism regularly gives rise. The disease is for 2020. The fascism is forever.

    The young historian Eliah Bures wrote six months ago a collective review in Foreign Affairs of books from left and right, books that all used prominently what he calls “the other Fword,” fascism. He notes that the word can be used foolishly, to mean “politics I don’t like.” Thus the “Anti-Fa,” that is, “Anti-Fascist,” movement of the loony left in the US. Bures is correct. But slipping into extremes of nationalism, socialism, racism, and the rest of the quicksand of the 1930s is not impossible. The 1930s, after all, happened. In the 1930s. Late in Bures’ essay, by way of a comforting conclusion from the apparent safety of November 2019, he pens a sentence that has acquired a terrifying salience: “Barring a crisis of capitalism and democratic representation on the scale of the 1920s and ’30s, there is no reason to expect today’s populism to revert to fascism.” Uh oh.`

    Indeed. I've done something I almost never do: print Deirdre's essay on actual paper in order to give it the attention it deserves.

    Today's pic du jour (by the way) is William James, the guy who coined the phrase "the moral equivalent of war" (MEOW). James doesn't otherwise come up in the essay, but his advocacy of MEOW has been a bête noire of Jonah Goldberg's for years. Here is one of Jonah's G-Files where he quotes from James's essay:

    The martial type of character can be bred without war. Strenuous honor and disinterestedness abound everywhere. Priests and medical men are in a fashion educated to it, and we should all feel some degree of its imperative if we were conscious of our work as an obligatory service to the state. We should be owned, as soldiers are by the army, and our pride would rise accordingly. We could be poor, then, without humiliation, as army officers now are.

    Jonah's comment:

    All that was required to mold citizens into obligatory servants of the state was patience and the willingness of progressive leaders to make sure that they didn’t let good crises go to waste. “It is but a question of time, of skillful propagandism, and of opinion-making men seizing historic opportunities.”

    If you’re a conservative, never mind a normal American, and can’t see the inherent illiberalness or at least the potential for illiberalness in the idea that “skillful propagandism” should be deployed by the state so that citizens feel “owned” by the state as soldiers feel “owned” by the army, and that “surrender of private interest” and “obedience to command” of the state must be the rock of our republic, I’m not sure what I can do to convince you.

    Nor I.


  • [Amazon Link]
    John Tierney of City Journal on the same topic: Covid-19 Fear Used to Justify Expanded Government Power. With input from Robert Higgs:

    In the political response to the Covid-19 pandemic, everything is proceeding just as economist Robert Higgs has foreseen. But that doesn’t make it any easier for him to watch it. “I have an overwhelming feeling that I am reliving a bad experience I’ve lived through several times before, only this time it’s worse,” Higgs says. “I have no doubt that even if the current situation plays out in the best imaginable way, it will leave an abundance of legacies for the worse so far as people’s freedom is concerned.”

    Higgs sees government, as usual, vastly expanding during the crisis, and he’s sure that it will not shrink back to its former scale once the crisis is over. It never does, as he famously documented in his 1987 book, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, and in later works exploring this “ratchet effect.”

    By surveying the effect of wars, financial panics, and other crises over the course of a century, Higgs showed that most government growth occurs in sporadic bursts during emergencies, when politicians enact “temporary” programs and regulations that never get fully abolished. New Deal bureaucracies and subsidies persisted long after the Great Depression, for example, and the U.S. military didn’t revert to its prewar size after either of the world wars.

    Amazon link to Higgs' book on the right. In case you want a guidebook to see what's coming.


  • Just in case you thought the MEOW strategy was only for the lefties, Eric Boehm at Reason notes a righty with the same strategy: Josh Hawley Wants To Wreck America’s Economy To Own the Libs.

    Hawley is a rising star among Republicans jockeying to be the heir apparent to President Donald Trump as the party's nationalist standard-bearer. The 40-year-old senator has seized on the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to advance the anti-China hawkishness that helped Trump win the White House in 2016. On Wednesday he outlined a Trump-like platform based on acting tough, blowing up international institutions, and building on economic illiteracy.

    It was, in short, a speech meant to appeal to the Make America Great Again crowd rather than a serious attempt at charting a new direction for America.

    And the whole idea is to turn economic decision-making out of private hands into the hands of … well, Josh Hawley.


  • And (NRPLUS, sorry) Kevin D. Williamson has a less macroscopic look at the pandemic response: The Lies We Live By.

    "As I said from day one, I’m not going to choose between public health and economic activity.” So insists Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.

    That is a lie, of course.

    Everybody knows it is a lie, beginning with Governor Cuomo. We are going to choose between public health and economic activity. We are going to try to strike some intelligent balance between competing concerns, and, even if we do our very best, innocent people are going to get hurt on both sides of that balance, and some of them will surely die — either from COVID-19 or from the economic consequences of the lockdown.

    We do not have very many adults in government, but if we did, those adults would understand — and make a point of dwelling on the fact — that every decision of any consequence in public policy involves tradeoffs. We are going to choose between liberty and security, between protecting the rights of the criminally accused and the interests of crime victims, between efficiency and stability, between our commitment to free speech and our desire to counteract disinformation, between the interests of today’s social-welfare beneficiaries and tomorrow’s taxpayers.

    We don't have very many adults in government because we (the voters) prefer not to have them. We prefer the candidates that tell us the comforting lies.


  • And the intrepid Veronique de Rugy channels the Bard of Avon into an econ lesson: A dollar by any other name would spend the same.

    One of the new ways critics like to slice and dice rich people these days is to question the value they provide to others by minimizing the importance of their charitable giving. For instance, the top 20 richest people in America gave a cumulative $8.7 billion to charity in 2018, but we are told that this sum is only 0.8% of their wealth. The most recent example of this tut-tutting comes to us after Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $100,000 to each of eight of their favorite Bay Area restaurants.

    The goal was to help these establishments cope with COVID-19 and hopefully stay afloat during these times of lower demand. In a San Francisco Gate article later recapped by Business Insider, Jessica Snouwaert recognizes that this gesture is “nice,” but then writes, “It can be helpful to examine what a comparable donation would like from a non-billionaire family. In this case, comparing the scale of Zuckerberg’s wealth with the wealth of the average U.S. household shows just how deep economic divides run between billionaires and everyday Americans.”

    Veronique points out, among a great many things: Zuck also provides 45K jobs in the Facebook empire. How many jobs has Jessica Snouwaert created lately?