03 November 2020

President of the US 2020?

In the song Mrs Robinson Simon and Garfunkel say:

Going to the candidates' debate
Laugh about it, shout about it
When you've got to choose
Every way you look at this you lose

This US election looks like that.  I'm far more tempted to take this article from Reason by John Stossel, which is to note that the most important parts of life are outside politics and we should be SO grateful for that, because in totalitarian countries, this is not the case.

You're meant to care about it, because it is for the leadership of the world's largest economy and military power, and as a result the great leadership of world institutions and norms.  However, it is a contest between two incredibly flawed individuals, neither of whom care much for the freedom of the individual, neither of whom care much for the rule of law and neither of whom have visions beyond the attainment of power.  It is hardly impossible to note how most media comment and news reporting on Trump is negative, and this is in part because it isn't hard to see the negative in a man who is utterly counter-cultural to the narrative as to what is good in a political leader or even a human being.  It is difficult to look past that, but that is what has to be done.

It is difficult to not take into account John Bolton's (a hawk if ever there was one) critique of Trump as being amenable to foreign leaders flattering him, even if nothing is ever achieved.  Sure, his wooing of Kim Jong Un achieved virtually nothing, and was never likely to, but Trump has not been afraid to confront the PR China, largely on very sound grounds (although China is all too keen to portray him as being racist to undermine this).  Sure, Syria remains a mess, as does Yemen even moreso, but the Middle East in general is more peaceful than it has been in many years. Iran is more contained than it has been, and Russia remains in retreat.  The biggest critique of Trump on foreign policy is his opposition to multilateralism, which has given China huge inroads to fund and populate such institutions with their own people, by paying off smaller countries to back their candidates.  Trump's withdrawal is a blunt mistake. He would be better off leading the WTO and pushing UN organisations to be more accountable and transparent. He was right to critique the WHO, because of its woeful performance and disgraceful isolation of Taiwan (and its disgraceful leader, former Ethiopian dictatorship Minister Dr Tedros who peddled accusations of racism against Taiwan).  Biden is likely to be more amenable to international institutions, but he is as much a protectionist as Trump. Given the Obama Administration's largely passive approach to China and the Middle East, it is difficult to expect Biden to be better overall, other than he might be able to get more US influence internationally because he isn't Trump.  Bigger questions have to be whether Taiwan would get military support more from Trump than Biden? Frankly, who knows.  On climate change, there is an obvious difference, because Biden is willing to surrender this issue over to multilateralism, although he might be able to do that with little actual change in domestic policy on the issue, given reductions in emissions in recent years.

A lot is made of Trump being racist (talking about many Mexican immigrants being criminals and rapists secured that accusation), and him appearing to be not be 100% critical of far-right extremists, although some wont think this blundering of his isn't just that, there isn't much evidence policy wise of this. As a President who is vehemently in support of Israel, and has been a part of peace deals between Israel and Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan, he's no neo-Nazi (although he has not been effective at deterring white nationalists).

The biggest criticism of Biden recently is allegations of corruption linked to his son Hunter, none of which is a huge surprise.  Corruption is endemic in much of US politics, in both parties, the difference is Trump is less susceptible because he doesn't need the money, but his appointment of relatives to high level jobs in the Administration is ludicrous, although much less toxic than some of the allegations against Biden.  What it does show is that both men are more than willing to use power to advantage their families, which is one reason why I think there isn't much between them.

Domestically, Biden has had to embrace some of the socialist agenda that part of the Democratic Party has embraced.  He'll increase taxes (on those on high incomes), but of course wont reform taxes in any meaningful way.  He'll subsidise the rent-seekers in the renewable energy sector and promise that his big spending will be better than Trump's. It's all mindless stuff, it will largely be a waste and be captured by businesses that will make a lot of money out of it.  He's feeding a Marxist style battle between capital and labour, which will be bad for education in the US, and bad for employment and economic competitiveness.

And on Covid? Trump has been chronically inept, that's no doubt and it's difficult to believe Joe Biden could be as worse (at least he wouldn't be diverted down all sorts of dead ends). 

So really I don't care. I'll have residual schadenfreude if Trump wins, because it will so upset so many on the left, but if he loses his ego will take a hit, assuming that he ultimately accepts defeeat. 

More importantly, whoever wins wont make a big difference.  What I DO hope is that no one party wins the House and Senate and Presidency.  So if Biden wins, the Republicans should retain the Senate, and if Trump wins, the Democrats should retain the House. Both men will grow the debt, will feed the monetary policy addiction bubble and neither will accomplish anything significant.  If Trump wins, he will at least not kneecap the economy with more regulation, taxation and climate change sacrifices, but there will no doubt be agitation from BLM and Antifa.  If Biden wins, he will at least rebuild multilateral institutions to move them away from Chinese dominance, but he'll waste more money and engage in follies that are futile and there will be some agitation from a few far-right groups.  

and no, Jo Jorgenson isn't worth it either.

My own philosophical journey

Well I am back in New Zealand, indefinitely, and so I thought I'd reflect on my own political journey, not least because as I've gotten older my expectations have lowered somewhat as to what to expect in political change.  So I thought I'd pontificate and largely reiterate what I want from a New Zealand government in 2020, review what I think of the registered political parties and what matters. See if there is one thing you can be sure of with libertarians, is that they can easily disagree and lot, and vehemently, on points that are an honest disagreement on what is meant by individual freedom. However there are quite a few people who "identify as" libertarians, but whose views are not consistently so (and probably plenty would say the same about me). Furthermore, it isn't just about individual freedom for me, but it is also about reason, science and a sense of what the purpose of life is - this is what I get from objectivism. 

Now if you know me, you know I can go on and on and on about a lot of stuff, so let's make this fairly quick:

  • I support capitalism, not just empirically, but morally. I believe that competitive, open, free market economics can, mor often than not, reflect a balance between personal preferences and the costs of supplying goods and services, and that the best way to address issues of scarcity, price and monopoly is to allow this to be open.  It doesn't mean people have the right to use force and fraud in trading, because that isn't freedom. Sell something that isn't what you said it is, and you're a fraudster. Misrepresentation is fraud.  Morally, capitalism is the only system that allows free people to own property and trade their efforts (labour), ideas (intellectual property) and property with others.  As such, it is not concurrent with slavery, nor is it concurrent with legal monopolies or the use of threats to inhibit the choices of others to sell or buy.  It is also not without consequences.  Sell a product that is designed or produced negligently or recklessly and you should face legal consequences.
  • I support freedom of expression, tempered by expression that initiates force or fraud against others. On private property, that freedom of expression is limited by the permission of the property owner. If you use expression to threaten others, you are initiating force, whether you are threatening specific individuals or groups of individuals.  If you steal intellectual property, you are initiating force (and yes I know some think intellectual property is not libertarian, to which I say, you probably have never written a book, recorded a song or created a patent that others are willing to pay for). If you defame someone, you are initiating fraud and force (people's reputations are their "property" and you don't have a right to claim someone is a criminal if it is not true). You don't have a right to be protected from the words of others offending or upsetting you.
  • I support private property rights, as a corollary of the above and believe that greater use of such rights can enhance environmental as well as economic outcomes. Property is the fruit of your own efforts, including relationships (why people gift or bequest their property to you), it is not anyone else's.
  • I support freedom of religion. Sure I'm an atheist, but people's private beliefs are their business and they have the right to hold those beliefs and express them.  The line is drawn when those beliefs (including non-religious beliefs) are used to promote or plan violence against others or their property. Yes, I really don't care much if you are a Salafist or a Marxist-Leninist or a Nazi, until you move from quietly living your life in peace according to your beliefs, to attacking, planning to attack or promoting attacks against others, for any reason. Violence is an act of hate. 
  • I'm an atheist, but people of faith shouldn't be ridiculed for their private beliefs. Most people with faith are good people who raise families and live quiet lives doing the best they can, and as long as their religious beliefs don't cross a line of infringing on my (or anyone else's rights), the fact of them existing should be respected.  Live and let live.
  • I believe constitutionally limited liberal democracy is the best political system that has been devised to date (not liberal democracy untrammeled). However, I doubt very much if there is sufficient support to contain the role of the state with a written constitution at this stage.
  • Racism, sexism and all other forms of bigotry are irrational and immoral. All people should be judged primarily on the basis of their actions, intentions and beliefs, not on immutable characteristics. No government authority should apply any such bigotry to its actions and no laws should seek to force distinctions based on such factors, unless it is objectively relevant (e.g. segregating female and male prisoners). Racial supremacists should be ridiculed for what they are, troglodytes who think pride should be based on your DNA. The post-modernist identity politics shysters should be as well, classifying people based on race, sex, sexual orientation and other factors into the oppressor and the oppressed, and seeking to undermine and overturn economic, political and legal systems based on the false premise that unequal outcomes need to be reversed into a new set of unequal outcomes.
  • Corporatism and subsidies or protectionism of industry is immoral, outside the context of war or civil emergency. Government should not take money from some to give to others for producing, nor should it penalise others for producing. Sure the international trading system does allow for some leverage to be exercised to open up foreign markets through reciprocity, but rarely does protectionism of trade benefit an economy or the population. Free trade IS fair trade, but that doesn't mean consumers shouldn't trade wisely and consider preferences or boycotting products because of where they are from, due to their own political beliefs. Boycott goods from China or Israel if you like, or prefer them, that's your choice.
  • The welfare state should ideally be replaced by benevolence as a means of helping those in need. My ideal is that human beings help each other out voluntarily, whether they be family, friends, neighbours or more widely through communities, charities or other non-governmental means. Compassion doesn't come from the state taking money by force and handing it out to others.  Having said that, the welfare state isn't going anywhere soon, and without enormous transformation in how people live and act with one another, there is going to be taxpayer funded education and healthcare to ensure universal service, and a taxpayer funded welfare state as a safety net.  The welfare state in NZ is much much bigger than this, and includes subsidies for employers and subsidies for having children, as well as the ludicrously unfair National Superannuation.  Welfare should be reformed to a social insurance model with individual accounts, so people pay to have insurance for unemployment, sickness, injury or other loss of income, and if they do not claim it extends to their retirement (and it gets topped up for a lengthy transitional period).  
  • Education should be under minimal state control and regulation. Schools should be autonomous and able to teach whatever they wish, within legal limits around promotion of illegal behaviour. Pay and recruitment of teachers should be completely decentralised to schools. Funding should follow pupils directly through vouchers to whatever school parents choose. Curriculum standardisation should be scaled back to a minimum, and schools should teach English, Maori or whatever languages parents demand. It is critical that education be driven by what works to raise the skills and knowledge of children in their capacity to think critically about the world around them, and no, critical theory doesn't do that.
  • The Western alliance of NATO, ANZUS and other bilateral allies, centred around the US, as well as much of Europe, has a patchy history of many mistakes, but it is still the most positive force for international rule of law in a world increasingly challenged by authoritarian regimes ranging from the PRC to Russia, to the DPRK, Iran and Syria, as well as multiple non-state actors. New Zealand contributes inadequately to this because it spends too little on defence (and has eliminated its air strike capability). The UN is useful as a talking shop, but is incapable of taking action against any of the Permanent Members of the UNSC, and so the Western alliance needs to be prepared to respond to military aggression, industrial espionage, spying, hacking and other actions by those wishing a new world order. It doesn't mean NZ should follow the US always, but it doesn't mean NZ should solely depend on the UN Security Council to determine when military action is justified.
  • Climate change is real it is accelerated by human action, and governments should get out of the way of technologies and innovations to reduce emissions. Policies to reduce emissions should be based on net benefits and not be absolutist, like many groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Greens insist. However, just because a policy appears to reduce emissions doesn't mean it is good to implement. There is no point kneecapping industries in one country to have them relocate to another with similar or greater emissions. Climate change is not the end of the world and humanity needs to learn to adapt to it, and there are much bigger issues and higher priority issues that can be addressed, at lower cost, than reducing emissions, to improve humanity - e.g. access to drinking water, vaccinations. Indeed it is immoral to cause net economic harm to achieve incremental reductions in emissions that do nothing.  If you want to fight climate change, then change your own behaviour, not having children is the number one thing you can do. What should government do? Get out of the way of innovation and don't subsidise the use of fossil fuels (and to be fair most Western economies don't). I'm highly sceptical of the merits of meeting the targets under the Paris Agreement because it gives a free pass to large growing emitters like China to not care and so import high emitting industries from other countries, and grow its economy with little scrutiny from others.
  • Conspiracies are almost always nonsense. People you don't like aren't conspiring on a global scale with an agenda you disagree with. Sure, there are institutions with philosophical goals and methodologies to achieve them you will disagree with and I do too.  The moral equivocation of the United Nations is almost unbearable as is the gratuitous rent seeking behaviour of some of the staff and leadership and recipients of its largesse, but overall the world is better off to have a talking shop of the good, bad and the ugly than not (although it would be better off if some of its subsidiary bodies reformed or were replaced).  5G isn't going to kill you and vaccinations are almost always a good idea. Covid19 isn't a conspiracy.

The great enemies of individual freedom and humanity today come in a number of forms, but all have a common theme, a belief that some humans have the right to do violence against others or their property, to achieve some state of nirvana or heightened collective goal.  Today we see it most virulently in:

  • Environmental catastrophism:  There are many legitimate issues with the environment, but it is the catastrophists of Extinction Rebellion and much of the mainstream Green movement that seek to undermine capitalism, individual freedom and human productivity to reach certain utopian goals. This includes "zero emissions" or "zero plastics", both of which would harm humanity and shorten life in the ways that are suggested.  Their focus is monomanic, has no scope for nuance and no sense of balancing costs and benefits (and certainly little concern about actual impact).
  • Islamism: Easily the most toxic religious-political philosophy is the advancement of Salafist-Wahhabist stone-age beliefs with politics and militarism. This form of fascism lures young people in many part of the world into a death cult of a totalitarian dark age of slavery, misogyny and eliminationist violence. A big source of political violence in recent years.
  • Post-modernist collectivist authoritarianism: Whether it be the banal identity politics view of oppressor vs. oppressed based on race, sex and other characteristics, or the "cancel culture" intolerance of views that are not the "correct line" and seek to destroy individuals and businesses because of their incorrect views, it is new form of Maoism that pervades much academia, but also parts of the media and elsewhere.  It is seen in the need for outcomes to be equal, not just opportunities or treatment, and for "representation" based on race, sex etc to be equal in everything from government to businesses, for there to be fairness.  None of those touting these concepts loudly believe in freedom of speech, private property rights or even the rigorous use of science or objective analysis to inform decision making (after all that's white supremacist patriarchal talk).  Everyone's opinion is to be seen through the lens of their race, sex, sexuality and background, just like the Nazis, just like in Maoist China.  Note that this lot turn a blind eye to Islamism and paint the first as a symptom of the problem, being the white hetero-normative patriarchy that wants to keep everyone else in their place.
  • Reactionary fascism:  In response to the third are the so-called populist, far-right reactionaries who use the language of freedom to claim the right to proclaim superiority of their race and of men, with lashings of anti-semitism and conspiracy theories about the wiping out of white Europeans. Few they are, but their methods are violence and in NZ it culminated in the vile terror attack in Christchurch.  
  • Socialism: It seems that forever more, there are plenty who think no only that people in need should have their needs provided for, but that the entire economic/social system should seek on the one hand to take forcibly from those who are most financially successful, and to give others as much as possible "for free" paid for by this confiscation.  The calls are endless, it's gone well beyond universal healthcare and education, and a basic welfare state, to taxpayers being told they should buy food for the children of people who aren't going hungry, or to buy sanitary products for all women and girls, to buy public transport for those who happen to find it convenient, or to pay for high income professionals to send their children to childcare.  The draws on taxpayers are endless, it's "fair" for everything to be free, except that it corrodes personal responsibility and generates a culture that you don't need to do anything if you claim a "need" except make anonymous people pay taxes to provide for you.